4 Life Lessons from 4 Classic 80’s Movies

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.

4. Gremlins

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.

Everything that Christmas means to me, including electronics and mythological beasts.

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.

It's also about friendship! Scary, hideously disfigured friendship.

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.

2. Labyrinth

Moral – One person has no power over another

By the end of Labyrinth, I am usually completely sold on Jereth.

Not Pictured: David Bowie's Area. But it's there . . . Oh yes. It's there.

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. ”

"And you know what else? THERE IS NO SANTA."

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.

The Princess Bride: Life Lessons, Optimism and the Pit of Despair

On a sidenote: I read that Mandy Patinkin, when he was filming the big swordfight, imagined he was doing battle with the exact form of cancer that killed his father in 1972, which is probably why his acting is so evocative. The line ‘I want my Father, you son of a bitch’ is one of the few in cinema that ALWAYS gives me chills, every time I see the movie. It’s a small moment with huge meaning– Inigo doesn’t rail at the unfairness of losing his father or bitch about it endlessly in some terrible monologue, he just came up with a plan and that single line is the only indicator of the massive sadness he carried with him ever since his world was destroyed.

Everyone knows, or at least knows OF, the Princess Bride. How you feel about it is an entirely different matter, since it’s the kind of charming, straightforward and well-told story in which anyone can find something to like. Finding something to NOT like about it is the kind of thing that kills conversation at a party, tantamount to saying you’re an advocate of dog-fighting or the industrial use of kittens and baby ducks.

'I'm sorry, I cant' hear you over the sound of Westley screaming in anguish. Or, you know, me being awesome.'

To analyze the film is to make a careful truce with oneself about just how objective one can be. Film analysis is an inherently subjective medium–after all, the effects of a film, all the time, money, and most of all creative coordination that go into it are a multi-step process that can’t be reproduced, a fact that studios bank on. Anyone can make a movie, but what are the chances of two filmmakers and their actors and crew making the SAME movie, and having them come out the exact same? Thus is film, like food, an art rather than a science.

Which is a boring way to introduce the fact that most people on earth who have seen the movie like it, and those who haven’t probably would. I’m sure if you showed it in a theater in Shenzen with a decent translator, barring significant cultural and political barriers, most notable of which is the Chinese notion of saving and losing face,  there would be at least some level of appreciation for it.They’d get down to the fight scenes, if only because fight scenes without wires would probably be fascinating and new.

Is the film a crowd-pleaser? Yup. But crowd-pleasing is not always a bad thing. Humans on an evolutionary level enjoy fats in their diet–they are necessary to sustain movement and chemical functions since they are an energy source. If you give a health nut something with fat in it, but don’t tell them there’s fat in it, chances are their brain will tell them ‘you like this!’ on some level, even if they have trained themselves to be turned off to fats. Fats are necessary for survival, especially for hunter-gatherers like primates. Humans on another evolutionary level enjoy swordfights, stories about true love, witty dialogue, monsters, revenge, watching attractive people do things, and feeling smart. There’s no shame in appreciating something that other people appreciate–one thing I have come to loathe these days is the false-elitism of also falsely-jaded pop cultural enthusiasts. Anyone with an opinion and a scathing vocabulary will convince themselves why liking something is wrong and that everyone else is somehow a lesser being for not recognizing the speaker’s innate genius because the movie in question had cheap effects or dated stunts.

But I digress. Part of enjoying a movie you’ve seen before is remembering who you were then, and the experiences ancillary to the actual film.

Vizzini is happy to be anywhere, except a land war in Asia.

My mother, my Aunt Linda and I saw the film at the Cross County 8 theater in West Palm Beach, a theater in a mall that would become a decrepit, half-abandoned shithole I would work at in my teens, where weekday matinee showings were mostly attended by homeless people and prostitutes turning tricks. I remember going home from that fateful showing and telling my Father some of the best jokes, about Inigo urging the Man in Black to hurry up so he can kill him and the Man In Black countering with ‘This isn’t as easy as it looks, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t distract me.’ I used to recreate the swordfights in my backyard with sticks, and when speaking in front of a crowd I ALWAYS have a moment where I imagine I’ll hear that old crone shouting ‘Boo! Boo! Booooooo!’

An observation I read on the IMDB pointed out that Count Rugen visits five wounds on Inigo Montoya, and that when Inigo is exacting his revenge in the climactic swordfight scene, he visits the same five wounds– but no more than that. It’s an interesting observation, and an extremely good character study: a man who has dedicated his life to revenge gives exactly as he got, no more, and since Count Rugen is the most important person in Count Rugen’s life, Inigo kills him. But there’s something I’d like to posit beyond that observation on the 5 wounds–Inigo received the exact same five wounds as he gave the count–two on the face, one in the shoulder, one in the arm, and one in the stomach. He gave Rugen these same wounds – and Rugen died. This is an interesting point because since Inigo ostensibly dedicated his life to finding and killing Rugen, he really shouldn’t have lived past that moment, but he does. Since Inigo has put his life on hold in order to avenge his Father, he has other things he might probably like to do. Open a fencing school, take up piracy (the movie’s suggestion), hell, just take a vacation where he isn’t on the hunt for a six-fingered man. Some day I’d like to make a list of movies that could qualify as Great Movies for Secular Humanists, and this one is definitely going on the list.

