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6/24: Time Travel and the Problem(s) with Memory

February’s movie selection, the sixth movie in my “Laying a Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” series, was The Butterfly Effect (2004). I’m not a big Ashton Kutcher fan, but sometimes you just gotta hold your nose…

The Butterfly Effect proved to be an doubly-interesting choice, mostly because I picked this movie based on what turned out to a incorrectly remembered premise / scene. I remembered the movie being about Kutcher’s character learning how to time travel, and then greedily using this knowledge to keep tweaking his personal narrative to create the “perfect” life for himself and his friends until, near the end, he ends up generating a timeline where his friends have all turned out just fine, but where he finds himself relegated to a wheelchair missing both his hands. My life lesson here was going to be something to the effect that sometimes the more you screw around trying to makes things “just right,” the more the potential may exist for the opposite to happen. “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” etc.

Watching the movie with my son, however, it was immediately clear that I had mis-remembered it altogether. I suppose the above-noted summary more or less explains what happened in general terms, but it turns out I had made up the whole theme of personal greed as the protagonist’s prime motive. Hence the “teachable moment” I was planning on did not appear quite as black and white, quite as causally Aesopian, as I had recalled it. (Still, in my defence, I think some sort of cause-and-effect dilemma is fundamentally inherent in any such time travel narrative; the idea that you mess with certain things in your life — time in particular — at your peril. The very name of the movie, The Butterfly Effect, reinforces the supposition that even if we could time travel, the subtleties of truly being able to tame what actually constitutes cause and effect — viewed retrospectively as the passage of our lives — will, nonetheless, ultimately remain beyond our control.)

But I wasn’t too far off the mark in remembering the wheelchair scene as the turning point of the film. My son also picked up on this immediately, and without prompting. By this point in the movie Kutcher’s character had already gone “back in time” on several occasions to try to change the timeline for each of his three friends, to attempt to ensure that their lives would not evolve as the catastrophes which they had appeared to have become earlier in the movie. And he had to keep going back because every time he tweaked one piece of the puzzle to try to improve on their current timeline, this action inadvertently affected another piece of the puzzle which then screwed up something else along the way. By the time Kutcher wakes up to find himself a double amputee condemned to a wheelchair, however, all his friends finally appear to have promising, potential-filled lives ahead of them. All, apparently, except Kutcher himself.

At which point my son pressed the pause button and turned to me knowingly. “OK,” he said, “I get it. Now he’s got to ask himself, given how screwed up the timelines become whenever he goes back and tries to change things, is he now willing simply to live the rest of his life with his own current limitations, understanding that he’s finally managed to generate a timeline where everybody else but him is happy?” I was impressed. He had gone right to the heart of the matter; namely, how much are we willing to sacrifice to make those around us happy, especially when we may perceive many of our own actions to be part of the cause of others’ unhappiness to begin with. A much richer question, in fact, than I started this exercise with. Wow!

The only problem, we soon realized, was that in the “wheelchair” timeline, even though all of Kutcher’s friends were happy, his mother has cancer and is about to die.  Obviously he can’t let this happen, so he sets out to try to change history yet again. But with this knee-jerk approach to the cancer crisis — since everybody would seek to save their mom if they had the chance, right? — the original moral dilemma of whether or not he would have sought to try to revise the timeline again to try to save only himself, and thus, perhaps, to put his friends once more in harm’s way, gets cast aside.

In spite of my faulty recall, my son and I also had a good discussion about narrative technique and the requirement for consistency and parallelism at the heart of time travel stories. In fact, he seemed to understand the structural underpinning of the movie on first viewing far better than I initially did 13 years ago. We did have a bit of a disagreement about how to interpret the ending though. It all started with the penultimate plan Kutcher’s character undertook to try to change the timeline to save his mother. The particular “retro” action he pursued at this point seemed so short-sighted and ill-conceived that it was immediately at odds with all the far more clever and nuanced strategies he had executed to try to change time up until that point. My son saw this as a lazy cop-out on the part of the writers to simply move the story along to its next and final crisis, and felt that it was as if someone had thrown the proscenium curtain aside and we now could suddenly see all the strings controlling the marionettes on stage. I, too, thought it was rather clumsy, but by the end of the movie I wasn’t particularly bothered by it.

