Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: How Movies Helped Me Fight Loneliness
The THR columnist opens up about how art made him feel more connected to the world and lists his favorite films that help get him out of a funk.
Singer Janis Joplin once said, "On stage I make love to 25,000 people; and then I go home alone." After several decades of playing basketball in front of thousands of screaming fans, I know what she means. No matter how many friends one has or how close we are with our families, we all go through periods of intense isolation during which even the supporting words of those well-meaning friends and family aren't enough to lift us up from the mire. Of course, there are so many types and causes of loneliness — from broken hearts to economic woes to chemical imbalances — that it would be silly to think there’s a one-size-fits-all remedy. But there are temporary first-aid measures we can take to alleviate the pain. Over the course of my lifetime, whenever I have experienced those prolonged bouts of loneliness, I've been able to combat it through the use of art: music, books and movies. Art doesn't just help a person endure loneliness, but it offers inspiration and guidance for paths to manage and even overcome loneliness. That's why The Foundation for Art and Healing's unique Creatively Connected Online Film Festival, which kicks off May 9, is such a wonderful resource for anyone who consistently endures the debilitating isolation of loneliness. They provide not just hope, but practical tools to overcome it.
Just how effective is art? When journalist and professor of medical humanities at UCLA Norman Cousins was diagnosed with a crippling illness, he detailed in his book Anatomy of an Illness how a major part of battling the disease was watching Candid Camera episodes and lots of movie comedies. He said that just 10 minutes of laughter induced by these films would give him two hours of pain-free sleep that even morphine couldn't accomplish. He credits this laughter therapy with helping him regain the use of his limbs and his ability to return to his full-time job.
For many people, loneliness stems from feelings of marginalization, of being excluded by mainstream society. Like wallflowers at the prom. This is especially true for people of color, adherents to certain religions (like Muslims and Jews), senior citizens, women, the LGBTQ community, the poor, the physically challenged, those suffering from mental illness, or even those who are exceptionally short — or exceptionally tall. The trick is to find works that address whatever the cause of your particular loneliness is at this time. Unlike Norman Cousins, my selection of films aren't all comedies because sometimes I'm looking to be inspired out of my funk by seeing someone else overcome his problems. With that in mind, here are some of the films that give me strength and insight to face the dark, silent room of loneliness.
1. Harold and Maude
I recently turned 70, and one of the things that really bugs me is when younger people refer to us older people as "cute." This infantilizes senior citizens as child-like and strips them of their dignity as adults. This movie starring Ruth Gordon as a 79-year-old woman with a lust for life is both uplifting and funny, despite some dark turns. Her ability to teach a morose young man how to embrace life is inspiring.
A runner up for an elevating film about growing older is Space Cowboys with Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland about four aging ex-test pilots who have to go into space to repair a satellite that could crash to Earth. They may walk a little slower and use the bathroom a little more often, but they are tough old birds that will make you a little prouder to be a senior.
2. Do the Right Thing
Some might find this selection a little odd because there's so much racial tension in it. But being black in America does create a distinct sense of injustice and danger, but also loneliness, especially when you travel a lot and are among predominantly white crowds. Spike Lee's brilliant film, set in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, depicts the not just the racial conflicts but also the conflicts among the various African-Americans themselves. All of that might seem like it's promoting isolation and loneliness, but for me, seeing how the black neighborhood filled with characters played by Spike Lee, Rosie Perez, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Nunn and others is such a vibrant and ultimately loving community reminds me of the importance of being part of such a group. In the end, it makes me seek out more ways to be part of my community.
Runner up is another Spike Lee movie, Malcolm X. When I was in college, feeling particularly isolated by the racial unrest across the country and my own experiences of being called nigger at basketball games, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Learning how an illiterate street hustler pulled himself up to become one of the most articulate and charismatic leaders inspired my own political awakening, racial pride and religious journey. The movie captures the essence of Malcolm X and can jar me out of loneliness caused by self-pity and instead invigorate me to participate more for social justice.
3. What About Bob?
Bill Murray as the obnoxious OCD loner who inserts himself into his therapist’s family life is hilarious. Rather than pretend it knows how to cure Bob's pain, the film just creates an atmosphere of understanding and caring that makes the audience more sympathetic. Watching how Bob, just by being himself, helps heal the therapist's wife and children of their anxieties, is a valentine to the lonely and an affirmation of their value to everyone around them.
I couldn't in good conscience not include a Western, because I find that they are a great remedy for most of what ails me, but especially when I feel marginalized by the political climate of inactivity and corruption. Westerns often present someone willing to fight for justice even when all the odds are against him. Shane (Alan Ladd) is the ultimate loner who rides into town trying to escape his violent past, only to be forced to become violent again to protect the family who took him in. Although he rides out just as alone as he was before coming in, he rides out knowing he was loved and that he made a positive impact for good.
Runner up for fighting political ennui is All the President’s Men because watching Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as journalists Woodward and Bernstein overcoming every obstacle thrown at them by the most powerful people in our government gives me hope that there are people out there for whom truth is more important that complicity. That makes me want to raise my voice, too, which makes me part of something greater.
I haven't even gotten to books and music, but this is a good start. For me, the path out of loneliness is to remind myself of my place within my community and to be inspired to do something to have a positive effect on that community. I rely on art, such as these movies, to be my flashlight guiding me along that path. Illumination within results in brightness without.