Thursday, March 5, 2009

Silly vs. Serious: Searching for the Life’s Purpose

You Can’t Take It With You
The Seventh Seal
A Thousand Clowns

I saw my first foreign, subtitled film as my college career was coming to a close. Of course, I saw the Japanese monster films when I was much younger, but they were dubbed. I also had never been asked – assigned, actually – to figure out exactly what the film was trying to say. Previously, I had been forced to do this with books, but I never thought to transfer this skill to films. I enjoyed looking for the hidden meaning in books. Movies, however were just a visual – and mindless – entertainment. But I found out differently, and learned that it was as much fun looking for the inner meaning in films as is was looking for the inner meaning in books.

This brings me to The Seventh Seal (released in 1957 in black and white). The Swedish made film is about Antonius Block, a knight who is returning from the Crusades with his squire, Jon. During his trip home, he encounters Death, who has come to claim his body. But Block isn’t ready to journey to the hereafter and challenges Death to a game of chess. The game has serious consequences: If Block wins, he gets to continue his life; if he loses, Death takes it. Death agrees and the journey home continues with the game played during the evenings.

During the journey, Block and Jon are joined by several travelers seeking the protection of the knight. Among the wayfarers are a couple, named Jof and Mia, and their baby boy. Jof works as a fool with a traveling troupe and is constantly doing silly things to entertain his fellow travelers. Then one night, he sees Block and Death engaged in their game of chess. He rushes back to Mia and they flee from the encampment. The next day, everyone who stayed with Block is seen following the knight to their deaths. Jof, Mia and their child are the only ones to escape Death’s grip.

What the movie said to me was that people who take life too seriously tend to live those lives in fear – primarily the fear of death. The serious Block spent the entire film trying to ward off the inevitable, playing a game he couldn’t win against an apparent grand master. But silly Jof and his family avoided the fate of the rest of the entourage. From this I gleaned that the film was telling us to enjoy our lives and to not take things too seriously.

But I also noticed something else about this film – something possibly spiritual. Although I believe in God and in life after death, I do not consider myself a particularly religious person and I very, very seldom attend church – except for job fairs, I haven’t been inside one for more than a decade. However, it seemed to me that Jof and Mia represent Joseph and Mary – after all, their names are very similar – and their child, the baby Jesus. Block was returning from the Crusades, where he killed infidels in the name of God. Jof, on the other hand, spent his life bringing joy to others. Block dies; Jof lives. Could the movie be making a value judgment? Could it be a parable about Christ’s promise of everlasting life?

Other examples offered for this silly vs. serious discussion are the films You Can’t Take It With You (1938, b&w) and A Thousand Clowns (1965, b&w).

You Can’t Take It With You is a romantic comedy that focuses on an impending marriage between Tony Kirby, the son of a well-to-do family of snobs, and Alice Sycamore, the granddaughter of a zany, could-care-less-about-money clan headed by “Grandpa” Martin Vanderhof. Interestingly, this family employs two black servants who are happy to work for free, are treated with respect and depicted as slightly less crazy than the other members of the household, which includes a man who builds fireworks in the basement that, as you might expect, eventually and accidentally go off. But I digress.

Aside from the different-sides-of-town nature of the romance between Tony and his secretary, Alice, there is also a conflict between Grandpa and Anthony Kirby, Tony’s father. The millionaire, pursuing a lucrative business deal, has bought every house in the neighborhood except Grandpa’s – and Grandpa ain’t selling because he loves his home and being able to have his large family around him. When the families meet to discuss the upcoming nuptials, Anthony Kirby and his wife Mary are quite put off by the shenanigans of Grandpa’s family.

Sensing that her family is not perceived as good enough by the elder Kirbys, Alice breaks off the wedding and leaves home. When Tony finds out, he tells his parents that he can’t forgive them for their treatment of Alice and he doesn’t want to see them again. Grandpa, meanwhile, is heartbroken about Alice’s departure and agrees to sell the house so that the family can join her.

Anthony, who is also disturbed by the death of a business competitor, receives a visit from Grandpa, who lets his anger get the best of him and chastises the millionaire, telling him he may have money but he has no true friends – the kind that would say nice things about him at his funeral. But Grandpa, being Grandpa, soon apologizes for his tirade.

When Alice learns that Grandpa has sold the house, she returns to talk him out of it. Tony also shows up, but is again rebuffed by Alice. Then Anthony appears and asks Grandpa to help him win back the affection of his son. Then in another example of the power of music, Grandpa suggests that Anthony get out the harmonica he had given him when he apologized and the two play a duet together. Their silly little ditty cheers up everyone, Anthony agrees to sell the house back to Grandpa and, as they say, they all live happily ever after.

A Thousand Clowns begins with Murray, a former script writer for a children’s television show who now begins every morning by yelling advice to the world, takes his 12-year-old nephew, Nick, to see a terrible sight – hundreds of people on their way to work. But looming on the horizon is a visit from two of the city’s social services workers who are concerned about Nick’s upbringing.

During the course of the interview at Murray’s disheveled apartment, the two social workers, Albert and Sandra, have a disagreement on how to handle the situation. Albert, who apparently has a relationship with Sandra, leaves to visit another client. Sandra stays and, during the course of the day, falls in love with Murray. Also, she warns him that if he doesn’t get a job, he will lose custody of Nick.

With the help of his brother, Arnold, a show business talent agent, Nick spends the next day going on interviews for jobs, none of which appeals to him despite the fact that they are all suited for his particular brand of silliness. Upon returning home without work, Sandra, who has redecorated up the apartment, decides that this is not the man for her and leaves.

Murray is then visited by Leo, his former employer on the Chuckles the Chipmunk show. Leo, who actually doesn’t get along with children, begs Murray to take his job back. During the visit, Leo, who has brought Nick a life-size cardboard “statue” of himself in his Chuckles costume, receives some harsh criticism from the boy. Then, Sandra returns to pick up some papers she left there earlier and decides to stick around until Murray finally agrees to take the job so that he can keep Nick and Sandra. The movie ends with Murray yelling more advice to empty streets before becoming part of the site that he finds so terrible, crowds of people on their way to work.

These three movies say that one needs to maintain the proper balance between silly and serious. The fool in The Seventh Seal recognizes the seriousness of the situation his family is in and removes them from it. Grandpa in You Can’t Take It With You is able to convince the millionaire that an overly serious pursuit of wealth can have unhappy consequences for his family. And Murray learns in A Thousand Clowns that sometimes he has to be serious if he wants to keep and protect those he loves.

While I agree with those conclusions, I can’t help but feel that the balance between silly and serious should tilt more toward silly than serious. My wife can vouch for that.

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