I think the difference between our readings was that my son was willing to conceive of the movie as a literal tale of “time travel”. Thus, if some mechanism within that particular temporal microcosm seemed clunky or unconvincing, it immediately cast doubt on the efficacy of the entire tale to hold together with any sort of internal coherence. I, however, was content to be left “uncertain” at the end of the experience. To understand that it was not time travel that was at the heart of the film, but rather the idea of how we approach choices in our lives and how we come to interpret our past in light of those choices. As with A Christmas Carol, I felt The Butterfly Effect to be a far richer tale when considered through the lens of possibility that everything that happened might have simply been the result of an “undigested bit of beef” rather than through the literal machinations of time travel (or actual visits by Christmas “spirits”).

In writing these “reviews” and considering what other movies I’m going to include throughout this two-year exercise, I’m starting to figure out that I’m a bit of a sucker for “time travel” stories. Movies like Click and Groundhog Day and It’s a Wonderful Life (which was I was saving for next Christmas) are all on my list as possibilities for the remaining 18 films in this exercise. I could also easily include, for many of the same reasons, Interstellar, Family Man, Terminator, About Time, Looper, 12 Monkeys, and, most recently, The Arrival (which we actually enjoyed together earlier this month — though we again each interpreted the ending quite differently). I think I like these type of films so much because they have to be — by their very nature — truly clever, well-planned stories to begin with. Stories in which somehow you have to allow time to circle back and continually become itself anew, and where we’re all somehow agents of free will, but always, nonetheless, at the mercy of an unchanging, unchangeable fate.

Ultimately, though, they’re all the same movie:  We somehow catch a glimpse of ourselves in a different or parallel or time-shifted reality (regardless of whether we arrive there via literal time travel or some sort of induced hallucination), and this insight, when all is said and done, allows us the opportunity to more fully embrace the life which we’re actually in the process of living. The pursuit of a richer more authentic existence through that ever-illusive, reflexive medium of self-awareness. The Delphic oracle’s ancient injunction to, “Know thyself.”


5/24: Who’s the Boss? The Nature v. Nurture Dilemma

DNA background

Photo credit: M Pinarci GENE A101 via photopin (license)

Still a month behind with these posts, but catching up. At this point, however, I’m fairly confident I’m actually going to be able to complete February’s post in February. Hope springs eternal…

January’s movie selection, the fifth movie in my “Laying a Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” series, was GATTACA (1997). (What, I hear you gasp, “A non-80s movie?” Yes, folks, I do have some depth.)

What did I remember about this movie? I remember it being smart and atmospheric, but mostly I remember thinking, “Shit, they’re right, that is going to be our future!” And that worried the hell out of me — and still does. Which is why it’s on my list.

The premise behind GATTACA, in the most reductionist IMDB parlance possible, is simply: “A genetically inferior man assumes the identity of a superior one in order to pursue his lifelong dream of space travel.”

It’s the “not-too-distant” future we’re told at the beginning of the film (though since it’s hard to get the future exactly right, the costume designers have actually reverted to a retro 1950s look to represent this near-contemporary time frame), and it turns out that medical science is now able to — and thus, invariable, do — manipulate the genes in unborn children to such an extent that they can easily create “designer” babies to meet parents’ specifications. (Insert Six Million Dollar Man voice over: “Better. Stronger. Faster.”) Babies who, of course, then grow into designer adults. We quickly learn that all your “stats” and your related mortal potentialities can be determined, or at least reasonably extrapolated, at birth from a simple blood test which provides a comprehensive summary of your genetic inventory. Hence the movie’s title: G, T, C, and A being the letters that code the four “bases” that represent the entirety of the billions of DNA sequences that define us.

With a wonderful linguistic sleight of hand, those who are suitably genetically endowed are easily — biologically — scanned, whenever necessary, and correspondingly confirmed as “Valid.” Their success in life is assured (barring catastrophe, as we soon learn). The world is their oyster. On the other hand, individuals who have not been thus “designed”, who are naturally conceived, gestated and born purely at the mercy of the universe, end up completely disenfranchised and, when similarly scanned, are identified as, you guessed it, “In-Valid.” Get it? Invalid. See what they did there?

The result? A further perpetuation of the on-going, human-driven zero sum game of life. Two solitudes. Us and them. Haves and have nots. Nobility and peasants. The one percent vs. the 99. As our protagonist notes at the beginning of the movie, in seeking to explain his own context within this new world order: “They had discrimination down to a science.” In other words, one could argue, business as usual as far as civilization is concerned.

