Art has the power to offer us truth beyond words. What makes a work of art truly great though is when it can deliver this truth in such a beautiful, powerful, and sincere way that it overwhelms our mental defenses. By ‘singing its message’ rather than telling it, great art can wash over the prefrontal cortex, passed our logical defenses, passed ego; cynicism and indifference, it can melt into our hearts and souls in a way that plain words cannot.
16. Pink Floyd — The Wall
Based on the 1979 Pink Floyd album of the same name, ‘The Wall’ follows ‘Pink’ through his formative childhood years and into adult life. As a young boy he struggles with the loss of his father, ridicule and discouragement from his teachers and sheltering from his overprotective mother. As an adult Pink’s marriage collapses and he sinks into depression. The film deals with themes of isolation and fear, but also of hope. The final scene in ‘The Wall’ is a wonderful example of the kind of transcendence in art that I mention above.
[In the previous scene a brick wall explodes and crumbles to the ground.] It is the morning after some riots have taken place in the streets. A truck is turned on its side and burned, broken glass and bits of bricks and rubble cover the street and some little kids are quietly cleaning up. Some of the kids are using their toy trucks to help move the debris. One of the little boys picks up an unlit Molotov cocktail and examines it. He makes a face at the unpleasant smell of the gasoline and pours it out. [The picture freezes on the child, credits start to roll, and ‘Outside the Wall’ plays with choir and brass.]
This scene is a hopeful conclusion to the long and tortuous journey that we have witnessed as Pink’s life. After so much struggle, after building ‘the wall’ that isolated him from the world and caused him such pain, he finally tears it down. Though Pink and so many others have gone through this difficult experience, there is still hope. After all the pain and suffering it is still worth it to move forward. Even for those who don’t make it, the children will pick up where we left of. The adults die and the children do a little better. Each generation cleans up after the last.
17. The Matrix
The concepts presented in ‘The Matrix’ were truly incredible when the film was released in 1999. We were in the days of Napster and AOL, huge CRT computer monitors with dial-up internet, brick cell phones, etc. We were starting to get a grasp on these evolving technologies, but few of us had considered the possible implications of them, as presented in ‘The Matrix’.
‘What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.’
Imagine if the whole world was just a simulation. The only way that we can experience the world around us is through our senses, and since our senses are nothing more than patterns of electrical impulses interpreted by the brain, then a sufficiently advanced computer-machine system should be able to emulate this sense experience. From inside such a simulation everything would seem perfectly real. There would absolutely no way to tell that it wasn’t real. How do we know we aren’t in a simulation now? [We don’t. See Life in the Simulation]
One metric by which we might measure the worth of a film, or a piece of art in general, is how thought-provoking it is. ‘The Matrix’ does tremendously here for raising some real philosophical questions about the nature of reality and existence; about what constitutes experience and perception, and so on. These questions can lead to some interesting ideas such as simulation theory, solipsism, dream argument, and implications of the technological singularity.
‘Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?’
‘When you’re on junk you have only one worry: scoring. When you’re off it you are suddenly obliged to worry about all sorts of other shite. Got no money: can’t get pissed. Got money: drinking too much. Can’t get a bird: no chance of a ride. Got a bird: too much hassle. You have to worry about bills, about food, about some football team that never fucking wins, about human relationships and all the things that really don’t matter when you’ve got a sincere and truthful junk habit.’
Though Mark Renton is a heroin addict he is free in the ways that we are not. We almost envy him. He has no job, no responsibilities or reputation to live up to, no pressure to perform, no kids or dependents, he has only heroin to worry about. While modern society affords us safety and comfort, it also puts enormous pressure on us. We often feel inadequate; Not enough money, not enough friends, too fat, too thin, shitty car, shitty job, nothing to look forward to except the next thing to obtain. We lack direction and identity. We never have the time to find direction and identity because we are constantly distracted. We get lost in the cycle of work, consume, repeat. We find ourselves bored, broke, and depressed.
Despite all of Renton’s problems, he has a goal to strive for. He has a passion that brings him incredible pleasure and he is free from any obligations or distractions. Many of us have no goal to work toward, nothing to be passionate about, and no sense of freedom. These things are essential for happiness and ‘Trainspotting’ reminds us of this fact.
19. American Beauty
‘American Beauty’ is another film that deals with the loss of passion that so many people experience in their lives. Lester Burnham is middle-aged, out of shape, and in a loveless marriage. He hates his job, he has a poor relationship with his daughter and is generally uninspired.
‘Both my wife and daughter think I’m this gigantic loser and they’re right, I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated. But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back.’
Lester becomes infused with a desire for something better. He starts working out, he quits his job, he starts standing up to the people who have been keeping him down; he turns his whole life around. More than just improve himself though Lester starts to appreciate the beauty that he has been missing for most of his life. He starts to see just how incredible and significant all the little things around him are. The much younger Ricky Fitts, who is dating Lester’s daughter has come to the same realization:
“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that’s the day I realized there was this entire life behind things, and… this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… and I need to remember…Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.”
There is no movie out there quite like ‘Adaptation’. Written by Charlie Kaufman, the film is about Charlie Kaufman (the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich; played by Nicholas Cage), struggling to write his next screenplay, which happens to be for the movie we are watching… Which is supposed to be a film about orchids. While Charlie struggles to write our film his talentless twin brother Donald, who is more confident and better with women, and who only just recently moved to Hollywood, manages to sell a terrible, cliché–ridden script for several hundred thousand dollars before Charlie even finishes his.
[voiceover] ‘Do I have an original thought in my head? My bald head. Maybe if I were happier my hair wouldn’t be falling out. Life is short. I need to make the most of it. Today is the first day of the rest of my life. I’m a walking cliché. I really need to go to the doctor and have my leg checked. There’s something wrong. A bump. The dentist called again. I’m way overdue. If I stop putting things off I would be happier. All I do is sit on my fat ass. If my ass wasn’t fat I would be happier. I wouldn’t have to wear these shirts with the tails out all the time. Like that’s fooling anyone. Fat ass. I should start jogging again. Five miles a day. Really do it this time. Maybe rock climbing. I need to turn my life around. What do I need to do? I need to fall in love. I need to have a girlfriend. I need to read more. Improve myself…’
‘Adaptation’ is an incredible feat of screenwriting. Not only do we watch Kaufman write the movie that we are watching but the timelines are offset so that about a third of the way in he figures out how the film will begin (as we witnessed 30 minutes ago). We watch Kaufman gradually figuring out how he is going to make the story work, and as he does so the rest of the film dynamically evolves to reflect what he is learning. Kaufman even says to his brother while writing, “I’ve written myself into my screenplay”. The film mixes fiction with non-fiction, it involves some autobiography, it moves backward and forward in time, it shifts from the real Charlie Kaufman’s story to his fictional twin brother, it is a critique of Hollywood film, an examination of the creative process, an experiment in art, it is interesting, funny, and tremendously intelligent. And what a great ending…