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.
Oddly enough, I noticed a lot of 80’s movies had such maxims, and have been collecting them and posting them as I think of them. The first part of the list can be found here.
4. The Secret of Nimh – ‘Crying doesn’t solve anything.’
Mrs. Brisby has some serious problems.
Her husband was recently killed in an accident, one of her three children is desperately ill, and she needs to move her family (including her house) to a new location, otherwise they will be crushed by the farmer’s tractor when it is time to harrow the field they live in.
Lady has a lot on her mind.
So when the tractor starts up unexpectedly, she and her friend Auntie Shrew (who I always thought of as one hardass bitch–she either had some messed up stuff happen in her life or did some time in Vermin Jail), who are both about the size of a lemon, take it on.
A mouse and a shrew take on a tractor.
While all the other animals in the field are hauling ass from the path of the tractor, Mrs. Brisby and the shrew are running towards it, screaming warnings. They reach the tractor, clamber up a loose chain, and begin scrambling about its interior in search of a way to shut it down. Brisby, faced with the prospect of falling into the churned earth the harrow blade turns up, shuts down, and can only cling to the tractor and shake. The Shrew winds up tearing out a crucial hose (oil?) and the tractor shuts down.
Later, as the two gather their wits in the high grass, Brisby breaks down crying over the ordeal, but also the recent traumas she’s faced.
Coldly, almost hatefully, the Shrew snarls at her to “Stop it.”
The Shrew is disgusted, not by the display, but because Brisby doesn’t have the luxury of being selfish right now, of thinking about her woes and weeping. She needs to get her shit together and figure out how she’s going to save her children–when Brisby plaintively weeps ‘I wish Jonathan [her husband] was here’ you get a sense that Brisby was overly reliant on him, that he would have figured something out himself, saving her the trouble. She wants to be taken care of again, to have someone else fix her problems, and she doesn’t have that option anymore–it’s up to her.
Brisby is now a single mother. The rest of the movie consists of her learning how strong she truly is, as she faces terrifying creatures and learns to trust herself to do the right thing. I can’t think of another movie in recent years that so elegantly explores the plight of a single parent and all that it entails. Not a children’s movie about talking mice, anyway.
3. Legend – ‘Trust People.’
With all the fantasy trappings surrounding Legend–unicorns, goblins, fairies, pixies, wild boys in shorts, princesses, giant castles, monsters, and a certain giant red campy fellow–it’s easy to lose sight of what the film is really about: trusting people.
Jack is a recluse, living in the woods with his animal friends and relaxed dress code. There’s a reason he’s there and not in the city, and it isn’t to save money on production costs–he’s a hermit, he doesn’t trust people. Only Lily, a spoiled Princess, can get close to him.
Which is why, when Jack takes Lily to see the unicorns and she ignores him, breaking a major rule and actually TOUCHING ONE, he loses his trust in her. He doesn’t know that the reason the unicorn freaked out was due to the goblins’ poisoned dart, or anything about the machinations of Darkness and his goblins. He thinks that Lily touching the unicorn is what ruined everyone’s day.
So though he spends the rest of the movie trying to make right what happened, and save her, it is also about him remembering to trust her, no matter what she’s done or how she’s changed. Remember, when he left her, she was all ‘Disney Princess Barbie,’ with the smiles and the charm and the giggling. When he finds her again, she looks like this:
Since he dumped her, she’s been rooming and sharing clothes and makeup tips with Klaus Nomi Darkness, a red-skinned fellow with an infectious laugh and an even more relaxed dress code than Jack. They’re kind of like Mickey and Donald–Mickey (Darkness) wears pants, and Donald (Jack) wears a shirt–together they make a whole outfit.
Anyhoo, when Jack has to make his choice, he’s got a bunch of fairies yelling in his ear that Lily can’t be trusted, that she’s changed. His faith in her is an illustration of the pure goodness alluded to in the rest of the film–after all, being good means being good ALL the time, not getting to pick and choose when you follow the rules–the fairies hearts’ were in the right place but they don’t know everything, as is established earlier by Gump not being aware of Oona’s secret. Jack trusts Lily–and the day is saved.
2. The Burbs – Idle Hands are the Devil’s Playthings
I miss the comedy films of Tom Hanks.
I haven’t seen too many of his dramas the last five years or so–no particular reason other than I already see more than enough dramas and have no interest in Dan Brown’s books.
But one upon a time, he made comedies. Fantastic, creative comedies the likes of which aren’t made anymore because of the lack of fart jokes and horrible people in them. Hanks took a middling comedy and elevated it to hilarity.
The Burbs is a comedy about a man who decides to spend his vacation lying around the house, drinking beer with friends and speculating on the new neightbors who have just moved in. He wants to garden, to vegetate, to putter, to wear his pajamas all day and relax.
But his bucolic rest is interrupted when he and his buddies begin inflating the importance of neighborhood events into something sinister–a missing neighbor, an errant toupee, the new neighbors digging in the backyard during a rainstorm in the middle of the night… conclusions are drawn and plans are made.
The lesson here (although it turns out that the neighbors WERE up to something unsavory) is that boredom can lead to invention the same way necessity can, the difference being that being bored usually gets people into trouble–boredom in a relationship can lead to cheating, boredom with a job leads to dissatisfaction and doing it half-assed, boredom with your life breeds a need for escapism.
Not only that, but The Burbs were one of those early movies that had the courage to suggest that maybe the good old days..weren’t so good? Like No Country For Old Men, it dared to present the idea that rose-colored glasses were a pretty poor medium for viewing the past.
1. The Neverending Story – When You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going.
This is the big one for me.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from The Neverending Story–about following your dreams, about courage, about trusting people–but the one that always, always, always jumps out at me when I am watching it is that no matter how shitty things get, you have to keep going.
Depression is a pervasive illness many people don’t realize they have. It’s insidious, it creeps in and ruins your good times, pushes you away from happiness, makes you hurt others (this numbness, where the things you usually enjoy bring no pleasure, is known as ‘anhedonia’) . Many people think of depression as being sad for a time, as a period with a fixed beginning and ending. Depression is not being ‘down in the dumps,’ it’s a chemical imbalance that can become more or less pronounced, but never really goes away. It can be medicated, and combated with therapy, but at best you will learn how to manage it and live with it.
Enter the nefarious scene with Artax the horse–Atreyu tries to drag the horse bodily out of the swamps of sadness, and when the latter won’t move he becomes angry, screaming, insulting the horse, then just pleading and begging as the horse sinks deeper into the black muck. ‘Move, please,’ still brings tears to my eyes, every time I hear that barely-teenaged boy’s voice.
There is no saving Artax. He has reached his limit, and will not be moved. Atreyu can’t save his horse, because Artax doesn’t want to save himself–and when someone loses the will to live, even after the intervention of their friends and family, there’s little that will drag them back.
It’s a scene that doesn’t get the cinematic respect it should–I mean, the movie isn’t Schindler’s List, but it’s no Battlefield: Earth, either. It’s a moving metaphor for depression: after all, it’s easy to stop moving, but sometimes nearly impossible to get going again.
More than anything else, depression is what happens when you forget the feeling of joy, of hope. Remembering it, rediscovering that warmth and happiness, can be one of the most rewarding moments in your life, but my god, getting there can be an uphill battle.