Mourning and cinema

I will carry you here in my heart; you will remind me that I know the way.

Films

I usually like to write simple reviews or even compare similar films. Today I want to do something different, namely an idea I’ve had for a while. I’ve mentioned here and there how important movies are to me. Watching movies and talking about them is not just a hobby or entertainment for me; movies are like a language that has more meaning for me than my native language. I’ve always understood life in terms of a movie, for better or worse. In high school, I even did projects combining history and science with movies because it helped me remember things I otherwise found boring. Lately I’ve been thinking about movies and how they handle grief. WandaVision really brought this to the forefront, but it had been in the back of my mind since last October. A colleague of mine did a review of this show, and I encourage you to check it out. Personally, I don’t think I could look at it objectively now; I’ve been through the same thing as Wanda, albeit on a smaller scale.

* SPOILERS TO DISTRACT *

Personally, I’ve never been much of a fan of sitcoms, except when I was very young. Either way, the way Wanda mixes her favorite shows with an idealized image (tee hee) of her own life is incredibly relevant. I don’t sit around fantasizing what it would be like to be a superhero or a princess, but I’ve always drawn parallels between my life and what I’ve seen on screen. When movies like Onward and All the Boys, which I loved, had main characters who were afraid to drive, it drove me crazy. I still drive anxiously, but much less than when I was learning to drive and after I was involved in an accident. I never thought it would be a common problem or that I would see it on screen, but here we are. I’ve also found characters who are very familiar with the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, including Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy and Lilo from Lilo and Stitch.

Anyway, last year I shared how Hamilton helped me (and many others) survive the pandemic. Similarly, the films helped me deal with a more personal struggle I experienced last October: the death of my grandfather. My grandfather suffered from congestive heart failure. So we knew what was in store for us in the coming years, even before the situation became so serious. In less than a year, he went from hiking with his grandchildren and campfires to living in a wheelchair, literally attached to an oxygen tank. I distanced myself a lot when things got worse in the last months of his illness. Of course I was worried about him and upset about what he was going through, but I tried to stay calm so as not to upset others. I don’t know how other people handle the death of a loved one, but I always feel like my reaction is somehow abnormal. When this happens, I never know how to react because I feel lost. I feel empty and confused, so I look empty before, during and after any funeral. It’s such a strange feeling to watch someone slowly disappear. The first time it really hit me was the night after the funeral. My family was in the middle of a Star Wars marathon, which is pretty normal for us (and a lot of other people, I guess). That night it was Return of the Jedi, a movie I’ve seen countless times since I was a kid. From Jabba’s Palace to Vader’s Burial is one of the few films I could read word for word. But this viewing was different for me, and I had a new appreciation for a film that will forever be a part of my life for as long as I can remember. When Yoda died, I felt what Luke felt for the first time. I too had just seen a familiar mentor disappear before my eyes, and I didn’t know what to do without him either. I found it almost surreal that we watched this movie on the way home from the funeral, but I guess I needed it. The good thing about fiction is that it usually makes sense, conveys a message, and it’s clear who the good guys are. Death in movies has always bothered and confused me, because it’s all about context. Whether it’s a noble sacrifice like Obi-Wan or simply the transition to a higher level of existence like Yoda, fictional death has meaning in Star Wars. Even an ending as tragic as Padmé’s isn’t completely wasted. In that regard, it’s not like Luke will see Yoda again; in fact, we’ll also see him as a satisfied Force spirit at some point. The death of the mentor or father is a common trick in fantasy stories and usually accompanies the maturation and growth of the hero. I find that real life is not so generous, and such a loss usually seems senseless and cruel.

Not surprisingly, I also found solace in Hamilton, although the situations there were very different. The show goes to great lengths to show how much Alexander Hamilton, and eventually his wife Eliza, have overcome to become remarkable people. Only in the prologue does Alexander lose his mother, his father, his cousin who takes him in, and the list goes on and on. The craziest part is that all of this happened in the space of two years; what a horrific and relentless series of tragedies for a young child. The two main storylines of the series are the death of John Lawrence, Hamilton’s best friend, and his son Philip. The first part is one of my favorites. It’s beautiful, both visually and musically, and I was really struck when Elise read the last words of Loren’s father’s letter. Alexander sits silent and dejected, refusing even to comfort his wife before leaving, because he has better things to do. I know what it’s like to hide from work because you don’t know what to do. Lawrence was a war hero who planned to free black slaves and recruit them into the army. It’s not quite the same, but my grandfather was a missionary and an advocate for veterans; he was a hero to many people in my area and even in other countries. With the possible death of Philip Hamilton, I am interested in the reaction of his parents; as in the true story, Alexander was devastated by his death. He looked much older almost overnight, taking on a sadness that never left his expression. But the Hamiltons stay together in the face of tragedy instead of falling apart. Finally, Elise Who Lives, Who Dies tells your story, which begins with a listing of Alexander’s heroics in life. Yet the song turns into an uplifting exploration of all the good Eliza has done since her death. I am fascinated by people who became better because of the people they knew, and who become better because of their example, even after they are no longer there. While it does not take away the pain of death or give it meaning, it is almost an extension of the deceased’s life by someone who loves them.

Lately, I’ve been having the urge to see Moana again. I haven’t seen him in a few years. Raya and the Last Dragon, in fact the light version, made me long for the caloric fullness of the original, and Moana is a fantastic film here anyway. This time, however, it looked very different. This film has always been a roller coaster of emotions because, unlike its spiritual successor, it sells its characters first and foremost. By the end of Where You Are, I am more than involved in Moana’s inner conflict over her place in the world. At the same time, I want her to make her parents happy and explore the seas the way she wants to. I’ve also always loved Moana’s mentor figure and her connection to the heritage of her people, her grandmother Tala. It’s funny, whimsical, and you can literally feel the love between the two of them splashing off the screen. Through the encouraging words of her dying grandmother, Moana finds the inner strength she needs to begin her journey. Again, I felt my own sadness instead of Moana’s, so my reaction was a little different. I didn’t think or expect that, because I didn’t think that was the reason I wanted to see the movie. But when Grandma gave Moana the necklace and emphatically told her what to do, I panicked a little this time. I totally melted at the scene where Moana leaves her boat and the house on the hill goes dark. A beautiful bright manta appears in the water, like exactly the animal Tala wanted to bring back to life. Her spirit splits the water and pushes Moana’s canoe to its destination, literally giving her the wind. It’s hard to describe how this scene reminded me that I’m not alone, that it happens to all of us at some point. Of course, the emotional climax of the film comes after Moana and Maui are defeated by Te Ka. Confused and alone on her boat in the dark, Moana meets what she needs: the spirit of her grandmother, with one final lesson. I’ve always loved this movie and especially the dynamic between Moana and Tala, but now it’s very different. It’s strange how you can know what to expect in a familiar movie, but the feeling of watching it can be forever changed by the experience.

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