A Closer Look …

… at Passengers: [spoilers] what it means for Aurora to choose to stay with Jim.

In Passengers, the space ship transporting thousands of colonists to a distant planet experiences a malfunction that awakens Jim Preston eighty years ahead of schedule. He cannot return to hibernation (as far as he knows), and he anticipates a life of absolute loneliness which drives him into depression and despair. Eventually he decides – against his own better judgment – to wake up one of the other passengers, the lovely Aurora Lane, whose profile he has been studying.

The problem isn’t that we don’t understand why he did that; the problem is, what do we think of Aurora’s decision to love Jim, and to stay with him, even when she knows that he woke her up on purpose, even after she learns that she can return to hibernation?

For me, the story of Passengers isn’t about the Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale; it’s about what happens after the fairy-tale. For me – and for many women – the fairy-tale notions we’ve grown up reading and seeing and learning all too often turn into something we think we should be living. We fall for the suggestion that we are princesses, and that “someday our prince will come,” and that the prince will be handsome and rich and cheerful and perfect, and he will take us away and we will live “happily ever after.” We fall for the suggestion that that’s love. We fall for the thought that real, living human beings can be reduced to two-dimensional cartoon characteristics, and that finding love (and a prince to care for you) is the end of all your problems.

I know actual people in my life who have spent half a century being unhappy and bitter that the men they married weren’t actually princes, and that life was still full of challenges, problems, and complexity. For me, this “princess” syndrome is a sad parallel to Stockholm syndrome – using our emotional expectations to make socioeconomic decisions that guarantee we’re dependent on men and vaguely disappointed with their faults and humanity. We don’t fall in love with our captors; rather, we choose our captors in advance and expect ourselves to fall in love with them.

But when this “prince”, Jim Preston, wakes up his Aurora, they don’t get to ride off into the sunset. There’s even a scene where they watch the ship pass close by a sun, and they’re moved by it … and then they turn around and return to the empty ship. No sunset, no white horse, no happily ever after … just the day-to-day reality of living with one another. They’re falling in love, but that doesn’t fill the ship with other people, or transport them magically to the distant planet. And it certainly doesn’t make a lick of difference to Aurora when she discovers that Jim woke her up – that it was no malfunction of technology but rather his human weakness that has damned her to this life. She hates him. Of course she hates him. She doesn’t care if he’s sorry. She doesn’t care if he had reasons that she can understand. She doesn’t care, because it’s her life, and he’s ruined it. He’s chosen something for her without her knowledge or approval … and when we compare this metaphorical story to real life, we can see all too well how often women – and men too – put themselves in that princess-woken-up-by-the-prince position: our finances, our emotional well-being, the life we carve out for ourselves – we’ve decided that some “prince” should be instrumental in those things, and that we’re helpless to do anything about it.

But in the story – on the space-ship – Aurora doesn’t have any actual power, right? She doesn’t have economic wealth without Jim … well, actually, she’s the one who has the gold level of access, and once she’s awake, he can finally get something out of the food dispenser besides oatmeal. She can’t explore her career … well, actually, her chosen profession of writing and journalism proceeds just as it would have on the distant planet, with the same expectation of her words being heard by future generations. She’s in the same situation Jim is, sentenced to a life on a sleeping ship with only each other and the android waiters for company. The only difference is that he did this to her … and when she sees what he’s done, she stops loving him. She even debates killing him.

But one day she faces the possibility of being alone herself, of losing Jim to the peril (all movies have to face a peril), and she decides that she would rather not be alone. She decides to save his life, and to open her heart again to loving him. She decides to forgive – perhaps because of the love she felt before his misdeed was revealed, perhaps because she suddenly understood in a more visceral way how the prospect of a solitary life had prompted him to make such a selfish choice. She puts him in the medical pod and resuscitates him … even though, technically, he would have been better off dead.

He had debated suicide before he woke up Aurora, and, as far as he knew, the rest of any life he would have on the ship would be spent in the ritualized mutual avoidance he and Aurora developed after their break-up. He had welcomed her attempt to kill him, and looked a bit disappointed that she chose to walk away. Even if he thought that perhaps she might one day be willing to talk to him again, what sort of life is it to spend sixty years with only one other person to talk to and only so many songs stored in the computer? He would have been better off dead; her resuscitation of him, technically, can be described as a selfish act of cruelty.

