Heaven Can Wait (1978), directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry

heaven can wait posterWhat kind of legacy will you leave the world? When will I complete my mission on earth? Can I explain why is it that some people die in the prime of youth and others live until old age? The Talmud tells us that these questions are unanswerable by men, but can only be answered by God from the aspect of eternity. Heaven Can Wait, a romantic fantasy, raises these questions without definitively answering them. What the movie does do is suggest some possible approaches to how we understand tragedy.

Joe Pendleton, backup quarterback for the LA Rams, is given an opportunity to start. On that fateful day, he is struck by a car as he is bicycling through a tunnel. The next scene reveals that Joe is now in some way station in the clouds about to depart for the afterlife. Escorted by two men, Joe discovers that his death is a divine mistake carried out by a first-time escort who, before Joe died, plucked him away from life. The escort tries to remedy the situation, but is too late. Joe has been cremated and there is no body in which to place him.

Mr. Jordan, one of the escorts, presents Joe with several possible choices, and Joe selects the body of millionaire Leo Farnsworth. His choice is motivated by a desire to develop a relationship with Betty Logan, a teacher who is an advocate for a small town that is about to be taken over by one of Mr. Farnsworth’s business empires.

Joe begins to live the life of Farnsworth, but is bothered by Farnsworth’s ethics and lifestyle. He expresses his feelings at a board meeting, which unnerves all the board members. They do not understand how a tough-minded CEO with ruthless financial goals can change into a liberal, sensitive executive with genuine compassion for the little man affected by board decisions taken many miles away.

Moreover, Joe still misses football. He decides to contact his old trainer Max, asking him to train him for a return to the Rams. To solidify his chances to play, he buys the team and sets up a scrimmage in which he is the quarterback. After some initial setbacks, he convinces the team that, indeed, he can play at a professional level. However, all his plans fall apart when his escort reappears to inform him that he can no longer use Farnsworth’s body.

How this dilemma is resolved is the stuff of fantasy. What sticks in my mind, however, are two ideas that are embedded in the film. Firstly, how long we live is not in our control. We have free will, but it is limited. We can influence our future but we cannot determine it. Secondly, how do we measure our life, by the years we live or by the way we live our years?

Heaven Can Wait suggests that each of us has a mission. Sometimes that mission is accomplished over the span of many years and sometimes it is completed in a very short time. We all know people who live long lives but who accomplish very little. There are others who live brief lives, but lives packed with meaning and accomplishment. In truth, we do not know why bad things happen. Such matters are left to God who sees the continuum of past, present, and future. Mere mortals can only see the present. Perhaps when we hear about or experience the premature passing of a loved one, it is useful to contemplate that, from the aspect of eternity, a life well lived, even for a brief time, is part of a larger divine plan that guarantees meaning to every life.

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Philomena (2013), directed by Stephen Frears

philomena posterI teach adults and I teach kids. When adults do not do well on an exam, they generally do not make excuses. They accept the results and resolve to do better. The kids often make excuses as to why they performed poorly on a test. They plead for an open-book test or a retest so that they can change their low grade. I witness a general unwillingness to accept responsibility for their actions, even after their errors are clearly pointed out to them. Watching Philomena, a true story about a girl who makes a mistake in her youth for which she atones for the rest of her life, reminded me of the mature response to adversity of an adult, seasoned by life experience.

A London journalist, Martin Sixsmith, is approached by the daughter of Philomena Lee. She asks him to write a human interest story about her mother who was compelled to give up her son Anthony almost fifty years before.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Philomena had the baby out of wedlock and was sent by her father to an abbey in Ireland. There, she worked in the convent laundry for four years to work off the debt incurred by her stay at the convent. One day, without any advance notice, she discovers that her son is being given to a foreign couple for adoption. The separation is traumatic, for she is unable to say farewell to him. The secret of her lost son is kept for many years, and the convent offers no help in finding him when Philomena periodically visits her former home.

Together with Martin, Philomena begins her deliberate and long-postponed search for Anthony. In the course of their investigation, they ascertain that the nuns deliberately destroyed all the adoption records, and that many of the children in their care were sold to rich Americans to subsidize the church’s work.

