Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Heath Holland On...Looking for Meaning in Movies

by Heath Holland
Let’s get deep.

Years ago, I worked with a guy who carried a small notebook in his pocket at all times. He saw movies as a great source of philosophy and wisdom, and he used his notebook to record quotes from films that he found to be insightful or illuminating. Every now then, I’d look over at his cubicle and see him flipping slowly through the pages and browsing the wisdom he’d picked up from his trips to the movies; he never quoted song lyrics or philosophers, only movies, because he saw them as a source of truth and an opportunity to learn and grow as a human being.

I thought it was kind of strange at the time, but I shouldn’t have. For as long as I can remember, people have been saying that movies have replaced literature as the primary source of entertainment for the masses. Whereas once people would spend every evening curled up with a good book by the fireplace, movies and television have replaced books as the main way people escape from their own reality. We draw hope and inspiration from those characters, and they teach us lessons about the world around us. I think most of us would agree that books still have a place in our culture, but it’s the world of movies that we spend the most time within. I know that’s true for me.

I thought it would be fun to list some of my favorite movie quotes in terms of having something to say about our reality and offering some truth or insight that I’ve adopted into my life. Just like my friend all those years ago, I tend to think in terms of movies, and I tend to relate to the world around me through a filter of films and the lessons I’ve learned from them. I quote movies all day everyday, which can be exasperating for those around me who aren’t in on my private language, but I can’t stop myself; it’s just how my brain works. I see little bits and pieces of wisdom and philosophy everywhere, even in the worst movies, and I take what I can and move on.

You can find stuff to latch onto anywhere. For instance, the Harry Potter series seem to be geared toward children, but I’ve found those movies to be absolutely filled with uncanny observations about life. A lot of this owes to author J.K. Rowling’s incredible academic understanding and her deep bookshelf, which covers everything from Greek myth to Victorian horror. It’s because she’s so well-read and has researched recurring themes throughout thousands of years-worth of stories that we can distill lessons of life down to movie lines like this:

“It’s not our abilities that show what we truly are; it’s our choices.” Dumbledore (Richard Harris), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

“We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
You could play a little game with your friends: “Dumbledore or Aristotle?” Here’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and how it pertains to life’s uncertainty and the suddenness of death. It’s silly, but kind of profound in its simplicity, and really does sum up how quick life can change (or end).

“I once had a fish…Francis. He was very dear to me. One afternoon, I came downstairs and…it vanished. POOF! But that’s life, I suppose. You go along…and suddenly…POOF!” Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Silly, right? But I’ve probably thought about that quote at least once a day, every day, for two weeks straight. It’s not surprising that movies have a lot to say about death because it’s the one thing we’re all headed for at full speed. Here are a couple of great examples.

“Old age: it’s the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don’t look forward to being cured of.” Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Citizen Kane

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost, like tears in rain. Time to die.” Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Blade Runner
Sometimes movies seem very philosophical, but don’t actually have a lot of substance to them, once you really start to pick them apart. The Matrix and its two sequels seem to be filled with big ideas, but when I pick them apart for actual themes and content, I keep coming back to the same one or two things, with most everything else there to provide an excuse for action. There whole trilogy comes down to a debate about what makes a person a person (is it the body or the mind, the flesh or the soul), but the quotes from the films themselves are about as deep as a teaspoon. “There is no spoon.” What am I supposed to do with that one? How am I supposed to eat my Frosted Flakes? It’s all “one pill, two pill, red pill, blue pill.” It sounds great until you realize they aren’t actually saying much outside of “are any of us really here?” Maybe it’s just me.

Similarly, Fight Club is often quoted as one of the most philosophical movies ever made. I balk at this, even though I find some nuggets in the movie that I appreciate and latch onto. I’m fine with what the movie has to say about our consumerist culture, but fail to connect to the movie on a deeper level because it exists itself as a consumer product, with millionaire actors, marketing, and craft services with those little slices of cheese. I see Fight Club more as an extended fantasy of what could be and what it would take to get there than as containing any deeper philosophical truths about who we are (unless it’s pointing out that we’re all hypocrites, which we should already know), although I do like the quote “You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” I know I want to whip that one out all the time.

No, Fight Club has few applicable ideas for me, but I think Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy contains more than I could ever list here. It’s a bottomless well of philosophy and reflection and statements about who we are and why we do what we do. I’m fond of this quote about our heroes, be they politicians, religious figures, or celebrities, from Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie, culled from the philosophy of Nietzsche. Some would say that Nolan and Warner Brothers have doubled down on this idea by turning Superman into a morally-debatable character. Regardless, Nolan’s Batman movies go pretty deep into the human psyche and use a guy in a black suit to do it. It’s my favorite quote from all three of the movies, probably because I find it to be inevitably true.

