January 11, 2019

Lessons learned watching The Neverending Story alone in a bar on a night in October

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 11:06 pm by chavisory

Not long ago, I watched the Neverending Story alone in a bar.

A friend and I had planned to meet up for a drink after we both got out of rehearsal, but she wound up having to attend to a work-related emergency at the last minute, and so I had some time to sit and write over a cocktail until she got back. An amount of time which turned out to be the length of the Neverending Story, which the bartender had turned on the television above the bar.

Though still fairly early in the evening, it was already noisy enough that the closed captions were on.

I had loved the movie as a kid. We had a bootlegged VHS copy a babysitter had left behind, to which a prior owner with a deaf child had somehow added homemade captions using label tape. But I think I hadn’t actually seen it since college, when the Tate Student Center movie theater at UGA had one night held a $2.00 midnight showing.

A couple of friends and I went. I didn’t expect the showing to be sold out—I don’t think I’d ever really known the movie was a cult classic and not just some obscure curiosity due to my only experience of it having been a glitchy secondhand VHS and not having had much in common with the pop culture tastes of kids my age when I was growing up—but there wasn’t an empty seat in the theater.

And then they couldn’t get the projector to work.

An hour went by while they tried.

No one left. No one.

Probably they were hoping that we would eventually give up and go home and they’d get the projector serviced later and reschedule the date. But no one moved. We were there to see the Neverending Story, damn it, and we were going to see it.

Two hours went by. Up on screen, we occasionally saw flashes of hope in the form of the computer desktop, screensavers, and glimpses of the SETI search program that evidently the booth’s computer had running in the background, but no movie. Eventually people started acting out scenes down in front of the screen, Rocky Horror style. This was 2002 or so, so it wasn’t even like people had smart phones to amuse ourselves. Everyone. just. waited. It was probably the most astonishing demonstration of group solidarity I had ever seen at that point in my life.

The projector was finally induced to work. It was around 2:00 in the morning. I actually don’t remember clearly, but I’m sure cheers went up.

What I do remember with almost painful clarity was the dawning realization of how different the movie was from my childhood memory of it. I know I’m by far not the only person who has this experience; I’ve had this conversation with multiple age-peers since then, but it was truly shocking. The writing was awkward and goofy. The low-budget special effects were awful; the story trajectory didn’t really hang together. The whole thing came off as laughably, vaguely amateur. It was jarring.

A younger friend who saw it recently for the first time said “I feel like I hallucinated that whole thing,” and I said that was probably the correct thing to feel.

Fast forward to one night this past October. I’m writing alone, waiting for a friend, having a Jack and Coke by candlelight, when the Neverending Story comes on the bar television. It’s now been a longer time since I last saw it in college than it had been then since I’d seen it as a kid.

And maybe it was that I was very exhausted and a little bit drunk by then. It had been a long couple weeks of rehearsal and maybe I was just hungry for some fluffy escapist fantasy. Maybe this bar is actually slightly imbued with magical qualities, a position I don’t become less convinced of with time.

Maybe it’s that in the intervening years I’ve become much more able to see and hear with an uncritical heart again (and that’s another, longer, story).

But somehow it was every bit the most beautiful movie in the world that I remembered. I kept waiting for its faults to show themselves, and watched with astonishment equal to that I felt sitting in the UGA student center theater 16 years ago as they didn’t. It looked entirely and luminously like the movie it was meant to be.

I also thought I remembered the movie’s thesis. I didn’t. Or at least, I remembered the one that’s made explicit throughout the movie, that children’s imagination and creativity are necessary to the sustenance of the world.

But I realized it had another one, implied but never articulated, like a secret flip-side to that one, undiscoverable without being on the other side of a certain amount of life experience.

On this night, in the week after Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, an outcome which we’d thought we were powerless to prevent and then for weeks came to believe that maybe we could, that maybe the revelations of one person ultimately could, only to find that they would not. After weeks and weeks and months and months of ongoing horrors emanating from the White House, which in so many ways we hoped we could alter but could not, not because we didn’t care or try but because really, they were out of our hands, I felt for Atreyu like I never had before, who actually looked like the child he was to me for the first time. Who tried so hard and yet did not prevent the collapse of Fantasia under the power of the Nothing. How he blamed himself for failing, when really, he alone could never have defeated it.

The reason why it happened wasn’t because he failed, and it wasn’t his fault for trying and failing.

And that even in failure, his effort and loss weren’t wasted; the fact of his being willing to try wasn’t pointless.

For he actually brought Bastian all the way to the Empress, without even knowing.

We won’t always be able to win everything we imagine. A significant percentage of the time, in fact, we probably won’t.

We still have to be willing to try.

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