Shut up Mr.Burton! You were not brought upon this world to ‘get it’! snapped Lo Pan in the midst of Big Trouble in Little China. What a relief! Like Jack Burton, I often don’t ‘get it’. Not the world; not life.
But at the movies, at least, I’m in good company. The movies are full of people who don’t get it: not life in general nor their situation in particular. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid could both qualify for lifetime achievement awards for nil situational awareness—from Sundance’s grudging explanation of his reluctance to leap off a cliff into rocky rapids far below: I can’t swim!; to Butch’s misplaced relief that the Pinkerton men aren’t in the Federales force assembling outside: For a moment there, I thought we were in trouble.
Sundance and Butch are extreme examples, but not singular ones. After all, as A Fish Called Wanda’s Wanda (the woman, not the fish, if you follow me) pointed out to Otto, The central message of Buddhism is not: Every man for himself. At a more basic, less philosophical level, some of us are even still fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing, like Ghostbusters’ Dr. Venkman. Inconceivable, you might say (as Vizzini did, repeatedly, in the Princess Bride), but true.
But, as always, the movies do more than show us that we are not alone. They also tell us how to make the most of our lives, despite all this confusion.
Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary. What could be better than Mr. Keating’s advice, whether for young people forming a Dead Poets Society, middle-aged people pondering retirement options, or old people exploring the oddities of advanced age?
Even when our lives take turns that we don’t deserve and can’t control, we still have a choice—we can either get busy living, or get busy dying. For Andy Dufresne, the right choice meant crawling to freedom through a sewer, his own Shawshank Redemption. For Alex Owens, it meant getting several dancers together to ace an audition in Flashdance. But the point here is that both characters followed their dreams. We all have dreams too, be they modest or audacious. But it’s so easy to get trapped in the day-to-day of prison life or exotic dancing and let things slide. While we can’t all be escaped convicts or ballerinas when we grow up, we should all have a Nick Hurley in our lives—the one who reminds us that when you give up your dreams, you die.
What’s that you say? You’re afraid to try to follow your dream? Then follow Yoda’s advice, which he’ll give centuries from now in the middle of a real Star Wars. Try not! Do…or do not. There is no try. Where else but at the movies can you have the benefit of advice that’s simultaneously sound and snippy, and from someone not even born yet?
Yoda is about as close as Hollywood gets to Zen: obscure isn’t usually commercial. But the movies do bring us some Zen-like viewpoints, like Alice Walker’s notion of God’s annoyance when we fail to notice the Color Purple in a field of flowers. And for City Slickers in mid-life crisis, there’s comfort in knowing that we can be someone different, even if just for a day. A cowboy doesn’t leave his herd, insists Ed Furillo as he prepares to lead the cattle across a raging torrent. When Phil Berquist sputters—You’re a sporting goods salesman—Ed has the perfect in-the-moment retort: Not today.
Even if we’re happy to be who we are, every day, we might want help finding our own true path. Of course, we too might need to keep it to ourselves, as the Old Man from the Golden Child warned Chandler Jarrell: Tell no one I have put you on the path. And whether we take on a new self today, follow a new path, or just take the day off to go to a baseball game, in these increasingly hectic times we should remember Ferris Bueller’s advice that Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
Usually we move so quickly that we have trouble stopping or waiting for anything or anybody, even our friends. How ironic that it should be the frenetic Ace Ventura to the rescue with practical advice: If I’m not back in five minutes…wait longer. And after that advice from a boy at heart, we can take some advice from a real-live boy, albeit a chess prodigy like Josh Waitzkin, who spent his youth Searching for Bobby Fisher: Take the draw. Yeah, it’s good to know a generous offer when we see one.
Coming full circle, perhaps Lo Pan’s more considered comment to Jack Burton gives us a perspective we can all use: There are many mysteries, many unanswerable questions, even in a life as short as yours. Life just wouldn’t be the same without some mystery: even I get that. And I learned it at the movies.