Serendipitously, Martin finds out that Anthony moved to the United States with his adopted parents and established a celebrated career in government, serving as a legal advisor to two presidents. Philomena and Martin travel to the United States to unravel the mystery of his present condition and whereabouts, with startling results.

Characteristic of Philomena in her quest to ferret out the truth of Anthony’s life, she encounters many obstacles, including a number of people who do not wish to share information about her son. Nevertheless, she politely persists in her drive to get information about him. It is this quiet tenacity in the face of adversity that is a hallmark of her being. She does not want to hurt anyone in her quest or reopen old wounds; she only wants to connect to her beloved son, who abruptly left her so many years ago. In her response to every impediment she encounters, Philomena demonstrates a mature sensibility. She does not give up; rather she works through the problem and then develops, together with Martin, a strategy for moving forward.

Jewish tradition extols the aged person because age brings with it wisdom. The Ethics of the Fathers writes that after age 50, one possesses the ability to give advice to others. Life is a teacher, and advanced age brings with it the gift of being able to render wise counsel. The older person evaluates things more carefully and is less prone to respond to adversity with outbursts of anger and irrational action. Philomena is an exemplary role model of an adult who accepts responsibility for the past, but who desires emotional closure for that past. She thinks things through and, when appropriate, is willing to change her mind when she is convinced that another approach makes more sense.

In one of her interchanges with Martin, who gets angry when faced with deceit, Philomena reminds him that the best path to follow is the path of forgiveness. It is not wise to remain angry when things cannot be changed. Better to accept an imperfect word and move on with one’s life than get mired in anger and negativity.

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Whiplash (2014), directed by Damien Chazelle

whiplash posterIn a recent conversation with a friend, we discussed the pros and cons of multitasking. My friend extolled the benefits of multitasking, but I maintained that while multitasking certainly has its benefits, there are times in life when you need all your attention focused on one thing only. I can recall the dedication to a single task that was required when I studied for my doctorate at Georgia State University. Without concentrated attention, I never would have completed the degree. The same holds true in Torah studies. There are many stories of great Sages like Rabbi Akiva, who achieved greatness only because Torah study became their only study.

I thought of the energy and focus needed to achieve greatness as I watched Whiplash, a profanity-laced film that makes a relevant point about the pursuit of excellence in any area of endeavor. Whiplash is the story of Andrew Neyman, a talented young drummer who enrolls as a student in a prestigious music school, where he is mentored by Terence Fletcher, an instructor who is totally committed to the pursuit of excellence as he conducts the school’s acclaimed jazz ensemble band. His pursuit of perfection brings with it both success in band competitions and psychological abuse to the talented charges under his influence.

When we first meet Terence, we quickly see how he intimidates students with unrelenting criticism, offered in the most profane terms, and with a mercurial temperament which leaves his students emotionally unhinged. Although Andrew works hard, he is almost driven to mental breakdown because of his desire to prove to Terence that he is the best drummer in the band. Whatever he does is not enough to please Terence and Andrew almost loses his life trying to be the best.

In a nuanced conversation between Terence and Andrew after a major confrontation between the two, Terence states: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” To him, excellence means going beyond the conventional understandings of what is a good performance. It means willing to take risks and go beyond one’s normal expectations. All this makes sense, but Andrew, wiser now because of his experience with Terence, questions whether the price for attaining perfection in some cases may be too high. If perfection is achieved at the expense of living a normal, healthy life, is it worth it?

The movie, in a startling finale, suggests that there is a middle ground. Both the music and the musicians matter. There must be a healthy synergy between the two. It is not an easy task to find the proper balance in life, but it is a goal worth pursuing. This pursuit for moderation is reflective of the Torah’s sensibility to live life by following the golden mean. Maimonides strongly recommends that a healthy life is a balanced life, and one needs to be wise to discover where the mid-point should be.

