“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The realist adjusts the sails.” — W. A. Ward
It’s been a seemingly never-ending downpour of bad things, hasn’t it? In the middle of the chaos, we can’t see the calm on the other side—the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. But it doesn’t mean it’s not there. What drives us forward is hope.
The line between hope and faith is that hope isn’t entirely blind. Hope sees the faults. It understands the circumstances. Despite all that, hope sees the potential for change and believes it can happen. To hope is to accept the “spaciousness” of uncertainty and see it as “room” to act, as Rebecca Solnit puts it in her book, “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.”
Hope is a pre-requisite for progress, from our everyday accomplishments to watershed moments of activism on a larger scale. It’s easy to become discouraged when change doesn’t immediately occur. The future in all of its promise intertwined with the faults of our past overwhelms us.
It’s easy to slip and fall into despair. It’s hard to catch yourself and get back up. What follows are 10 movies that are about gritting your teeth through the pain and getting back up. Not from the point of view of a pessimist or an optimist, but a realist.
“Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naiveté.” — Maria Popova
Kindness begets kindness. Doing the “right” thing by one’s own moral compass is often the hardest thing to do, but it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t still try to do the good they can while they still can. Even if that means the results aren’t visible. Even if that means having to willfully take on pain. We inspire each other. We build each other up by accepting the faults of others and believing each other in becoming better.
Paddington bear (Ben Whishaw) does this for everyone in Windsor Gardens by following the mantra, “If we are polite and kind, the world will be right,” and this extends beyond his neighborhood in the sequel. Over the course of the movie, Paddington helps make the prison he ends up in a kinder place with an emphasis on rehabilitation instead of incarceration.
Paddington is polite and kind, even when things seem dire without the expectation of a reward. This kindness is paid forward by everyone pitching in to help Aunt Lucy travel from Peru to visit Paddington in London. It’s unconditional, unabashed empathy and love at its finest.
Akira Kurosawa wrote in his insightful collection of memoirs “Something Like an Autobiography” that he believed human life everywhere has a light exterior that hides a dark underside. Rashomon was written by Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto, directed by Kurosawa, and based on the short story “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.
A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a priest (Tabi Hōshi), and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) sit beneath the massive Rashōmon city gate and recount a disturbing tale while watching a torrential storm. The gate that towers above them represents the vast and utterly broken system we all reside in while the storm all around them symbolizes the disturbing things we have a tendency to shy away from. The shelter they take from the rain is hope.
The disturbing tale involving the bandit (Toshiro Mifune), the wife (Machiko Kyō), and the samurai (Masayuki Mori) that is unfurled by the group is ambiguous. It’s dipped in many shades of grays instead of a clearly defined black and white contrast. But no matter the interpretation, there are disturbing things in the story. Having hope does not preclude one from accepting the dark underside of humanity, but rather doing what we can to perpetuate the light in spite of this darkness.
To be a humanist isn’t to deny the awful things humanity is capable of but believing we can do better while knowing uncomfortable truths. The storm will pass. We are still here and there is still hope.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
In the darkest chapter yet of the Skywalker saga, we see a Galaxy Far, Far Away tremble in despair and all of our heroes grapple with being pieces in an utterly vast and broken system.
There is no feasible way Leia (Carrie Fisher), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), and the rest of the Resistance forces can make the entire Galaxy just and fair. The morality of the conflict is dipped in grays in an earnest depiction of war and classism with the inclusion of Canto Bight.
Make no mistake, the First Order are fascists and my heart will always be one with the Rebels. But the feeling of despair in the face of a tyrannical force within an unfair system is as timely as ever.
What should we do? What can we do? The Last Jedi depicts three paths: 1) Do what you can and take it little by little within the system without letting the big picture overwhelm you, 2) Destroy the system and everything inside of it without discretion, or 3) Give up and leave the system for good. Luke (Mark Hamill) has already chosen #3, being inundated by the failings of the Jedi and the guilt of his own failures. Poe, Rey, Rose & Finn in separate arcs that ultimately converge choose #1. And Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has chosen the harsh and ugly #2, pleading with Rey to join him on his path of destruction to no avail. Ren and Rey both have trauma and cope with it in different ways, the tragedy being that it’s what inevitably divides them.
