Today in Movie History: July 18

Mid-July is blockbuster time — usually when the last of the heavy hitters shows up to crush the box office before giving way to the earthier guilty pleasures of August. A pair of great sequels mark the day, notably The Dark Knight: Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to his already impressive Batman Begins. In then ensuing decade, it’s become the stuff of cinematic legend, with shockingly perfect renditions of figures like Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to support Christian Bale’s magnificent Batman. At the end of the day, however, the film belongs to the late Heath Ledger, initially a head-scratching choice to play the Joker, but who succeeded not only in making the character his own, but setting an almost impossibly high bar to follow. The Dark Knight opened 10 years ago today in 2008.

I wouldn’t normally include it, but it opened on the same day as The Dark Knight, and that bears brief mention. Mamma Mia! the frothy, bubble-headed adaptation of the delightfully cheesy Abba musical, isn’t what anyone would call great, but it can be a breath of fresh air if you need something light… and opening it opposite one of the most downbeat blockbusters ever proved to be a stellar example of counter-programming in action. It was also released in 2008.

Speaking of downbeat blockbusters, hi James Cameron! The once and former King of the World had already made a splash with his low-budget sci-fi thriller The Terminator when 20th Century Fox tasked him with a sequel to one of the jewels in their science fiction crown. The result was Aliens, an unexpectedly great follow-up to Ridley’s Scott’s immortal original. It took the franchise in a decidedly different direction, but also showed the versatility of the core concepts… to say nothing of the feminist watershed provided by Sigourney Weaver’s ass-kicking Ellen Ripley. (Marlee Matlin, you can give that Oscar back to its rightful owner any time now…)  Aliens opened today in 1986.


Meet the Hero

In The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell posited two poles of human perception. At one end sits waking, conscious life, which is mainly taken up by the necessities of existence: jobs, bills, children, family, chores. At the other sits deep sleep – sleep without dreams – in which we commune with whatever cosmic forces lie beyond this level of existence. We do not know what we are shown in that state – we don’t get to look behind the curtain when we’re awake – but we lie blissfully and at absolute peace while we do so.

In between those two extremes sit our dreams, our fantasies and our expressions of creativity. Dreams are our way of interpreting what we perceive in deep sleep. They come from the source of all stories, all music, all paintings, all art. They’re messages from that cosmic wellspring, whether you want to call it God, Allah, the Force or whatever term feels right for you. The exaggeration brought by our imagination – the distortion and extremities that define creative expression – are attempts to raise those messages above the mundane trivialities of living. It lets us identify them more readily when the light fails and the path becomes unclear. That’s why we learn them first as children – via fairy tales, comic books, and stories of monsters and magic – when we’re more open to their truths.

The messages are never hateful. They are never cruel. They speak to a moral life: to making this world a better place for everyone. And they never diminish. They’ve been with us since we told stories by firelight in caves and they’ll be with us as long as our species continues its struggle.

That’s why tyrants try to stifle free expression. That’s why creativity and the arts are the first to be attacked when oppressors seek power for its own sake. They want those lessons to be silenced… and because they cannot challenge the forces that send them to us, they tell us to forget them or relegate them to unimportance. They want you to feel ashamed of them. They want you to think you’re an infant for believing in them. That you’re deluded. That you’re not worth listening to.

We sometimes help them with that vile task without even thinking about it. As we grow up, we lose sight of the lessons or worse: dismiss them as childish. We focus on the surface details of the stories we loved and use that to obfuscate the wisdom we should be striving to embody in our world. Silly costumes. Super powers. Spaceships, aliens, monsters, kung fu.

It’s not about any of those things. Those are just trappings to draw our eye. The philosophies beneath them are as real as the headlines, and apply to us every time we walk out our front doors. Strip away the superhero capes and the lightsabers and the licenses to kill, and the struggle is no different. The stakes are no less important. And our strengths are no less amazing when we channel them to defend the things worth protecting.

People sometimes ask why I love the movies so much. There are a lot of reasons, but it boils down to this: they are dreams brought to life. They are lightning in a bottle. They capture the messages from our subconscious and display them for all the world to see. They let us share those messages with others, to experience those profound and vital signals as a community instead of isolated individuals.

We are the heroes of our own lives. The demons we face are no less frightening than the monsters who terrorized us from the pages of a book or the screen of a movie theater. But our ability to stand against them is no less powerful. We know how to perceive right and wrong in the starkest possible terms and to defend what matters with power that can astonish.

Our heroes live in us. In you. In me. In everyone. Every day. All we have to do is listen to what they’re saying.

I believe you are capable of wonders.

Now more than ever.

When times are dark.

When too many of our fellows choose the quick and easy path.

When tyrants order us to deny what the universe tells us every night as we sleep.

And if you ever struggle to remember that – if you ever question your own eyes, or labor under the burdens of resistance, or forget those hidden lessons that make life worth fighting for – help is just a “once upon a time” away.

(Thanks to CLS Videos for the inspiring montage.)