Today in Movie History: November 21

Hollywood loves its monsters and we’ve seen our share of great ones over the years. At the end of the day, however, they all fall in line behind one indisputable champion. The one and only Frankenstein opened today in 1931.

I doubt the Hunger Games will expand beyond the three books and four films that have already been made. The universe doesn’t seem right for development the way Star Wars and the Potterverse (among others) have. And yet that’s not a criticism, for the saga remained as strong and pertinent as either of those larger universes. The brilliant first half of the final chapter — Mockingjy, Part 1 — opened today in 2014.

Kevin Costner spent a lot of years wandering in the wilderness: he drank the Kool-Aid, and it was tough to watch that fall from grace. But his directorial triumph Dances with Wolves remains a powerful and affecting motion picture regardless of the ego behind it. I’d still give the Best Picture Oscar to Goodfellas that year,  but I’m not inclined to complain about this one walking off with the top prize. It opened today in 1990.

Speaking of Best Picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives stands as one of those efforts that felt quite profound at the time, but gradually lost its luster as the years rolled by. It was quite cathartic for its era, however: an examination of the cost of victory in World War II and a plea for understanding about the men and women who paid it. It opened today in 1946.

One of the best things about the recent Westworld TV show is its subtle, sly references to the original film — written and directed by Michael Crichton as a kind of protean variation on his later triumph Jurassic Park — which is worth a look if you’d like a little trip down memory lane. The scenario is overly familiar (kudos to the TV show for finding a number of other different ways to explore it), but loads of fun thanks largely to Yul Brynner’s implacable robot gunslinger (which itself predated another sci-fi masterpiece: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance in The Terminator). Westworld opened today in 1973.

We’ve going to close with Elvis, because we all need a little Elvis these days. Girls! Girls! Girls! is typical fluff, featuring the King as a Hawaiian fisherman trying to earn back his father’s boat, and a typical good girl/bad girl love triangle for him to resolve. It doesn’t rank with his best, but the Hawaiian setting is a natural fit and some of the songs — including the great  “Return to Sender” — are quite the toe-tappers. The film opened today in 1962.


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.)