Getting to the Core, Films that Peel

After the philosophy conference, Punk Rock Steve sent me a link to a blog about Deadly and Holy Cinema. It’s an exploration of what art should be, how it should peel away some of the bullshit around us and connect us more to reality and raw emotions. Or that is the author’s theory. Holy Art/Cinema accomplishes this and Deadly Art/Cinema doesn’t. I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve returned to two of my favorite films: “Passion of Mind” and “Meet Joe Black.”

Developing the concept of Holy Cinema, the blogger Katrina mentions how difficult these films are for us:

“In reality a movie is difficult because of our resistance to it. We resist these films because they peel. Peel when very often we’d prefer to keep our layers intact. I battle with myself about this every day. Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror” is a film I’ve seen several times, and I can state without hesitation that it is the most profoundly meaningful film I’ve experienced thus far. Having said that, it’s the absolute last movie I ever want to watch. I will put on anything over “The Mirror”, usually a comedy I’ve worn threadbare. It’s a miracle that I’ve seen the film at all. Now this is complete absurdity. “The Mirror” is cathartic and each viewing results in a deeper, quieter, connection with myself that lasts for days. I am exhilarated, energized, and full of ideas. It makes my life better. And yet, in full knowledge of the intense pleasure and peacefulness the film gives me, more often than not I refuse to watch it. The peeling of layers disrupts routine living and thinking. And though this disruption is vital, it takes enormous mental and emotional strength to allow it.”

For me, “Passion of Mind” and “Meet Joe Black” are my “The Mirror.” Though I don’t always resist them quiet like Katrina does hers. Though they do not set my mind so on fire (for me good philosophy or theory or theology or literature does that). They always peel. On each viewing, I feel layers of myself pulled away and find some truth recovered.

You may find it hard not to scoff at these films. I mean one is about death coming to earth on holiday and falling in love (Meet Joe Black). The other is about a woman who can’t tell the difference between her dream life and her real life (Passion of Mind). It is so easy for me to find fault with both of them myself. The romance in “Meet Joe Black” is a little…unbelievable? Strained? Contrived? (Though I would make the case that this isn’t unintentional). Demi Moore’s fashion in “Passion of Mind” drives me crazy and I find her interaction with Stellan Skarsgård (an actor I despise anyway) hard to watch. I’ve seen better films but, for me, these are the two that peel the most.

My connection to “Passion of Mind” may be obvious. The last time I saw Logan he pointed out how much I say “part of me this” and “part of me that.” He told me that most people aren’t so obviously divided (which really was news to me). The film is about a woman who is equally divided. Who doesn’t want to choose between two different lives. Who finds safety in straddling two worlds and separate desires.

For a long time, I attributed my love of “Meet Joe Black” mostly to specific scenes I appreciate. Like when Joe (Death) is in the hospital talking with an old dying woman about loneliness (“We’re all mostly lonely here too”). Or when Allison forgives her father for having a favorite (“I felt loved, that’s all that matters. So never mind favorites, you’re allowed to have them”). Or I blamed the romantic in me, who loves all of Bill Parrish’s beautiful quotes about the nature of love.

Recently re-watching “Meet Joe Black,” I realized how much I’m drawn back because of Joe’s story. He comes to earth because he’s been inspired by Bill Parrish, a media mogul. Bill is rich in more than possessions (though he’s definitely got a mansion). He’s lived a full life. How could Joe not want a taste of what Bill has? Of what Bill preaches?

“I want you to get swept away. I want you to levitate. I want you to sing with rapture and dance like a dervish…Be deliriously happy…I know it’s a corn ball thing. But love is passion. Obsession. Someone you can’t live without. I say fall head over heels. Find someone you can love like crazy and who will love you the same way back back…The truth is, honey, that that there is no sense living your life without this. To make the journey and not fall deeply in love, well, you haven’t lived a life at all…You have to try because if you haven’t tried, you haven’t lived.”

