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And to give us more questions.
With so many films over the years attempting to deliver a life lesson or an insight into the fundamental secret to our humanity, this is just a brief history which hopefully ends in the ultimate meaning. After all, at least one movie must have gotten right. The first question is where to begin.
At the Beginning
In theory, the best place to search for the secret of life would be at the point where life began. Maybe we could catch a glimpse of the blueprints before they got shuffled out of the room, just in time for mankind to emerge with a few thoughts in his head and a bone or two in his hands. If Stanley Kubrick’s opening to 2001: A Space Odyssey is to be believed, our naked savagery hasn’t changed much since the first day we fought back against the leopards and other predators with tools of our own. “Being eaten by big cats or beating others to death” is sort of a bummer as far as life mantras go (although John Locke is probably comfortable with it), so let’s move on to the lighter side of our birth.
In Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I, the earliest cavemen are seen lighting themselves on fire, peeing on paintings, and inventing music by smashing rocks on people’s heads. Surely this celebration of creation is a better lesson to come out of the primordial ooze. We figured out how to walk upright and use tools so that we could create and so that people could judge those creations on some sort of urination scale. However you feel about that, it’s better than getting eaten all the time.
Of course, he wasn’t there right at the beginning, but Conan the Barbarian had some ancient advice worth considering when it came to the best in life. “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” Not bad, but it still seems pretty violent, especially for those that want more from existence than making women cry.
Who We Are
So searching at the beginning is kind of a bust. It’s so difficult to get an accurate idea of what life was like back then because no one bothered to write it down or take a picture or anything, and the speculation seems to point toward a pretty brutish existence. How can modern humanity compare itself to that? Instead, looking inward might provide a clear image of why we’re here.
Unfortunately, we might not even be who we are. We might be batteries engaged in an elaborate program meant to keep us from knowing reality. If so, it’s probable that we’ll eventually wake up and learn kung fu instantly, but we might also be the stars of a complex reality television show waiting for a television studio light to fall on our heads and clue us in to the prison walls we can’t quite see. So we’ve come out of the cave only to realize we’re not quite sure what the boundaries of the cave are – be they the warm pink goo and certain-feeling reality of The Matrix or the idyllic prison of comfort in The Truman Show.
But skepticism can’t dictate our search entirely. We have to believe in something, to assume that we are more than playthings for a great cosmic trickster (even one wearing a really dumb newsboy cap). Still, both of these films follow the Hero’s Journey format which so many of the best movies anchor themselves to. From Shawshank Redemption to It’s a Wonderful Life to Spirited Away, there’s an element of learning who we are (or defining ourselves for ourselves) and then using that knowledge and power to achieve something important we didn’t think was possible at the start.
Maybe we’re on to something there.
If the secret to life can be found within ourselves, what does the outside world have to do with it? What is our relationship to that big reality out there (assuming it’s real and all)? We obviously affect that world and other people in small ways everyday, but movies give a window into people who seek to change the world on a massive scale. There seem to be two paths: The Bond and the Dr. No.
The Bonds of the world – like Steven Hiller from Independence Day, John McClane and Batman – attempt to save the world. The Dr. Nos – like aliens, German terrorists and The Joker – try to conquer or destroy it. A select few (like Luke Skywalker and Emperor Palpatine) do this on a galactic level. But things can’t be as binary as Good versus Evil. All of these characters have different motivations pushing their actions forward – different ethical bases from which they operate. For some it’s a need for self-preservation or a sense that they are actually fixing the world by changing it.
Still, it’s difficult to see the life lesson from movies as large as these. If good and bad motives are all relative, how can we decide what’s really the right path? Could Palpatine run the universe better than the rebels? And even if there is a clear distinction, how are we supposed to go about saving the world on a daily basis?
Perhaps it’s really better to search outside ourselves at a micro-level, seeing tiny events as monumental. Perhaps it’s through creation and discovery that we find our true meaning. If existential movies like The Fountain and Being John Malkovich are correct, this might be a painstaking process of reconciling the linear with the cyclical alongside the myriad other contradictions we run into each day. Perhaps it’s a struggle to physically comprehend what our place in the world is even if we have a reasonably firm grasp on who we are.
Or maybe, just maybe, we’re better off doomed to repeat one-hundred-thousand years of days in a frozen town waiting for a groundhog to see his shadow in order to figure out what’s been lovingly in front of our face the entire time.
The True Secret to Life
Believe whatever you might. That we’re unknowingly trapped in a world not our making, that we can’t really know ourselves, that we can’t even know the difference between right and wrong in the context of our larger environment. There are too many questions out there, but there’s one movie that answers them all on both an intimate and broad-reaching scale.
That movie is City Slickers.
Why buy this as the answer? Because it was delivered by a leather-skinned romantic who has lived more life than all of us combined, and it was confirmed by a weak-willed baseball fan who helps birth a baby cow. Descartes, Plato and Pierce can all be tossed out. Curly’s finger is right.
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