But if this is the flip side of Sleeping Beauty, why, then, does she decide to stay with him in such a solitary life even after they discover that the med-pod will act as a hibernation unit? He tells her to go into it; neither of them suggests that he go into it – the consequence of his misdeed is that none of his redeeming acts will allow him to be the one who gets the med-pod. So why does she stay? She suddenly has options; why would she choose to stay with Jim and call it love?

Well, at any time, she can change her mind – she can go into the hibernation pod and leave Jim to his lonely fate. And speaking as someone who grew up hearing the “happily-ever-after” myth – and seeing the real-life consequence of waiting for a prince to come and then handing over agency to him – if Aurora has choices, then she has freedom. She has agency. She has everything.

To look at her decision as a sign of Stockholm syndrome is to say, “A woman cannot choose; her alleged decisions are really just siding with her captor. A woman has no agency; her actions are really just a factor of male manipulation.” To look at her decision this way is to say, “Jim is the main character.” And, most importantly, when we look at the theme of this story as a parallel to real life and to real human interaction, seeing her decision in such a way is to say, “Jim is a villain because he did something wrong.” But everyone makes mistakes, and the one that women who find themselves in the “princess” zone make all too often is to decide that life and love and relationships and expectations and careers and responsibility are up to “the man” and are guaranteed to be “perfect”.

Are there plenty of examples in the real world of women (and men) unwisely staying with a partner whose “mistakes” are unacceptable? Of course. But I don’t think this movie is referring to those examples. I think it’s referring to a more general human truth – we all have faults and failing, we make mistakes, we do things because they seemed like a good idea at the time. Real life is full of complications and difficulties and people who aren’t as uniquely and joyfully suited to one another as a pair of cartoon characters. Real life exists on the other side of the sunset, and there are no guarantees of anything.

For me, the answer to the “princess syndrome” is for us to wake up – to take initiative, to explore our options, to be comfortable with our boundaries and our needs and our feelings, to carve out our own lives and to only allow others into them according to what we think will be good for us. For me, this answer addresses the all-too-real problem of staying with people who aren’t good to us – because we’ll know that we can make our own decisions and take care of ourselves, so we won’t be as likely to choose a “captor-victim” dynamic over a true friendship or partnership.

For me, the main character of Passengers is not Jim; it’s Aurora. We know her story before we know Jim’s. We know her emotions and her reasons for them. Our hearts are aligned with hers, because, although we understand why Jim did what he did, we know how horrible it is for her to face the life he has sentenced her to. We know that, if he is to redeem himself, it will probably be by sacrificing his life for her, because nothing less will cut it. If he wants her to believe that he’s good enough for her, then he’s going to have to die. … And he does. He dies. He can give no more than that. In the context of the story, it makes sense to me that she would choose to give him a chance.

But if we look at the theme of the film? – does it still make sense for her to choose to spend a life with him when she could have gone into the med-pod? I think it makes even more sense.

In real life, the outcome isn’t about a sixty-year stint on a ship with no other human being to talk to; it’s about a sixty-year stint with someone we chose for reasons that might have included an expectation of being cared for, or an expectation of our prince’s sunny, cheerful perfection in temperament and talent. In real life, no one’s perfect. In real life, no one “saves” us. In real life, we choose on a daily basis: Do I go into the med-pod or do I stick with this other person? In real life, that choice is a lot harder than we usually expect it to be, especially if we bought the “princess” thing.

If there hadn’t been a med-pod for her to go into, maybe I would feel differently. But Aurora can choose to climb into the med-pod at any moment, and, since she’s the one with gold level access, she can control Jim’s movements on the ship should he try to interfere with her getting into, and staying in, the med-pod. She didn’t need Jim to wake her up with a prince’s kiss. She didn’t need him to survive the peril. She doesn’t need him for gold level access. To see him as the captor and her as the hostage is to give him power over her that he never had in the first place, and it suggests that the ship – and the story – are somehow his and that she’s just a kidnapped visitor. But in fact Aurora holds all the cards, and her voice (as she narrates her writing that she’s left for the colonists to find) is the only one we hear.