Our hero, of course, is an InValid posing, through an elaborate biological con game, as a Valid so that he can fulfill his dream of traveling to Saturn as an astronaut. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge; that is, returning toward the stars from whence we all ultimately emerged — “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon…”). But here’s the rub: he’s risen to the top of his class in training for the Saturn mission not because he was genetically engineered to be smart and fit enough to do so (as those around him in training had been) — a simple blood test would expose him as a InValid after all, a mere mortal with a weak heart who’s not even supposed to live to 30 — but because he’s busted his ass to do all the work (both physical and intellectual) that he needed to do to get there. The hard way. From scratch.

And that’s the discussion I wanted to have with my son. To what extent are we simply the sum of our genetic parts (Nature) versus the person we make ourselves — or get made — into (Nurture)? Will the scorpion always sting the frog to death that’s ferrying him across the river, causing them both drown, simply because we are all — especially scorpions, it appears — slaves to our “nature.” What is fate? What is destiny? To what extent is gene manipulation a slippery slope to rampant cellular eugenics?

We didn’t get very far with the fate / destiny discussion. We had an great discussion regarding the potential implications of genetic manipulation though. My son is quite an empathetic individual. He’s always worried about the underdog, so his take on things was that he was all for genetic manipulation if it could give an individual a leg up on curing a illness or disease, before he or she was born, so that that person didn’t have to be saddled with such an obvious impediment throughout his or her life. He was adamantly, vehemently, opposed to using genetic manipulation for “cosmetic” purposes, however. To change the colour of someone’s eyes, or make them taller, or give them a more muscular physique for example. As usual, he gets full points for being a reasonable, compassionate human being. Beyond such fairly specific aesthetic examples, however, he seemed a little more vague. Nonetheless, I sensed he felt that any sort of potential non-disease curing, non-appearance-based personal enhancements, would, likewise, still essentially fall into the “cosmetic” category.

At which point I suggested to him that, from my experience, this often does not seem to be how the world actually works, either in terms of scientific advancement or moral subjectivism. Once Pandora’s Box has been breached, even just a crack, it’s pretty much inevitable the lid will eventually be thrown wide open. And it is this fear of slippery slopes that continued to make me so uncomfortable as I watched GATTACA again, 20 years later. Because, to my mind, the future unfolds something like this:

  • Step #1: “Let’s turn off the gene that causes, say, Muscular Dystrophy, before the child is born.” Awesome idea, says the world (myself included). Here’s your Nobel Prize Ms. Researcher, you’re a true humanitarian.
  • Step #2: “What do you mean I can’t have the geneticist tweak my unborn’s DNA to give him blue eyes? Jeez, it’s not a question of ethics, after all. It’s not like I’m not allowing him to have eyes. Nature would randomly assign him an eye colour anyway, and if something is random then it obviously doesn’t matter what colour you end up with. If it doesn’t matter in nature, what’s the problem?” Money changes hands and a new, commercially viable industry emerges from the shadows.
  • Step #3: “Come on, doctor! Why won’t you manipulate the genes to enhance my unborn daughter’s neural network? You have the capability. I’m already allowed to change her eye colour if I want to, so why can’t I make her a little smarter? She’ll do better in life that way. All I want is for my daughter to have the chances I never had. It’s not like we’re giving her somebody else’s brain after all. This is her brain we’re talking about, and the innate potential we want to unlock already resides within her genes. Who are you to hold her back from that potential and limit her life and opportunities? You’re curtailing her future! You’re making Bay Jesus cry! We’re suing for damages!”

Game, set, and match. The more money you have, the better the baby you’ll be able to build. And you better have money ‘cuz you can be damn sure such procedures are not going to be covered by your provincial health plan!

Tell me I’m overthinking this one. Please!

Wait a minute. Is that CSI I hear starting on TV?

“Who are you? Who, who, who, who?

I really wanna know…”

4/24: An Almost Classic Selection


Once again, a month late with this post. Sorry. Christmas. Then we were all sick with colds in January. Y’know, life.

December’s movie selection, the fourth movie in my “Laying a Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” series, was An American Christmas Carol (1979). Hardly an original selection, I admit, but seminal, nonetheless, given the season.

I chose this particular version of the classic tale for three reasons: (1) because it was in colour (my son has not yet been won over by the allure of black and white films); (2) because it was a more “modern” — if the Great Depression can be considered “modern” — take on the story without being completely contemporary; and (3) because I have memories of “connecting” with this particular version of the story in my own adolescence.

