Every culture in the world will eventually produce a set of maxims for behavior; from the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, to the doctrines of Thomas Aquinas, to basic Internet Etiquette, there are morals and suggestions for human interaction everywhere–you could trip over them and someone would be there to tell you what you did wrong.
While drunkenly sobbing at the end of The Princess Bride, our previous entry, I realized that a set of films I’ve grown up with contained some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten when it comes to life.
Moral – Follow the Rules
“When an old Chinese man tells you to do something, you better by god do it.”
As Americans, we value rugged individualism. We carved this country into existence with our will, with guns, with good old fashioned gumption, and without any shame when it came to screwing over someone else.
So when some old Chinese guy tells Rand Peltzer The Rules:
1. Do not Expose to Sunlight
2. Do not Get Wet
3. DO NOT Feed After Midnight
. . . it’s understandable the old fellow takes them to be foolish superstition rather than anything worth listening to. It’s worth noting that Peltzer is an inventor–after all, America was built on individuals with the courage to challenge the status quo, to ignore boring old tradition, to invent ashtrays that allowed assholes to smoke anywhere they want!
The funny thing is, this is a much more clever metaphor than you think at first, and also an apt observation on the American mindset: after all, we have a tendency to think that no on in earth’s history has ever dealt with the things we have. Civil rights? NO ONE EVER has thought about that–certainly not the Persian empire upon ruling their conquered subjects. Some people are GAY? That’s never happened before and we as Americans are the only ones who accept that this strange new thing exists–let alone are trying to legislate it. An argument concerning a strong federal government versus states’ rights? NEVER! NEVER ANYWHERE!
With all the knowledge available in the world, especially now, it’s incredibly easy to study history in order to prevent its repetition. After all, making the herculean leap that someone else MIGHT know a little more than you about something can be surprisingly interesting. Does that mean following the rules is always the right thing to do? No, as we learn when Billy exposes the marauding Gremlins to light in order to save the town. Breaking the rules about sunlight turns out to have been the right thing to do. Now if only they’d followed the goddamn rules in the first place.
3. The Goonies
Moral – You have to grow up some time.
Ahh, the Goonies. If there’s a better movie to watch while eating pizza, drinking soda (or beer, or both!) and eating ice cream, it’s probably in my Instant Watch queueueueu.
The truffle shuffle, Data’s gadgets, Mouth’s sassy Spanish harassment of a terrified housekeeper, the whole shebang. It’s a glorious romp about childhood, adventure, fun, and saying ‘shit’ in a PG movie.
But the meat of the matter (not Chunk) is that at some point, kids have to stop being kids.
Mikey’s speech is a deliciously syllogistic call to arms for kids: ‘Down here it’s our time. It’s our time down here!’ he cries as he attempts to rally his group of misfits into searching for the lost pirate treasure rather than going home to safety and being separated. Their parents have always done everything for them, and now it’s time to do something for them. It’s a cracked window into adulthood, coming at a time when a young person may still be able to slide the pane closed and turn back to childhood.
I have several friends who, now in their late twenties and early thirties, are living the truth of this. Parents age, they become sick, and eventually, they will cease to be. Parents take care of kids (hopefully–an afternoon at the mall sometimes destroys all hope of civilization’s future) and after the kids are grown and out of the house, they take care of their parents.
Of course there are other meanings, other ways in which we grow up. People have kids, buy houses, cars, start businesses, get promotions, and all of that is great but comes with a cost– their kids aren’t copies of themselves and there’s a generation gap, their houses lose value or are lost in a disaster, their business fails, they get overlooked for promotions in favor of the boss’s son or daughter. Joy and sorrow, triumph and failure–it’s all a part of life. For a single moment in a movie over 20 years old, we all had a glimpse into that frightening world, and then it was back to wacky antics and slapstick.
Moral – One person has no power over another
By the end of Labyrinth, I am usually completely sold on Jereth.
Though he puts Sarah through hell, endangers her baby brother, and probably wreaked a number on the Ozone layer after the application of all that Aqua Net, I am ALWAYS cheering and waving a little flag that reads ‘DO HIM!’ by the end.
But I digress.
Sarah, as young girl, is just beginning on the path to adulthood–part of which is negotiating the Throbbing, Moist, Thrusting Swamp of Sexuality, the set of which was probably too expensive to build. That’s the reason I’m guessing anyway.
Part of making it through that wilderness, oh yes she made it throoooogh, is learning how much of oneself to give to the other in a relationship. It’s about learning how to say ‘No’ to someone that you’ve trusted enough to experience those first steps of physical intimacy, which can be downright terrifying. It’s about learning that crucial difference between wanting someone and needing someone.
There’s a huge amount of pressure on young people to conform to societal standards, especially when it comes to sexual interactions. Sarah’s refusal to accept Jereth’s invitation of taking part in what seems like a dysfunctional relationship is a great example for people, male or female, about relationships. If it isn’t about equals, it’s about power, and there’s enough bullshit in the world concerning that.
1. The Princess Bride
Moral – Life is Pain
At 8 years old the first time I saw TPB, there was a lot to be afraid of: the shrieking eels, the ROUSs, Inigo’s wounds at the end of the movie (I thought he was going to die–HELLO TRAUMA), and the Grandfather’s taking a moment (just as happens in the book) to warn the viewer that Some of The Wrong People Die. But the moment that really stopped my tiny, sheltered heart was the Man In Black’s cruel words to Buttercup about the death of her beloved Westley: “Life Is Pain. Anyone who says something different is selling something. ”
The Man in Black has no reason to lie to her, at this moment. In a way, he did kill Westley, as the innocent farmboy she knew is gone, replaced by a fierce, dangerous man of action.
This simple assertion by the pirate that life isn’t fair almost seems like a stupid thing to say to Buttercup–after all, she fell in love with a young man who immediately was murdered by pirates (in the book, it’s clear he’s gone out to make a place for himself in the world, after which he’ll send for her–not exactly a paragon of Women’s Lib, but it is what it is) and then she was chosen to marry and bear children for Prince Humperdinck against her will. She knows full well that shit happens, yet when he barks that line at her, it’s immediately clear that she was hoping for some form of rescue, of fairness in her fate. Essentially, though shitty things have happened to her, she’s still the heroine of the fairy tale until that line breaks through–now she understands the reality of the situation, that this is no fairy tale, that she very well might die.
The moral of this story is that whatever expectations you have, be they low or high, things won’t always be pleasant, and they certainly won’t be fair. Expecting life to be fair is ridiculous, but hoping for it to be is an entirely different matter. It’s hope, after all, that makes life worth living.
So what are the deep, philosophical meanings behind this?
I’m no Existentialist– when asked ‘Why?’, I reply ‘Because.’ People exist on this planet because of a marvelously complex series of absolute coincidences, a series of events so random that the math to quantify it barely exists. And yet we are.
I’ve always found stories, in the form of books, history and movies, a helpful way to understand the world–seeing the reproduction in an art form, as simplified or unrealistic as it is, can sometimes help in dealing with the incredibly abstract reality. Obviously this isn’t the only way to view the world, but it helps.