The concept of escapism is something I’ve dipped my little toe into already on this blog, but when Ruth and Kristina announced their Things I Learned From the Movies blogathon, I decided to go a bit deeper–namely, the point at which I got what escapism means.
I have grown up on old movies, mainly because of my parents. We watched all kinds: musicals, dramas, war films. Cary Grant and Myrna Loy were more familiar to me than Sylvester Stallone and Brooke Shields. When my classmates discovered Good Morning, Vietnam and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I cut my teeth on Captains Courageous and Ben-Hur. Of course, comedies were also on our agenda. That’s when I first heard the word, “escapism” and how the screwball comedies of the thirties helped Depression-era audiences to forget their troubles. A crazy movie such as My Man Godfrey or Something To Sing About was like medicine. I could easily see why these films were hits, but when it came to the idea of escaping, I shrugged and thought, “That’s nice,” and promptly forgot all about it. Hey, it was the eighties and nineties. Things were relatively safe. I was young, the Cold War was winding down, and my teachers enjoyed reminding my friends and I how lucky we were to grow up in peacetime. Events such as Pearl Harbor and the assassination of John F. Kennedy were terrible but distant. My generation had no idea what it was like to experience times that could be looked back on with such clarity that people could remember exactly where they were when they became aware of them.
That naivete quickly fled for every American on September 11, 2001. I was just waking up when I heard my dad telling my brother out in the hallway that the World Trade Center had been attacked. There was an awful stoicism in my dad’s voice that I had never heard before. The rest of the day was a blur. Like everyone else, I sat glued to the TV in a trance, watching the planes hitting the Twin Towers, the gaping, burning hole in the Pentagon, and that smoking field in Pennsylvania where a plane-cum-battleground plowed into the earth. At some point I got dressed: blue jeans and an American Eagle Outfitters shirt. Beyond that, I couldn’t do anything but stare at that horrible footage as it played over and over.
Finally, I couldn’t take any more. Right before dinner, I drove to the library, which that day was more like a morgue than a seat of learning, and came out with three videos: The Spirit of St. Louis, a few episodes of I Love Lucy, and That’s Entertainment! Part Two. As my family and I watched Lucy that night, it felt as if we were getting a message from another planet. At the same time, though, the sight of Lucy and Ethel dressed as aliens made us forget the terrible events of the day. A few weeks later, the second season of Gilmore Girls premiered, and once again as we sat around laughing, we were able to pretend for just a little while that the world was still bright and safe.
No one who lived through 9-11 can forget the deep undercurrent of tension that followed for who knows how long. The day after it happened I was at my job at Longs Drugs, and narrowly stopped two guys from duking it out at my register over who was first in line. People gamely hung American flags wherever they could, but it couldn’t be denied how scared everyone was. I was no different. I worked, came home, played with my nieces and nephew, and spent as much time as possible with my friends, but it was mostly putting on a brave face.
Then in December I went to see The Fellowship of the Ring.
I had read the book (fantastic) and seen the cartoon version (bleah), so I came to the film with a somewhat jaundiced eye. It took about five minutes, though, for me to see Peter Jackson’s vision was the furthest thing from the previous iteration. The nineteen-seventies goofiness was gone and the film was, in a word, delightful. Bilbo was cantankerous and mysterious. Gandalf was gruff with humor lurking under the surface. Frodo was exuberant and fun-loving. Sam was bashful and practical. There were fireworks in the shape of dragons and pipe smoke shaped like three-masted ships. Nothing could touch the idyllic world of the Shire, or so it seemed. Danger was coming, and it was exceedingly ugly. Young and naive Frodo learned the secret of his uncle’s ring and what that meant to the fate of all mankind. This knowledge thrust Frodo and Sam, along with their hapless friends Merry and Pippin, into a quest to rid the world of the One Ring, and by extension, evil.
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them. One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.
Even though I was caught up in the story, I prepared myself for a lot of of action without any relief. It was like watching the news, only with orcs and long-nailed evil wizards instead of Osama bin Laden. Much to my surprise, though, Tolkien and Jackson had something else up their sleeves. Just when life in Middle-earth started looking bleak and out of whack, Frodo recalled something Bilbo told him: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you may be swept off to.”
Upon hearing that line, the enormous weight I had been carrying lightened. It was one of those moments when cartoon characters have lightbulbs appear over their heads, which sounds sort of cheesy, but that’s how it felt. There was no time to ponder what I had just heard, though, because the whole point of The Fellowship of the Ring is staying ahead of the Ringwraiths and getting that ring back to Mount Doom, or at least starting to. However, Tolkien wasn’t done with me yet. Later on, when the Fellowship are sitting around the Mine of Moria waiting for Gandalf to remember the way out, Frodo said forlornly, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
Gandalf replied gently, “So are all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.”
Yes. The lightbulb became a floodlight. I had to quit living in fear.
The timing of Gandalf’s sermonette was fortuitous, because things didn’t get better for Frodo as the movie continued. Partings and testings and weariness crowded in on him to the point of lethargy, but he and the Fellowship continued to press on, and the road ahead looked dark but wide and full of possibility. There was still reason for hope. Not everything was lost.
When the ending credits rolled, I felt buoyant for the first time in months, and I know I wasn’t the only one–the audience applauded enthusiastically as Peter Jackson’s name appeared. One guy in the front section even yelled, “YEAH!” and punched the air.
It’s truly amazing the way a good story can lift and encourage, even stories that aren’t necessarily happy. The difference between The Fellowship Of the Ring and nineteen-thirties escapism was that Ring allowed viewers to not only forget everyday life for a while, but to take away something of value to mull over and revisit in the days to come. Just as on 9-11, a once-latent evil roared into the foreground of Middle-earth. And, just as on 9-11, those of good character rose to meet the challenge despite overwhelming odds. I resolved after seeing The Fellowship of the Ring not to be afraid of my circumstances, but to use them to my advantage, to help others as much as I could, and to do the best I could. America has changed enormously since 2001, but the lessons of that day have stayed with me. Fifteen years later, they matter more than ever.