Monday, September 24, 2018

Philosophy of My Favorite Movies

Little over a week ago, a good friend of mine nominated me on Facebook to identify my top 10 favorite per day. I usually avoid taking up any challenges on social media because they are rarely challenging, and worse, often self-aggrandizing. The current challenge also had the danger of being self-aggrandizing: "Look, I am so cool to have watched these cool movies that you probably haven't!" However, after a little hesitation, I did take up the challenge, because it would give me the opportunity to reflect on the movies I have watched.

We do a lot of stuff in life, reading books, watching movies, meeting people, working on our jobs, and so on. However, we do not spend enough time reflecting on them. We quickly move from one activity to another, rarely ever pausing to reflect on our actions and experiences. I think this is a tragedy because when we don't reflect, we bereave ourselves of the opportunity to learn and gain insights.

So, I decided to take up the challenge of identifying my top 10 favorite movies, but instead of simply posting the posters of my favorite movies, I also decided to explain why I loved these movies. And this process of reflecting on my favorite movies has indeed been an illuminative and insightful experience for me. In the current post, I re-list the movies I had posted daily on Facebook, with some additional comments. In the interest of readers' time, I have tried to keep my reflections short. I hope people still find some value in these short notes.

My Top 10 Movies

10. Predator

My first movie on the list was the Predator, the original one from 1987. For those who know that I am a fan of the action genre, this selection may not be surprising. However, I must also admit that there are many better action movies than the Predator. The reason Predator ended up on my list is that I had watched the latest installment of the Predator series the same day. So comparisons between the two were inevitable.

While the new movie was spoilt by the inclusion of some very unrealistic characters  (for example, a woman scientist whose physical prowess were better than that of trained soldiers) influenced by the radical social justice movement recently plaguing Hollywood, the original was not. Worse, in the new movie, many of the characters fighting the Predators did not seem to have any fear. In contrast, the first movie, despite being full of tough guys, showed them as vulnerable. Specifically, they were scared shit of the unknown danger in front of them. This vulnerability made them relatable to the audience. The problem with a lot of action movies these days, especially in Indian cinema, is that they make their heroes completely invincible.

I think another reason why the original Predator movie worked so well, despite its many flaws, was that it didn't show the body of the predator until much later in the movie. I believe this is what made the movie so scarily thrilling. When you don't see the monster, you imagine the worst. The fear of the unknown puts the imagination on an overdrive and makes the movie scary and thrilling. This is also the same reason why the first Jaws movie is such a classic, but all the later shark movies, despite their higher production values are just jokes.

9. Die Hard

Die Hard is another great action movie. It was directed by John McTiernan, the same guy who also directed the Predator. I think Die Hard is an absolute masterpiece when it comes to action movies. No wonder its formula (Man accidentally in a bad situation trying to do his best to cope with the challenges thrown at him) has been copied over and over again in the action movie genre: e.g., the other movies in the Die Hard series, the Under Seige series, White House Down, The Rock, Home Alone series, Cliffhanger, the Speed series, Passenger 57, Mall Cop, and many many more. Some of these movies were also good action thrillers. However, Die Hard was the first movie to experiment with this formula or at least the one to do it effectively.

The character of John McClane in the first Die Hard movie is not a hero with "superhuman" strength or skills. He does have some skills as a cop, but he is not invincible. He gets badly beaten and injured as he tries to overpower the villains of the movie. He just barely survives the ordeal with some ingenuity and luck. The main thing in his favor is his strong determination. He is a man who won't give up easily. No wonder we root for this very human-kind of superhero.

I think the reason most action movies don't work as well as the first Die Hard is because the movie makers seem more invested in showcasing the muscular power or the martial arts skills of their hero than his vulnerabilities. They forget that no amount of action and visual spectacle can equate the power of human emotions.

8. The Matrix

The Matrix is usually remembered as an action movie. However, I love the Matrix because:
1) It had a lot of symbolism and deep philosophy (especially from the Bhagavad Gita) seamlessly integrated into its science-fiction storyline. I think no other movie has ever presented the idea of mukti (liberation) as effectively as the Matrix did.
2) The screenplay of Matrix was also absolutely brilliant. I still remember being surprised so many times throughout the movie.
3) Most importantly, the Matrix urged men to see reality the way it is, and free themselves from the shackles that were binding them. The symbolic "Red Pill" from the movie has literally saved countless men from becoming mental slaves or giving up on life.

