Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Remains of Honor

I finally watched The Remains of the Day. I wasn't very excited about watching this particular film. It hasn't been very popular with anyone in particular since its release, at least I mean it’s not talked about or even considered very important anymore. And I'm not sure why because it's easily one of the best films I've ever seen. It balances deep characterization with a story of unrequited love and political commentary. Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins have never been better, and they are both very good thespians who have done a considerable amount of good work. But I think the reason it’s not popular is because it’s sad. Not in the epic tragic way that The Godfather Part II is, or even Schindler's List. We feel as if there are great lessons to be learned from Michael's downfall and while The List is a very sad film it inspires us with its heroism among other things. The Remains of the Day is just sad. The characters are all entirely unhappy. Not in the teenage angst way that has become so common in films these days. No they're sad because they are constrained to duty and sometimes duty can get in the way of happiness. But not joy.


But I don't really want to talk about this truly excellent and deep film right now. I want to talk about unrequited love. A few years back John Piper wrote a book called Don't Waste Your Life. In some ways just reading the title is enough to get something out of that book. How many titles of books or films or poems are so direct and possibly profoundly helpful? It’s not something you think about every day is it? Don't Waste Your Life! Just don't do it! Reminds me of an SNL sketch involving a psychotherapist screaming "STOP IT" at his patients complaining of damaging habits.

I've been thinking about this idea allot recently. I was recently employed by one of the biggest corporations in the world: Coca Cola. I did inventory work for Coke while being employed as a pseudo security guard. And I hated that job. This is a hard time economically for everybody. Just having a job is a blessing and I tried to thank God for it every day. And it’s not like I don't appreciate working hard. It’s just the grind. Having to clock in and count pallets of coke product for 8 hours a day five days a week. People stop being people and start becoming pieces of a machine, means to an end not ends in themselves. It’s all about dollars and cents. Effort doesn't matter if something goes wrong. Somebody is going to be blamed no matter what. That’s just the way business is. And I hate it. I can't be part of that, at least not for long periods of time. And there were always ways of coping by thinking of how next year I'll be going to grad school or anything really, thinking about anything other than Coke. But the Apostle Paul said he had found the secret of contentment in any situation right here on earth, right now. And that secret wasn't simply looking to the future, placing your faith in something that is always right around the corner.

We all think things like if I could just lose a few more pounds then I'd be really happy. If I could get a better car I'd be happy. A better job. Eat a cheeseburger. Steal a dress. Learn to cook. Buy a house. We think we will be happier if we enhance our lives through some sort of pleasure. And those things aren't wrong to want, but wanting something as part of your natural desire for pleasure and comfort is totally different from placing your contentment, essentially your faith, in something besides God. That is something that almost none of the characters in this film do. They may not be happy, because there are hardships in their lives. But they have the satisfaction of knowing that they put others ahead of themselves, or at the very least duty ahead of themselves. They have something few people in America have today: honor. Not that we aren't capable of that rare esoteric quality but that we simply don't care to have it. Most of us just want to get by. We don't want to be honorable. The sort of person that should be honored even in the lowliest circumstances.

Sense and Sensibility is a great companion film to Remains. There are similar themes but they are worked out much differently by very different characters. But Emma Thompson is great in both of them!

But I think the point is that while we may have hardships and struggles in this life nothing is worse than shirking our responsibilities, our honor for what is expedient. You really have to watch both films in order to understand. Honor isn't really something we can describe in any meaningful way in America, at least currently. We've taken the Father's noble desire that all People would have the right to pursue happiness and completely misunderstood it with concepts like "gaining maximal pleasure." The Founding Fathers probably meant something much more virtuous and simple like being able to own your own land. Or self determination as President Wilson eventually immortalized. Or even more likely than these was the classical definition of happiness: eudemonia. Your completion or meeting of your telos, the goal and meaning of your life. Not simply doing what you want to do, as long as it doesn't hurt anybody else, but doing what you should do. By filling your place in the city. No matter how painful or boring it may seem.

Of course the characters aren't perfect. Many of the problems in the film are caused simply by communication issues and fear. These are not good qualities. But ultimately the restraints of duty or at least of perceived duty and honor are really what drive The Remains of the Day. And that was part of why it spoke to me so thoroughly. Thankfully my Coke days are over. I have a much better job now, praise be to God, but if I must at least I know that I can do my duty for my family. If I learned nothing else from that awful experience that would be enough.

The Remains of the Day is a great film. I think it is one of the greatest films ever made. It is beautiful and tragic, heart wrenching and touching. It is perfectly acted. Very few films can claim that. But it truly was perfectly cast and perfectly acted. Everyone fills their spot precisely as they should and to the best of their ability. But beware it is truly sad. You have been warned. Beautiful but sad. But it’s also a testament to how a hard life isn’t a wasted life. Wisdom is better than expediency. Even when it hurts. Don’t waste your life doesn’t mean find the most exciting career you possibly can. It means don’t waste what you’re doing now. Do it with honor! You bear God’s image! No one can take that away from you. Life can be hard. Maybe you don’t have the courage to say what needs to be said all the time. But that doesn’t mean you are allowed to gossip and complain. Hold your head high and live like you bear God’s image. If you do watch the film you’ll see that I didn’t do a very good job reviewing it. These are mostly thoughts that come to my mind because of watching it. Even so I give this film a very high recommendation.

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