The Bible tells us that “Abraham and his family went to the land of Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan.” The commentators ask: if every word of the Bible is significant, why do we need to be told that “they came to the land of Canaan?” Their arrival is implied. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin suggests that the Bible is teaching us that when we begin an important task, we should stay focused and complete it. Make sure we get where we wanted to go. It is easy to get sidetracked, so we have to make a special effort to expend all our efforts to accomplishing our goal. Whiplash reminds us of the total dedication needed to accomplish a worthwhile mission, but it also cautions us to be mindful of the human cost of achieving absolute excellence.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), directed by Jack Arnold

incredible shrinking manIn 1957 I was enrolled as a boarding student in a Jewish high school on the edge of Harlem in New York City. The father of a fellow student, visiting from out-of-town, invited me to join him and his son for dinner at a downtown restaurant. The dorm counselor was nowhere to be found, so I could not ask anyone for permission to leave campus. I decided to join them anyway and began to think of an excuse to give the dorm counselor in case he rebuked me. The Incredible Shrinking Man had just opened and the perfect excuse came to mind. I will tell him that I went to the local movie theater to see this film about a man who shrunk in size. It seemed like an easy plot to summarize and so I would not be penalized for traveling outside of the local neighborhood. And that is what transpired. The excuse, weak as it was, worked.

Little did I realize when I actually saw the movie several months later that it was much more than a film about a man who shrinks in size; rather it was a profound meditation on the ultimate meaning of life. Watching this black and white science fiction movie 57 years after it first appeared, I genuinely admired not only its special effects, which were progressive for its time, but also its thoughtful commentary about man’s place in the universe. Let me elaborate.

Scott Carey, on vacation with his wife Louise on his brother’s boat, sees a strange fog, which is really a radioactive mist, glide over the boat leaving a wet sheen on his body. Six months later, Scott senses that his clothes are becoming loose on him and that he is losing weight. The sudden weight loss prompts him to visit his physician, who assures him that nothing is wrong. However, a subsequent examination does confirm that Scott is, in fact, losing vital chemical elements and is actually shrinking in size. In an unsettling scene, husband and wife discuss the implications of this malady for their marriage. At the end of the conversation, Scott’s wedding ring falls off because of his shrinking finger size.

As time passes, Scott continues to shrink to the size of a child. Since Scott is no longer able to work, they have mounting bills. As a result, Scott sells his story to the press, who treat Scott as freakish pop phenomenon. Louise tries her best to be optimistic and encourages Scott not to lose hope. However, after many tests, the doctors conclude that there is no remedy and Scott runs out of the house in despair.

In his wanderings, he meets a dwarf, Clarice Bruce, who tells him that being small does not mean life is over and devoid of happiness. The message is uplifting for Scott, who embraces her perspective on life until one day he sees that he is shrinking again and is even shorter than Clarice.

We next see Scott, only a few inches tall, living in a doll’s house. When his wife Louise leaves to go shopping, she inadvertently leaves the door open allowing a cat to enter the house. This creates a life or death situation for Scott, who runs for his life to avoid the clutches of the cat. He accidently falls into the basement after the cat scratches him. Louise, finding a piece of Scott’s clothing with blood, presumes that Scott is now dead.

Scott slowly regains consciousness, and begins to search for food in a hostile environment where a common spider becomes his arch-adversary. The life and death fight between them is intense, and Scott emerges from it wiser and more accepting of his place in the cosmos as he gazes at the stars above. His final words are both haunting and uplifting: “To God, there is no zero. I still exist.”

Scott’s malady can be viewed as a metaphor for any life-altering illness. News of such an event is often frightening and potentially depressing. Therefore, it is noteworthy that Scott, now a speck in the infinite universe, draws comfort from the knowledge that in God’s eyes he still counts. In Jewish tradition, man is composed of body and spirit. While the body is subject to the vicissitudes of nature, the spirit is not. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a clarion call reminding men of their infinite value, even when faced with imminent mortality.

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Remember the Titans (2000), directed by Boaz Yakin

remember the titans posterIt was in the 1950s. I was attending a public junior high public school in Mt. Vernon, New York. There were two high schools in town, Edison and Davis. Edison focused on vocational training and Davis focused on getting kids into college. Most blacks went to Edison and most whites to Davis. But it was a time of civil unrest throughout the United States, and there was a drive to create one large Mt. Vernon high school that would be more fully integrated. Nationally, there was a movement to change the stereotypical view of blacks as low achievers and encourage more blacks to attend university.

