The movie The Shawshank Redemption is a lot like one of its main characters, Andy Dufresne. It’s something of a mystery. Popularity alone has made it a classic, but what does it do right? With so many cinematic elements being quite good but far from standout, how is it this movie resonates the way it does?
Comfort movies — what are they?
I often refer to certain films as comfort movies. I think I started using this term because my lingering wannabe cinema buff always felt a bit embarrassed at liking some movies. The term is a variation on the phrase “guilty pleasure” but a bit more specific, though I may not be able to articulate well what I mean by it.
In some ways, it’s best defined by what it is not. A comfort movie isn’t challenging. It seldom has lofty artistic aspirations; usually, it simply wants to entertain. Comfort movies, for the most part, aren’t dark, though they may have dark aspects to them, to varying degrees. (After all, there is no drama without some dark element.)
Possibly the best known example of a comfort movie (though it isn’t that for me) is It’s A Wonderful Life. People watch this movie over and over. It’s hard to miss, mind you, because it’s on TV repeatedly in the holiday season. It’s a movie with darkness, quite a bit of it actually, yet its big Norman Rockwell-like finish makes us feel so good we watch it again next year.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single comfort movie that doesn’t have a happy ending, though sometimes it’s a bit equivocated. A happy ending may be a defining characteristic of the comfort movie.
By contrast, there is a movie like The Godfather. It may be my favourite movie of all time (it’s not) and it may be my standard of what a film should be and do, but it’s not a comfort movie. You don’t watch The Godfather because it makes you feel good; not in the sense I mean. You don’t remember it for a happy ending or sense of elation.
I’ve decided I’m going to make a personal list of comfort movies. This may help me get closer to a more clear definition of what I intuitively know is a comfort movie.
I’m going to list twenty of them. This assumes that I can come up with twenty. I think I can, so very shortly I’m going to start putting them up on Piddleville.
(After reading this over, I think I’ll probably disagree with it as I start my making my list. I was just going over some of the movies I would put on it and realized two things: 1) quite a few of them are at odds with my attempted definition, and 2) a change in cinema and sensibilities in about the 1970’s redefined what I think of as a comfort movie. So as usual I’m full of hooey.)