In fact, Jim has to go forward knowing that Aurora holds those cards. He has to know that he’s only alive because she saved him – twice. He has to know, for the rest of his life, that her staying with him is a tremendous gift and that his original misdeed was egregious beyond words – his worth is now inextricably linked to her willingness to forgive. … Maybe he’s the hostage. Maybe when she resuscitated him, that “kiss” woke him up, and now he’s embracing pseudo-romantic into-the-sunset notions that revolve exclusively around “well, at least I won’t be alone anymore.” Maybe we should question why he’s okay with that.

But I don’t think we should question Aurora’s decision … because it was hers to make. Ironically enough, Jim always knew that – that’s why he felt conflicted and horrible. And if even one princess (waiting for her perfect saviour-prince) watches the story and thinks, “I, too, can make my own decisions,” then the message was a good one indeed.

That Was A Surprise …

The Drifter [spoilers].

The Drifter is about four strangers who find themselves lost in a vast desert. They all wake up separately, but find each other as they stumble through the sand in the hot sun. They all wake up with angry scars where their kidneys would ordinarily be, and they wonder if they’ve become part of an urban legend. But that isn’t the way real life goes, they reason; something else must be going on. Someone cut each of them, sewed them up, and left them in the desert in strategic proximity to each other.

Eventually the other three decide it must secretly be the man who originally found them, although he seems as confused and frightened as they are. Maybe they just don’t like the way he took charge of the situation, as though he were the leader. Maybe they just don’t like the way he says there must be a reason, an end, a purpose to their journey.

Eventually one of them turns on the would-be leader, and on whoever put him in the desert, and in a frenzy he digs into his scar until he passes out. And then the scenes change, and the four strangers find themselves first in a forest with a banquet table laden with food and weapons, and then on a river raft in a steep canyon. Nothing makes sense, and nothing stays the same for long. The strangers are as perplexed as the audience, who are wondering by this time, Is this a dream sequence? Is this a supernatural movie? Is it a fantasy movie? Did they mix up the reels?

But then the would-be leader begins having visions different from the others – memories of what happened before he landed in the desert. None of them can remember who they are or how they got there, but the leader starts to remember images from his life – images of a business partner and friend who’s trying to get to his sick wife in the hospital, images of a wife who loved him once but doesn’t anymore, images of a woman who needed something from him and he let her down.

Eventually he realizes that the events he’s experiencing with these three strangers are really just his mind’s response to something he did in life that he’s ashamed of. Eventually he remembers that he was supposed to save the friend’s wife by donating a kidney, but that he chickened out. He remembers that he put himself and his business ahead of his wife, his partner-friend, his friend’s wife, her life.

He understands why the “strangers” walking with him through the desert are so mad at him, even though he didn’t do anything. He understands that it’s because he didn’t do anything.

The Drifter starts out in such a strange way, and everyone is reacting in such a strange manner to their circumstances; the setting goes from one place to another with no particular explanation, which is confusing at best and certainly off-putting. But if we, along with the main character, stay with it, and allow ourselves to piece together the jangled images from the past, the picture – the film – becomes clear.

And the connection to ourselves becomes clear too: we run from the things we’ve done even more than we do from danger. We’ll run through a desert of our own making rather than face ourselves and our crimes. We’ll cast ourselves as the hero in the drama we created, but in the end we’re just making everything worse for ourselves and the people around us. But underneath, no matter how far or how fast we run, no matter how hard we try to forget, we actually do remember. We carry it in our cells. We carry our guilt like an angry scar where the things we ought to have done differently are painful and obvious in their non-existence. But nothing in our lives really makes sense until we’ve dealt with all of it.

So The Drifter turned out to be a lot more than an urban-legend-horror film … and it turned out, really, to be an excellent movie for the New Year – new beginnings, new chances to change ourselves, new opportunities to confront our failings and foibles and to make something good out of them.

If we’re willing to do that.


That Was A Surprise …


Booth is a Japanese horror film about a radio show host. He’s famous; he knows that he’s famous. He believes, therefore, that he’s more important than the not-famous people around him. He’s overbearing and uncaring toward his staff and to the women in his life. He feels entitled to do exactly as he pleases without worrying about others’ feelings or any obligation he might have.