Coming to the action sequences of the movie, yes, it did have some spectacular action scenes. These scenes also completely revolutionalized the action-movie genre in the post-Matrix period. Unfortunately, a lot of directors (especially in India) continue to make slow-motion, gravity-defying action scenes in their movies. They don't realize that such scenes worked in the Matrix because such fights seemed logical in the world of the Matrix (the fights were happening in the matrix and not in the real world). But when directors insert such fights in stories that are supposed to be happening in the real world, they just look ridiculous. God save us from stupid imitators!

7. The Godfather 1 & 2

The Godfather 1 & 2 are among the best movies ever made. What can I say about these movies that haven't already been said? Probably nothing. So I'll just start by noting that these movies were much more than gritty crime dramas. If we strip away the crime part, I think these movies were essentially about the ethics of relationships. If anyone wants to understand and appreciate the masculine view of personal and work relationships, the movies in the Godfather series are the ones to watch.

The Godfather series also provides great insights about how to conduct business. I believe director Francis Ford Copolla had himself once said that these movies were metaphors of how capitalism operates. Unlike the other movies that I have identified so far on my list, the power of the protagonists in the Godfather series comes less from muscle or gun power, and more from intelligence. The Godfather movies are intelligent movies. They did not contain cheap twists in their stories but had the best character development that helped us realize how the power of the brain is much more superior to that of the brawn.

6. Schindler's List

The horrors of the Holocaust have inspired the creation of numerous cinematic masterpieces. For a long time, I was literally obsessed with watching these movies. I think this was my way of trying to make sense of why do people do evil things and how do the victims cope and overcome the horrifying challenges thrown at them.

As I reflect on all the movies I have watched on the Holocaust, I think Schindler's List is the greatest movie made on the topic. I admire this movie because I think it was more rooted in reality than others. Movies tend to show that the good, hardworking, brave man always wins. We like such movies because that's what we want to believe as well. However, Oskar Schindler could save over 1200 jews from certain death, not because he was the proverbial "good man". He could save these people only because he had been an asshole...a greedy, war-profiteering Nazi party member. We like to believe that good always triumphs over evil...this is certainly what I believed for a very long time in my life. However, the reality is that good usually gets trounced by evil. This does not mean that we become evil, but that realizing our inner asshole can actually help us fight and win the good's eternal battle against evil.

5. Jagten (The Hunt)

The next favorite movie on my list is Jagten (or The Hunt), a 2012 Danish film. But before I describe why it is, let me discuss the current event of US Judge Kavanaugh being accused by a woman (Dr. Ford) of having raped her some 32 years ago. Prima facie, there are a lot of holes in this accusation. However, a large section of the American population has already declared him guilty. At a press conference, Senator Mazie Hirono even asserted, "Not only do women like Dr. Ford, who bravely comes forward, need to be heard, but they need to be believed. They need to be BELIEVED! ... I just want to say to the men of this country: Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing for a change."

Yes, according to Hirono, not only is Kavanaugh guilty without examination of evidence but so are all the men of USA for not blindly coming to the support of the accuser. Our society is such that we easily believe women accusers. The man is almost always considered guilty until proven innocent and sometimes seen as guilty even after proven innocent. It's as if a woman can do no wrong, and a man can only do wrong.

This is broadly the theme of the movie, Jagten. The protagonist of the movie played by the great Mads Mikkelsen is a simple, good human being, and works as a teacher at a kindergarten school. One little girl falsely accuses him of sexual molestation (Yes, even little kids can lie! And this is very delicately shown in the movie). Then we see how the protagonist's life crumbles because of this false accusation. In the end, he is proven innocent, but unfortunately, that is not enough...

Jagten is an extremely sensitive and brave movie! The makers of the movie touched upon a subject that is rarely ever explored in movies, except probably in cheap psychopath thrillers. My hats off to the makers of this masterpiece.

4. 1947: Earth

1947: Earth is an Indian film that was released in 1999. Similar to my previous favorite movie, this is also a disturbing movie. It brings us face to face with the fact that the threads of sanity and friendliness that hold our society together can sometimes collapse in a snap and lead to unimaginable horror.

