Cinematic Humanism in Five Iconic Scenes
1. Film: Jacob's Ladder (1990) - Louis the Chiropractor scene
"If you're frightened of dying, and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth. It's just a matter of how you look at it, that's all."
So begins one of my favorite cinematic reflections on death and dying. If you're not afraid of death, then you haven't ever faced it. And if you haven't faced it, you will, eventually, so a little insightful perspective may someday go a long way. Death is the black void we all eventually slide into, so it's understandable that we share the same gut-gnawing fear. We may learn to accept it philosophically, especially on sunny days when it seems far away, but the anxiety never completely disappears. We're wired to want life, more life, ever more life, and to want it for as long as possible. Death is the end of all that. At best, we can keep the terror at bay by clinging to our myths and fictions, but that's all we're doing.
Jacob's Ladder brilliantly encapsulates the tension between the will's desperate clinging to life, no matter what, and the wisdom of letting go of what can no longer be held. Sometimes going quietly into the night is the best option. Though we don't know it until the end of the movie, most of the film is actually Jacob hallucinating the last moments of his life. The scene below, more than most I've seen, lingered with me afterward, especially when Jacob's real situation was revealed at the end of the film.
Louis, I came to suspect, was one of those angels trying to set Jacob free from the earth. "It's just a matter of how you look at it." Indeed. The scene is as deep and moving as it is understated.
2. Film: The Great Dictator (1940) - The dictator's speech
"We have developed speed, but have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent, and all will be lost."
Charlie Chaplin was the superstar of the silent-film era. But by the 1930s, times were a-changing, and Hollywood was moving toward spoken films. Gifted performer that he was, Chaplin adapted to the new reality and made his first spoken film in 1940. That film was entitled The Great Dictator and marked Chaplin's attempt to satirize Hitler and fascism.
By that time, however, the Nazis were well beyond easy mockery. They were terrifying. Hitler had overrun much of western Europe, including France. America was not yet at war but would be by the end of the next year. The industrial machine of the Holocaust would begin grinding souls just a year later. But those were nightmares still to come when Chaplin's film premiered.
If the comedic tone of such a dark topic is a bit jarring in retrospect, it's because we know of the horrors that would take place over the next five years. Comedy couldn't stop the Nazi steamroller, not even Chaplin's. Thuggish brutality, authoritarian dictatorships, and hateful ideologies do not wither in the face of satire. No, instead, they simply ignore the ridicule if they must, or annihilate it if they can.
One senses that Chaplin realized that a comedy take-down of the Nazis wasn't possible by 1940. Things had gone too far. Something more inspiring was needed, and he delivered. In the film's final five minutes, he stepped out of character and gave a stirring speech in an effort to appeal to our better natures. It became an instant classic, and rightly so because the humanistic themes so eloquently expressed are timeless ones. It's hard to watch this and not feel moved. Chaplin's speech was a beacon of humanity at a time when the world was descending into barbarism.
3. Film: The Grey (2011) - John's final prayer
"DO SOMETHING! COME ON! PROVE IT! FUCK FAITH, EARN IT! SHOW ME SOMETHING REAL! I NEED IT NOW, NOT LATER!
The Grey was a pleasant surprise. I like Liam Neesan's movies, and I enjoy Man vs. Nature survival tales. What I didn't expect was such a dark and moody experience. Suicide, depression, loss, courage, tenacity, and some uncomfortable metaphysics, all of these get packed into this brooding film.
The premise is simple: A group of oil rig workers struggling to survive in the wilderness after a plane crash in the middle of the Alaskan winter. Neesan's character, the grieving and wounded John Ottway, leads the survivors away from the crash site in an attempt to find rescue. However, the brutal weather, infighting, and attacks by a relentless pack of wolves slowly whittle the group down until only John is left.
I must warn you, this isn't a tale with a happy ending. The Grey is as grimly stark as the frozen landscapes that slowly devour John and his group. As the film progresses, we watch John go from suicidal despair to re-ignited purpose as he fights to keep the group alive, before then drifting back to despair again as this proves impossible. Finally, in the end, he settles on a snarling acceptance of the natural world as it is: that is, a brutal place utterly indifferent to human goals.
In the amazing scene below. John, now the last man standing and at the end of his rope, both physically and psychologically, finally breaks down and cries out to God for help, only to get one last, bitter dose of disillusion. God is not coming to save him. God was never coming to save him. As John stares up at the gray and silent sky, he realizes the idea of God is the most heartbreaking of illusions in a life full of them. He wearily understands that if he can't save himself, no one will.
"Fuck it...I'll do it myself."
4. Film: 1984 (1984): O'Brien Explains Power
"Power is tearing human minds apart and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Power is not a means, it is an end."
It's a rare treat when a great book is translated into an equally great film, and that's most certainly the case with the 1984 version of George Orwell's eponymous classic which starred John Hurt as Winston and Richard Burton as the malevolent O'Brien.
The scene below is one of my favorites from the book, and also one of the most unsettling. What we get from Orwell's chillingly charismatic villain O'Brien is a philosophy of raw power. Power for its own sake is all that matters. Power and the ability to inflict pain and suffering are what turn the wheels of history. Power gets to define reality, whether 2+2 = 5, or not, or whether Oceania has always been at war with East Asia, or Eurasia, or neither.
What we saw in the first half of the novel, Winston's gradual awakening, his falling in love and the tentative discovery of his inner self; all of these are ground to dust when confronted by the logic of the totalitarian state. Winston tries feebly to fight back, but he's no match. O'Brien is diabolical evil, but he's also smarter, better informed, more articulate, and most important, he's in control of the dial used to electroshock Winston. He has all the power, so he gets to define Winston's reality. And so he does. O'Brien easily swats away Winston's feeble protestations that good somehow is destined to triumph over evil, or that some vague "Spirit of Man" will liberate the world from the totalitarian horror of Ingsoc. Impossible, O'Brien scoffs, that will never happen. And in the dystopia that Orwell has conjured, this feels like the one truth in a world built on lies.
In many ways, Orwell's dark vision is the antithesis of Chaplin's, though they both were trying to shine a light into the darkness. Chaplin's light inspires us to build a better world where all can prosper. Here is that elusive "Spirit of Man" Winston was groping for. I feel uplifted when listening to Chaplin's speech. Orwell wants the same thing, but he also wants to reveal the darkness lurking in the human heart. I feel deep unease when reading Orwell's 1984, but that was the point. Why? Because variations of O'Brien's nihilism have existed before and may exist again if we let them. It's worth remembering that. Thanks, Mr. Orwell.
"If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever."
5. Film: Meatballs (1979): Camp Counselor Tripper Harrison's epic motivational speech
"It just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter!"
I'll finish with a more light-hearted video, but one also with an important philosophical message. I grew up in the 80s going to summer camps, and Meatballs was one of my favorites that era's summer camp genre. Murray's over-the-top "it just doesn't matter" speech is one of my first memories of laughing so hard I nearly pissed myself. Meatballs is just a fun movie with many happy memories associated with it.
The message here is to not take things too seriously and never forget to laugh as much as you can because "it just doesn't matter...it just doesn't matter."
And have fun, always have fun, just like Bill Murray clearly was in this scene.
Enjoy, and as always, thanks for reading.