But it’s a horror movie, so of course he ends up in the radio booth that everyone says is haunted. We learn about a strange force – a vengeful woman’s spirit – that drives the men who come into the booth to suicide. The radio host doesn’t believe in anything like that, and is only irritated that he has to move from his regular booth. He’s also irritated about events earlier in the day – a quarrel with one of his female producers who had thought she and the radio host had a relationship, and who was justifiably angry to learn that she had meant nothing to him.

Having watched a hundred Asian horror films, I expected the ordinary conventions involving copious amounts of long black hair, fake outs in mirrors, weird noises emanating from ghostly white faces, and “bad guys” that had angered the spirits of the dead. But Booth really doesn’t have any of those. It has weird noises, but they’re linked to the day’s earlier events. It has dark corners, but nothing ever jumps out of them. The radio host experiences strange things, but most of them aren’t supernatural – he’s simply being worn down mentally by a series of inconveniences and little troubles, until he’s no longer capable of maintaining any kind of equanimity … basically, he’s being chased to a place where he has to look at himself and his actions, and see what he’s been to others.

And when his darkest secrets are revealed to the audience, the horror turns out to be not other-worldly, but instead rooted squarely in the radio host’s faults, failings, and insensitivity.

Unfortunately, since it is a horror film, the characters are not allowed to enjoy the benefits of having learned their lessons the way they might in the real world. But Booth is an excellent study in human nature, human weakness, and psychological self-torment. In fact, the more conventional horror frame-story is almost a distraction, a way to spare the radio host from having to face the more frightening consequences of being his real self in front of other human beings. But even that distraction is an unconventional horror – by offering that escape from real-world consequences, it also robs him of the gift of true success, of having everything he had sought when he first decided to become famous.

It turns out everyone around him liked him just fine, but he was too scared to see it.

That Was A Surprise …

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (mild spoilers).

When I first saw previews of Tucker and Dale, I thought it would be yet another parody movie – like the Scary Movie franchise or Disaster Movie – which, for me, have become a sort of one-trick pony. They often aren’t my kind of humour, and so I didn’t really want to watch Tucker and Dale. But my young son said that I would like it … and who am I to argue with that? So I watched it.

And I loved it.

At every turn, the audience can see – without having it explained to death – what each group of people is experiencing; the movie manages to play on stereotypes without actually creating any (with the possible exception of the bad-guy reveal, because bad-guy reveals are pretty much all the same). It shows a burgeoning romance without needing everyone to take their clothes off twenty minutes after meeting one another (sorry if that’s what you were looking for). It shows how appearances can be deceiving – as well as crime scene evidence. And it shows a friendship between Tucker and Dale that isn’t just about drinking beer – in fact, the conversations between Tucker and Dale, and Tucker’s attitude toward the vacation home he’s just bought, might make the audience wonder if they’ve been approaching life and friendships all wrong.

Is Tucker and Dale a good choice for Christmas viewing? I suppose that depends on your tastes at the holidays … but I would say it is. You’ll laugh, you’ll think about preconceived notions, you’ll hope for the chance at love, and you’ll re-examine the things you wanted for your own life – a perfect Christmas lesson, I think. And – spoiler alert – no animals are harmed in the making of this film.

So I’m saying Tucker and Dale vs Evil is ideal for Christmas, and for any other day you’d like to feel good about things for a couple of hours. Happy viewing!


The Thing I Like About … [spoilers]

As Above So Below: when the tour guide’s friend acknowledges his child.

In As Above, the main characters are seeking secret treasure in the catacombs underneath Paris. They ask a couple of locals to help them navigate the parts of the tunnels where tourists aren’t supposed to go. After the group leaves the main tunnels, they quickly become lost, cut off, and terrified. They begin to see things – images and even corporeal items – from their pasts, and to hear voices from beyond the grave.

By the end, the few survivors are injured, apparently trapped, and surrounded by creatures that crept out of the darkness. There’s little hope … until the main character figures out the secret to escape: confront whatever shames them.

The local man who had brought them into the catacombs asks no questions and wastes no time. He admits to having a child that he knows is his but has never claimed. He offers no apology and no excuse.

