As loyal readers know, I am a great lover of cinema. I have a tendency to rewatch my favorite films over and over again, so that I may enjoy them on multiple levels. However, there are those rare films that truly blow me away, but that are so disturbing or even traumatizing that I simply can't bear to watch them again. Here's a short list:
Requiem for a Dream
I was inspired to write this list by this film, which is featured in an episode of The Projection Booth podcast this week. It was such a viscerally affecting experience that I still remember the exact context of seeing it. On July 4, 2001, my friend Kevin brought it over to my apartment to watch before we headed off to an Independence Day barbecue. I trusted his taste in films, although I hadn't heard of this one. An hour and forty minutes later, I was completely devastated. Never before or since has a film so convincingly shown destruction of lives and dreams at the hands of addiction and drugs. There are images from this movie still burned into my head. Watch it, but be prepared.
Here's a second Darren Aronofsky flick. The man seems to be the world's specialist in amazing films that rattle their viewers on a much deeper level than your average shocker horror flick. Yet again, the context for seeing this film is forever branded in my head. I was with some friends at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, which ran a reel of old 80s wrestling promos beforehand. That put me in a jovial mood, something the film utterly wrecked. I watched helplessly as the main character destroyed himself and his family in pursuit of the unattainable. (There are more than a few parallels with Requiem for a Dream.) Both films suggest the destructive, nefarious power of the American Dream like no others have before. Each will be viewed in future years as our era's Gatsby, if future viewers can bear to watch. I bought a used DVD of this years ago, and still can't bring myself to rewatch a film that has moved me more than perhaps any other.
If Aronofsky is the king of great traumatic films, Todd Solondz is the master of the cinema of discomfort. I couldn't actually finish Welcome to the Doll House because the bullying of the main character was so real that it unearthed a lot of very unpleasant memories of my own youth. A friend made of sterner stuff than I recommended that we see Happiness, and I made it through despite my extreme desire to get up and leave the room. The most disturbing thing about the film might be that great actors like Dylan Baker (playing a child abuser) and Philip Seymour Hoffman play horrible super-creeps in a way that makes them fully human. Great stuff, but I can't even think about seeing this one again without shivering.
Night and Fog
Alain Resnais' unsparing Holocaust documentary is only about half and hour long, but says much more in that half hour than most three hour documentaries do. The horror and absolute, almost inconceivable inhumanity of the Holocaust is so palpable that I cannot see it without breaking down. I used to use this when I taught European history, but don't think I can watch it again.
Let The Fire Burn
This recent documentary concerns the firebombing of MOVE headquarters by Philadelphia police in 1985. Unlike most others, it does not contain a single word of narration, adding to its immediacy and humanity. It both somehow manages to demonstrate the cultish nature of MOVE and the negative effects on its neighbors, but also the absolute, craven unjust horror of a city government and police force willing to kill its own citizens and burn down one of its own neighborhoods. It is an amazing film that left me completely wrecked. Please watch it, but prepare to be deeply unsettled.
I feel emotionally drained just thinking about these films. Feel free to add your own examples in the comments.