Luke’s final stand via Force Projection on Crait allows for what is left of the Resistance to escape, for the Galaxy to have a much-needed spark of hope, for the Jedi to continue in a new permutation with Rey, and for Skywalker to punk Kylo Ren very hard. It’s an ingenious move that allows for Luke to die on his own terms and accomplish far more than if he had actually shown up to die on Crait. And with that moment, The Last Jedi reaffirms a truth: Sacrifice is done with a purpose to help others; throwing your life away with abandonment is performative and isn’t heroic.
The Force is with ALL of us, for it is the very thing that binds the Galaxy together, and the parting shot of the boy on Canto Bight looking to the stars with hope is a perfect note to end on. Even in the darkest of times when we can’t see it, hope is what propels us forward.
Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow Episode One and Episode Two
Episode One of Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow is about a clone named Emily (Julia Pott) visiting a young girl named Emily (Winona Mae)—called “Emily Prime”—who is the start of the clone’s genetic line. What follows is a meditative odyssey about mindfulness and our expectations versus reality. Our vision of the future in the science-fiction genre was collectively a utopia and it transformed into a dystopia. Our unfettered optimism sank into a mire of pessimism.
The clone of Emily visits Emily Prime because she wants a memory to comfort her as the Earth faces a cataclysmic event. She offers this wisdom before sending Emily Prime back to her own time, ”Live well and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all of the dead.”
Episode Two features an older but still young Emily Prime (Winona Mae) visited by an Emily backup clone (Julia Pott) from a distant future after the apocalyptic event in Episode One. The backup clone’s mind is failing and she wishes to have her brain wiped clean and replaced by Emily Prime’s mind.
What follows is an odyssey propelled through the clone’s mind. We see her dreams, glimpses of her life in a dystopic future, and the small ways she retains a sense of identity. No matter how distant and grim our future becomes, there is hope. It may be reduced to tiny glimmers trapped under a bog of realism, but it is still there.
Mad Max: Fury Road
The story behind the making of Fury Road is just as compelling as the story depicted in it, for they’re both about one thing: HOPE. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome was released in 1985. George Miller conceived of a fourth film in the post-apocalyptic Wasteland in 1998, and a circuitous journey began from that moment until Fury Road’s theatrical release in 2015. Making the movie materialize required many starts and stops along the way, and yes, hope. I could write thousands of words about why I adore Fury Road. Every time I watch it, I find more to love.
The heart of the movie is Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and Max (Tom Hardy) bonding through their redemptive arcs. Both are shells of their past selves in a world wherein the apocalypse already happened. There’s nothing that can undo it. Nothing that can fix what’s broken. So does that mean hope is a “mistake” as Max says to Furiosa before the climactic final act? No. We have to start somewhere.
After the “Green Place,” the very thing giving Furiosa and her convoy hope, turns out to no longer exist, she sets up a convoy with the Vuvalini clan with the intention to make it across a vast terrain of salt. She hopes to run away and escape Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) pursuit with 160 days of fuel and supplies. Max stays behind and as he watches them disappear into the white of the salt, he sees a vision of Glory (Coco Jack Gillies), a young girl from his past who he could not save.
Max understands that he was wrong. Hope is not a mistake. He intercepts Furiosa and company and suggests a new plan: Go back to the Citadel and usurp Immortan Joe’s hold on it. The idea is met with skepticism, but as the scene plays out, we can see and feel the hope wash over the convoy. The plan is wild, but it might just work.
Max posits, “Look… it’ll be a hard day, but I guarantee you that 160 days ride that way…” he points toward the vast land ahead of them and shakes his head, “There’s nothing but salt.” Max points to the way behind them and offers, “At least that way, you know, we might be able to… together come across some kind of redemption.” And they do.
A fascist empire creates disarray and puts all it subjugates in a state of perpetual fear through force and by convincing everyone that the only way to keep the chaos at bay is by abetting the fascism. You have to show everyone there’s another way. The fire won’t burn unless we give it everything it needs. Apathy most assuredly isn’t one of those things. No attempt we make will be perfect and that’s okay. That’s why we learn and try again.
Fury Road ends on a perfect, triumphant note: Furiosa and the convoy restoring a sense of balance to the Citadel and Max departing into the Wasteland to make his own way. As the movie’s end quote says, “Where must we go… we who wander this Wasteland in search of our better selves?”