And he is allowed to escape.

We walk through our lives complaining about the things that have hurt us, but we often turn a blind eye to the things we have done, to the hurts we have caused. We pretend to ourselves that we don’t know why we feel bad or why we never seem to be able to look on the bright side. We pretend that we’ve left the past behind us, and that we have no sins to report – certainly not enough sins to warrant the things we have suffered at the hands of others or at the hands of fate.

But we’re only pretending.

We always know what we’ve done. And as long as we don’t acknowledge it, it will stay with us, haunting us, attacking us again and again, driving us deeper into the pit we’ve dug for ourselves. We’re never really unaware of our crimes, and convincing others we’re innocent never really convinces us.

Of course, some of the characters hadn’t even really done anything wrong; they just thought they had. They had been children, witness to a tragedy that they only imagined was their fault. But the effect was the same – a cesspool of shame and guilt that swirled just below the surface of everything they thought and everything they were.

Once the shame is acknowledged, however, it trickles away like water out of a tub. Once the crimes – real or imagined – are faced and dealt with, the guilt evaporates, leaving a clean slate and a fresh new heart. There’s no need for apology – why would there be shame if there was no regret? – and there’s no need for excuses – everyone in the tunnels had something that tormented them, some transgression that darkened their spirits. Everyone hurts and is hurt, because everyone is a human being.

And the ones who accept that and are willing to deal with the consequences … they go free.

The Thing I Like About …

… Baron the big black Labrador Retriever: the things he taught me while he was on this planet.

Baron started out on a brave road; his first owner’s mind was deeply troubled, and it was truly good fortune that led Baron from him to my friends. You might say that Baron was sort of born out of that difficult intersection between chaos and peace, and from that day forward demonstrated with every breath how to avoid the pitfalls of the dark side.

I remember my friends holding him when they first got him – swept up in their arms like a little baby (although even as a weeks-old puppy, he was already pretty big), and talking to him the way we talk to babies, as though they’ll understand. Of course, he did understand: You love me. Awesome! Unlike babies, Baron grew to his full size in a matter of months, becoming very quickly a hundred-and-twenty pound locomotive. He steered like a cow, but, like any freight train, once he was going he was going, and if you didn’t know him and he was running at you with his enormous mouth hanging open, you figured this was probably your last moment on earth because he was going to eat you. If you did know him, you figured this was probably your last moment on earth because he was not going to be able to stop or turn, and anyway you would be drowned in a sea of drool.

I do not believe that any scolding he received ever amounted to anything, because everything that happened before now was as lost to the mists of time as the names of the dinosaurs. Similarly, he remembered no hurt or transgression for more than a moment. Meals were likewise forgotten in an instant, so that it was always time for more food – including yours. You stopped looking directly at your plate of dinner? Yoink. You’re tossing out perfectly good Styrofoam? Yoink. Embarrassing things in your bathroom garbage? Yoink.

People would enter the house to be greeted by a tail wagging so hard that it could sweep them off their feet and possibly break a bone. He clearly felt that they had been dead since their previous departure, and he was ecstatic to discover they were still alive. “I’m so glad you’re here because I’ve never eaten in my life and you will feed me and if you don’t I’m so glad you’re here because YOU ARE HERE!”

He only retained the memories that really mattered: the whereabouts of his stuffed toy Duck-Duck, the whereabouts of nourishment, shaking hands and “going long” and other tricks, and love. And, really, the first ones are just a little division of the last one – everything that mattered was about love. And nothing wasn’t love.

If you were sad, he would sit next to you with this aura of “What is ‘sad’? Is it edible? Should I destroy it with the poison gas of my breath?” Ditto for anger, or irritation, or anxiety, or any sign that you did not want to be licked to death today – “I will eliminate these strange words with the poison gas.” The only sentiment was love. The only time was now. The only future was coming back for another potato chip.

But every freight train eventually stops, and this tail-whipping behemoth of joy was eventually called back home, and none of the complex things in our complicated world could prevent it.

