There is a photo hanging in my childhood bedroom of me and a bunch of my high school friends on the Tower of Terror, faces frozen in theatrical screams, and seated in the front there is a young boy looking at his father with what we later, laughing, identified as “not Roller Coaster Terror, but real, genuine terror.” There is a story among my college friends about the first time we watched Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, during the final 20 minutes or so in spite of myself I started sobbing uncontrollably, not the accepted way people cry when they’re watching a sad movie but something louder and uglier and a little too real. The last 20 minutes of this movie are magical, terrible, miraculous; you already know this you’ve seen it. I don’t even want to try and approach it with words in case you haven’t. Instead I’ll say that my early twenties were defined by these constant and sort of manic oscillations between wanting to make movies and very melodramatically losing faith in wanting to make movies and then suddenly, powerfully reconnecting with that faith, usually through movies that took up questions about a particular kind of faith that was of little use to me anymore. Before that night I was all about Bresson and Dreyer but by the next day I was calling Breaking the Waves one of my favorite movies of all time. When it was over I felt some kind of holy combination of humiliated and exalted and cleansed.
Last night I watched this movie for only the second time. I stayed at home alone on a Saturday night to watch it and reverentially turned off all the lights and loud appliances. I think I’d been terrified to revisit it, because I was afraid it wouldn’t have that same effect on me again, and that that would say something important and definitive and depressing about a dwindling ability to focus or connect or feel. I felt a kind of performance anxiety as I loaded up the Roku. Technology has progressed in the six years since that night my friends and I had first watched Breaking the Waves (on an out-of-print DVD checked out from our college library) but not exactly in ways that make a viewing experience more immersive. The Wifi giveth and the Wifi taketh away. For the first forty-five minutes or so, the picture kept breaking up and Hulu Plus would return to the purgatory of the lime green progress bar and I would get angry and check my phone to take my mind off being angry; at one point the screen just inexplicably went to black. I started worrying that I wasn’t connecting with it in the same way, and that my worrying about it was sabotaging my ability to do so. But then it played on uninterrupted for the last hour and a half, and the spell it cast on me was so identical to the one it did when I was 21 that it freaked me out a little. “I could write an entire fucking thesis on this movie,” I caught myself thinking, because I once again felt that young. Then came the last 20 minutes, and by the part where the young, sandy-haired doctor tells the judge, “Instead of writing ‘neurotic’ or ‘psychotic,’ I might just use a word like… good,” I was crying so hard that I mistook a knock at an adjacent door as one of my neighbors asking me to keep it down; real, loud, ugly tears, only slightly diminished by the fact that I am coming here to tell you about them.