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My sense is that my son has not been terribly impressed with my movie selections to date — though he did really like The Shawshank Redemption and, to a lesser degree, Empire of the Sun. Or maybe it’s just that I’m too predictable, and the messages I’m trying to impart are just a little too simplistic, especially given their blatant Hollywood guise. Or maybe I don’t have as many “life lessons” to impart as I thought since, apparently, eight movies into this project I already seem to be repeating myself with alarming regularity.
My son has been struggling with his math grade somewhat of late, which is not inconsequential given that he needs this mark to get into the degree program he wants to pursue in university. Since G.I. Jane was already on my movie list for this project anyway, I figured now would be the perfect time to share it with him since its if-you-really-want-something-you-sometimes-have-to-work-REALLY-hard-to-get-it theme should be immediately transferable given his current challenges.
He saw me coming from waaaay off, however. As I pressed the start button on the AppleTV controller, he caught sight of the title and a fleeting glimpse of the story summary from the iTunes movie screen and immediately told me to pause it. He turned to me and only barely managed not to roll his eyes. “Let me guess,” he said, his voice already forming the “air quotes” he didn’t even need to trouble his fingers to generate. “No matter who you are — race, gender, religion, whatever — and people put you down for it, and try to hold you back, you can still do great things if you put your mind to it and work really hard.” Then after a beat. “Right?”
“Yeah,” I had to admit. It was that simple. I gave him the option of not watching if he wasn’t interested, but apparently I won the pity vote and we watched it together anyway.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film all the way through and, to be honest, it was actually a little better than I remembered it. Anne Bancroft, as the pragmatic, horse-trading senator was damn near pitch perfect; Viggo Mortensen was convincingly inscrutable — behind the mirrored sunglasses — as the grizzled senior drill instructor (is he for her or agin her? we’re constantly left asking ourselves); and Demi Moore herself was clearly at her hard-body best at this point in her career.
Certainly the writing, and the nuances it seemed to impart, was better than I remembered it:
On why women, supposedly the “weaker sex,” shouldn’t be banned from combat units: “How strong do you need to be to pull a trigger?”
On ringing the bell to be “Dropped on Request” from the brutally intensive SEAL training course: “Go ahead, be ashamed for the rest of your fucking lives!”
On why the recruits often tell the medical officer they wanted to join the program in the first place: “Cuz I get to blow shit up!”
On being a female guinea pig in a fundamentally male program like the SEALs: “Big symbols make big targets.”
For all its Hollywood pedigree, however, I still think G.I. Jane is a film that deals fairly compellingly with the problems and complexities of seeking to overcome entrenched prejudices in an attempt to generate some sort of level playing field for meritocracy to flourish. And in doing so the film is honest enough, likewise, to seek to mine the “meta” complexities of its own self-reflexive awareness of this particular brand of “affirmative action.” When, for example, Demi Moore complains to the CO that she’s effectively being undermined by not being treated as an equal to the men in the unit (i.e. she’s not expected to compete as rigorously as they must), he points out the irony that if she were, in fact, treated the same as her male peers, she certainly wouldn’t be in the position to belittle the CO about it as she is currently doing!
The message becomes even more explicit when Moore and her boat crew are dumped in the sea far from shore and expected to find their own way back to camp. Moore’s character gets blamed for this dumping because she missed the Zodiak extraction pick-up they were practising, but an African American squad mate quickly comes to her defence with his own tale of how, as recently as the second world war, the only job his grandfather was allowed to pursue onboard an aircraft carrier was being a cook. He had wanted to be a navy pilot but was advised that blacks simply didn’t have adequate night vision to become pilots. Which we know, of course, is unfounded nonsense. So why is it again, we are left asking ourselves, that women shouldn’t be allowed in combat units?
And what did my son think when it was over? I got the usual noncommittal, “It was OK.” Then a bit of a clarification: “C’mon, Dad, it’s just a standard military movie. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It was really just Hacksaw Ridge with a woman, rather than a conscientious objector, playing the underdog.”
And, at least in the most reductionist sense, I suppose he’s right. Which leads me to conclude a couple of other things.
- It suddenly appears fairly obvious to me that I seem to be convinced that life is something of a hurdle that needs to be continuously overcome. And, apparently, I’ve always sought to overcome it using a handful of fairy basic “go-to” military metaphors.
- I may have to seriously re-think my selections for the remaining 16 months of this exercise! It might be time for a comedy…
This was not my initial choice for March, but my son came storming out of his room earlier this month having just heard from a friend of his in the US that now that his friend was 18 he was obliged to register for Selective Service. This was such an alien concept to my son that he just naturally assumed this was another short-sighted, nefarious plot by Trump to undermine American democracy. I tried to talk him down by explaining that this was simply a process whereby young men were required to sign up with the authorities so they would be “on file” if a crisis arose and a “draft” became necessary to randomly select a certain additional number of individuals that were needed by the armed services to augment its volunteer ranks. He was not impressed.