Then another friend lost her grandmother, and, in my mental search for what words could possibly make my friend feel better, I imagined her grandmother walking into heaven, where Baron is sitting running at her with his giant tongue lolling out of his big ol’ head, waiting for her bowling her over in exuberance as he explains in his particular way how to put down all that crap she had been carrying all her life … all the crap each of us carries for all the years we’re here – the struggles and drama and accumulations and mind-games and acquisitions and failures and hurts and comparisons. For my friend’s grandmother, the days of carrying that stuff are over. For Baron, there never were any days like that.

But I don’t want to wait until I die, or wait until I come back to this world as a dog. I want to listen now, and really get it now, and put all that stuff down now. The only sentiment is love. The only time is now. The only sadness is when one of the pack has had to go home before we were all done playing the game.

Thanks, Bar-Bar. I won’t forget.

The Thing I Like About …

The Piano: when Baines says Ada looks tired.

Ada has been obliged to leave her home and marry – through the mail – a man she’s never met. She’s brought her young daughter over the ocean on a rickety boat to an unsettled land. She has been left on the beach, and has no idea when her husband will be picking her up. She makes a tent out of a hoop skirt to shield herself and her daughter from the wind, and they wait for hours to see what the next chapter of their lives will be.

Her husband Stewart finally arrives with a team of servants to carry Ada’s belongings. He busies himself deciding which of Ada’s things will be carried to the house and which will not. He discovers his new family in their makeshift tent, and, because he knows she is mute, shouts at her at first as though she were deaf. Eventually he accepts that she can hear him, but he still looks put off, and says to Baines, “She’s small; I never thought she’d be small,” and, “What do you think? She’s stunted; that’s one thing.”

George Baines says, “She looks tired.”

In the context of the film, this exchange illustrates the relationships of the three main characters – Baines sees Ada as a person, while Stewart sees Ada as a product he has purchased, and Ada is silent. In the context of the film, we are encouraged to dislike Stewart in his coldness and his unwillingness to see Ada’s humanity.

Outside of the film, however, Stewart’s notions and mindset and actions are a lot more like our typical behaviour than we would probably like to admit.

It isn’t that we don’t think other people are people. It’s that we forget that other people are people. We imagine that other people owe something to us – to be a certain physical appearance, to have certain opinions, to behave in certain ways that meet our needs and desires. We imagine a “perfect” partner – spouse, friend, colleague, family member, child – and we attach our goals and identity to finding these “things” we decided we wanted; when others don’t match what we imagined, we don’t just feel disappointed or let down. We feel attacked, as though the other person has actually hurt us by being himself or herself instead of the “perfect” thing we “purchased” in our heads.

Ironically, we even tolerate unacceptable behaviour – family-devastating drug addictions, physical violence, emotional abuse – if the person offering that behaviour falls into enough of the “goal” categories – in finances, in physical attractiveness, in social standing, etc. We prefer others who allow us to tick off each item on our list of “what we expected”, even if they’re accompanied by items that hurt us. Basically, “perfect” doesn’t mean “good” but means instead that another human being has met our goals and supported our notions.

And of course all too often we’re Ada: silent in the face of others’ opinions and actions, but underneath imagining the life we would prefer, and acting out from this subconscious longing in ways that are destructive to ourselves and others. We sublimate ourselves in hopes of garnering the “perfection” we want … but Ada doesn’t really find the love and independence and happiness she seeks until she starts talking – through her piano, through expression of emotions, through active decision-making.

Interestingly, Ada’s first true communication with Stewart after she finds her voice is to forgive him – not with words like “I forgive you” but with statements about her own feelings rather than accusations about Stewart’s inadequacies. Once she decides to use her own voice, his actions and mistakes just don’t really matter to her anymore, and she simply moves forward.

What kind of “perfection” from others do you seek? When you think of others, do you think, “Pretty, smart, pleasant, angry, stupid, ugly, etc.”? Or do you think, “Happy, sad, tired, afraid, peaceful, etc.”? Do you think about how they’re affecting you, or how they are affected? Neither way is wrong … but if we only ever interact from the first mindset and never include the second one, then we aren’t ever really seeing the other person as someone separate from ourselves. We’re never seeing them the way we want to be seen by others. We’re focusing on our expectations at the expense of connection – the connection we all want when we make our little “perfection” goals in the first place.

