A past post discussed cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker and his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Denial of Death. Here, we consider two movie scenes connected to themes from that book.
As discussed previously, Becker’s book addresses how human beings are unique animals. Our intelligence allows us to realize we are going to one day die.
That knowledge of infinite death is overwhelming, so human beings adapt various ways of suppressing the knowledge. We buy material things, we follow sports teams, and we join clubs. Also, we attach ourselves to groups, cultural items, strong political leaders, and things that appear to give us a subconscious feeling of immortality.
Becker argued that some of the ways we suppress our subconscious fears of death are unhealthy. He reasoned that a better way to live is with conscious understanding of our situation. In Denial of Death, he wrote that whatever humans do “has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything.”
Some songs illustrate an aspect of this point: if you consciously realize your days are numbered, you may better evaluate and spend your time on what is important in your life. Two movie scenes illustrate a similar point.
In Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays a teacher at an all-boys school. In this scene, he attempts to get the students to confront their own mortality, hoping that if they realize their time is precious, they will better use the time they have.
Woody Allen has often discussed how Becker’s work has influenced his movies. In Annie Hall, there is a scene in a book store where Alvy (Woody Allen) gives Becker’s Denial of Death to Annie (Diane Keaton).
But another Allen movie sums up an aspect of Becker’s book in song. In this scene from Woody Allen’s musical, Everyone Says I Love You, the guest of honor at a funeral reminds the attendees of the fleeting nature of life.
So go enjoy yourself. Carpe diem. It’s later than you think.
What is your favorite movie about death? Leave your two cents in the comments.
In a superficial nutshell, Ernest Becker wrote about how humans are unique creatures because our intelligence gives us an understanding of something inevitable and horrible. One day we — and everyone we know — will die. This knowledge is so disturbing, Becker reasoned, that we subconsciously suppress this knowledge on a daily basis. In so doing, we subconsciously use other ideas to help us suppress our fears. Thus, we seek out things that help us feel immortal to buy the idea that we may one day die. For example, we root for sports teams because our attachment to a team that will survive and triumph makes us feel connected to something eternal.
But these attachments can have bad effects too. If I have a belief that helps me deal with my subconscious fear of death, your belief that is inconsistent with mine may make me feel threatened. As a result, our subconscious fear of death can make us hostile to people with different views from us. Interestingly, a number of scientists have been exploring these theories and are seeing results of how they affect our every day lives, influencing everything from voting to wars.
Anyway, that is my attempt to summarize some of the ideas in a couple of paragraphs, but the film Flight from Death does a better job of explaining it. In the film, a number of writers, philosophers, and Terror Management Theory scientists discuss the way that our subconscious fear of death can impact our lives. Some of the commentators in the film include Sam Keen, Robert Jay Lifton, Irvin Yalom, Merlyn Mowrey, Sheldon Solomon, and Daniel Liechty. It is one of the rare documentaries that can change the way you look at your life.
The film is narrated by Gabriel Byrne, and while the film is no longer available on YouTube, you may find some clips there, such as this 10-minute clip (or watch the whole film on Amazon).
What do you think of Flight from Death? Leave your two cents in the comments.
Everyone has been trying to make sense of the recent events at Penn State. Many wonder how Coach Joe Paterno failed to do more when his assistant allegedly raped a small boy, and they wonder why the administration let a sex offender slide for so long. I have wondered about those questions too, but I also have been pondering the contrasting ways that people reacted to the story. Despite the overwhelming criticism of Paterno’s failure to do more, many Penn State students, alum, and fans continue to show support for Paterno.
Many criticize the Penn State fans who rioted when the university Board of Trustees fired Paterno late at night. Students gathered that night, and then they tore down light posts and flipped over a news van. Then, on Saturday, Penn State fans showed up for the game against Nebraska showing their support for the fired coach. Meanwhile, commentators questioned how some Penn State fans could rally around Paterno and be upset at his dismissal.
There is nothing unique about Penn State fans. Had the scandal occurred elsewhere, many of the football fans now condemning Paterno and Penn State would be rallying around their own beloved coach. What is it about sports that causes us to act that way? Why do we become so passionate that we become angry at other fans in different colors? Why might we continue to support players and coaches on our own team when they have done something illegal or immoral?
In Time Magazine, Sean Gregory wrote that the rioting was “senseless” and that the students felt personally wronged when the school fired Paterno. Further, “If there’s one image that speaks to America’s twisted relationship with college sports, it’s the Penn State pro-Paterno rallies.” I understand the sentiment and the criticism of college sports, but it is wrong to distance ourselves so much from the rioting college students. The motivations that led them to riot are motivations that move us every day.
