“Why do we value great tragedy in our entertainment?”
This is the opening line from the Passion Of the Nerd video blog, detailing the nuances of both Buffy and Angel, and why is it we love to cry at the things that cause us pain, solely in the name of entertainment and doing things other than earning a living?
I’m not as eloquent as the aforementioned Nerd, nor am I gonna focus on the Whedonverse, however it raises an interesting point. Why do some of the most iconic stories (literature and film) focus more on the lost loves, disasters, illnesses, or wars, that often end with the demise of most (if not all) of the characters, and a feeling of, at best numb acceptance of the finality of the moment, and at worst a tragic understanding that the existentialists were right, that the world really doesn’t give a toss?
Before he won the Oscar for getting down and dirty with a bear, it was a running joke that Leo DeCaprio died in every film he made. Check out his filmography, at one point it runs something like: dead, dead, lobotomised, dead, dead, whatever the ending of Inception is supposed to symbolise, dead, etc…
I know we all should suffer for our art but c’mon? I guess this is why he got the Oscar, he has to suffer on screen, unlike everyone else who suffers day in and day out?
Sorry, that was a mix of a Catholic joke, and the whole Black Lives Matter movement and why Will Smith wasn’t nominated for ‘Concussion’. But I’m over it…
Golda Meir has often been quoted as coining the phrase: “Those who do not know how to weep with their whole heart, don’t know how to laugh either”. This follows the idea presented by the Nerd, that our emotions are constantly fluxing, expanding and constricting at will, as we interpret data through eyes and brains that effect our emotions, again often at will, and the memories they spark in that movement.
The songs we hear, movies we watch, it’s so evident in Western life that it’s passed beyond the clichéd and become something we barely register as happening anymore. The media, sports and entertainment use this tactic mercilessly, playing on the emotions of their captive audience. Their usage lessons their potency and comes across as laughable, but the media are hoping to attract the broadest demographic, so it makes sense their approach would be that of a broad-spectrum antibiotic, it’s carpet-bombing for the emotions.
But for ourselves as individuals, the potency remains 60%.
Case in point, I can no longer listen to a particular Springsteen song without thinking of a dear friend who passed away last year through cancer. It’s on my iPod, and I never play it, it’s too powerful, it HURTS, because the memories are wonderful, and it’s a sadness to be remembered of his passing.
But when I was growing up I noticed it first hand, because two of the most powerful films in recent memory landed, exactly at the optimal moment, when I was impressionable and beginning to understand that the world wasn’t all cheerful and happy and everything was awesome.
Before I reveal their names let me explain, these are powerful stories, that won multiple Oscars, and are seen as the highpoints of dozens of careers, on both sides of the camera. The stories these movies told were relevant, they were forthright and they had depth. And they HURT! Oh dear lord, did they hurt. I was in my early teens at the time, and I don’t remember seeing these movies at the cinema, but the VHS market was booming, and with a lot of time on my hands on the weekends, I watched them as soon as they landed, eighteen months later. Both stories dealt with the idea of minorities, and I’ll argue here there isn’t a person alive who hasn’t felt like a minority, caged within the gladiator academy of high school. You’re unsure about pretty much everything at 12/13/14, or at least I was; internal things, external things, the future, etc. And you go from watching cartoons and Arnie eighties movies to the nineties, T2 leaves the theatres and all of sudden: wham!
‘Philadelphia’ and ‘Schindler’s List’ land, within six months of each other.
Include ‘In the Name of the Father’, a movie I wouldn’t watch until I was in my late teens, and you had three stories, all of them true or based on real events, that haven’t lost one iota of their punch, over twenty years since their release. The logjam at the Oscars took the breath away, and it’s almost a shame that Tom Hanks scooped the award, because cases could be made for both Liam Neeson and Daniel Day-Lewis. They weren’t robbed, and Day-Lewis has bagged two more of the golden-boys since, but it’s hard for me to say which of the three gives a better performance. And, as I discovered in subsequent years, that’s not an event that occurs in the Oscars very often.
I’m going to avoid giving a synopsis of the storylines, that would be redundant. And the parallel themes of discrimination and persecution are pretty obvious even to my untrained eye. What I remember the most is how these movies equated to my life at the time, and as with all similar things, it’s hard to think of these films today, and not be reminded of the big moments back then. And, paralleling the points in the movies, only a few of them are happy, and none are without drama.
