The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

« Previous Post | The Big Picture Home | Next Post »

The Art of the Swine Flu: The strange aesthetic of being sick as a dog

November 18, 2009 |  5:15 pm

John Wayne
I've been sick with the swine flu for the past few days, hence the sparse number of postings on the blog. At least I assume it's the swine flu, since I got a regular flu shot and I still came down with something (fever, headache, cough, congestion and a generally awful achiness) that hit like a ton of bricks. But I'm not looking for sympathy, not that you'd ever dream of getting any sympathy from the cranky blogosphere.

My point is this. When you're really down-for-the-count sick, your brain begins to operate differently, I've come to believe. We all feel sluggish and dull when we're sick. But I think that when we're sick, our brain chemistry actually changes, making things that we would otherwise happily avoid -- like saltines and chicken soup, or pajamas decorated with purple elephants, for example -- feel strangely reassuring. I think this also applies to art and entertainment. When I am sick, I put on a thick pair of socks, an old pair of sweats, hop in bed and watch old westerns. (It's someone else in the family who wears the pajamas with purple elephants.)

Watching old westerns is not something I would ever do when I am well -- I'm always looking for the next, new cool thing. But when sick, I am looking for cinematic comfort food. And what comforts me the most is the sight of John Wayne (in pretty much any John Ford western, starting with "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and "The Searchers," though "Fort Apache" is close behind), Jimmy Stewart (in his great string of westerns directed by Anthony Mann, the best being "Bend of the River" and "The Man From Laramie") or Paul Newman (especially in "Hud," "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" and, of course, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"). They are men on epic journeys and heroic quests, solving problems, back when most problems could be solved on horseback. 

I suspect I am not alone in this pursuit of warmth and reassurance. Everyone in my family has gone through the flu bug in the past 10 days, and I've noticed that each one of us reached for similar succor. For years, when my wife would get sick, all she would want to watch was the 1995 BBC production of "Pride and Prejudice," most important, the one with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. But now she tucks up and watches old episodes of "The Gilmore Girls," which I suspect offers her the same cozy contentment as westerns do for me. My 11-year-son is happiest watching old DVD highlight packages of the World Series. Even though he knows who's going to win, he still likes reliving the drama of the games.

I suspect that when we are sick, we simply crave familiarity, the comfort of old stories being retold, even though we know how they begin and how they are going to end. When cavemen had the flu, they probably asked whoever was hovering nearby, "Tell me the story again about the time we killed that big mastodon with a few tiny little arrowheads." Since the flu has been going around in a big way, if you've been sick, I'd love to hear what you wanted to watch when you were laid up. If nothing else, I'm curious if there's a common thread here -- or if my family is just a bunch of oddballs. Please share your thoughts.

And as a kicker: watch this video of the International Barbershop Chorus Champions. I first saw it when I was perfectly healthy -- and found it only mildly diverting. But I watched it again when I was sick and had a totally different reaction, finding it weirdly and wonderfully hypnotic. I think when you're sick, your brain is in a very different gear. But see for yourself:

Photo: John Wayne. Credit: Warner Bros.