37 years later I have to admit I enjoyed this particular rendition of Dickens’ classic tale far less than I remembered having done so “back in the day.” I guess I didn’t find Henry “The Fonz” Winkler quite as edgy a choice for the Scrooge character (in this case named Benedict Slade) as I did during that initial viewing. But in re-watching the film I was able to recall the scene that I remember as having the greatest impact on me, that I think left me with the lingering thought across all these years that the movie did, in fact, have some merit. It’s when one of the spirits takes Slade to the Christmas-monring home of his childhood sweetheart who is now happily married with a teenaged daughter who — no surprise — looks just like her mother did when Slade had been in love with her all those years ago. Sade immediately realizes — too late, of course — that all this joy and happiness and familial bliss he observes could have been his if only he had made different, more authentic, choices in his life. Even as a cynical, young teenager when I originally watched An American Christmas Carol, I felt the depth of pathos and desperation that must accompany the realization that you’ve hit a certain point in your life — far closer to the end than the beginning — and suddenly realize you’ve had it all wrong and you’ve squandered any number of opportunities for happiness with which life has presented you across the years.

But that’s my take. What did my son think? Well, for a start, I certainly think he appreciated the fact that I didn’t make him watch a black and white version. And he seemed to find the Great Depression backdrop fairly engaging from a narrative perspective. But mostly we ended up talking about the Christmas Carol story as a sort of cultural touchstone, rendered and re-rendered year after year, in one guise after another, as a sort of yuletide memento mori.

And how, we chatted, does that theme come to work itself out in the plot? What makes the story so timeless, so poignant? My son’s take was essentially the old saw that money can’t buy happiness. And I think that that’s a valid take-away up to a point — especially considering that it’s this same money, to a large extent, that actually does make folks happy once Scrooge discovers, by the end of the story, the joy in opening his purse and sharing his wealth with those he now realizes he cares about. But I think what my son really meant was that it’s far better to seek to be connected with people than it is to simply remove yourself from their orbit in a blind pursuit of wealth, or any other obsession, for that matter. (Of course, one of the things that ultimately makes A Christmas Carol so compelling is the inherent psychological underpinnings of why this miserly pursuit was undertaken in the first place.)

My take on things, especially as I get older, seems to have more to do with the ghost of Christmas future. Thus, for me, the story, at its heart, is a redemption tale. Rather a loaded word for an atheist, but bear with me. In this instance, after all, it was the miser who was redeemed, who saved himself from the dark shadows of things that might have come to pass if he hadn’t become aware of his own shortcomings. But the significant element of this equation was not who was “saved”, but the miraculous fact that each new morning offers us all a fresh chance to change our path, to save ourselves from ourselves. That’s why I think the oft re-created scene where Scrooge throws open the window on Christmas morning and asks what day it is is the crux of the whole matter: each day — every day — gives us another opportunity to truly embrace our lives and, with even a modicum of self awareness, to adjust our trajectory for the better. This is the stuff of which epiphanies are made.

Realizing at this point that I had gone right down the existential rabbit hole with my take on things (as usual!), and wanting to get our discussion back on more solid footing, I asked my son which iteration of the story he had seen over the years that he had found most compelling or memorable. He was a little sheepish, but was man enough to admit it was a Bugs Bunny version he had watched nearly a decade ago in elementary school. I laughed and told him not to worry; the truth was I was a big Scrooge McDuck fan myself! How ‘bout you?

Happy Holidays, and to all a good night.

3/24: Third Time’s a Charm!


Photo credit: wwarby Alcatraz Cells via photopin (license)

So, November’s movie — the third instalment of my “Laying a Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” series — was The Shawshank Redemption (1994). This is one of those movies that is on TV often enough that we’ve probably all seen and become familiar with at least some part(s) of it. I’m not sure, however, until this November, that I’ve ever actually seen the whole thing all the way through. In any case, as I have with the two previous films in this series, I chose this movie for what I believed to be a significant “life lesson” as expressed in a single scene that always stuck in my head: the “Ah-ha” moment when the Warden rips the Marilyn Munroe poster off Andy’s (played by Tim Robbins) cell wall to reveal a tunnel he has spent nearly 20 years patiently digging with a tiny rock hammer to facilitate his eventual escape — which he has just completed.

