How We Are Young: Why You Can’t be an Adult and Love Movies

You have to be young to love movies. You can have hundreds of candles on your birthday cake, you can have a 401K, you can be John McCain’s golfing buddy, but you still need a young mindset to fall in love when the lights dim and the screen tells you to turn off your cell phone.
By  · Published on May 31st, 2008

In 1988, I’m watching Roger Rabbit jump on a bed while counting the ways he loves Jessica Rabbit. I am wide-eyed, drooling with laughter, and happy to see the two finally reunited. Here in 2008, not much has changed.

You have to be young to love movies. You can have hundreds of candles on your birthday cake, you can have a 401K, you can be John McCain’s golfing buddy, but you still need a young mindset to fall in love when the lights dim and the screen tells you to turn off your cell phone.

Why do I contend that true movie lovers have to be in a state of arrested development? For one, because I’m an elitist. The main reason, though, is because movies are about escapism and nostalgia whether they’re sharing with us a cartoon rabbit butchering an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem or troops storming the beaches at Normandy. For a long time now, movies have been thought of as anti-literature. The visceral experience of diving into a good book is ruined when a movie spoon-feeds you the sights and sounds instead of letting your imagination take over. Somewhere along the way, though, we moved beyond that. It might have been when Butch and Sundance charged into a spray of bullets, when a young skinny dipper was dragged underwater by a Great White, or when raptors learned how to open doors – but at some point, the medium delivered more than our imaginations could offer.

Becoming an adult is about narrowing your scope of humanity. That may sound depressing, and it should be. For too long, the concept of maturing in taste has been a mainstay of becoming an adult. Now, you’d be hard pressed to find an adult that rips off his tie and leaps into the first fallen snow of the season with reckless abandon. For every adult that still has her mind blown when a butterfly lands on her finger, I could find thirty kindergarten classes that can’t believe something that magical exists in reality.

And those magical realities are what we want projected to us, dripping down the aperture as we revert to our five-year old selves. Without letting your maturity evaporate, you leave yourself closed off to the magic that is unfolding right in front of you. Sure, you can talk about character arcs and allusion in the subplots, but does any of that really matter when your hands are covered in artificial butter? Or when Edmond Dantes tells you to find your own tree and it reminds you of the first time you were kissed on the playground? Or when you find Nemo?

That’s not to say that experience doesn’t count for anything. In fact, it counts for everything. Gaining experiences helps you appreciate movies on multiple levels. When I was five, I didn’t understand that Roger Rabbit was parodying a Victorian-era poet, but now that I do, I can appreciate another dimension of the humor. I can do all that, without growing up, though. Without becoming an adult. Without shutting out new experiences or forgetting why I laughed in the first place.

It seems fitting that at over one hundred years old, filmmaking is still regarded as a young art form considering the centuries old world of literature. Unless novel writing goes completely extinct, movies will always be something of a younger sibling, which is just the way it should be. Movies are a reckless teenager slamming doors and sneaking out to go see a KISS concert that also nails a perfect score on her SAT’s without studying. That’s the beauty of it all. The versatility that hasn’t quite yet worked in novels and biographies. Being a movie lover means you can love Dumb and Dumber and Citizen Kane with equal reverence. You can get on your high horse to argue about Throne of Blood and then jump into the mud to laugh at Super Troopers. But you can’t be that flexible if your mind is dressed in a three piece suit. It’s hard to let your imagination run wild if it’s in formal wear.

This is why the antagonist in so many films is an uptight, rules-based prig who enjoys efficiency over fun. If you find yourself identifying with that guy, you’re doing something wrong. Children don’t know care about bottom lines or mortgages or tax deductions, and neither should you if you want to get every inch of the picture into your eyes. In fact, there’s a direct cinematic example: Hook. Robin Williams’s Peter Pan has forgotten who he really is because he’s grown old. His age doesn’t matter, but his ideals do. When he sheds that maturity in favor for enjoying life, he’s able to free himself of the arbitrary weights of adulthood in favor of seeing wonder in everyday things. I’m not suggesting you forget to pay your mortgage or refuse to pay taxes, but you can’t drag them around with you. And you definitely can’t drag them into the movie theater like an albatross around your neck. Besides, if you’re lucky, Monty Python will probably be selling albatross in the aisles if you know where to look. Spoiler: it’s bird flavored.

You can still enjoy movies. You can still have fun going out for the night to see what Hollywood has to offer despite worrying about having your Blackberry on silent for two hours. You can still laugh at the jokes and cry at the tragedies. But if you’re grown up, you won’t be seeing the whole picture. You’ll be closed off in a way that won’t allow your heart to swell to the same size it did when you were younger. You’ll have a fine time, but the experience won’t be nearly as amazing as it could be.

There’s no more passionate time at the movies than when you’re a child. If you’re not careful, you can lose hold of that wonder and numb yourself to something truly life-affirming. Something fake and real at the same time. If you don’t think a cartoon rabbit falling off a bed while reciting a love poem is funny, you might have already lost it. So I say never grow up. Seek out neoteny. Strive for arrested development. Freeze yourself in time so that whenever you get your ticket ripped, you can easily slide back into a childlike state of awe for what you are about to see. Carry your adult experiences and your highbrow references in with you, sure, but leave your adulthood at the door.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.