Three human beings are haunting me. One is a homophobic, bull-riding Texan who has AIDS. One is a Danish kindergarten teacher, wrongly accused of sexually molesting a student. One is a celebrated Roman novelist who still hasn’t started his second novel, forty years after the first one was published. All are characters I saw on screen last week, and about whom I am still thinking this week. Though I am not the official movie reviewer in this family, I see a lot of movies. The ones that stick with me are what I think of as “meaning of life” stories. Stories in which a character, famous or heroic or, more likely, not either, must ask him-or-herself: what is the meaning of a life? One life. My life.
When he is told he probably has 30 days to live, Ron Woodruff’s meaning-of-life meter goes crazy in Dallas Buyers’ Club. It was painful to watch the first phase of this—call it denial, or call it “I’m gonna go out in a blaze of glory”—and even more painful to watch his transition to the next one: actually, I do want to live, thinks Ron, and I’m gonna get the drugs I need. But Ron’s story transforms from painful to powerful as his fight for what he needs to stay alive becomes more than just his fight. Sure, he’s making money, but he’s also giving his life a meaning it never had, because it’s no longer all about him. Matthew McConaughey plays Ron as a human lightning rod: thin, dangerous and ultimately dazzling.
In The Hunt, Danish Actor Mads Mikkelson’s face is a study of bewildered, stunned pain as Lucas, the kindergarten teacher who is just beginning to find meaning again after divorce when a little girl’s blurted lie turns his life into a living hell. Lucas fights to hold on to a few shreds of love—his one loyal friend, his loyal son—while every other person he’s ever known turns against him. In “The Hunt,” meaning is a jewel trapped deep inside the collapsed mine of a life, and Lucas has to dig hard for it.
Nothing so dirty as digging goes on in The Great Beauty. Au contraire: dapper Roman novelist Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, celebrates his 65th birthday with a rooftop party that gives new meaning to the word “lavish.” But the flip side of this happy decadence is deep fatigue. Jep’s life is glamorous, but unfulfilled. He’s drawn to a Mother Theresa-like centenarian celebrity nun, who may or may not have some kind of pipeline to a higher power, or at least a higher calling. As its name promises, The Great Beauty is as lusciously beautiful as The Hunt is bleak and Dallas Buyers’ Club is scruffy. And yet there’s a yearning at the core of it. Because unlike the cowboy dying of AIDS or the kindergarten teacher shunned for a crime he didn’t commit, Jep the pampered playboy author is not desperate, though you begin to sense he should be, and as the film unfolds, so does he. Sometimes it is harder find meaning when it is not thrust on you.
All of these films call to mind old truisms about how life is mostly about what you didn’t plan and couldn’t predict. It’s about how you respond to those moments. Whether and where you find the courage you suddenly need. These are the stories I love best on the screen, or the page, or in real life. Because most of us aren’t soldiers, astronauts or ship captains. But all of us, someday, are going to know illness, death, heartbreak, and—like Jep on his Roman rooftop—the vertigo of confronting the great void that lurks just beyond great beauty.
Calendar notes: Seattle University’s wonderful Search for Meaning Book Festival is February 15. I’ll have to miss it this year but I heartily recommend it. I’ll be speaking and screening Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story at SUNY Oswego on February 18; I’ll be reading from Her Beautiful Brain as part of a program called Witnessing Dementia at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum at 6:30 pm on February 27 and, in celebration of the publication of an anthology called Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s (edited by Collin Tong), I’ll be reading along with some of the other authors at Elliott Bay Bookstore at 3pm on March 16.