Defending Your Life

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By James Bowman

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This summer EPPC Resident Scholar James Bowman is presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of five films on the general theme of Heaven. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC or Hudson websites for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Tuesday, July 19th with a screening of Defending Your Life of 1991 by Albert Brooks and also starring Mr Brooks along with Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant and Buck Henry. Before showing the film, Mr. Bowman spoke for a few minutes about the movie as follows.

In my introduction to Between Two Worlds in Week Two of this series of movies about Heaven, I mentioned the heterodoxy ofHeaven Can Wait with its rendering of judgment by Satan, known in the film as His Excellency, and not God—as if the former were a functionary to whom the latter had delegated his authority. We saw more such heterodoxy with a comical intent in last week’s movie, Stairway to Heaven or A Matter of Life and Death, but that seems only to have been a dream vision in any case. Yet however strange or ludicrous their various versions of the afterlife, all of those first three movies, made within a few years of each other during and just after the Second World War, were recognizably derived from the Western Christian tradition—which would have been a good deal more familiar to their original audiences than it is to audiences today.

In the nearly half a century between last week’s movie and this week’s, which is Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life of 1991, all that has obviously changed. This film’s version of the afterlife is also a kind of parody of conventional religious belief, but this time the parody is not of Christianity but of the Hindu or Buddhist belief in reincarnation. It even includes a very funny cameo appearance by Shirley MacLaine, Hollywood’s most famous believer in reincarnation—a post-modern, breaking-the-fourth-wall sort of joke which is perhaps meant to reassure us that we don’t have to take the Eastern Mysticism stuff too seriously. Not that the reassurance is really necessary. Mr Brooks, who also plays the film’s Everyman, Daniel Miller, makes it clear throughout that he has no theological or eschatological purpose by making this heaven—and, once again, it is only the anteroom of the afterlife and not the ultimate destination that we see—way too much like earth, though he might have a satirical one.

Reincarnation shorn of any specific religious context as it is here is naturally a doctrine to appeal to narcissists, as I am not the first to notice, and Albert Brooks is also making fun of that other manifestation of Hollywood narcissism, the therapeutic culture. The Judgment Day that W.H. Auden once said even conscious unbelievers felt quite sure of was once a matter of the terror described in the Dies Irae or Day of Wrath in the Latin poem by Thomas of Celano that was part of the Requiem Mass of the Roman Catholic Church for hundreds of years.

Dies irae! dies illa

Solvet saeclum in favilla:

Teste David cum Sibylla!

Quantus tremor est futurus,

Quando iudex est venturus,

Cuncta stricte discussurus!

That is, roughly, “A Day of Wrath, that Day when the world will be reduced to a cinder, as David predicted through the Sybil. What fear and trembling will there be when that Judge comes and searches strictly into everything!” The word discutio, of which discussurus is the future participle, really means something like “shaken to pieces,” but the idea of a searching investigation seems to be what is the point of the destruction. It is the destruction of our defenses, of our secrets. As Ambrose Bierce rendered it,

Ah! what terror shall be shaping

When the Judge the truth’s undraping—

Cats from every bag escaping!

But the Second Vatican Council of the revolutionary 1960s decided that this had to be looking at the thing in too negative a light and took it out of the Requiem mass—an impulse of the therapeutic culture which Mr Brooks, too, both pre-supposes and gently satirizes in his marvelous invention of Judgment City, a sort of eschatological Disneyland designed to look as much as possible like home and so to re-assure and eliminate stress from the lives of recently dead Californians as they are escorted to a judgment that is more like a job interview than a scene of ultimate destruction. I especially like one of the movie’s several running gags, which is that in Judgment City you can eat whatever you like and never get fat. Thus even the one thing remaining that late 20thcentury Americans have to feel guilty about, endangering their own health, has been reassuringly taken off the eternal score sheet. Heaven!

Another of those running gags is the business about how the Judgment Citizens use close to 50 per cent of their brains’ capacity versus the mere three to five per cent that we earthlings are said to use. “When you use more than five per cent of your brain,” explains Rip Torn’s wonderfully raffish Bob Diamond to Daniel, “you don’t want to be on earth, believe me; not that your take-out places aren’t nice.” Bob confides that the meritocratic élite in Judgment City refer to those they judge behind their backs, as “Little Brains”—which perfectly reproduces the condescending attitude that we suspect is harbored by so much of officialdom here on earth. I mentioned last week the genealogy of the idea of the next world as a kind of vast and not always terribly efficient bureaucracy that is common to all five of the movies I am showing this summer, but this is the only one of the five that takes the trouble to make the bureaucrats look familiar rather than strange and—at least to some extent—mysterious and awe-inspiring.

For I think we are meant to see a connection between the worship of intelligence that is so much a feature of what Charles Murray calls the cognitive élite in our society and the therapeutic culture that Mr Brooks imagines is inescapable even in death. Both are involved in producing the kind of bureaucratic paternalism that is the film’s starting point and that makes it, so I’m told, a favorite with libertarian audiences. But for all the familiarity of the Disneyland trappings and the slickness and disingenuousness of Bob Diamond—and what a disappointment it must be to discover that you can’t escape from bores and unfunny comedians and insincere camaraderie even in heaven—the film does take the matter of judgment seriously. And yet the judgment that we see ignores all our traditional ideas of guilt and sin and concentrates instead on the matter of neglected opportunities. “I can’t believe that the whole point of the universe is to make money,” says the outraged Daniel on realizing that he is being called to account for being too cautious an investor. But we are clearly meant to take it seriously when he is told that “you keep thinking it’s about money, but it isn’t about money; it’s about fear.”