On a sidenote: I read that Mandy Patinkin, when he was filming the big swordfight, imagined he was doing battle with the exact form of cancer that killed his father in 1972, which is probably why his acting is so evocative. The line ‘I want my Father back, you son of  a bitch’ is one of the few in cinema that ALWAYS gives me chills, every time I see the movie. It’s a small moment with huge meaning– Inigo doesn’t rail at the unfairness of losing his father or bitch about it endlessly in some terrible monologue, he just came up with a plan and that single line is the only indicator of the massive sadness he carried with him ever since his world was destroyed.

Are there flaws in the film? God, yes. I’m not putting this film on a pedestal as some great example to which all should aspire (although it’d be nice if modern filmmakers paid as much attention to story, character, nuance, ANYTHING besides effects or box office), but as an example by which to be inspired.

Cary Elwes’s simple and indirect love proclamation, ‘As you wish,’ hasn’t lost its ability to melt my heart; Inigo’s plan to find the Man in Black— who might be anywhere on earth– by the end of the day still stirs the blood to action, and Buttercup’s assertion that Westley will come for her no matter what bullshit the Prince gets up to (delivered, notably, while she is wearing blue, the color of loyalty) makes me believe in love, in the ability of two people to mean something more to each other than an alternative to being alone.

There’s just so much to love. From the synth soundtrack to Chris Sarandon’s tights to Vizzini’s maxims for a long life, this is a movie that will never get old for me, or for many in my generation.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

When watching recent films, I can’t help but play armchair casting director: ‘Oo, Woody Harrelson would be great as Jody in Preacher.’ ‘Oo, X actor would be great as the Raven King in Jonathan Strange.’ ‘Oo, she’d be great as Y.’It’s something I can’t stop myself from doing, even though I’ve yet to receive a single call from Hollywood begging me for my opinion. Imagine that.

Pictured: Awesome

Seeing a great film from the past is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, a great film revitalizes the love of cinema, reinvigorates the creative process in the viewer, takes them places they’ve never been, excites the imagination. It can be an unintentional window into the past: a scene where Bogart gets a shave and meticulously looks over his reflection–smoothing his eyebrows, even admiring himself–reveals a self-consciousness that one would NEVER associate with pre-modernist cinema. We tend to think of men from the first half of the 20th as butch through and through: scoffing at self-care. We forget that going out without a hat would be considered remarkable in large cities, and without a shave or with one’s tie loose as just plain gauche.This isn’t some WASP-y ‘everything was better back then’ whitewashing either–most people, no matter their race or socioeconomic standing held themselves to a higher standard than today.

The other side of older films is that everyone’s dead.

When watching recent films, I can’t help but play armchair casting director: ‘Oo, Woody Harrelson would be great as Jody in Preacher.’ ‘Oo, X actor would be great as the Raven King in Jonathan Strange.’ ‘Oo, she’d be great as Y.’It’s something I can’t stop myself from doing, even though I’ve yet to receive a single call from Hollywood begging me for my opinion. Imagine that.

With an older film, the possibilities are over. There’s nothing more for the actors to do, because they’re done. They’ve usually done some great things, created performances or films that stand the test of time and are still taught or discussed today: indeed, this film has been an inspiration to countless directors of today, everyone from Spielberg to Joss Whedon.(Notable exceptions to this would be the Tales from the Crypt episode in which Bogie was CG’d in–which sounds like a trainwreck unless you’ve seen the episode, which was actually well-done and quite tasteful!)

Which leads me to my next point: in a truly great film like this, there’s little else going on in my head BUT the film. Sierra Madre is a brilliant, classic piece of American cinema, and it was made in an era when films were few and far between–in short, when films were meant to be watched, rather than act as a tax write-off or get a studio out of the red. I am not saying no films then were crapped out by studios or made only to make money, but the reason Sierra Madre has continued to stand the test of time is because it’s just a GREAT GODDAMN MOVIE. Films made nowadays are made with the assumption that the viewer is only half-watching–their mind is partly occupied with the film, and partly occupied with everything else going on in their lives. Sex, feelings of social, physical, economic or sexual inadequacy, subtexts, institutional prejudices, product placement: all are things modern audiences AND filmmakers distract themselves with when making a film.

Postmodernism and the search for subtext can kill a film–not that films don’t need subtextual analysis, after all, the search for truth in art is a basic human need, and will never go away. But when the guts of something are all a person considers, it can be easy to forget the original something’s form, forget its beauty and grace, forget why we fell in love with it in the first place.