Part of what appeals about movies is watching someone else grasp the human experience. Two films quickly came to mind when I first considered the idea for this piece.
In the Oscar-winning film “As Good as it Gets” (1997), Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson) — who struggles with what seems to be a form of high-functioning autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder — returns to his psychiatrist’s waiting room and says to those sitting there, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
I love how Nicholson’s character has that moment of clarity many of us have — when we realize that as much work as we do on ourselves, we will probably never best all of our flaws and will be forced to accept what our lives might look like in light of that revelation.
In the Adam-Sandler-does-serious vehicle “Spanglish,” mother-in-law Cloris Leachman matter-of-factly tells her daughter (played by Tea Leoni), “Lately, your low self-esteem is just good common sense.”
The 2004 movie wonderfully deflates the assumption that self-esteem is a right no matter how badly we behave or treat others. Tea Leoni’s surprised “I’m the problem when I expected to be comforted?” reaction is awesome. That line reminds me of “I’m the bad guy?” — when Michael Douglas’s that’s-the-last-straw-of-life’s-inconveniences, rampage-going character in “Falling Down” (1993) realizes he’s the problem.
For our continuing series on the collision of arts and human nature, I asked three very different people to tell me about a movie scene or quote that struck them as brilliantly placing its “finger” on the pulse of human nature. Two of our sources went for the nature of love, one for the nature of morality; all of them moved me to put their movies in our family’s Netflix queue.
Here’s what they had to say:
Rebecca Thomas, Miami
“You don’t know about real loss, ‘cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself.”
– Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) in “Good Will Hunting”
It’s hard to beat Robin Williams when it comes to delivering memorable and poignant lines that encapsulate human nature, whether it was William’s portrayal of John Keating in “Dead Poets Society,” the genie in “Aladdin” or the title character in “Patch Adams.” Over the course of his career, Williams’ characters provided such an overwhelming amount of unforgettable lines and sentiments that it’s nearly impossible to choose just one.
And, yet, the line above from “Good Will Hunting” has stuck with me for reasons I didn’t realize would be applicable to my life at the time I heard it spoken in 1997, at the mere age of 25.
The concept of basic humanity and how love factors into our own individual human experience are essentially, well, conceptual in our younger years. As children and developing adults, our definition of love is overwhelmingly unrealistic and egocentric: We love to get something in return, or to accomplish a goal set forth in our minds, or because we expect to be loved. However, as we grow and experience love in all of its various forms — religious, romantic, familial, platonic, et al. — the concept becomes much more realistic and tends to be shaped more by how we love, whom we love and what our capacity is to continue loving, despite the losses we may experience as a result of having loved other, imperfect humans.
The ability to carry on despite the losses and learn to love in new and different ways, in my opinion, is the very nature of what it means to be human.
Rebecca Thomas by day is a marketing manager for a commercial real estate company in Miami, Fla. By night, she does flat-fee web and graphic design for Backpocket Marketing Group. The yoga, reading, movie, wine, music, and fantastic food enthusiast cares deeply about autism awareness.
Tracy Cox, San Francisco
One recent film that I loved not only as one of the best genre films of the last decade but as one of the best films period in that time frame is Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008). The premise of the film itself is a study in human nature.
Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne struggles with trying to do the right thing as a crime fighter while dealing with the huge ripple effects he has created as a vigilante. Regular civilians, inspired by his actions, imitate him, and get killed for it. He breaks laws he wants upheld. He creates his own surveillance state, convincing himself the ends justify the means. And of course, Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance as The Joker is the psychopathic antithesis to Batman.
Two of the film’s scenes that put their finger on the pulse of human nature have always stuck in my head:
In the first, Bruce Wayne is trying to understand the motives of The Joker. Michael Caine (as Bruce Wayne’s butler) explains that not everyone has a logical thought process. He tells the story of a jewel thief who couldn’t be caught for months. Eventually, they found he had been throwing the jewels away. He says:
In the second, the Joker has outfitted two boats with huge amounts of explosives — one boat is filled with convicts, the other with normal citizens. Each has the detonator for the other boat. The scenes shifts back and forth between the boats as time counts down. On the boat filled with convicts, one of the toughest grabs the detonator and refuses to use it. On the citizen boat, a business-type guy takes the detonator, wants to use it, but can’t do it. So there are the most violent in society — understanding exactly what that violence is and will do, refusing to take part. And then there are the citizens; they really want to save themselves by doing something horrible, but they just can’t cross the line.
Tracy Cox is a graphic designer (krop.com/tracycox) and artist (tracycox.com) who loves movies and basketball and is addicted to “The Twilight Zone” and “The Simpsons.” He also likes to create music on his laptop (soundcloud.com/quphonic) and practice martial arts. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and “one cool cat named Neo.”
Ken Barnes, Washington, D.C.
(Spoiler alert: If you’ve never seen “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the Oscar-winning 2008 Brad Pitt movie based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, you should seriously consider watching the film, viewing the trailer, or reading the book before reading further.)
A scene near the end — if there is an “end” — of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” includes this voice-over narration of Benjamin’s letter to his daughter, who never knew him:
“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
This is a movie full of impactful scenes, and this one in particular is heart-wrenching because it invokes that “stranger in a strange world” feeling that we all feel time to time (or all the time, if one thinks too much).
The scene with the voice-over also ties together many affecting aspects of the movie: the shock of learning long-concealed secrets; the life-altering impact of happenstance (Daisy getting hit by a taxi after a chain of small circumstances are traced, Daisy being too busy and self-centered to connect with Benjamin until they are closer in age); the heartbreaking helplessness of dementia (in reverse, as Benjamin grows very young); and the redemptive power of selfless devotion (Queenie, the woman whose doorstep Benjamin’s father leaves him on, caring for the “old” helpless Benjamin at the beginning of his life, even though she doesn’t know him; Daisy caring for the “young” helpless Benjamin, who can’t remember her, at the end of his life).
It’s a surreal fantasy story, but underneath the dramatic plot beats the pulse of humanity: we all want what’s best for our children after we’re gone.
Ken Barnes is an aerospace engineer in suburban Washington, D.C. He has a beautiful wife and daughter (both of whom are happily aging in the proper direction) and enjoys music, playing chess and tennis with his daughter and watching movies with his wife.
Maureen Batty is a Detroit-based freelance writer, editor and lover of how human nature and the arts collide. www.liveloveedit.com.
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