Wings of Desire
1987. The Berlin wall is still standing. It’s a time of dissension with change happening in tiny increments until the inevitable watershed moment of demolishing the wall and reunification of Germany. Two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), are tasked with observing and documenting life in Berlin. They’re immortal beings and yet Damiel longs to become mortal.
Desire is an essential component of hope. We must first want something in order for velleity to become a tangible goal we accomplish. At times we can disengage and feel as if we’re observings ourselves going through the motions. Mindfulness–focusing on our senses in a moment–is a way we can re-engage with our surroundings and be present.
The key is the senses; being able to feel as much as one can. Spending an inordinate amount of time being mindful of the present as an outsider is not equivalent to being mindful while being alive in each moment. A barrier–perhaps an invisible wall–separates Damiel from the mortal beings he observes. Damiel takes the plunge down to being a mortal, but Cassiel remains an angel up above.
For the first time, Damiel bleeds, sees the world in a full spectrum of color, and drinks a hot cup of coffee. He focuses on each detail and we can see the gamut of life fill him with joy. We mere mortals do not ask to be born. We all have a lifetime, the length of which varies for each of us. To hope is to accept that life is a spectrum of experiences and that we can not appreciate the good without the bad.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and Vol. 2
Both Guardians of the Galaxy movies helped me come back from a dark place. I relate in more ways to those a-holes than you’ll ever know.
Each character—except for Groot (Vin Diesel) who is the purest of all beings in the entire universe—carries trauma. Quill (Chris Pratt) watched his mother die from cancer and was kidnapped from Earth by Yondu (Michael Rooker). Gamora (Zoe Saldana) was kidnapped from her family and raised by the despotic Thanos (Josh Brolin). Drax (Dave Bautista) lost his family to Ronan (Lee Pace) and has left a path of destruction in pursuit of his revenge. Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) was torn apart and put together again over an over, and lives with the existential dread of not asking to have been created yet being perpetually judged for it.
Both Guardians Volume 1 and 2 are about trauma. Coping with it is a process. Trauma doesn’t have to define you, but the more you run from it and try to suppress it, the more painful and debilitating it tends to be. We don’t have to go it alone. Together, we can process the past and hope for a better future while being present in the now. It’s a journey lined with setbacks and we have to be patient with ourselves and others struggling.
Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t only about stopping the “bad guy.” It’s about a group of flawed characters becoming better thanks to each other. It’s about overcoming your baggage to give a shit enough to save the day, which can the hardest thing, but it doesn’t have to be done alone.
Twin Peaks: The Return
Okay. So Twin Peaks: The Return isn’t a feature-length movie. It’s an 18-hour movie which premiered on Showtime and is one of the finest stories of 2017, the decade, and perhaps beyond. There was nothing else like Twin Peaks during its original broadcast and—lo and behold—there is nothing else like The Return.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was co-written and directed by David Lynch because he couldn’t let go of Laura Palmer and the world of the original series but without the collaborative efforts of Mark Frost. And yet Fire Walk With Me is a bridge between the original series and The Return. Lynch & Frost explore how the world has changed in the interim. It’s dark and bizarre, and there’s an inexorable draw to seeing the immutable effect of time on the town of Twin Peaks and the people who inhabit it. Death is inevitable. Letting go is necessary. This does not make it any easier for us.
Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) remains in the Black Lodge for 25 years while his doppelganger wreaks havoc in the real world. A major pillar of the series is Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and the inexplicable obsession we have with the mystery of her death, even long after the original series revealed the killer. Lynch & Frost address this obsession by ultimately undoing her death with Agent Dale Cooper traveling back in time and saving her from that fateful night.
The central narrative of The Return is Judy vs. The Fireman. Evil vs. Good. Dark vs. Light. It’s the oldest story.
Even in the darkest of times, it is okay to hope. Even if that means waiting in limbo for 25 years. Following The Fireman’s plan, Cooper and Laura quell Judy, but the ending is abrupt and unnerving. It’s fitting, really, as life is cyclical and there are many stones in our own lives that will always be left unturned. Even so, it is braver to hope in the face of uncertainty than to wallow in despair. To live is a victory.
“Life in the face of its pain is the ultimate revolt.” — Albert Camus