A friend posted a link about the passing of Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist. He was a German soldier and one of the participants of the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. One of the reasons I return to this period in our history often is because of how many brutally raw moral dilemmas and tests of will it contains.
The story of Von Kleist is yet another moving example. As a young man of 22 at the time of the assassination plot, he volunteered to wear a “suicide vest”. The fascinating part of that is that he discussed this idea with his father (a longtime member of the German resistance movement against Hitler). In the above article: Von Kleist remembered explaining the suicide plot to his father, who paused only briefly before telling his 22-year-old son: “Yes, you have to do this.”
That, to me, is a dark and disturbing window into the moral chaos of Hitler’s Germany. Just imagine the weight of those words in the moment they were uttered and in the years after.
Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus provide people the platform to speak their mind. Most folks moderate their thoughts, keep it casual, witty, and sometimes thought-provoking in an intricate way. I see interesting quotes, funny pictures, clever ways of describing a recently encountered situation.
But there are people (and many of us try this at least a few times) who use these platforms to occasionally make loud, proud, categorical declarations stemming from an ideology of division. Sometimes it’s a political statement that caricatures a popular talking point. Sometimes it’s a social statement of disapproval towards a particular group (e.g. speaking out against gay marriage or even homosexuality in general). Sometimes it’s a statement about positive ideals of loyalty, trust, love, teamwork, etc, concealing underneath an assumed hard division: us versus them.
That last one is a tricky one. I’ve often struggled to understand people when they make bold general statements. Sometimes they come from a good place, and sometimes from a bad place, and most of the time they don’t know themselves which place they come from. I know I’ve done that myself. Some statement like: “I’m surrounding myself with positivity, and keeping all negative people out of my life.” On the face of it, that’s a good thing to do. But when it is stated so simply it somehow puts its meaning in doubt. It’s almost a declaration (subconscious perhaps) that the person is full of negativity and is struggling to get past it. It’s a declaration that the world is full of negative people and we ought to find them and throw them out. I’m deeply uncomfortable with such statements of judgement and division.
It does seem that often times the loudest voices are the ones most plagued by doubt. We see it time and time again with preachers railing against homosexuality only to find out that they eventually give into homosexual desires that they had all along.
This isn’t some evil conspiracy, it’s just human nature.
I am genetically incapable of enjoying an “epic” love story of the kind in Titanic or The Notebook, but I do think that the connection that we weird monkeys call “love” is a glue that can makes a dark story that much deeper and more complex. In books and on screen, I like seeing flawed struggling characters try to navigate the turns of their messed-up existence while driven in part by a passionate affection towards one another.
Here are 10 of my favorites.
Leaving Las Vegas – Nicolas Cage rightfully won an Oscar for his performance in this. An alcoholic and a prostitute, attached by a mix of passion and desperation while spiraling down due to their self-affirming drug of choice.
Requiem for a Dream – The characters might not be as complex as Leaving Las Vegas, but the self destruction is more complete. A reminder that heroin is a different beast than alcohol. But the point of the movie is that everyone has an addiction (legal or not) that can potentially drag them to the bottom.
Casino – De Niro and Sharon Stone. The classic story of trying to make something work against the momentum of human nature. This story has been told in my many ways, but I just enjoy the hell out of this one. Joe Pesci makes this movie that much more perfect.
Good Will Hunting – This is the least mentally unstable movie on the list, and the closest to a “chick flick”. To me it’s a reminder that a girl can ground a messed-up mind, especially one full of big self-centered ideas.
True Romance – You and me against the world, with guns. Like most movies on this list, I can’t quite explain what makes it so much better than any other in its genre, but certainly the following Christopher Walken scene with Dennis Hopper (the main character’s father) doesn’t hurt. The idea that love and family comes before EVERYTHING else is moving especially when put in such clear terms.
Taxi Driver – Another movie with De Niro, and another movie with a prostitute. I’m starting to think that formula is drugs + prostitution + love + blood = profound statement about human nature.
Brown Bunny – I would never recommend this movie to my friends because it’s basically 1.5 hours of nothing happening. Roger Ebert called it the “worst movie in the history of Cannes”. But to me it’s one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had watching a film. It was the right time, the right mood, the right mindset for me. My girlfriend at the time was sleeping next to me, it was 3am, and I sat there patiently waiting for something to happen. I know I’m not alone in thinking this, as this movie is loved by many. If nothing much happens on screen for 20, 30, 40 minutes, you begin to put your own thoughts into the characters mind. Silence is powerful. But it does require patience.
Sweet and Lowdown – By far, Samantha Morton is my favorite actress ever since I saw her in the movie adaptation of Jane Eyre (1997) in high school. I think the book is terrible frankly, but her ability to convey emotion was stunning from that movie to her sex-driven tortured soul in “Under the Skin” to the simple quiet love of “Sweet and Lowdown” with Sean Penn.
Scent of a Woman – Pacino’s greatest performance. The tango scene alone is f’ing brilliant. It won’t make sense out of context, but if you’ve seen the movie, it’s one of the greatest 2 minutes of film ever (see below). This is the only movie on the list that does not actually involve a woman.
Secretary – I watched this movie twice in my life. First at around 20 and then again at around 27. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of weird forms of love and obsession, and went from finding the movie creepy to finding it a touching love story of two charmingly f’ed-up individuals.
I used to be a bit skeptical about the praise that the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek received among the younger generation of casual armchair philosophers. After all, it’s hard not to be distracted by the man’s random movements and random composition of words into sentences that at times contradict the sentences that precede it.
However, now I am beginning to understand and admire the man. He embodies the best of what a philosopher can be in the 21st century: one who provides no answers, a few rare questions, but mostly just makes us think:
Now, my favorite part of that Charlie Rose interview is Zizek’s “analysis” of the movie Titanic. It captures brilliantly what I’ve always saw as the fundamental flaw in that love story. That love always felt to me as the kind of love that would not outlast the Titanic trip were it not to sink:
That there is what Zizek does well: reveals the absurdity of topics, events, people that somehow feel a bit sacred and yet not at all. For example, he is fascinated with Stalin and claims that the failure of communism in the Soviet Union is much more complex than, for example, the failure of fascism in Germany. Again, he provides no answers, but explains quite brilliantly that the reasons for its failure are not trivial. Again, he asks good questions, and provides no answers. That is the role of the 21st century philosopher.