One way of looking at this version of the supernatural economy is as a working out of Brigid Brophy’s dictum that “courage is the only virtue”—which must be another aspect of this universal model that appeals to libertarians or what in my youth used to be called existentialists. But maybe it would be truer to say that courage is the only virtue if you are a coward, as Daniel is portrayed as being here. It seems possible to look at Judgment City and the whole mechanism of the trial that, so we are frequently told, is not really a trial as having been designed specifically for him and the life he has lived. So that when the iudex gets around to the discussurus there really is a sense of his standing naked before his creator, unable to hide anything. As he is also a stand-up comedian, I wonder if Mr Brooks hasn’t included the business of the unfunny comedian, dying on stage in his film as an analogy to that feeling of exposure he is creating for his own character and perhaps for himself in it. And if we know that in the course of his career Albert Brooks turned down the Tom Hanks role in Big, the Billy Crystal role in When Harry Met Sally and the Richard Gere role in Pretty Woman, the idea of an eternal reckoning for missed opportunity begins to sound more than a bit autobiographical.

The point of judgment, in other words, may be not so much what you have done or haven’t done as it is what you are ashamed of having done or not having done. That’s there in the Dies Irae as well:

Iudex ergo cum sedebit

Quidquid latet, apparebit:

Nil inultum remanebit.

Or: “When the Judge shall take his seat, whatever is hidden shall be revealed and nothing shall remain unpunished.” The punishment, that is, lies in the revelation itself, in simply not being able to hide anything anymore. That may also be the point of Daniel’s being given such an inept defense lawyer as Bob Diamond. His unsuccessful attempts to keep Daniel’s hidden things hidden still only succeed in exposing them the more mercilessly. Not only can he not keep them hidden from others, he can’t even keep them hidden from himself anymore.

This idea of judgment as exposure also brings up the matter of movie-making, which will be the central idea in next week’s final picture in this series, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life. It doesn’t quite occupy that position in Albert Brooks’s movie, but it is still an important part of it. As in Mr Kore-eda’s film, we are asked to believe that every moment of our lives has been captured on videotape by the Great Cameraman in the sky—or even on high-quality film which suggests (so Daniel is told anyway) a vividly lifelike 3-D effect. As the number of closed-circuit television cameras to which we are all exposed in our daily lives has increased exponentially since this film was made, we are likely today to be even more sensitive to the terror of exposure which has always been a part of the idea of judgment—and which is also what makes scandal so titillating to us here below. Once again, the autobiographical element may be implicit in the idea of a man’s being forced to watch himself on film, to see himself as others see him, which is a kind of exposure Mr Brooks is inviting for himself in making this film.

There are various threads of continuity between this movie and the others in the series, but of course the principal one is the love story. Again and again, erotic love becomes a kind of synecdoche for or even, as here, the instrument of eternal salvation and redemption from sin. That’s the movies for you. I would say, however, though there may be many of you who will want to disagree with me if you can stay around for the discussion afterwards, that another thread of continuity is the unsatisfactory nature of the love story as a love story. As with Kim Hunter and David Niven and Eleanor Parker and Paul Henreid or even Gene Tierney and Don Ameche, Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks don’t exactly light up the screen with their sexual chemistry. To my mind the best joke in the movie is when Daniel instantly regrets his backing out on his tryst with Miss Streep’s Julia and tries to call her hotel room. Suddenly he realizes he doesn’t know her surname and is forced to ask if there is anyone named Julia there. There are two Julias, he is told, but both have gone to bed after asking not to be disturbed. Well, then, says Daniel, nothing daunted, leave this message: “Tell them both, I guess, that I love them more than life itself.” Anyway, that’s pretty big talk for a dead guy.

As Kim Hunter tells the heavenly tribunal in Stairway to Heaven, “There’s no sense in love,” and Albert Brooks goes even more out of his way than Powell and Pressburger to make love seem capricious and even nonsensical. More than once, Daniel remarks on the fact that he and Julia are almost the only two souls-in-transit in Judgment City who are under a hundred years old. They clearly have taken with them to the other world the hormonal urges of this one, so that the element of accident and opportunity in their attraction to each other is unavoidable. We also have to notice the disparity between them, Julia being a standout performer in the Judgment stakes while poor Daniel has to plod along with the also-rans. Another of the movie’s great jokes takes place as we watch on her life-review her rescue not only of her children but of their pet from a blazing house as her judge says admiringly, like a Hollywood executive looking at the rushes of a new film, “Going back for the cat is wonderful.”

Daniel later compares this scene to a life insurance commercial, and that kind of shlockiness, as it would seem on earth anyway, might seem to be at odds with the idea of judgment as exposure and the movies as unforgivingly realistic. But of course exposure works both ways as an indulgent deity apparently allows us to show what we are proud of as well as forcing us to watch what we are ashamed of. It may be easy to forget in the movies we see here below, but virtue and beauty are also real things. Moreover, they allow Julia to take on the role of Beatrice to Daniel’s Dante or Gretchen to his Faust, as Martha did to Henry Van Cleve in Heaven Can Wait: that is, as the feminine principle which enables men (at least) to understand the kind of goodness they are meant to seek as their salvation. I hope this isn’t too portentous a view of this movie. It is, as we have also had to notice in the others we have seen here, just a movie. But if we need to hold on to the idea of the lightness that it shares with all those other cinematic parades of light and shadow which have tried to take on serious subjects, I think we can also give it some credit for giving us images of Death, Resurrection and Judgment, if not of Heaven exactly, that we can take seriously.