My riposte was that democracy was not a “free ride.” That the benefits, freedoms and opportunities that accrue to him as a citizen of one the most exemplary democracies in the western world were hard won and may, in the future, have to be hard won all over again. In fact, I suggested, if I had my druthers, I would argue that everyone — male and female — leaving high school in Canada should be required to complete a mandatory stint in the in armed forces. Not necessarily — or at least not specifically — to learn how to wage war, but rather to learn what it means to “serve” the democracy which grants you such expansive and varied opportunities to flourish throughout your lifetime. To learn discipline and restraint. To learn how to overcome obstacles and challenges. To grow and mature a little, beyond the security of the your parents’ house and the school yard for a change. To realize that a person can survive — even flourish — without continual, unfettered access to social media. But mostly to begin to try to understand that democracy, like all good things, comes at a cost and, sooner or later, you’ve got to pay the piper.
Which brings us back to Hacksaw Ridge, which essentially poses the question: How does an individual reconcile his or her personal conscience and autonomy with the need to protect the system — in a manner which flies in the face of those personal beliefs — that gives that individual the opportunity to even entertain such considerations in the first place? What, when all is said and done, does it mean to stand alone against the values of one’s community? To be a “patriotic” pacifist? And, of course, there is no easy answer. There are legal answers. And there are moral answers. And political answers. And religious answers. And constitutional answers. Individual answers and community answers. The difficulty is that there is a single question, but a multitude of differing — and often time equally compelling, though fundamentally antithetical — answers.
And thus the movie unfolds within the classic trope of the righteous hero pushing up against the unmoved, unenlightened reality of human existence. And the movie is definitely trope heavy. There’s the trials of individual morality in the face of organized “group think.” There’s love conquers all. Good versus evil. Faith triumphs over reason. Etcetera. And our likeable, affable, every man hero, plods through, Hollywood-style and Sergeant York-like (though sans rifle), to eventual spiritual redemption and personal vindication.
For my money, however, perhaps the most interesting trope / sub-plot was the hero’s father’s struggle to come to terms with his own “survivor’s guilt,” and what we would now define as PTSD, at having watched his closest friends killed along side him in the first world war. He’d spent his lifetime attempting to come to terms — unsuccessfully — with trying to find any sort of meaning behind his friends’ ultimate sacrifice. But he just can’t seem to think of it as anything more than slaughter, and he’s completely crushed by the thought of his own sons going off in 1942 to make the same sacrifices all over again.
As usual I was eager to hear my son’s take-away on things. “So how is a democracy supposed to reconcile the need to protect the fundamental rights of a person to pursue the dictates of his or her moral conscience and still compel them to undertake an action, which may be fundamentally at odds with that conscience, but that ultimately serves the greater good of the entire democratic community,” I asked him when the movie was over? “If everyone was as concerned with the dictates of their own personal conscience and salvation as our protagonist was, democracy would descend into anarchy, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, that’s hardly an issue then, is it?” he shot back. “Considering how few people out there ever seem to find themselves struggling with their conscience to begin with.”
Touché, I thought. Maybe something of a sweeping generalization, but perhaps not too far off the mark. Still, when pushed, he admitted that, if anything, the movie did reinforce for him how important it is to try to be as true to your ideals as possible.
“But regardless,” he insisted emphatically, and not for the first time, “war is stupid.” Which is also true, I conceded. Though perhaps only true in the same vein that, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst form of government. Except, that is, for all the others.
WTF, I hear you gasp. Heartbreak Ridge? Really? Hardly a cinematic gem, granted, but this whole exercise, I would argue, is actually about uncovering gems of other sorts. Or pearls, I suppose, might be the more appropriate metaphor since, at the epicentre of this treatise, must reside an on-going commitment to achieving sufficient personal “grit” (see Part 1) to tackle one’s life in a truly meaningful fashion. Likewise, at the very heart of Heartbreak Ridge beats a thematic imperative breathed into existence via the mystical incantation of three simple words, a sort of intellectual talisman against any potential for physical or existential laxity: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”
We’ve all seen Heartbreak Ridge before — even if we’ve never seen Heartbreak Ridge before — as my son, who really wasn’t having the time of his life watching it, was quick to point out: “A grizzled, end-of-career NCO [in this case a Marine Gunnery Sergeant] takes a rag-tag collection of young soldiers [in this case a dysfunctional reconnaissance platoon], promptly puts them through their paces to mould them into “real men” and thus, through his gruff, no-nonsense, hard-as-nails approach, demonstrates just how much he actually loves them because now they — or at least most of them — have developed the skills they will need to survive their first battle [in this case the “Invasion” of Grenada].” The going gets tough, the tough get going, and faint-hearted chickenshits are exposed at every turn. Thanks Gunny!
