How to Have a Mental Health Movie Night
I actually don't talk about William Hurt even once this week
Instead of writing about one movie this week (I’ll go back to that format next week), I’m writing about…movies in general. Or, more specifically, the concept of one of my most important weekly practices, Mental Health Movie Night.
As you might’ve figured out from the weekly rom-coms I share on Instagram, the rom-com blog I kept for a year, the titles of and inspirations for my books, or, you know, this newsletter, I like movies. That’s nothing new. When I was a kid, there were few things I loved more than going to the theater to see Disney movies. When I was a little older, I tagged along for whatever movies my dad and brothers were watching (a lot of Star Wars). And when I was in high school, I rewatched the same movies (Punch Drunk Love, Pretty in Pink) over and over and over in my parents’ basement. That is, when I wasn’t walking down the familiar aisles of Blockbuster, by myself or with my brothers, just grabbing whatever looked good and/or very obscure. In college, I’d watch documentaries on DVDs from the library on weekends instead of going to parties, and after college I joined Netflix right away and lived for the days I’d get those little red envelopes in the mail.
But in my late twenties, work took over my life. And then, in my thirties, I had a kid. I spent ten whole months not watching a single movie after my son was born because I literally didn’t have the time, not to mention the attention span. I remember the first movie we watched when he started sleeping through the night was Win It All, a short and fun Jake Johnson movie on Netflix (recommended!). But mostly I was like, “You know, maybe my movie watching days are over.”
That is, until I had a panic attack. I won’t go into too many details because I don’t think you signed up for this newsletter for my personal medical information, but it was awful and I literally thought I was dying until I got an EKG. It happened right after I wrote Waiting for Tom Hanks, which shouldn’t have been a stressful time…after all, I wasn’t writing it on contract. Much like this newsletter, no one asked! I had all the time in the world to work on it, but I still managed to make myself stress out over it. I pulled out all my old mid-twenties tricks to write in in the margins of time I had when I wasn’t watching my kid. No sleep, lots and LOTS of caffeine, no breaks, no exercise. But it turns out that, while those tactics worked just fine in my young and carefree days (just kidding, I have never been carefree), they didn’t work at all for an aged crone. Actually, constantly feeling like my chest was tight and I couldn’t breathe was…not normal, and eventually led to me feeling like I was going to die. Who knew.
I had to change a lot of things about how I lived and worked, and while all the boring ones have nothing to do with this newsletter, here’s one that’s actually relevant: I made myself take a break and watch at least one movie a week. Not as a “reward” if I finished my work. I just had to do it, no matter what. You know how people say that when you don’t have time to meditate, that’s when you need it the most? I mean, I think people say that. I keep trying and failing to get a meditation practice going. But that’s how I feel about my movie watching practice, which might actually be a kind of meditation (she tells herself to feel better about constantly giving up on actual mediation).
Mental Health Movie Night is specifically about movies, not TV or books, for a few reasons. One, it’s not called Mental Health Do Whatever You Want Night. But also, I write books, which means that even though I love reading and still frequently get lost in a book (the best feeling), sometimes it does feel like work, or at least like I know a bit too much about what’s going on behind the scenes. With reading, sometimes I start to think about the book’s marketing plan, or even start to worry that my writing isn’t as good as this writer’s and never will be, and frankly those feelings are not conducive to avoiding a panic attack. And while I do watch TV sometimes, TV keeps on going. Sometimes I say that I resent the time commitment of television, and I mean that, but the point here is that I need to be absorbed in something that begins and ends in one evening. Part of the immersive experience for me is being present for two hours, focusing on one story that will then be over, allowing me to return to my real life.
Because the immersion is what matters here. It is very, very easy for me to convince myself that I need to spend every evening working on writing, mostly because I just don’t have a lot of time to write. But my brain needs a break, and it needs to focus on something that has nothing to do with my books. Also, I truly believe that a creative person’s brain is like a compost heap. You’re constantly breaking down everything you experience until it turns into fertilizer that you can then turn into a book/use to grow a metaphorical creative zucchini.
I started this practice before the pandemic, but it’s become vastly more important to me during it. I get a lot of my ideas for books from the real world (the actual world, not the reality TV show, although that might make for a good book too? Don’t steal my idea!). For example, Very Sincerely Yours started when I visited a museum exhibit about Jim Henson. I often overhear conversations or see people in the wild and get a little jolt of inspiration for some minor story detail. And while those things are easier to come by now than they were in the early pandemic days, it’s still true (for me, at least) that a lot more time is spent at home. Movies are a way to experience the world, or one person’s experience of the world, in a safe manner. They’re an escape.