A Penn State graduate tried to find some sense in the riots. Michael Weinrab wrote in a Grantland article that quoted a student who explained, “Being accepted to Penn State felt like a family, and Joe Paterno was the father.” That statement does not tell the whole story, but it starts to help us make sense of the Paterno supporters and to get a little nearer to understanding the supporters instead of just chalking it up to “senseless” college students.
Previous Chimesfreedom posts have discussed the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who pondered similar questions about human behavior. In books like The Denial of Death, he explained that many of the things we do, like root for sports teams, is done to give meaning to our lives. When someone challenges the things that give meaning to our lives, it upsets us.
Becker’s book touches on several themes, but a principal theme may be summarized (in a somewhat oversimplified way): (1) human beings are intelligent; (2) because we are intelligent, we are faced with the knowledge that we are rotting pieces of animal flesh that will someday die; (3) this knowledge of our mortality is overwhelming, so we push the knowledge to our subconscious; (4) to help us deal with our knowledge of mortality, we subconsciously latch onto various cultural devices that help us suppress our fear of death — such as activities that make us feel immortal, like patriotism, shopping, or rooting for sports teams. Our subconscious quest for immortality may drive us to do things that benefit others, but it also may make us hostile to others who have belief systems different from us.
“Terror Management Theory” psychologists have done significant research regarding how these theories affect our real world interactions. And Ernest Becker’s books, in particular Denial of Death and Escape from Evil, explain the theories in more detail.
As an example of the connection between sports, death, and immortality, watch this speech from We Are Marshall (2006). The movie recounts the true story of a town and team rebuilding after members of the high school football team were killed in a plane crash. In this speech, Coach Jack Lengyel, played by Matthew McConaughey, extols his players to live up to their best by reminding them of their predecessors’ deaths. By reminding them of their own mortality, he tells them, “How you play today, from this moment on, is how you will be remembered.” (3:26) If that is not a clear enough connection between sports and immortality, he then adds, “This is your opportunity to rise from these ashes and grab glory.” In a line reminiscent of the Penn State comment about family, the team then chants, “We are Marshall,” asserting they are not mortal individuals but something bigger and permanent that survives even death.
Most people, like me, will find this speech moving. But it is these same emotions that drove the Penn State fans to riot. In Penn State, those students who rioted this week at the news of Paterno’s firing were not just upset about a coach being fired. Had those students enrolled in another school, they would not have been upset. But, like we all do, they had found meaning — and subconscious immortality — in something larger than themselves.
Their school — and in particular the Nittany Lions football team and the long-term coach — made them something more than college students worried about life and their futures. By being a Penn State fan, those students were attached to something large and permanent that made them feel immortal, like they could rise from the ashes. And then when the power of the coach and the team was revealed to be a fraud, it made them feel like they lost their own power and were closer to being a weak, powerless animal. They foolishly and subconsciously hoped to re-establish this lost power through their riots.
None of this explanation is to offer an excuse for the riots. But as in everything, it is always good when we try to understand why someone else acts as they do, because we all are human. This weekend when I watch my favorite football team I will try to remember that it is just a game, but I will probably forget.
Midnight in Paris is a very good light-hearted entry from director Woody Allen and starring Owen Wilson. The film begins with Wilson and his fiance, played by Rachel McAdams, visiting Paris. Wilson is a screenwriter struggling to write his first book. Wilson loves Paris and longs for the literary Paris of the past, and then his desire to live in the past comes true. One night, after he gets lost walking back to his hotel, he ends up back in the 1920s where he encounters F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, as well as other artists from that era. After the night’s adventure, he goes back to his hotel and the twenty-first century, but he plans to visit his friends from the 1920s again the next evening. What will he see and what will he learn from his trips to the romantic 1920s?
I realize different people have different feelings about films directed by Woody Allen. Some adore most or all of them while others are not fans, perhaps because they feel his life has tainted the films, as in a topic we discussed last week. Critics often like Allen’s films more than viewers, as shown by the current Rotten Tomatoes rating for Midnight in Paris (92% critics; 77% audience). By way of disclosure, I like most of Allen’s films; I love several of them; and there is one that I would probably list among my top twenty films of all time (Crimes and Misdemeanors).
While it is unfortunate that Allen’s films often have to compete with each other, it it is fair for viewers to consider how a new film ranks within Allen’s canon of films. Considering Midnight in Paris in that context, it is not his best work ever, but it is certainly very good. And, more fairly, considering the comedies usually released during the summer, it is more enjoyable and thoughtful than most of them. The lines are witty, the background is beautiful, the story is interesting, and the movie features fine acting from Wilson in “the Woody Allen role” as well as other actors in the ensemble like Kathy Bates and Marion Cotillard.
