Everything I Need to Know About Life, I Learned at the Movies

In honour of the 2011 Oscar race, officially launched on 24 January and due to conclude on 27 February, each of the 5 intervening weeks will see an additional, mid-week post about… the movies! Herewith, Week #1.

Never get involved in a land war in Asia: it’s one of the classic blunders.

Time is not important. Only life is important.

K-Mart sucks.

Most of what I know about life I learned at the movies, or most of what I know that I know. Thanks to screenwriters and their memorable lines and situations, the movies help me grasp their lessons, from reminders about not giving up (You get what you settle for, according to Thelma & Louise), to advice on how to treat other people (Be excellent to each other, Bill & Ted told me), to reassurance about treating myself sometimes (it’s OK if I just want it the way I want it, as Harry & Sally pointed out).

I’ve heard of people who don’t like movies because they aren’t real. What’s with that? The lack of reality is part of their charm, allowing us to escape from our problems for a little while. But the movies are real enough, true enough to life, that we can also use them to get some perspective on our problems.

No matter what we’re facing, it’s been done before and done bigger in the movies.

Like most people, I find that my problems center around, well, the other people in my life. I get distressed when my colleagues don’t work and play nicely together. But my problems are nothing compared to poor Sam Spade’s in The Maltese Falcon. When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. And if that “something” means surrendering the murderess to the police, even though you’re crazy about her, well, that’s just too bad. I’m sending you over, Angel. Bummer.

People problems come in more subtle shades too. As men and women work together in new environments, problems often arise with different expectations. While we’re all trying to play the same game, we’re not always playing by the same rules. Sometimes it seems like those around us are in A League of Their Own: it sure did to the irascible Jimmie Dugan. Are you crying? There’s no crying. There’s no crying in baseball.

When it isn’t people giving me grief, it’s machines. How can the photocopier and my computer malfunction? Let me count the ways. As products of the human imagination, machines seem blessed with a full measure of human perversity and a singular disinterest in negotiating. When I’m faced with a totally unresponsive machine, I try to remember just how bad it could be. Open the pod bay doors, Hal. Back in 2001, Dr. Dave Bowman thought the HAL 9000 computer would follow his instructions, too. I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that. Now that’s a bad day at the office.

The reason the little things get to us — and they are little things — is that schedule is king. Busy? Of course! Even in the fairytale world of The Princess Bride, folks are pressed to the max. I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to kill, and Gildor to frame for it. I’m swamped. Now don’t I feel silly, complaining about my to-do list when Prince Humperdinck has all that on his plate?

At least what I don’t get done today I can always do tomorrow, and that’s true for most of us. Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today! For Phil Connors, Hell is just one Groundhog Day after another, with endless cold showers and the same episode of Jeopardy.

Tomorrow is important not just for getting caught up, but for the new chance it gives us to make things right. If I can’t be quite as irrepressible as Annie (Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow) then I can at least aspire to Scarlett O’Hara’s determination (Tomorrow’s another day). I can’t imagine what it would be like, living without that hope, but Melvin Udall has already imagined it for me. What if this is As Good As it Gets? Melvin, you make me laugh, but you make me tired too.

Finally, the movies show us that even if we can’t choose our problems, we can choose how we deal with them. Will it be the extravagant whining about Aliens from Pvt Hudson, “We’re toast, man!” or the calm announcement from Jim Lovell as commander of Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem” or something in-between?

Maybe we’ll use humour to defuse our fear, allowing us to take action on our problems, like Roger Murtaugh in all four Lethal Weapon movies. I’m too old for this shit, we’ll cry, as we take a running if metaphorical leap off the roof of the burning building.

Maybe we’ll follow Dr. Venkman’s example and maintain our enthusiasm when things are uncertain or even dangerous. I love this plan: I’m excited to be a part of it. If the Ghostbusters can do it, so can we.

Or maybe we’ll just hang onto hope. That’s OK. As the Shawshank Redemption’s Ellis Boyd Redding told us, Hope is a good thing…and no good thing ever dies.

Whichever path we choose, we can be sure that the movies have been there before us, showing the way To infinity and beyond.

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5 Responses to Everything I Need to Know About Life, I Learned at the Movies

  1. Mike Saker says:

    Yikes, I haven’t even seen half of these films let alone search out these life-lessons from them. Some research! You amaze me. My daughter seemed to live by the movies and their lessons and I always poo-poed that. I obviously have been missing something all these years. Ah, for an open mind. Hopefully it’s never too late.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Well, most of these films are now ancient (film) history. I should stop living in the past….

  2. Scott says:

    Love the website! Its almost as good as having a chat with you for a few minutes every day. I’m glad to see someone else shares my love of Bill Murray. Can’t wait for next week. Cheers!

  3. I love redemption movies the best: that a person can change is always a miracle. Gives the rest of us hope. But like TV’s Monk said, “I hate hope.” Still. It’s one of those movie messages that inspires me. I have stopped watching movies where the pretty actors all look bred for the spotlight and are mean to each other, only “connecting” to find diversion.

    What I also learned from the movies is this: If there is a motion-picture camera aimed at you, your lidded coffee cup will be empty, the suitcases you have to carry are also empty — and there is always a parking spot right in front of where you need to go. In the Charlie Chaplin era, the stunt men thought if the camera was rolling, you couldn’t get hurt.

  4. Susan Wright says:

    I agree with Barbara–I won’t watch movies (or TV shows for that matter) that are populated with pretty actors impersonating doctors or detectives because my attention is not on the story line, weak as it is, but rather on the fact that the lady detective is running across a parking lot in high heels.

    I prefer British movies and the classic TV series like Miss Marple, Rosemary & Thyme, Midsomer Murders, etc. where the characters look like real people and the story line moves forward on the strength of the dialogue as opposed to a flippant wisecrack. Maybe I’m just getting cranky and better re-read Isabel’s previous blog!

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