Box Office Blues: Cinema as a Kind of Therapy


When I got depressed I would go to the movies.

No doubt for many people the idea of sitting in the dark, on their own, in the middle of day, is itself depressing. ‘All by himself — how sad’. I’m also sure, though, that fellow pilgrims can relate to its pleasures, a solitary indulgence that is utterly pleasant at the best of times, and potentially restorative at the worst.

There are, first, a bunch of very basic, practical mental health benefits to going to the movies, not all of them replicable with a Netflix subscription. You have to put on jeans and leave the house. That’s a good start. You get the satisfaction of being out and Doing Something but, crucially, without the need to actually interact with anyone, except a few lines to get your ticket, and even then you can book online like a pro. And if you luck out you might get the theatre all to yourself, but even if you don’t, once the lights dim and the projection whirs, it’s just you and the screen, safe and snug under a blanket of darkness.

Most film fans have cinematic chicken soup they return to when they’re feeling lousy, a set of reliably soothing, easily watchable favourites. But I’d see anything — or at least anything that didn’t look terrible. Subject matter and genre weren’t much of an issue. Conventional wisdom says light-hearted comedies would be a good pick-me-up, but that’s working off a faulty reading of what depression is.

Depression isn’t a sadness you can trick yourself out of with good gags, a happiness deficit to be topped up with fun tokens. (This means that comedies can actually be terrible choices, because when the punchlines hit and they do nothing, you somehow feel even worse; sad movies are at least relatable). Depression, multi-faceted and individual as it is, often manifests as a kind of tightening, a restrictive, borderline-suffocating feeling of blank ‘stuckness’. It hits you with a sly one-two; it makes you feel crap and alone and then, like a movie terrorist villain holding Manhattan hostage, starts cutting off the bridges and tunnels out. You need to get outside yourself and make a connection but, at the same time, you can’t bear to be around anyone, because you’ve nothing to talk about, and you know you’ll make it weird.

Amelie screen1

So cinema, arms open with generosity, gives you people; all sorts of people. Chancers and lovers and dreamers and wackos and princes and all the luckless losers of the world. And for the price of a ticket you get to hang out with them for a couple of hours. Through the waking dream of projected image you take a stroll in and out of lives not your own and, best of all, they require squat from you! You don’t have to smile or offer advice or be entertaining because after all it was you that invited them out in the first place. It’s company, without obligation. You just sit there, and watch. Such sweet, sweet passivity.

Critic Roger Ebert’s famous classification of cinema as an ‘empathy machine’ has largely been accepted as true because it makes film writers feel good about the thing their profession is based on, even if it’s not always accurate; we get bad movies, dumb movies, hatefully lazy movies, unkind and insensitive movies. But across the board it holds water, and not just in the usual socially-conscious, shine a light sort of titles. Empathy isn’t a constant thing — it’s an activity, or a skill — and maybe you don’t have to strength to let the story in, but when enough of the movie rings true, there’s always a means of connection. Tight, emotionally exhaustive plots are especially useful; catharsis provides relief and release, if not a full exorcism.

Cinema, even in its most unambitious forms, can help enrich your hidden emotional life and repair your sense of connection to the complicated world around you. It can be a reminder that hey, when you’re ready to be a full person again, all this is out there, and doesn’t it look wonderful?

Wrapped up in all this is the more complicated and platitude-provoking question of what cinema is good for and how it can transform and, hopefully, improve us as human beings. This is tricky. Art isn’t a pill to be taken twice a day; it’s subtler, less reliable and more powerful than that. It sneaks in at the bones.

Many of the qualities that make good film viewers, or good film critics, are also those that make good people, or citizens. A willingness to shut up and pay attention; to open our hearts; to think and feel things in new, complex ways; to remain critical even when having fun; to recognise bullshit and empty sentiment. Film can help us learn. But sometimes you can’t do all that, because the fog has come in over the shore, and you just don’t have it in you.

Sometimes, then, all cinema can do is make you feel less alone.

Sometimes that’s enough.

Conor Smyth

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week (which, apparently, was last week; oops!) we will be running a series of articles on the theme of cinema and mental health. Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast will be screening Soul Shorts for The NI Mental Health Arts & Film Festival on Thursday 18th May.

Conor Smyth is the Film Editor at The Thin Air and regular Banterflix contributor. Follow him @csmythrun.