Throughout the film, Stewart seems “overbearing, controlling, sexist, shallow” … but in the end – after everyone has been able to see each other as human beings, after everyone has spoken with his or her own voice for their own happiness, after everyone has accepted that others aren’t there to meet expectations – in the end, Stewart just seems … sad and lonely.

We might all be a lot more like Stewart than we would care to be, but unlike him – a fictional character who must learn his lessons the hard way – we can just turn around and do something else.

We can turn around and really see someone else.

The Thing I Like About …

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: the layered meaning of the no-win scenario.

In The Wrath of Khan, we first see our main characters as they participate in the Kobayashi Maru test. We don’t know it’s a test at first; we’re alarmed when everything starts going wrong, when torpedoes start hitting the ship and consoles explode. Half of the main characters are “killed”, and the “captain” decides to cut her losses and evacuate the ship – but it’s likely too late, because the situation is already incredibly dire.

Then the lights come up and the shaking stops, and we realize that all of this was a war-game designed to test the subject’s response to an unavoidable catastrophe; it’s a “no-win scenario,” where all decisions lead to the same unhappy outcome.

“Ah,” the audience says, relieved that Sulu and McCoy are still alive. “I understand. Kobayashi Maru, no-win scenario, yes, yes.” And we go on with the rest of the movie.

But the movie comes back to the Kobayashi Maru. When the main characters are all trapped in an underground research facility, knowing that their only rescue – the disabled Enterprise – is likely going to be blown up by the bad guy whose ship (of course) still works just fine, Saavik (the test-subject at the beginning of the film) learns that Captain Kirk is the only one ever to beat the Kobayashi Maru test.

He explains that he reprogrammed the test so that it was possible to rescue the ship.

The others say that he cheated, but Kirk says that he doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario. And then Spock, who apparently doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario either, shows up to rescue everyone with a perfectly healthy Enterprise, and the ship goes out to find and defeat the gullible bad guy, like every other movie wherein the hero faces unbelievable – and at times ludicrous – odds but manages to save the day in the end. Why, even the fallen heroes aren’t really dead; just as in the opening training sequence, the fallen get back up, straighten their uniforms, and live to fight another day.

Because Hollywood – and every story-teller around every campfire, ever – doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario either.

Saavik treats the ending of Khan as though Kirk and Spock have finally faced the Kobayashi Maru test, and been forced to handle unavoidable catastrophe. But the catastrophe was avoided; the ship is safe. Very few have died. The bad guy has been destroyed. The good guys have won. We hear Saavik saying that they’ve just endured a Kobayashi Maru situation, but they really haven’t.

“Ah,” the audience says. “Kirk cheated again, and somehow didn’t really take the test he said he doesn’t believe in. But he has to believe in it now, because, just like Saavik said, this whole film has been the no-win scenario … except … except they … they won.”

They won because Kirk and Spock reprogrammed the options so it was possible to rescue the ship – just like Kirk did twenty years ago. Why, it almost seems like the whole movie is really about … how there … isn’t a no-win scenario.

So why did we-the-audience believe it was a no-win scenario in the first place?

Because someone told us it was.

Someone told us it was. …

Why did we listen?

The Thing I Like About …

Awake:  when his mother lights her cigarette.

In Awake, Clay Beresford is a young man with a heart condition. He’s waiting for a heart transplant, and his rare blood type means that he’s been waiting for a long time. When a heart finally becomes available, Clay is prepped for surgery … and experiences everyone’s nightmare – the anesthesia only paralyzes him, while leaving him awake, aware, and able to feel pain.

He endures the situation by taking his mind as far away as it can go – to thoughts of his lovely wife, of his parents, of places he’s been that aren’t this operating room. But eventually it takes its toll, and as he learns unpleasant truths while overhearing the conversations of the people who believe he’s “under”, he sinks into despair and resignation – he decides that he’s not going to live through this, and that maybe he doesn’t really want to.

Visually, we follow Clay as he descends into hopelessness: in his mind, he sees himself walking down the city streets to his home, while the streetlights and building lights go off one by one behind him. Finally he enters his house, where only the foyer light is on, and then even that goes dark. He sits in front of the fireplace for a while, but the fire dies. He makes his way upstairs to his bedroom, the house lights clicking off as he passes them. He curls up on his bed, and the nightstand lamp turns off, leaving him in total darkness. In the real world, his body begins to die, and the doctors working on him are on the verge of giving up; in his mind, he’s given up already, and he sinks further into his bed and waits for death.