One of my most vivid memories as a young child was taking swimming lessons, and having to get changed with my mom, or, more accurately allow my mom to get me into my swim suit, which was easier said than done with a hyperactive five-year-old, mouth in overdrive and the attention span of a mayfly. The changing rooms were long open affairs, typical seventies, with a shower room solely consisting of a tiled side room and a collection of showerheads. One time my mom told me about how showers were used during the War, a deception my brain failed to comprehend, and naturally one my mom refused to expand on. But it planted something in my brain, an idea that shower rooms weren’t always a benign place, solely used for the purpose of getting clean.
‘Schindler’s List’ arrived with considerable fanfare, not least of all because it was a black and white movie in an era of SPX and sci-fi action. Now, for most teenagers, it’s a boring movie. Lots of talking, lots of subtext, the occasional execution in the snow, and so on. But there are terrifying points too; the ghetto clearance, the women ending up in Birkenau following a clerical error. If the movie is ever on television these days, there are a few commercial breaks, almost as if the stations are reluctant to show such endurance and terror, intercut with adverts to buy laundry detergent. But I remember when we saw it in school. One of the first movies adapted to create a “school version”, it didn’t hold back from several scenes, not least of all the execution of the foreman. I was one of the few students in class to have watched the movie already, so I was aware of what was ahead. So when one of the girls next to me started stating, half paying attention “He’s not going to shoot her. No, no he’s not going to shoot her,” I just kept my mouth shut, despite my raised eyebrows.
She gasped. And at that moment, I felt a gap between both of us widen. I don’t mean this to sound cruel, and I understand that we’re all different. But when I learnt more about the Holocaust, I realised that for many people they’re not even aware of the word, or what it even stands for, whereas for a percentage of people it remains a living, breathing entity, affecting people who endured it, right down to great-great-great grandchildren, who ask their grandparents naively about the tattoos on their forearms, and later learn the gravitas of what those marks can mean.
Following on from this, ‘Philadelphia’ was even more powerful, for multiple reasons.
At that point I hadn’t come out as being more than the traditional, heteronormative teenager that nineties society expected me to be. Without labelling myself, which is never been something I’ve really been hot about, I prefer to express the content of my character over anything else, I have happily developed relationships with both men and women.
My first vivid moment of the of the movie was Springsteen’s Oscar winning song. It received phenomenal airplay at the time, and was still one of the first songs I can remember the video for, of Bruce walking along the proverbial city streets, noticing everyone, all colours, young and old, the walk itself a metaphor for a life, for a society, for both the struggle we all face in trying to live it, and the secrets we all have, hidden away from others. It rings especially poignant for many people in the heart-breaking line “…and my clothes don’t fit me no more,” a line anyone is familiar with when referring to illness (of any kind), of the toll it takes on the body. How that severe sickness can emaciate with terrible speed.
My grandfather was dying in 1994. I don’t remember the timeframe, you kinda focus less on the mechanics of such things, especially when you’re young. I remember him falling, and ending up in a rehabilitation unit at the nearby hospital. We learnt years later that he had intentionally begun to withdraw from his medication, up to a year before the incident. At the time we could only surmise that, now faced with being the last one of his circle of friends, and remaining a widower for almost fifteen years, he had made the decision to control his own life up to the time he decided to leave it.
The rehabilitation sadly failed. My grandfather recovered physically, but it was clear he would be unable to live independently for that point onwards. Plans were draw up to transfer him to a nearby nursing home, in the same area and both at reasonable cost and comfort, but a week before he was due to be discharged from the unit his heart failed. Arrhythmia, ventricle fibrillation, crashing pressures, goodnight and farewell.
A five AM phone call is never a good thing. I remember that phone call like it was yesterday, and the whole house knew the story before my mom picked up. It’s a feeling echoed in the closing scenes of the movie, the three words “Joe, it’s Miguel,” and the long shot of the following memorial service, together with Neil Young’s equally haunting, and equally as nominated ‘Philadelphia’ playing throughout.
This was the first film that told me life is finite. Not with the romance of ‘Ghost’, nor the violence of eighties Arnie. That all the good things someone can do in their life, all the people they can help, the outcome will still be the same. It’s natural, and it’s sad, and it’s supposedly galvanising, but telling that to a thirteen-year-old is never easy.