Since Allen has started making several films in cities outside New York, he has used the camera to make these other cities characters in his films the way he once made New York a character in films like Manhattan. And Midnight in Paris certainly makes one desire to walk the streets of Paris and live a rich lifestyle there, beginning with the opening several minutes devoted to various scenes around the city.
Another feature of Allen’s films is that he often addresses serious themes about life and death, and he does so in Midnight in Paris. For many years Allen has noted that he has been influenced by Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death, which is about how our fears affect the way we live. Some of those themes are touched on in this film, as are themes about nostalgia and longing for the past. The themes of nostalgia are reminiscent of Allen’s excellent movie The Purple Rose of Cairo. Although the resolution of these themes in Midnight in Paris is fairly predictable, one may not mind the ride because the journey is so scenic.
What is your favorite Woody Allen film? Leave a comment.
The New Yorker recently published a sad story by Jeffrey Toobin about the prosecution of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, and how the fallout from the case affected a young Justice Department lawyer named Nicholas Marsh, who committed suicide. (Casualties of Justice, Jan. 3, 2011).
The media is all over a story until suddenly the story disappears, and it was that way with the Sen. Stevens prosecution. There was extensive coverage of the case against Ted Stevens, who was charged with failing to report gifts of reduced rates on renovations to a house. While the case was pending, Stevens lost reelection in 2008. Then the media coverage died down. But the Stevens case did not result in a conviction, and the Attorney General’s Office ultimately asked for all charges to be dropped against Stevens because prosecutors breached ethics by failing to disclose information indicating Stevens may not have been guilty. Stevens died in a plane crash in Alaska in 2010.
Nicholas Marsh was one of the prosecutors in the Alaska investigation that resulted in nine successful convictions revealing corruption in the state political system. Although Marsh participated in the Stevens case, Toobin wrote that apparently Marsh had nothing to do with the unethical actions by his fellow prosecutors. But because of Marsh’s involvement in the case, officials removed Marsh from his high-esteem position and moved him to a lower-prestige department. Meanwhile, the Office of Professional Responsibility continues to investigate the conduct of the Stevens prosecutors.
Even though Marsh may ultimately be cleared, the stress from the ongoing investigation took its toll on him. Depressed and unsuccessfully fighting his demons, in September 2010 he hanged himself in the basement of his suburban Washington, D.C. home. Married less than five years, he did not leave a note for his young wife.
It is tragic to think of Marsh feeling his life was crashing down as his career identity was crumbling. Maybe he could have left town and started over again and eventually been happy again. But one suspects that for whatever reasons he felt like he could not get away.
In an earlier post about life lessons, Chimesfreedom discussed Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Denial of Death. In the book, Becker explained that people identify with things — be it possessions, esteem, organizations, sports teams, etc. — to give meaning to their lives and to give us defense mechanisms against our fears. Many of us identify ourselves by our jobs. And, as has happened frequently to far too many people in the last several years during the recession, if we lose a job we feel we lose our entire identity and our defense mechanism against our fears.
The story about the Stevens case reminded me of a song by folk-singer and activist Charlie King. King is a good performer, full of stories and good songs about social issues. One song, entitled “Our Life is More than Our Work,” has common-sense lyrics reminding us something we often forget when we get wrapped up in our own worlds: “You know that our life is more than our work / And our work is more than our jobs.”
The song reminds us that we are not our jobs. Additionally, we each have work to do during our lives that is beyond our jobs. But even that broader work is not the whole of your life.
The New Yorker story about the Alaska prosecution also reminded me of Insomnia (2003), a movie that focuses on a criminal case in Alaska involving questionable professional ethics that haunt the lead character. Insomnia is a very good movie about a Los Angeles detective played by Al Pacino who goes to Alaska to investigate a crime. While there, he is unable to sleep from the constant daylight and from being haunted by his past choices. The movie, directed by Christopher Nolan, features excellent acting by Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and a creepy Robin Williams. It reveals how our jobs can take us down a well-worn path where we feel we do not have control.
Most likely, there were other factors contributing to the Nicholas Marsh tragedy besides the ethics investigation, and it is ridiculous to think that lessons from an action movie or a folk song could save a life. But music and movies can make us think about our lives and maybe change our attitudes a tiny bit. And that’s something. As Charlie King sings, “Think how our life could be, feel how our life could flow / If just for once we could let ourselves go.”