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philosophy

George Bailey, Phil Connors, and The Dude

Life By May 26, 2016 Tags: ,

Some movies become classics because they speak to something universal about the human condition. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a good example: just about everyone can relate to Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of George Bailey. No, you don’t run a savings and loan in upstate New York in the 1940s and no, you probably have never been visited by an intellectually-disabled angel. But yes, you have stood on that bridge, looking down at the water, thinking about how badly things have gone for so long, what a mess you’ve made of everything, and just how damned hard life is.

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So that’s one kind of classic. Let’s call it the everyman type. (Apologies for the sexism, but “everyperson” is too ugly a word.) However unusual the specifics of the narrative are, the main character(s) have an experience just about everyone in the audience can relate to. You and your buddies probably never went on a hiking trip looking for a body, but at some point in your childhood, you got your first real taste of independence and the danger that comes with it. The bittersweet aftertaste of that experience is probably why you never turn off Stand By Me if you catch it showing on TV.

There’s another type of classic, though, that manages to convince specific groups of people that the movie is speaking especially to them, or that it’s expressing themes or ideas that are particular to their group. I’ve written about Groundhog Day before: Buddhists, Hindus, Existentialists, Aristotelians, and Christians of every stripe have felt a special connection to the film. They feel that this movie tells a story that is uniquely theirs.

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I’m going to call this kind of movie the secret code type. Secret code movies manage to convince groups of people that they’re speaking directly to them without coming out and spoiling the secret for everyone else. These are entertaining movies for everyone who watches them, but, hey, if you’re in the club, and you have the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society Decoder Ring, then you get to see the deeper meaning of the film.

I think The Big Lebowski falls into this category. Zen Buddhists (or just Zen practitioners if you’re one of those folks who believes that Zen is somehow not a form of Buddhism) jumped on this one early. The film’s star, Jeff Bridges, apparently endorses this view, seeing as he’s co-authored a book on this topic with Zen teacher Bernie Glassman entitled The Dude and the Zen Master.

Existentialists also claim The Dude, however. So do Taoists. I recently came across a group of Stoics discussing Lebowski, too. A whole new religion has even formed around the teachings of Lebowski: The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, which claims to have 120,000 ordained Dudeist priests.

They’re all right because they’re all wrong. They’re right in the sense that The Dude expresses ideas that show up in Buddhism, Taoism, Existentialism, etc. They’re wrong, however, in believing that he belongs especially to them. The Dude, much like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, expresses these ideas because they’re common ideas for much of humanity.

In other words, the deepest secret of the secret code movie is that it’s actually an everyman movie. The reason The Big Lebowski and Groundhog Day speak to you is the same reason It’s a Wonderful Life does: because you’re a human being. Existentialism, Taoism, and Zen are all ways of trying to make sense of the kinds of universal issues that all humans face.

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On Knowing Stuff

Life By May 26, 2016 Tags: ,

crouching-tiger-hidden-dragon-2-trailer-0

I am grateful to have a device in my pocket that connects me with the world’s knowledge. Still, I think there’s value in knowing stuff. Really knowing it, not just knowing how to look it up.

When I first watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for example, I knew almost nothing about Chinese culture. Back then, I liked the movie a lot. It was visually beautiful, had a great soundtrack, and the acting performances were moving.

Watching it again with a little more knowledge under my belt, however, was an entirely different experience. Knowing a bit about Daoism and Ruism (Confucianism) opened the characters and their motivations up to me in a way that I missed entirely on my first viewing.

There is a short scene about three-quarters of the way through the film, for example, in which Yu Shu Lien, one of the main female protagonists lights two sticks of incense in front of a tablet thingy with Chinese characters on it. The scene lasts less than a minute. It passed right through my consciousness without leaving a trace the first time I saw it. I didn’t even recall it.

I now understand, however, the “tablet thingy” is an ancestral tablet resting on a home altar. She was venerating her ancestors and the look of pain and regret on her face makes perfect sense: she is grieving her lost opportunity to have a family of her own.

A scene that meant nothing to me 16 years ago now carries an almost unbearable poignancy because I know something now that I didn’t know then.

