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Random thoughts and a movie review

Back in December I saw a movie and now, in February I will tell you about it. We were in Pennsylvania on vacation, there was one movie theater with four movies and the choices were not great. I don't remember them except "The pursuit of happyness" and both Lincoln and I were not thrilled about seeing that one. Did you see the previews with the father and child sleeping in the public restroom? Having children has completely robbed us of the ability to see movies that "face the grim truth" or are "distrubingly real" or are "showing the gritty reality" or are of the "really real reality" variety. If on top of that children are involved - forget it, we cannot separate our real feelings from the empathy we are supposed to feel for the fictional characters. It's a thing your brain does and there's nothing you can do. So what did we do? We saw the movie.

It went as expected (I almost cried, Lincoln almost didn't cry), but not entirely. What I expected to be a very sad and depressing movie was actually very uplifting as the story was told honestly but with very little manipulation. The reality of it wasn't brutally shoved in your face nor was it glossed over. The script follows a memoir by Chris Gardner, who in the 1980s decides to fix his more than dire financial situation by starting an unpaid stock broker internship, which would be a boring story if he didn't have a five-year-old son to take care of (the mother is out of the picture pretty early in the story). In the two hours we see the father struggle from one enormous problem to the next, trying not to panic when he has to move from his apartment to a motel to a shelter to the street and at the same time trying to maintain some sort of stability for his son. I was completely taken in by this tension: On one side the feeling of enormous responsibility, the worry for your child's wellbeing, the fear, the struggle to maintain yourself above water - all of it enough stress to make you combust at the end of every day - on the other side the commitment to always uphold some type of normalcy for your child, to be the anchor and the home, the one thing your child can lean on every night. There is no room to breathe, no moment to let go, there is only one way out and it's forward and there is no time to stop. I have never had to struggle for survival this way but I still found myself completely represented in this situation. It is one of the best movies about parenting I have seen in a long time.

There are many ways to realize the value of life, but I believe becoming a parent will give you a pretty quick shortcut to that realization. So many lessons your parents taught you become clear - not that you didn't understand them before, but you didn't know the weight of it. Seeing your life completely owned by another (so tiny) person shows you what it means to be really invested and consequently shows you that all the little things you do matter in a whole different way. You create the world for this person, it's in your hands entirely.

Another thing I really liked in the movie is how the father stays on the right side of the law at all times. I'm not sure if it's just the reflection of the general quality of this man or if it's a consequence of having to be a role model at all times even when one could easily be justified for stealing a piece of food. And this is the thing: So many movies present the protagonists immorality not as a weakness but as "the only possible way" because nobody could expect him to stay moral given the terribly difficult circumstances. We are supposed to feel relieved, comforted, that really, no human being could be expected to be good, we are all so flawed, we are so human, it's all a gray area, nobody knows, we are all just figuring things out, we did what we could bla bla bla. And I'm not saying those statements are inaccurate in describing what we are like, but none of them however beautifully cinematographed will inspire anyone to anything. They might tickle our self-introspection a little and maybe make us feel comfortable with being so flawed, but it will not help us fight for anything better.

While watching I was feeling a little put to shame given my constant struggle to hold it together and be patient even though all the basics in my life are beyond taken care of, but afterwards it made me feel motivated to throw myself back into the daily sameness. All the little things do matter, even though it doesn't feel like it most of the time. We are so quick to find solutions to make our lives easier, but if we don't struggle, we don't grow. It's just how it is. We have to aim higher than we can reach and then walk through the whole exhausting mess to get there. That gives life dimension and excitement. You have to keep digging deeper and in the process you become a real human being.

Ironically the same director, who portrayed sacrifice and meaning so well in this movie, wrote and directed another movie called "L'ultimo bacio" (The last kiss), in which - also quite successfully - he portrays narcissism and shallowness as a legitimate way of life. We watched it a few nights ago and could not get over all the whining about how hard it is to try to combine a successful monogamous relationship with being able to induge one's own (lusty) whims whenever the appetite strikes. The characters are constantly bored and unhappy, yet they have always done whatever they wanted.

It sucks, but suffering restores our perspective. It also makes us interesting people. It's not that I'm prescribing suffering as a remedy to life's dullness, but avoiding it on principle means cutting yourself short in every possible way. That's what ultimately made "The pursuit of happyness" a very watchable movie for me: the perspective was hopeful, not dooming. It didn't end with the "gritty reality", the agonizing moments of suffering, but with the personal transformation that follows - which in my mind is telling the whole story.

Posted at 02:54 PM on February 27, 2007

As usual, I have found your review and careful introspective observations fascinating. I hadn't thought two seconds about watching this movie (isn't it the one with Will Smith?) but now I'm curious to see it. The popular nihilistic approach to "nitty-gritty" movies of late is very off-putting to me. I need to see something uplifting, something that artfully shows that there IS something to hope for, something worth living in this life. That's how "Life is Beautiful" works for me. It's got a terribly depressing subject, but the love between family members, especially parent to child, makes it all worth while.

Posted by Lindsey at February 28, 2007 2:18 PM