Here’s how you, too, can have your own mental health movie night. You might be asking, “But, Kerry, isn’t this just…watching a movie? Or, like, relaxing?” Perhaps! But please check your “I know how to relax” privilege, okay? Some of us have a condition (it’s called anxiety) that means we don’t know how to ever stop turning everything into a project or a plan or a to do list that can be checked off and provide the sense of calm that only comes with productivity. Some of us need to WORK to relax!!
Anyway. Here are the steps I follow, which may or may not work for you. Trust your own judgment when creating your Mental Health Movie Night.
Choose your movie. Any movie works, BUT personally I find it very difficult to get the full Mental Health Movie Night benefit if I’m watching something that’s currently very buzzy because then I start thinking about all the opinions I’ve seen on Twitter. That’s not calming for me. I also get annoyed when Netflix recommends movies to me, both because I don’t like their algorithm AND because it doesn’t know me at all and that offends me. And after I read How to Do Nothing (stop reading this newsletter and go read it if you haven’t) I became very anti-algorithm and take every opportunity I have to discover things in a more organic way (no way to say that without sounding pretentious). I really prefer watching a movie someone personally recommended to me, something random I found while deep scrolling, whatever’s currently playing on TCM, rewatching something I loved fifteen years ago, etc. You get the picture. This is your movie night. Go where the spirit moves you.
Block out your movie time. This is MOVIE TIME. You are RELAXING. You’re at the SPA OF YOUR MIND and you should plan accordingly. Mental Health Movie Night is about luxury and focus and phones are not allowed. This is the one rule I’m a stickler about: you cannot scroll through dumb shit on your phone as you watch the movie. I absolutely can’t relax if I’m doing two things at once, and I can’t get lost and have a brain break if I’m looking at Instagram. I don’t know, read the book How to Break Up With Your Phone; I’m not some sort of social scientist who’s great at explaining these things. If I need to respond to a text, I pause the movie. The literal point of this thing is to focus on one thing.
Read the Roger Ebert (or rogerebert.com, if the movie came out after his death) review. I worry that this newsletter is merely exposing me as the huge pill I totally am, but I must say: a lot of current film writing just bums me the hell out. I don’t have much interest in reading film writing from someone who doesn’t have a sense of context, and the thing about Roger Ebert is that he’d seen basically every movie ever and could place any current film in the proper context. Even when I don’t agree with him, he always says something that makes me think or laugh. Also, he’s one of the few critics (from back then, anyway) who actually understood the demands and pleasures of genre films—he didn’t knock romances for being romances. In terms of current critics, I love Angelica Jade Bastién’s work. Sometimes I scroll through Letterboxd reviews (feel free to find me there but be warned that Letterboxd is where I stop being polite and start getting real), but sometimes I just see what the people I follow have to say. The point is: it’s fun to watch something, think about it, and THEN learn more about it instead of reading a bunch of reviews first and formulating an opinion before even watching the movie. Or maybe that way is relaxing for you. I don’t know your life.
This is less of a step and more of just another point, but sometimes it can be hard to choose a movie if you’re a certain type of person (again, I’m referring to a person with anxiety who doesn’t know how to relax, AKA me). I find that following a list can be so helpful. I’m extremely fond of The Essentials books from TCM. There are two volumes, and both list a number of “essential” films and include an essay about them. When I don’t know what to watch, I pick a movie I haven’t seen from the list, watch it, and then get to read a nice little essay about it! It’s fun! Plus, I know that even if I don’t love the movie, it’s guaranteed to be well made and give me something to think about. I know I’m continuing to reveal myself as someone who likes to plan her relaxation but oh well.
This week’s homework…you guessed it! Have yourself a Mental Health Movie Night. Feel free to disregard all my rules if you want EXCEPT for the one about phones! Also let me know what you watch/how you liked it/if you think I should start actually meditating beyond doing an Adriene morning meditation video every once in awhile as my dogs bark at me.
Next week, we’re back to talking about a specific movie and it’s a good one: Sleeping with the Enemy, a classic in the Scary Movies for People Who Don’t Like Scary Movies genre, also known as Domestic Violence Thrillers. It’s also partially a rom-com. I swear. See you next week!