For me, the lesson behind the tunnel — a deliciously surprising plot twist — focuses on the incredible power of “incrementalism” in our lives. This is a concept I always try to impart to my son when he feels overwhelmed by the sheer scope of certain significant undertakings he might be faced with, whether it’s a school project — “Sure To Kill a Mockingbird is a long book, but you’ve got a month to read it, so that’s not more than eight pages a day which is no problem at all” — or playing a sport — “No, you’re not going to be Sidney Crosby the first instant you step out on the ice in your hockey gear, but you will get better if you’re committed to practicing.”

For me this message of incrementalism was especially timely because I was also participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November, — which is why I’m not getting around to completing this post about November’s movie until December! — so I spent most of the month trying to convince myself that I could write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days and still be able to go to work and live a relatively normal life. What kept me going was not worrying about the 50,000 words that were required by the end of the month (which was far too daunting to even consider), but simply getting through the 1,667 words I needed to make sure I wrote every day. 1,667 words a day was “do-able” after all. And if I could string 30 days of “do-able” together, one after another, at the end of the month I’d have the draft of a novel in my hands. Which seemed, from the perspective of November 1st at least, somewhat improbable, if not completely impossible.

But NaNoWriMo turned out to be a success, and so was Shawshank. Not only did my son not hem and haw very much about having to watch it in the first place, as he did with the first two movies (thank you Morgan Freeman! — one of his favourite actors), he actually said to me afterwards that he thought it was one of the best movies he had ever seen. (Forgive him, he’s still young). But the real pay off for me was when I asked him what he felt to be the most important part of the story. “Uhmm, I think it was when when the Warden pulled the poster off the wall and discovered the tunnel,” he informed me. “Why was that?” I asked, trying to contain my excitement. “Well, because it showed that as hard as it was on Andy to be in prison he always had a plan he was working toward and he never stopped being able to manipulate people to make his plan work.”

I thought the “manipulation” comment offered an interesting — and maybe rather personal — perspective, but, nonetheless, I was nearly jumping up and down in jubilation that the message I had wanted him to take from the movie — “Plan your work and work your plan” — was exactly what he had come up with. Then, seeking to further leverage his new-found insight, I sought to broaden the scope a little in terms of how important incrementalism is as a tool in a person’s everyday life, including its application to things like compound interest, healthy eating and exercise, getting through university, saving for an expensive purchase, undertaking a large project at school or work, etc. The sheer, almost counter-intuitive power of incrementalism is probably not really something you can fully appreciate at 16 — given you haven’t yet had the experience of 40 or 50 years slipping by you in the wink of an eye — but he seemed to grasp it “in principle,” which, I expect, is all any parent can really hope for at this juncture.

And sure, we also discussed how the movie seemed to talk a lot about the idea “hope” in apparently hopeless situations, but what Andy ultimately shows us is that hope is an active, not a passive process. And an active process requires a plan. And the bigger the plan, the more imperative is our understanding of incrementalism. As Andy himself concludes, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

Roger that!

2/24: One, One & Oh


“Zero” (Photo credit: San Diego Shooter Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero via photopin (license))

My son and I sat down and watched Empire of the Sunthe second instalment of my “Laying a Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” series — about a week ago. While his reaction was not nearly as overtly cynical as it was for Heartbreak Ridge, — he is a teenager, and Empire was directed by Stephen Spielberg after all — it certainly wasn’t effusive. “It was pretty good,” was about the highest praise I managed to eke out of him.

Remembering my own first viewing of the movie, I thought he would at least have experienced some innate identification with the adolescent Jim, the young protagonist who, ironically, seems to flourish as an internee in the Japanese POW camp that serves as a backdrop for much of the movie. But though my son seemed to “like” and “sympathize” with this “prison camp Jim”, the only comment he ever actually made about the character (twice) during the film was: “I hate that kid.” But in those two particular instances he was referring to the naive, spoiled, pre-prison camp, young Tai Pan Jim that lived in Shanghai with his rich parents prior to the war (and who seemed patently unable to surrender to the Japanese as they proceeded to occupy the city).

But with such a condemnation I felt my son was missing the point. Not because this early version of Jim wasn’t stupendously naive and obviously needed some significant emotional comeuppance to grow as a character (which, ultimately, was the major theme of the movie), but because he (i.e. my son) wasn’t willing to see beyond young Jim’s shortcomings to the subtle tapestry of confused, juxtapositional adolescent wonder which makes Jim such a richly complex character to begin with.