My junior high was predominantly black. My childhood neighborhood changed once low income housing for the area was built. Whites moved away in droves and I was the only white kid on my block. My parents could not afford to move even if they wanted to, so I developed friendships with the black kids in my school. Many had exotic names and I was fascinated by their distinct personalities. I remember with fondness Linwood Lee, gentle and soft spoken, Wendell Tyree, strong and boisterous, and Quentin Pair, a thoughtful and brainy young man.

It is with this background that I watched Remember the Titans, a rousing and inspirational sports film with a subtext of racial tension, a tension that influenced what happened on the football field in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971. T. C. Williams High School has just been integrated and the favorite to become the new coach of the team, Bill Yoast, is passed over to allow Herman Boone, a successful black coach, to take charge of the football program. In spite of his initial disappointment, Yoast stays on to become Boone’s assistant so that the boys he worked with for so long can fulfill their athletic and scholastic potential.

During training camp and the football season, the players work with one another, get to know one another, and, in most cases, finally accept one another for who they are, not for what they may or may not represent. What matters is performance, not race, and the boys bond during a challenging season in which they are tested both on and off the field. Ultimately they understand that welcoming the stranger, the one who looks different, into your midst brings godliness into the community, for all men are images of the Divine.

The Bible is filled with references encouraging us, and even mandating us, to be kind to the stranger, to the outsider who is different. It is connected to the Jewish experience in Egypt, about which Exodus states: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Moreover, there is a classic adage in the Talmud that “we are all responsible for one another.” This emerges from the basic notion that we all are created in God’s image and we are all part of one cosmic family. We are all brothers regardless of the color of our skin.

The Kabbalists write that the commandment ‘love your neighbor as yourself” has mystical meaning numerically. The phrase “as yourself” in Hebrew is the numerical equivalent of the word Elohim, one of the names of God. This numerical equivalency indicates that when you love your neighbor, you are in essence manifesting your love of God.

Interestingly, we see that the Biblical story of Abraham stresses the priority of being nice to the stranger over praying to God. Abraham interrupts his prayers when three strangers come to the door of his tent, for welcoming the stranger takes precedence over conversing with God.

Remember the Titans, based on a true story, reminds us that great things can happen when we approach a situation without the baggage of prejudice and old memory tapes, when we welcome the stranger in our midst to the family of man.

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Still Mine (2012), directed by Michael McGowan

still mine posterI have noticed over the years that I have less material interests. I used to buy new clothes for the holidays every year, but I have not bought a new suit for at least fifteen years. The old ones do just fine, and I no longer enjoy the shopping experience. Although I live in the present, I am nostalgic about the past. There is a scene in Still Mine, which captures this nuanced approach to aging. Craig Morrison, in his 80s, is looking at a dining room table he crafted many years ago. When he first constructed it, he would be upset whenever it was scratched. Now the scratches are things to admire, precious memories of events that occurred around that table.

I imagine this view of material things is a part of getting older. We become less focused on things and more focused on the intangibles of life, the precious conversations with family, the time we spend developing our souls and minds. It is not necessarily a time of retirement, but a time when we see life differently and treasure the moments of connection with others. This special rhythm of life is captured in Still Mine, an engrossing story of a man determined to actively care for his wife in the twilight of their lives.

Craig and Irene are senior citizens living on a small coastal farm in Canada, and Irene is beginning to lose her memory. They have a led a full life and have good children, some of whom are still working the land that their parents gave them many years before. Craig realizes the physical and mental changes that are on the horizon for Irene. He knows that his current home will be physically unsuited for her since Irene has trouble climbing the stairs. In view of this oncoming reality, Craig decides to build a one-story home on his property. The problem: he does not comply with all the building codes. He thinks that since he is building on his own land, he does not need to comply with any state or local regulations. In the midst of this bureaucratic quagmire, two of his children, observing their mother’s decline, want their father to provide more conventional care for their mom. They are uncomfortable with dad assuming all care for their mother since he is aging as well. In their judgment, he cannot adequately take care of her. Craig, however, is adamant and feels he is the best caregiver around and refuses to delegate taking care of his wife to any third party. He exclaims to his kids: “Age is an abstraction, not a straitjacket.”

