There can be no doubt about it—movies can and do shape the way we think. They can tell us about ourselves, even teach us lessons about life. And while these lessons come housed within fictions, they do nonetheless carry a measure of truth. Since the earliest of times, it has always been this way; the mythmaker and the storyteller are tellers of falsehoods, but the false stories they tell reveal to us truths. One such example is this little exchange from Saw II, in which the genius serial killer, John Kramer (“The Jigsaw Killer” as he is known to the press in the film) is discoursing with Detective Eric Matthews, whose son Kramer kidnapped. Explaining to the detective why he puts his victims through the murderous and torturous ordeals that often result in their deaths, John says…
“You see, the knowledge of death changes everything. If I were to tell you the exact date and time for your own death, it would shatter your world completely. I know. But can you imagine what it would be like to have someone sit you down and tell you that you’re dying? The gravity of that, that the clock is ticking for you…in a split second, your world is cracked open. You look at things differently, you smell things differently, you savor everything, be it glass of water or a walk in the park.”
Detective Matthews: “The Clock is ticking, John.”
John: “But most people have the luxury of not knowing when that clock is going to go off. The irony of it is that that keeps them from really living their lives. It keeps them drinking that glass of water without ever really tasting it.”
Detective Matthews: “We can still fix this, John.”
John: “Yeah, but can we fix you?”
Detective Matthews: “Me?”
John: “I’m not fixable. I have cancer.”
Detective Matthews: “You think cancer’s an excuse for what you do?”
John: “No, the cancer isn’t what started me at my work. It was the moment I decided to end my life that started me on my work and brought meaning to it. I had literally driven myself to suicide, and I had failed. My body had not been strong enough to repel cancer cells, yet I had lived through a plunge off a cliff. But to my amazement, I was alive, and I was determined to spend the rest of my days testing the fabric of human nature. Do you understand, Harry?”
Detective Matthews: “You have a chance to do something good right now, John. Just tell me where my son is and I’ll help you.”
John: “I don’t need your help, and I can tell you still don’t understand. Those who don’t appreciate life do not deserve life.”
This fictional exchange from a trendy horror movie speaks to my soul in the innermost regions. How profound are these words! How truthful their ring!
Having experienced some bountifully terrible things in my own life (even what could have been death on a few occasions), I find myself putting others in the same place. These others are just people like you and me, living their lives day by day, hurrying to work, racing home, sifting through the rigamarough of social relationships, and enjoying the good times. They are someone’s father, somebody’s mother, a proud and strong son, a beautiful young daughter, or a beloved cousin or a friend. Facing the usual ups and downs, they tackle the goings-on of the daily routine, not knowing what is about to pop out from the horizon.
They were on their way to Walmart to get a roll of film developed. They were heading to work, trying to drive with a Pop-tart in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. They were talking on their cell-phones as they cruised down the freeway, slowing down in traffic, with the smell of automobile fumes in their nostrils and the rumblingly loud sounds of the stereos of youths in faster cars passing them by. Others were speeding, dashing in and out of lanes of thick traffic, trying to beat the clock, wondering what the boss is going to say to their being late yet again. Still others were waiting patiently in the lines of a busy drive-thru restaurant, smelling the hot dinner that awaits them. Others are driving away from that same restaurant, bitching about how the dumb, zit-faced kid at the drive-thru window fucked up their order. Some stayed home from work and school, sleeping with the help of Nyquil, trying to beat a 48-hour virus, and some cried all day in the bedroom with the door locked because their boyfriend dumped them the night before. They were doing a lot of different things, but there’s one thing they all had in common—they all never imagined that their calamity was only right around the corner! They couldn’t imagine it coming upon them so suddenly, so swiftly. “Sure, it’ll happen to everyone else, but not me,” famous last unspoken words!
Faces turn red, eyes widen, gazing in utter shock. The horror can only be expressed as a long, screeching scream, strained and broken. Their lives flash before their eyes as they are crumpled beneath a ton of metal, as they are hit by a bullet from a gun, fired out of the seething cauldron of rage, steaming from the gut of a disgruntled employee. They fall to their doom from tall buildings. They have violent heart attacks. They are beaten with a blunt instrument, convulsing on the concrete for several minutes before dying. Those several minutes are the longest of their lives! They are stabbed repeatedly. The life force that once flowed through their veins now stains the carpet of what was an ordinary office-building floor only moments earlier. In a nanosecond, “in the twinkling of an eye,” happiness turns to horror, monotony gives way to misery, and contentment is replaced by chaos. Such is life!
We tell ourselves we should live each day as if it were the last. We talk up the fact that we are mortal and can cash in our chips at any second for any number of reasons, but do we really understand the gravity of what we are saying when we say that? How can we truly grasp what it means to come face-to-face with our demise unless we have narrowly missed it ourselves, or else have seen it happen to others? To truly understand the heartless, thoughtless, mercurial nature of life, only experience with it can teach us.
I want those of the world to know that their lives will not be prolonged, that they are expendable, that the nature of our being is finite and limited, that the universe will get along just fine without any of us as it always has. I want the Christians, the spiritualists, the new agers, the mystics, the superstitious, and the diehard optimists of all varieties to see their worlds reaching their end. I want their adherents to see their lives reduced to nothing, to see their morale fall. I want to see their love replaced with looting, their discipline replaced with dementia, and their sense of identity replaced by a lingering, dreaded fear of the unknown. I want to see the terror in their eyes. I want them to know what it is like to be terrified – truly terrified – to know that their end is a stone’s throw away.
Who is that man or woman who knows what it means to appreciate life? A once proud individual who narrowly escaped from the throws of death, that is a thankful individual! Someone who has just walked away from a near-fatality, that is a person who relishes the sweet taste of the precious breath she draws as if it were freshly made peanut butter candy. A formerly dignified planet reduced to common thievery and vandalism, like desperate rats, running to and fro as on a sinking ship, looking for safety, but finding none—that is what is necessary for a people to unite in spirit. Why is it that we must be reduced to the indignities of our base survival instincts before we can truly realize what it means to be alive?
I want to see these things not because they should happen, but because they will happen. And the sooner we learn the lessons brought on us by the uncertainty of catastrophe, the sooner we will learn to live our lives to the fullest in the here and now within the stirringly short time parameters allotted to us, instead of spending our dainty days preparing for death and some alleged future life to come, as the religionist would have us do. The trying transition from life to death is unavoidable—and unavoidable things we learn to accept and to deal with, and not put ourselves in denial of, telling ourselves that those things will never happen to us, or else telling ourselves that those things will not happen to us for a very long time. We do ourselves a great disservice in so thinking. We can only embrace our dank, dark, dusty destiny of the grave, and until then, bask in the sun of the hedonist’s happy hoedown. Then and only then can we truly appreciate life.