Nor, in the week and a half since we watched the movie, has he admitted to any manner of after-the-fact “a-ha” moments. In fact, I asked him the other night if he had had any further thoughts on the movie, but though he says he laid awake for a couple of hours the night we watched it, — trying to determine what he felt it had all been about — he concluded that nothing particularly “stuck” with him after that.

For me, on the other hand, the movie was just as good as I had remembered it, and will continue to remain one of my all-time favourites. The scenes I had recalled as particularly meaningful I seemed to have remembered with a reasonable level of fidelity, and they more or less unfolded as I described in my previous post. I was awash in goosebumps, and my heart was in my throat, for example, as Jim raced to the top of that ruined building to watch the P-51s attack the Japanese airfield adjacent to the camp (and then proceeded to have what was essentially a nervous breakdown). And then, in the final seconds of the final scene, as he closed his dry, young / old world-weary eyes  — dry eyes being the perfect metaphor for the moment as it re-iterated the fact the he was now a proverbial empty vessel and finally embraced his mother after more than three years of separation, my own eyes ran with tears.

But I guess, given my son’s reaction (or lack thereof), that I’m starting to figure out that things don’t always resonate the same way across all audiences. Duhh? “Meaning,” after all, is seldom an objective concept, but rather something we discover anew via the unique filter of our own personal experience and preferences. Empire struck me as so poignant, I now realize, because it was a perfect storm of things that I found meaningful at the particular point in my life when I first experienced it, including planes, military history, the ebbing of English imperialism, and the idea of a “plucky” young man coming of age. These things do not, I’m beginning to appreciate, necessarily represent the current mind-set of my own son; hence he’s obviously going to view the films I choose through rather a different set of lenses than I do. Significantly different, I’m starting to understand. He is patently not who I was at that age, so setting up these films as guideposts to try to assist him in becoming a grown-up version of what I optimistically consider to be my own best self may not necessarily be the way to approach this endeavour.

So where does that leave me given the initial premise of this entire exercise?

If nothing else, I suppose, I’ll simply continue to focus on the “overt” lessons that each film seeks to bring to light. As you might have noticed from my previous post, however, I was experiencing some difficulty trying to boil Empire down to a such a singular, pithy world view. But it turns out that I had forgotten one of the key exchanges of the movie. One that demonstrates the extent to which Jim appreciates that though he may have learned innumerable strategies for surviving in the world — any type of world — as a result of his “friendship” with Bassie, he and Bassie don’t, ultimately, share a common philosophy.

Irritated with Jim because he feels that he’s not doing nearly enough to cash in on the good fortune of their liberation from the prison camp — as the movie is coming to an end and food and supplies are now literarily falling from the sky — Bassie asks him disgustedly, “Haven’t I thought you anything, Jim?”

“Yeah, Bassie,” Jim responds ruefully, finally, it seems, truly beginning to understand what “Bassie learning” has actually cost him. “You thought me that people will do anything for a potato.”  Game. Set. Match.

So, as the smoke from the P-51 attack on the airfield next to Jim’s prison camp clears, it looks like an early success with Heartbreak Ridge, but not so much with Empire. Call it 1-1-0 for the moment.

And hope for a cinematic miracle to get this exercise back on track!

2/24: The Lead-In


P-51: Cadillac of the Sky! (Photo credit: Dave_S. Model P-51D fly-by via photopin (license))

This month’s “Laying the Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” selection is Empire of the Sun (1987).

My son and I haven’t actually watched it yet, however. And I don’t think I’ve seen it in its entirety— save for snippets here and there whenever it occasionally shows up on TV — in probably 20 years.

So, why Empire of the Sun? Why do I think — or think that I remember through the mists of time — of it as being essential to my foundational list?

Well, like Heartbreak Ridge, there are innumerable images and scenes from the movie that have always stuck with me, if not as life lessons per se, then at least as hints or glimpses into what it is to live and to be human through a time of great crisis.

What, in particular, continues to resonate and come back to me from this movie across the years?