The Indian film industry is the largest in the world, and I grew up enjoying Indian movies. However, '1947: Earth' is going to be the only Indian movie on this list, because I have come to recognize the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) Hinduphobia in these movies. In Indian movies, Hindus are often depicted as narrow-minded, prejudiced and discriminating. In contrast, non-Hindu people are always good human beings, even when they are from an "enemy nation". Professor Dheeraj Sharma from IIM-A has documented this phenomenon well.

Non-Hindu characters in Indian movies can do no wrong. On the rare occasion that they do anything wrong, the movies try to evoke sympathy for these characters by showing them to be helpless victims of circumstances or the system.

To the best of my knowledge, '1947: Earth' is the only Indian movie to show a Muslim protagonist committing some extremely heinous acts, specifically that of betraying his friends that lead to their rape and/or murder. He is certainly influenced by his personal loses during partition. However, his horrifying actions are shown as cold choices and not as compulsions of his immediate circumstances. That's what makes this movie so important in the history of Indian cinema. It is a rare movie that did not play it safe and stayed true to its source material. Deepa Mehta has to be very brave for producing and directing this film.

3. 12 Angry Men

'12 Angry Men' is a black-and-white movie that was made way back in 1957, but it is easily one of the greatest movie ever made in entire cinematic history. I saw this movie a little before my 30th birthday. I am glad I came across this movie not too late in my life because it did have a profound influence on me. According to me, if there was one movie that should be made mandatory viewing for everyone today, it would be this one. The reason I say this is because we the people often get carried away by others thoughts and opinions. We don't use critical thinking skills to properly evaluate the merits of people's arguments. This especially happens under certain conditions. I can't detail them here because that would go into several pages of discourse, but needless to say, our agreeable gullibility can have devastating consequences. You should definitely watch this movie (if you haven't yet), and you will learn a lot about critical thinking, leadership, persuasion, and more.

2. The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption is a 1994 movie that has won the hearts of many. This is may perhaps be true for many people, but if there is a specific movie theme that I love watching the most, it is that of people overcoming insurmountable obstacles. There is something compelling about people who succeed in pulling themselves out of deplorable conditions. They may or may not have directly caused their initial misfortunes, but I can't help admire people who by their sheer grit pulled themselves out of misery. And there are numerous great movies with this theme (e.g., the original Rocky, The Pursuit of Happyness, Homeless to Harvard, Cinderella Man, Breaking Away, and many many more). However, the movie that had the strongest visceral impact on me was 'The Shawshank Redemption'. I have only watched this movie once, and that was at least a decade ago, but there are numerous scenes from this movie that still remain firmly etched in my mind.

(An Interesting Coincidence: It turned out that this movie was released the exact same day (Sept. 23) I posted about it on Facebook.)

Contenders to my most favorite movie:

Before I share the top movie on my list of top 10 favorite movies, I must acknowledge that I struggled a lot to decide on my most favorite movie. There were several worthy competitors. All of these contenders could easily have fit into my list of top 10 movies. The only reason they did not is that the selection method of my favorite list was an organic process. While the first movie on my list (i.e., Predator) was pretty impulsive, the latter selections were more thought out. So before I share my top favorite movie, let me share some worthy contenders to that position:

  • Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump may not have the kind of high ratings as The Shawshank Redemption, but in my humble view, it is an extraordinary film. Both the movies were released the same year in 1994. It was Forrest Gump and not The Shawshank Redemption, that took away all the important Academy Awards that year. I think Forrest Gump was a better-made movie than The Shawshank Redemption. So it deserved all the Oscars it won that year. However, over the years Forrest Gump fell out of favor from the critics because it espoused a perspective that isn't appreciated well enough in the West.

The paradigm of Forrest Gump is the exact opposite of The Shawshank Redemption. In the world of Forrest Gump, you don't have to have goals and plans to succeed in life. This is metaphorically shown in the famous opening scene of the movie where the camera follows a feather lazily drifting in the wind. The character of Forrest is shown as achieving a lot of great things in the movie despite being a person of low IQ. He did not have the goal of achieving these things. He just did his best in every situation, and "God" took care of the rest. As Forrest's mother advises Forrest in a scene, "You have to do the best with what God has given you. Life is a box of chocolates, Forrest; You never know what you gonna get."