Even if I had a smartphone in 2000, what good would it have been? Would I have done a Google search for “tablet thingy?” Not only would I not know how to find what I was looking for, it never would have occurred to me to conduct the search to begin with. The scene was unremarkable to my mind at the time.

Life as a whole is a lot like watching a movie in that sense. Knowing things–really knowing them, not just where to find them–helps you see things that you didn’t see before, to make connections you didn’t know were there.

When my daughter watches birds, she sees things I don’t see. When my wife reads poetry, she experiences things I don’t experience. When my son opens a box of Lego blocks, he sees possibilities that are lost on me.

Knowing things makes life a richer, more satisfying experience.

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The Flourishing of Phil Connors

Life By May 26, 2016 Tags: ,

groundhog-day

At the beginning of Groundhog Day, Phil Connors isn’t a villain. He’s an asshole.

He’s not harnessing the powers of the Dark Side to control the universe like Darth Vader or killing people and eating them like Hannibal Lecter. Instead, he’s the ordinary kind of “bad guy” we encounter in our everyday lives. He’s selfish, mean, and conceited. You probably know someone like Phil. You might even see a little Phil when you look in the mirror. I know I do.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that all human activity is aimed at some end and that most of these ends are aimed at some other end. So we go to college to get a degree; we get a degree so that we can get a good job; we get a good job so that we can earn a salary; we use the salary to buy a house. . .you get the idea. Aristotle argues that what we’re really aiming for with all this activity is happiness. We don’t use happiness as the means to getting something better. Happiness is the one thing we want for its own sake.

We get ourselves into trouble in two big ways. First, we mistake one of the lower good as the highest good. Secondly, we use other people as a means to achieving our ends, rather than viewing them as people in their own right.

At the beginning of the movie, Phil is caught in a mistake that many of us make repeatedly. He wants a better job and he believes that getting it will make him happy. He’ll be free of his dumpy job in a crappy third-rate city and then everything will be okay. People will finally recognize his talent and he’ll get the respect and rewards he deserves. He’s mistaking a lower good (getting a job) with the highest good (happiness).

He’s also using people as a means to an end. In the beginning, it’s just about his professional life. He’s not interested in getting to know the people he works with. Instead, he just manipulates them to advance his career. Later in the movie, he uses women for sex, and this is clearly all he has in mind for Rita at first.

So if Aristotle doesn’t think getting laid and getting a good job is happiness, what is? Well, it’s the activity of the rational soul in accordance with virtue. Phew. Glad he cleared that up, huh?

To understand what the hell he’s talking about, you have to appreciate what he means by virtue. These days, when we say that someone is virtuous, we usually mean that he’s a person who doesn’t break the rules of morality. For the ancients, though, virtue was about much more. It was living the “good life,” that is, a life of excellence.

As the film progresses, Phil becomes more virtuous in the full sense of that word. He doesn’t just stop having one night stands and lying to people. He also reads every book in the library. He learns to play the piano. He develops his skills in practical things like auto repair and medicine so that he can actively help others. He’s not just refraining from doing evil, he is living a good life.

And here’s where it gets really interesting. When Phil went through his evil phase at the beginning of the movie, he could act with impunity because there was no tomorrow. He could steal money from the bank and never have to serve time. He could seduce women and they’d never remember it the next day. He could eat like a pig and never gain weight. But this lack of consequences also applies to him when he breaks good. When he changes a flat tire or saves a life or plays a great song, none of these things stick. Life for Phil is like the ice sculpture he creates for Rita. It melts away.

The next day he wakes up and its as if none of those things ever happened. . .except within Phil himself.

Through these repeated acts of virtue, Phil becomes a better man. It’s not ultimately about what he does. It’s about who he is. By doing brave, wise, kind, and humble acts, Phil becomes a brave, wise, kind, and humble man. The happy ending for Phil happens before Rita falls in love with him and his long day finally gives way to tomorrow. Rita falls in love with him because of the kind of man he has become. Phil the Asshole has become Phil the Virtuous Man. And he hasn’t become some boring, milquetoast “nice guy.” He is still recognizably Phil. The best possible Phil.

According to Groundhog Day director Harold Ramis, Phil had about 10,000 years to figure this out. You and I have considerably less time.

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