  • The fact that, if nothing else, it is a hugely compelling coming-of-age story.
  • The theme of airplanes, and the thread of the protagonist’s love of them throughout the story. (I too was an airplane nerd as a kid, so I’ve always felt an especial connection to young Jim given his enduring aeronautical fascination).
  • Empires fall, and new ones rise, and residents of the former have a tendency to fiddle while their particular version of Rome burns to ashes around them. It’s easy to recall a number of instances illustrating such creeping dissolution in the film, including Jim’s family’s chauffeured excursion, in full Halloween-costumed regalia, through the thronged maelstrom of downtown Shanghai in the immediate lead-up to WW2. Or the hard, contemptuous slap across the face Jim receives when he attempts to impose his immature will on a former servant after the war has broken out and all the “foreign imperialists”, including his parents, have now either escaped or have been taken into custody and no longer hold sway.
  • As John Malkovich’s character points out shortly after he meets Jim, and as the war is beginning to unfold in earnest, living through stuff — war included — is relatively easy. The tricky part, the part where you can get into serious trouble, is at the beginning and end of things (war included). I ponder this dilemma every time I undertake a new project at work!
  • Identity is malleable. Except when it’s not. There’s who you want to be (i.e. Jim styling himself as one of the gaggle of brash young Americans with whom he’s interred in the Japanese prison camp) and there’s who you are (i.e. Jim coming to terms with the fact that self image does not trump reality when he has to explain to Malkovich that he wasn’t able to protect Malkovich’s hoarded booty after he had been taken away for punishment by the Japanese. “They were bigger than me,” I remember Jim admitting simply, simultaneously gutted at the loss of his own fragile persona in the process).
  • Joy and mania are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps my favourite scene of the whole movie is when Jim’s prison comes under attack from the American Air Force at the end of the war. Jim runs heedlessly through the explosions and debris to climb a tower and thus get a closer look at the planes which are loosing their destruction upon the compound. By the time he gets to the top of the tower, however, we’re starting to suspect that he may have snapped, that all the stress and crises in his young life up to this point have coalesced into this overt, manic exuberance. He jumps up and down, pumping his hands above his head like a madman, watching the planes flash by like lightening bolts. “P-51!” he screams, “Cadillac of the sky!” One of the Mustangs passes by in super slo-mo, parallel with the tower, and Jim is able to make out every detail of the gleaming fuselage and the pilot who cheerfully returns his wave. But in the next instant, the spell is broken. Jim is being pulled down to safety — and I’ve only just remembered this — not by his “supposed” friend, Malkovich (who we would expect to have been looking out for Jim were he the friend he should have been), but by the long-suffering doctor who understands that, regardless of appearances, Jim, in many ways, is very much still a child in need of adult intervention. And it is here that we truly understand that Jim has come to the end of himself. The doctor has to slap him back into sense (if I remember rightly), but Jim is broken, and stares off blankly, crying and whispering plaintively, as if it’s just occurred to him for the first time, “I can’t remember what my parents look like.”
  • After the Japanese guards desert the prison, the internees undertake an apocalyptic exodus from the camp. This journey concludes at a giant sports stadium — in the middle of nowhere —  which enfolds a surreal cornucopia of looted war riches. Jim barely registers it, however, as he is by now essentially an empty vessel. Instead, he looks across the horizon to see a mushroom cloud rising skyward in the distance. “I leaned a new word today,” he tells us in voice over: “Atom Bomb.” (In September 2001, this scene came back to me in shocked horror as I stood in from of my TV and watched the debris clouds from the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre billow upward across the New York skyline. All I could think of in that instant, like Jim, was that I was looking over the brink into the abyss of a new world. And I knew with certainty, at that very moment, that my one-and-a-half-year old son — for better or worse — would not grow up in the same world I had).

Yikes! That’s a huge amount of flotsam and jetsam left bobbing in the wake of a movie I haven’t really spent any quality time with in two decades, innit?

Empire of the Sun is obviously a richer, more subtle and complexly layered movie than Heartbreak Ridge, — Duh? — but, admittedly, it was far easier to drill down and extract a single “teachable moment” — “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.” — from the latter.

I suppose, at this juncture, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what point I’m trying to make with Empire. And, no doubt, I’m not truly going to be able to do that until we sit down and actually watch it. Still, I expect the resultant “take-away” will probably have something to do with how an individual’s “character” evolves and develops during the formative periods of one’s life. Typically such development is associated with the passage of time (i.e. the transition from adolescence into adulthood), but sometimes that development is artificially accelerated through crisis instead. In either case, at the heart of such a process there appears to exist an inexplicable, natural feedback loop, a weird, fundamental symbiosis between how life forms you, while you, concurrently, are seeking to form it. How, ultimately, we’re all shaped by a world which we, in turn, help to shape by our very existence.

Stay tuned; I’ve got the movie downloading from iTunes even as I type. We should know shortly how it all pans out.