This is a paradigm that I believe most people have difficulty understanding. It makes them think that Forrest was simply lucky. However, according to me, the reason Forrest achieved what he did in the movie is not because he was lucky, but because he was completely involved in whatever act he engaged in. He didn't care about goals or plans, and just involved himself completely with whatever was in front of him. He still achieved big things in life, because that is the power of sharanagati (loosely translated as surrender) as described in the Bhagavad Gita. 

Forrest Gump could easily have been my topmost movie, but the reason it did not is that it had the implicit message that sharanagati is only possible for people who are too dumb to have goals and plan for themselves. The reality is that the real power of sharanagati comes when it is a conscious choice.

  • The Big Lebowski

When I watched the 1998 cult-classic The Big Lebowski by the Coen Brothers for the first time, I found it too weird to enjoy it well. Only when I watched it again several years later did I appreciate the symbolism and philosophy of this movie. In a way, The Big Lebowski espouses the same philosophy as the Forrest Gump: live life as it comes without worrying about the future. Since Lebowski is not dumb like Forrest was in Forrest Gump, we can say that he chose this way of living consciously. No wonder, he appears as this cool dude who abides. The character of Lebowski is so cool that it has inspired the formation of a new religion called Dudeism. According to Wikipedia entry on Dudeism, people believing in Dudeism try to live life by "going with the flow", "being cool headed", and "taking it easy" in the face of life's difficulties.

Because taking life as it comes is a conscious choice of Lebowski, I think The Big Lebowski does a slightly better representation of sharanagati than Forrest Gump. However, sharanagati is not just about accepting and surrendering to what happens in life, it is also being completely involved with life, which the character of Lebowski is not. That is why The Big Lebowski is not my topmost favorite movie. Lebowski is essentially a loser. He may be happy, but to me, his "taking it easy" approach to life borders on inertia (tamasic nature), which is not a desirable attribute. The world needs more self-disciplined and hard-working individuals, not cool lazy bums.

  • No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men is a Coen Brothers' crime/suspense movie that was released in 2007. I had watched it within the first couple of weeks of its release. I had found the movie thrilling but the ending was unsatisfying. It seemed like all the suspense in the movie ultimately amounted to nothing. I was disappointed. I had even written about it in a blog post then.

However, a couple of years ago, when I rewatched the No Country for Old Men, I realized what a brilliant movie it was. Not only did I notice the significance of many important scenes that I had missed before, but I also began to appreciate the reason behind the weird ending of the movie. Life is just not always fair. In life, bad things often happen to good people, to the extent they may also get killed meaninglessly; bad people also sometimes walk out scot-free. What the movie depicted really well is that there is no divine-justice in real life, and that's what made it so upsetting. Paraphrasing Nietzsche, it’s not human suffering that bothers us, its the pointless suffering.

No Country for Old Men is an outstanding movie, but it is not on the top of my Top 10 list because it is just too dark. The nihilism so well depicted in the movie may be very close to reality, but nihilism is still just a paradigm of negation. It has no motivational value, and is more likely to create people like Lebowski in The Big Lebowski whose acceptance is more a sign of they having given up on life than feeling motivated by their surrender.

1. Cool Hand Luke

From the poster of Cool Hand Luke
The 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke is my most favorite movie, essentially because it shows a resolution to the question posed by the extreme paradigms of the Forrest Gump, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men. The resolution is not perfect, but it is closest I have seen a movie achieve. 

Cool Hand Luke is the story of a man named Luke. [SPOILER ALERT AHEAD] Life hasn't been fair to him. He makes some wrong decisions and ends up in prison. The prison system tries to break his spirit. He decides to escape the prison. He plans and executes an escape, but gets caught. He does it again and fails. And again, and fails, this time causing him to lose his life. But the entire time that he is in the prison, escaping, getting caught, and finally getting killed, he retains "That old Luke smile." Now that is true sharanagati: You know that life is unfair, that it is pointless. That doesn't prevent you from setting goals and planning to help achieve them. As you have goals, you also take life as it comes. You have complete sharangati (equanimity coming from surrender) to whatever happens to life. So you succeed in retaining "That old Luke smile" regardless of your life-conditions.

"A man's just gotta go his own way."

No comments:

Post a Comment