OK, so I have to admit, having not seen the movie in a number of years, it may have lost a bit of its lustre. Whole scenes, for example, seem to unfold as little more than a recitation of some generic military “drop-you-cocks-and-grab-you-socks” litany of verbal pyrotechnics, which, no doubt, I found irreverent and bad ass back in the day. Rings a little overplayed to a more nuanced, more mature ear, however. Plus I never could warm up to Marsha Mason. But you gotta love Eastwood. He marches from one end of that film to the other, rigid and coiled as a high tension wire, raspy voiced and imperturbable to such a degree that his portrayal of the gnarled Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway is almost comforting, almost transcendent in its sheer caricature.
Still, Eastwood notwithstanding, for me the movie — or at least my memory of the movie — was always about those three deceptively simple words: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.” This was a clarion call for me in 1986, and — I remember thinking at the time — it was a theme that was played out with an especial metaphorical subtlety in the “T-Shirt Kerfuffle” sub-plot.
T-shirt scene #1: Eastwood shows up to start training his new, motley squad of misfits. He assembles them outside their quonset hut in their PT shorts and mismatched t-shirts, and prepares to take them on their first — first with him, that is — run. But before they sprint away he tells them all to discard their aforementioned tees, because no squad of his is going for a run unless they’re all wearing the same shirt.
T-shirt scene #2: Another day and another run. The squad members form up and appear to be feeling rather pleased with themselves given that they’re all standing there in the same t-shit. “Off with the shirts, ladies,” instructs Eastwood. “Why?” they ask, incredulous. “We’re all wearing the same shirts.” “Not the same as me,” he growls.
T-shirt scene #3: The squad shows up for their next run with each man carrying all the t-shirts he owns — just in case. But none match Eastwood’s. They hurl them to the ground in frustration and run off at Eastwood’s command, shirtless and beaten.
Then one night, after helping another senior NCO take Eastwood / Highway home from jail after he had been arrested (again) for “drunk and disorderly,” one of the marines from the squad encounters Eastwood’s landlady who happens to be walking by with a basket of the Gunnery Sergeant’s clean laundry. Turns out this woman not only does Highway’s laundry for him, but sets out his clean clothes every morning as well. Which means the squad now has “intel” on the on-going shirt situation…
T-shirt scene #4 (aka the t-shirt finale): The next time Eastwood calls them to assemble for their run everybody’s wearing the same t-shirt — i.e. the same as him — and, low and behold, their metamorphosis into disciplined brothers in arms, ready to face the enemy, is nearing completion. Now all they need is a war…
“Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”
Life is a challenge at the best of times. Often you have no idea what the answers are and, metaphorically at least, you’re left shirtless. At other times, you’re pretty confident you’ve figured out the answers, but, before you know it, they’ve gone and changed the question on you and, you guessed it, shirtless again.
“Improvise. Adapt. Overcome,” I told my son. “That’s all I really needed you to get from this movie. That’s the hidden treasure [or the “rare pearl” if you’re worried about continuity]. Whether it’s breaking a t-shirt stalemate, or figuring out how to capture an enemy emplacement, or any other seemingly insurmountable challenge you’re going to face in this life, your best chance for success will always be the same: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. That’s what you need to learn. That’s what you need live.”
Still, I could tell that he wasn’t convinced that it had been necessary for him to sit through the entire movie if that was all I had intended to share with him. But I guess what I’m trying to do with this gestating pedagogical film fest, when all is said and done, is to create opportunities for him to make certain “connections” for himself. To “get” things, rather than just listening to me bleat banal homilies at him over and over again. (Of course, I’m still just making all this up as I go if you haven’t already figured that out for yourself yet!)
Ironically, however, it turned out he “got” the Heartbreak Ridge message far more clearly than I ever could have anticipated. A few days after we had watched the movie I was leaving for work quite early in the morning and reached into the closet, in the still-dark back hallway, to pack up my sneakers for my usual lunch-time walk. At noon I reached into my bag to retrieve the sneakers only to discover that I had actually taken only one of my sneakers, along with one of my son’s sneakers by mistake. Which meant that he would have had no footwear to wear to school — on this, the second day of grade 11 — other than two mismatched sneakers or the dirty, paint-splattered pair of black, low-cut work books he uses to help me around the yard. I swallowed hard: he was going to kill me when I got home!