The bigger point of the movie, and the fact that is still sadly evident today, for all sorts of reasons, is that this movie gave me a wake-up call to the fact that people don’t like other people, even if they’re the same nationality. Prior to 1993 all my movie and television conflict had centred around either monsters, killer aliens, or foreign people (usually comic Nazis) and how they were the “bad guys”. Here, people saw Tom Hanks as the ‘bad guy’. And supporting him was Denzel. Who, to me starred in his first major role, (despite winning an Oscar three years before) and was probably the first major movie star of colour I can think of, besides Gregg Burge in ‘A Chorus Line’. The scenes in the library, when he recites the definition of discrimination to an exhausted Hanks, his one-to-one with the judge, ending with “…we don’t live in this courtroom though, do we?” And his heart-breaking final private moment with Hanks following the party, when he explains, frankly, society’s general opinions of homosexuality in nineties America.
I was watching this in highschool one day, as a senior, in our common room. We had a TV and a VCR, and it was coming it to last third of the film. Suddenly one of the girls walks in and demands that they give back some specific piece of cable that she wants to run her own TV. An argument ensues around me – I’m just there to watch the movie – but no one wants to back down, and this affair escalates and goes on for a good 15 mins, right over the opera scene. In the end I say ‘Eff this’ and get up to leave, as it was clear this wasn’t going to end before the final scenes, and I didn’t want them sullied with idiots arguing over a piece of wire. Apparently I broke the debate, because the girl saw my acquiescence as a sign of victory, walked up, yanked out the cable, killing the TV dead and left.
I didn’t think much of this at the time, but later I wondered if there was an ulterior motive behind it all. Maybe she knew the story and thought it was cheap propaganda, or even a bunch of outright lies? We’ll never know, but it left its mark on me.
Not least of all the fact that ever since, growing up, going to college, going to work and so on, I’ve noticed that STILL someone’s sexuality, identity, whatever, affects how that person is perceived, both in and out of the workplace. I couldn’t talk about my own sexuality in school, the right-wing Tories were in power, and Section 28 was in full effect, but now, approaching a ten-year milestone in my current job, it’s not acceptable, yet still prevalent. And how it is in Trump’s America, heaven only knows.
My employer, the NHS, has its fair share of LGBTI staff. For a long time, it was a mecca for staff identifying as such because it was a union job, with strong labour laws, good pensions (or it had them, not so sure about now) and people who shared similar perspectives on the world. Plus, in healthcare you’re supposed to help everyone, regardless of difference, and for a while the unofficial motto of the department was “You don’t have to be gay to work here, but it helps!”
And then came the ‘banter’. A word I’m not a big fan of. Basically a loophole for people to say whatever they like, just by sticking a punchline at the end of it. I’m not a Political Correctness Nazi, but I recognise the intention behind words fairly accurately. But I digress, people will always talk about others, women especially; gossip is natural, it’s animate, it’s what living things do. It’s just people have to remember that just because they’re not a homophobe, or a racist, it doesn’t automatically make them a good, tolerant person. Myself included! I just have a tighter handle on the cracks, that’s all.
So there we are. All three films have some wonderful dark humour. Some of it self-depreciating, like the line in ‘Philadelphia’: “Honey, do I look like I need sweet-n-low?” Or the scenes in ‘Schindler’s List’ where the recently forged soup pots are too hot to handle, and the girls keep dropping them. This gallows humour is at no one’s expense. It’s the humour of the people in the firing line, the people hooked up to palliative chemo, just hoping to extend the game a little bit longer, the outcome already confirmed.
Interesting point here, ‘Schindler’s List’ was clearly superior, and yet it’s oddly the only one of the three without DIRECT tragedy to the main cast. While the war and the horror rage around them, Schindler triumphs, saving his workers, his own personal battle a small victory. In comparison, Andrew eventually succumbing to AIDS, and the wrongful imprisonment of the Conlans, leading to Giuseppe’s subsequent death in prison, rents harder at the emotional barrier around the heart. This is wrong, this is unfair, and despite everyone’s best efforts, including Emma Thompson’s impassioned rant in court, there is no happy ending when the credits roll.
Maybe that’s the point, though? The phrase ‘the night is always darkest before the dawn’ draws us to focus on the grim darkness too often. Instead we should be focusing on the dawn, the time when the sun comes up, the day’s anew, my mom always used to tell me, when I was young and hormonal and felt like the world hated me “Get some sleep, things will be better in the morning”. She was right. We cry at the unfairness of the treatment of our characters within these three stories, and by doing so it allows us to empathise with their situation. This is a form of catharsis, and within it we learn both the dangers that the world might inflict upon us, but also it makes the morning coffee taste that little bit sweeter, the jokes funnier, the smiles we get from our friends warm us and galvanises us to carry on.
Welcome to life, it’s a game with really only one outcome. How much you want to extend the game, well, that’s really up to you.
Dedicated to my grandfather, 1902-1994.