Then the single flame of a match cuts through the darkness.

Clay’s mother is there by the bed. She lights her cigarette, and talks to Clay until he’s ready to come back to his life again. She helps him confront the truths he’s been learning, and even gives him new ones to think about. She gives him the strength to face life, and to wake up.

It’s only a match; it’s only a cigarette. But for Clay it’s the only light in the world. For Clay it’s a path through the deepest darkness he’s ever known. For Clay, it’s everything.

We underestimate small lights. We underestimate them in others, and focus instead on all the things about them that annoy us, or all the things they’ve done wrong, or all the things they’ve failed at, or all the ways they’ve let us down by not being what we expected them to be.

And we underestimate our own light – the way that we contribute to this world, not with our money or our position or our staggering intellect, but with our love, our kindness, our unique qualities that offer something special to the world. We underestimate our strength, our success, our ability to give. We underestimate how much we can encourage someone just by being ourselves, just by bringing our good spirit, just by bringing even the smallest light to their darkness.

When we live in the light, we lose perspective; because the light is so bright, we interpret even the slightest shadow as a wretched blot on our otherwise “perfect” existence. We imagine that things are “supposed” to be irradiated with sunshine and solidity and clearly labeled roads to our destination. We start underestimating small lights, because we simply cannot see them. But then life gets darker – because life can get very, very dark – and if we’re not prepared for it, it can overwhelm us. Whether we’re the ones in darkness, or whether it’s our loved ones (or people we have compassion for) whose lives have gone pear-shaped, we want more than anything to bring back the full-on no-shadows sunshine … and we beat ourselves up as failures if we can’t do that.

But our feelings of failure only make the darkness darker and the situation more hopeless. Instead of holding out for all-or-nothing total sunshine, we could instead offer and accept the small lights that humans actually have, and make at least one little space better.

How could one match – one lit cigarette – make any difference? I suppose it depends on how dark it is. For Clay, curled up and waiting for death, that match gives him hope, and lights the way back to his life.

One match can make all the difference in the world. One light, your light, can make all the difference in the world.

The Thing I Like About …

Thesis: the part where Chema tries to break into the classroom.

In Thesis, Angela and Chema are trying to figure out who made a snuff film they found.  They suspect someone at their university, so, as they investigate, they try to be secretive and inconspicuous. Chema decides he needs to break into one of the professors’ classroom, and he surreptitiously stands in the hallway wrenching at the lock with a screwdriver. Students walk by giving him strange looks, and he hides the screwdriver as best he can, but as soon as they go by, he attacks the lock again. He works at it for a while, but finally decides his screwdriver – or his criminal breaking-in abilities – are not up to the challenge of the lock. He starts to walk away, then turns back and tries simply turning the doorknob.

The door opens.

Chema, like most of us, has faced his obstacles with determination and the tools that seemed required; he has worked diligently for the goal he selected, and he gets frustrated when his efforts don’t pay off the way he expected. He walks away when the frustration gets too big to handle, but he also perseveres, coming back to try again.

The only thing standing in his way – besides the fact that he really doesn’t seem to know how to jimmy a lock – is the fact that he doesn’t actually have any obstacles.

Life certainly does have obstacles – things that require immense effort and perseverance, things that cause frustration and heartache and pain, things that sometimes get the best of us. But how many of our troubles are only “troubles” because we assumed they would be? How many of our troubles are only there because we never considered any easier solution?

It’s hard to make a list of “troubles” and possible solutions, but it’s easy enough to take a step back and reassess what the goal is. Chema goes back to the goal – open the classroom door – and looks for other paths to that goal, instead of wasting time on the methods and strategies that didn’t serve him.

What methods have you been using that don’t seem to be getting you anywhere? What strategies haven’t helped you get to the place you wanted to go? And, if you take that step back and reassess your goal, is the path to that goal really as complicated or difficult as it originally seemed to be?

Have you tried turning the knob?