NPR, Shawshank, and movies that move you

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Shawshank Redemption posterI’m a big NPR listener, especially since moving to Colorado. A combination of not wanting to pay for cable, not having a TV antenna, and working from home most days means the voices of Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and a new favorite, Colorado Matters, have become my regular companions.

Sometimes I tune the radio out, and let the voices waft over me like soft breezes. I take that tack most when writing. Other times, typically en route to our temporary sink in the basement, a fragrant word or phrase piques my appetite, and I find myself paralyzed on the stair, a greasy pot or sticky knife perched in my clumsy hands.

This past week, it was a piece about Mansfield, Ohio, that grabbed me — the town with a very impressive state reformatory where Shawshank Redemption was filmed. You see, while it wasn’t a huge box-office success, Shawshank has developed a well-deserved cult following, and pilgrimages to Mansfield have been steady since the late-90s.

I’m captivated by human-interest stories, the hokey ones with characters that Norman Rockwell would paint and Frank Capra would make a movie about, and the characters in Mansfield do not disappoint. There’s café-owner Ed Pickens, who created a Shawshankwich, and LaDonna Secrist, proprietress of the Squirrels Den sweetshop, where you can purchase a candy Prison Bar. However, it was the theme of this story that grabbed me more than anything.

It’s part of a series called “On Location.” As the editors describe it, while exploring “the places where iconic American movies were filmed” they “discovered that often, long after the cameras are packed up and the crew goes home, a film can leave an imprint on a town.”

But to me, the story of Mansfield much more about the imprint a film left on its viewers:

Mansfield has become a mecca… They, of course, want to see Shawshank Prison. But the biggest draw for many of them sits about 15 miles south, in an old farm field. It’s a giant oak tree. As Morgan Freeman’s character struggles to make sense of his life once he’s been paroled, it’s that tree — and a promise he made to visit it — that gives him hope. The tree is at least 100 feet tall and 175 years old. And, for many Shawshank pilgrims, seeing it is a spiritual experience.

Shawshank TreeI’d love to theorize that we all have movies that move us this deeply, but experience tells me that’s not the case. I’ve encountered many people for whom movies are just entertainment, a single option among an ever-expanding library of ways to pass the time. But for some of us, movies (or, at least, the right movie) can be profound and transformational — so deeply touching that you would travel thousands of miles to experience a piece of that movie’s magic in person.

I have always loved movies, and so can name a handful that have spoken to my soul. As a child it was the Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea miniseries, which I watched reverently every time they were shown (usually whenever PBS trotted them out for a pledge drive). They inspired me to read all six “Anne” novels till the bindings were worn, and to dream of one day making a pilgrimage to the picturesque shores and farmlands of Prince Edward Island, Canada.

But perhaps no piece of fiction, written or filmed, has moved me as much as a quirky little movie about an average Joe who agrees to jump into a very big volcano. That movie impacted me so profoundly that it became my unofficial litmus test for finding kindred spirits, and even, arguably, helped me recognize my true love.

Can you think of a movie that has spoken to your soul, or made you feel more connected to the universe, love, or the meaning of life?

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