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), The Dark Knight
Recently, a few people have apparently had a revelation that Batman is the villain and The Joker is the good guy. You can find these posts on the internet with tags like “MIND BLOWN” beneath them as these viewers finally become aware that there is more than one layer at play in the films. They seem to have just become aware that The Joker wants to even the playing field between the different classes of Gotham and prove that everyone was willing to abandon their ethics under the right circumstances and that this is not inherently a bad thing. Equalization seems to be a theme running through all three movies, and these films raise a lot of questions about our society, but they (to my eyes) offer no answers, just like philosophy offers no definitive conclusions. The point of Nolan’s Batman movies isn’t to show you Batman as a bad guy, but to get you thinking about the nature of heroes and villains in the first place, why we create them, and what it takes for a hero to become a villain and vice versa. Bad people do good things, and good people do bad things. MIND BLOWN. Full disclosure: I prefer my Batman movies without the philosophy (Lord knows I need an escape from my own mind sometimes), and that’s why I prefer Tim Burton’s two movies. They’re not loaded with so many…you know, IDEAS. I can just watch them for what they are and wonder “where does he get those wonderful toys?”

Nolan’s Batman movies are heavy; let’s look at the flipside. It’s kind of weird when you realize that Disney movies are some of the most philosophically-loaded movies in existence. Because Disney deals in broad, timeless themes such as overcoming adversity, rising to the challenge, and realizing your own destiny, it only makes sense, I suppose. Disney characters are archetypes, and Disney plots get used and reused over and over again and are manufactured for the widest emotional response with the smallest deviation. That’s how we can get little nuggets of cool wisdom like these:

“The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all.” The Emperor of China, Mulan

“Always let your conscience be your guide.” Pinocchio, Pinocchio

“Sometimes the right path is not the easiest one.” Grandmother Willow, Pocahontas

“The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.” Rafiki, The Lion King.
The other major source of philosophical truths that I’ve found is the entire Rocky series. I find so much inspiration in them that I’ve come close several times to writing an entire “Rocky and Philosophy” column. Maybe I still will. If you’ve listened to my five favorite movies podcast, you know that I draw a lot of inspiration from Sylvester Stallone’s lovable boxer and the challenges he’s faced. For each phase of my life, Rocky has been there and has a lesson to teach. Adam Riske has already pointed out the beauty of this quote from “The Italian Stallion:”

“Let me tell you something you already know: the world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can GET HIT and keep movin’ forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth, get out there and GET what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not point fingers saying you ain’t where you want to be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that, and that ain’t you. You’re better than that!” Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), Rocky Balboa.

I think that’s the best Rocky quote from any of the six existing films and sums up in one paragraph the entire thesis of the franchise. Life is hard, so you’ve got to be harder and refuse to give up. In my opinion, the character of Rocky Balboa has more to teach us about life (how to succeed, how to learn from failure, how to pick yourself up over and over again) than any other movie character ever. EVER.

I guess Rocky Balboa and Yoda are cut from the same cloth. They both know that you have to believe in yourself, and when Yoda tells Luke “Do or do not. There is no try,” he’s essentially embodying the same self-starting attitude that made Rocky Balboa the champion over and over again. When Luke fails because he doesn’t believe in himself or his abilities, Yoda tells him “That is why you fail.” Taken from Philadelphia’s most famous boxer or a green frog who speaks backwards, the messages are the same. You want to get somewhere, you’ve got to believe you can and then you’ve got to take the steps to get there.
Here’s a final few random quotes from movies that I really love and that I’ve found to be profound observations on life.

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” The Writer (Richard Dreyfuss), Stand By Me

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Gandalf (Ian McKellan), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

“The future is not set. There’s no fate but what we make ourselves.” Multiple characters in the Terminator franchise

And the best, wisest piece of advice I can think of from any movie:

“Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off


  1. This article didn't go where I expected it to, which was kind of interesting. Movie quotes are something I've never really looked at in this light, to me they are always parts of a larger whole so its interesting to take them as sort of a distillation of some major theme of a movie. In this way they could be viewed as the end point of a movies themes I guess, the knowledge that we go on this journey to learn. It's also sort of a convenient way to carry around the movies in your head. I love the actual quotes you've picked out, they are all so great. All the Rocky love on this site at the moment, I need to get on that franchise! Only seen the first one so far.

    1. When November rolls around, you gotta check out the Rocky movies! They'll be perfect for that time of year, and you'll need inspiration after seeing so many people die in horrible ways.

    2. And by that he means the Rocky sequels.

  2. Heath I'm so glad you included one of my favorite quotes from my favorite movie ever (Blade Runner)!
    We also talk in movie quotes quite a bit at our house. And there are many quotes from movies that I return to time and again -- it's not only dialogue quotes, but sometimes image "quotes" that I replay in my head to feel inspired, comforted, or just cheered up. I can use a movie references to help explain myself -- like if my husband says, "how was your day?" I can answer with, "you know the scene where Henry needs to drop off some guns, pick up his brother, stir the sauce, and there are helicopters everywhere?" -- and not only will my husband get it, he knows I know he'll get it. It turns a complaint about a crazy day into a fun shared moment, and I love that.

    1. Amazing answer Jan. Nice piece Heath

    2. And then --I'm just assuming-- she goes into the bathroom and dumps all their cocaine down the toilet. Those days are THE WORST.

    3. Hahaha! You're right, Heath. We go through a LOT of cocaine that way. But at least in our house we get real spaghetti with marinara, not egg noodles and ketchup.

  3. "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'." - Whiplash. Good people and good stories can't happen without good bad guys like that character.

    Thanks for the article. Agree on much including Matrix and Fight Club! I'm NOT a fan of The Dark Knight but that is such a fantastic quote.