I walked in the door after work that evening, and as he came upstairs from the family room to greet me, I immediately started apologizing. “Oh, crap,” I said. “I’m so sorry. I accidentally took one of your sneakers this morning when I was packing mine up in the dark. What did you end up wearing to school for shoes?”
He started laughing. “So that’s what happened,” he said. “I looked all through the entire closet and could only find one of my sneakers, and I started having kind of a panic attack because I thought I was going to miss my bus. But then I remembered I had an almost new pair of sneakers in my bedroom closet from gym class last year, so I dug them out and put them on and ran to the bus stop with time to spare.”
Then he grinned at me. “I just thought you hid one of them on me deliberately to see if I was paying attention to the movie the other night,” he chided. “But, you see, I handled it!”
By Jove, I think he’s got it! Score for dad, and hurrah for movie night! The hook is set!
*Thunder crashes, lightning forks through the sky, and a father’s maniacal laughter rings out across the darkened countryside.*
One down, 23 to go…
As many of you who read this blog know, I am the proud owner of one of those new-fangled (and yet strangely ancient) gizmos called a 16-year old. And, as those of you who are familiar with this exotic species are no doubt already aware, any number of previously latent conditions seem to become suddenly chronic at this stage of development — on the part of the aforementioned young adult, that is — including excessive eye rolling, exasperated sighs at receiving parental input in almost any format, and the continual reminder that you, as a parent, are no longer “cool” or “hip” or “jive” or whatever the current nomenclature happens to be for something you are so clearly not.
But I present the above (mostly) in jest, because my 16-year old is (mostly) awesome. Better than I could have hoped for. Arguably better than I deserve. Far better, I’m convinced, than I was at that age (sorry about that, mom!) And as my wife and I watched him head off for his first day of grade 11 earlier this month, it occurred to me that whatever I had left to teach him about life, whatever experiential wisdom there remained to impart, whatever psychological armour I longed to hand down to him to fend off “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that he would surely face over the course of his life, I now only had two years, a mere 24 short months, in which to do it.
But 16 brings with it a strange resistance to absorbing the wisdom of one’s elders via a medium so mundane as simple verbal exposition. “You need to try harder at things and not give up so easily — this will be imperative when you’re trying to start a career or deal with a difficult problem at work. Trust me.” “Sure, dad. I get it. Oh, and would you be able to take me into the game store later today ‘cuz the new [insert newest cool game name here which I’m not cool enough to know and be able to insert myself] was released on Monday.”
Mindful that a strong offence is often the best defence, I have consistently sought to share many of the subtleties of childrearing with my son from an early age. The “tight rope” is our shared euphemism for the balancing act I frequently advise him I’m forced to undertake daily in order to mould him from the clay of childhood and adolescence into a successful, fully-fledged, fully-rounded, adult participant in the 21st century. A veritable “Sophie’s Choice” Lite of neither pushing him so hard that he rebels altogether and / or becomes an anxiety-ridden, over-achieving basket case, nor not pushing him hard enough, and thus providing tacit approval for him to devolve into a chronically lazy, under-prepared slacker. Somewhere between those two solitudes — at least to my thinking — lies the existential sweet spot. Where an individual can boast enough personal grit to effectively move forward in life without imploding, but also where he (or she) has been able to develop a sufficient depth of ease and confidence to actually enjoy the life he (or she) is pursuing.
And “grit” is a word that probably goes to the heart of the matter in my case. Because, when all is said and done, I suppose I do see life as something to be overcome. It’s not an easy thing, and I think we lull ourselves into a false sense of security — at our peril — if we approach it as if it were. So, full disclosure, this is obviously the bias under which I am approaching the current project of prepping my fledging teenager to leave the nest.
But what does all of this vapid parental introspection have to do with 24 films, you ask? Well, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m getting ready to launch a flanking attack on my blissfully unaware teenaged son. He and I are about to engage in a little media experiment. A “themed” movie a month, — hand picked by dear old dad, of course — for the next 24 months, until he’s off to university. Watched together and, if all goes according to plan, discussed in some detail after the fact — and perhaps even for the months to follow. Each film selected to engage, challenge, inform and, hopefully, maybe even to delight. My thesis is that, “digital native” that he is, the immersive nature of film may ring truer for him than any one-dimensional verbal “life lesson” diatribe I could ever hope to offer.
Have I thought this through completely? Of course not. Will I even be able to find 24 films that will help to establish the type of on-going, expositional interaction that I’m looking to achieve? I dunno. Is it ridiculously facile to seek to develop a solid foundation upon which to establish one’s adult life based on Hollywood fluff? Probably.
In any case, I started this month — without actually even having an inkling that I was about to turn this into an on-going two-year exercise, which has only recently occurred to me — with Heartbreak Ridge (1986).
Part II to follow shortly…