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My son and I sat down and watched Empire of the Sun — the 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!
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.
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…