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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.
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.