So he commandeers the body of a charming young man that Susan, Bill’s daughter, has already fallen for. Thinking he’s still the same man, she can’t help but be attracted to him when he comes to her home with her father. It’s hard to know how much Joe is sincerely taken by her and how much he enjoys having someone want him. He’s Death. He’s lonely. He’s certainly not wanted.

So Joe tries to be delirious happy. To fall head over heels and love like crazy. Near the end of the film he wants to take Susan with him when he leaves. When he tells Bill, he calls him out on this.

Joe Black: I don’t care Bill. I love her.

William Parrish: How perfect for you – to take whatever you want because it pleases you. That’s not love.

Joe Black: Then what is it?

William Parrish: Some aimless infatuation which, for the moment, you feel like indulging – it’s missing everything that matters.

Joe Black: Which is what?

William Parrish: Trust, responsibility, taking the weight for your choices and feelings, and spending the rest of your life living up to them. And above all, not hurting the object of your love.

Joe Black: So that’s what love is according to William Parrish?

William Parrish: Multiply it by infinity, and take it to the depth of forever, and you will still have barely a glimpse of what I’m talking about.

Joe Black: Those were my words.

William Parrish: They’re mine now.

Joe Black: She loves me.

William Parrish: Who is you? Did you tell her who you are?

Joe Black: No.

William Parrish: Does she know where she’s going? Huh? You see, Susan went for that poor son of a bitch whose body you took. And everything else since has been aftermath. You say you love her but you don’t know what love is. She loves you, she doesn’t know who you are. … Bottom line is, Joe, you’re swindling her soul, and you’re doing it with your eyes wide open. 

In short, he is calling Joe out for wanting to possess a feeling instead of truly love another person. He’s calling him out for wanting to take Susan as a souvenir. He is pointing out that what they have is little more than an illusion because one of them doesn’t know how to love and neither really knows who the other person is.

What was peeled away for me is how much this illustrates what pseudo-relationships are or what mine have been. Recently, I was asked yet again to define what a pseudo-relationship is. How it is different from a close friendship with someone of the opposite sex. Even though Joe and Susan have sex, and usually pseudo-relationships aren’t physically involved, what they have captures the essence of it. What they have is an illusion. An illusion of love. An illusion of intimacy.

Pseudo-relationships create the illusion of being in a relationship. You are possessive of each other. Often rather obsessed and dependent on each other. In many other little ways you create this illusion of belonging to each other. But it isn’t real. Like Joe’s “love” for Susan, there is a lack of responsibility. Usually, like them, both people aren’t really capable of genuinely and deeply loving each other romantically. Nor do they equally know each other (it was always such a big warning sign in my last relationship that I rarely ever shared meaningful stories with him about my friends or myself).

Close friends know each other. Close friends are responsible for each other’s emotions. They aren’t reckless or careless with each other. Close friendship is far from an illusion. I think close friends could transition to a healthy romantic relationship without their relationship ever being pseudo. Whereas pseudo-relationships…I don’t know if they could ever be real. At least not really close. Once the illusion is broken, the relationship normally can’t last. Just as Joe couldn’t stay.

I wonder next time when I revisit “Meet Joe Black” and “Passion of Mind” what it will peel away. Or if one day these wont be the movies I come back to but if they’ll be replaced by other Holy films.

Are there movies like this for you?

2 thoughts on “Getting to the Core, Films that Peel

    1. Sure! It makes total sense to me… Joe Black is a film I SO LOVE, and it must certainly is because of the relationships I’ve had in the past. It’s hard to explain here but I reflect so much in Joe’s character and all of what his actions evoke. For me it is crystal clear: I decided to say goodbye to a very loved person because I had some intense issues with my family and myself that prevented me from being around her, and instead of making her part of the problem I decided to keep it to myself and let her go. I vanished from her life and it feels like having a death wall between us.
      So many things remained unsaid, and so many questions without the proper answer…. It’s heartbreaking but I guess I have peace of mind now. I miss her tons and I am sure I will forever love her, but it is what it is. Sometimes you can’t be what you want to in the moment that it is needed.

      Great post by the way.

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