As time moves on and Craig continues to build his new home for Irene, he comes up against unsympathetic bureaucrats who present him with more and more rules with which to comply, resulting in a long list of building code violations that threaten to nullify all his efforts to provide comfort and peace of mind to Irene as her dementia advances.

Based on a true story, Still Mine describes Craig’s fight to build his dream house for Irene in spite of many obstacles. The discussions between him and his children about how to care for Irene illuminate the various approaches we can take towards care of our elderly parents. There is more than one way, and Jewish law suggests we have to consider carefully all possible remedies and their ripple effects. Two Talmudic scholars of the past, Maimonides and Raavad, suggest alternate approaches. Maimonides in his Code of Jewish Law writes that a child should always care for his parents unless the situation is severe, in which case one can hire third party professional caretakers. The Raavad, a contemporary of Maimonides, rules differently and insists that the family should remain as the caregiver of the parent, no matter how severe the malady, and not delegate others to fulfill their family responsibilities. Still Mine shows the complexity of decision-making when it comes to the care of aging parents, and asserts the power of mature love to overcome even the most challenging of circumstances.

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A Few Good Men (1992), directed by Rob Reiner

a few good men posterA Few Good Men is an outstanding courtroom drama with a complex agenda. On one level, it tells the story of two Marines who assault another Marine, resulting in his death. What were their motives? Did they attack him because someone higher up in the chain of command ordered them to do so? Most important, is a Marine expected to follow an order even when it goes against his moral sensibilities? Indeed, these are heavy questions; and the answer in part lies with what kind of conduct is expected of a Marine. He is a soldier fighting to protect his country, a noble cause. But in the process, he may lose his moral rudder and begin to devalue the life of others. There are no easy answers; and the film, in general, presents a balanced view of a very complicated topic.

On another level, A Few Good Men considers the question of whether people are willing to listen to the truth when it contradicts the very way they live.

Several years ago, a good friend of mine lost his job and wanted to borrow some money from me to use as a bridge until he found another job. I gave him the loan, but inwardly felt uncomfortable. I knew that my friend was a dreamer, not rooted to reality. He had moved from job to job, always in search of the perfect position, but he never found it. Moreover, he had a reputation for being wasteful with his money and, in fact, had no savings after being employed for fifteen years. I debated in my own mind whether I was an “enabler,” indirectly encouraging my friend to continue with his irresponsible and self-destructive ways. I wanted to tell him the truth, but I was not sure he could hear what I had to say and so I remained silent.

A memorable scene in the movie – ask anyone who has seen it –addresses this very issue. In a courtroom confrontation between Tom Cruise, the defense attorney for the accused soldiers, and Jack Nicholson, the general who gave the questionable command, General Jessup describes the sacred duty of a Marine to defend his country. This depends upon following orders, orders that at times place the Marine on a slippery moral slope but which must be carried out nonetheless. This is Jessup’s truth, which guides him as a military man devoted to defending the country. When skillfully provoked by the defense attorney, however, he loses his composure and shouts to the courtroom: “You can’t handle the truth.” Handling the truth means accepting complexity, realizing that in the pursuit of a noble cause, there may be collateral damage which may be unwelcome but necessary. Tom Cruise may have won the case, but Jack Nicholson’s assessment of his military reality is not to be dismissed.

Watching A Few Good Men reminded me of the difficulty all of us have in hearing the truth. To hear the truth, we must be willing to accept discomposure, complexity, and the reality that truth can be painful even as it enables us to grow. The Torah tells us that we have an obligation to reprove people, to tell them the truth about their character inadequacies so that they can improve. But the commentators make an interesting point based on the unusual language of the Biblical imperative: “you shall surely reprove.” In Hebrew this is expressed by a doubling of the verb for “reprove.” The double term indicates that we should only give reproof if the recipient will listen. Sometimes it is wiser not to reprove if the listener is not ready to hear it.

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