Playing chess with Death

I’ve been “social distancing” now for six days, which means I’ve had time to watch several movies. One of those movies was Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 The Seventh Seal, which I found surprisingly uplifting, despite taking place in Europe during the Black Plague (fitting, I know). Besides thematic parallels between the Black Plague and today’s Covid-19 pandemic, the movie offers a simple lesson about how we might live our lives with death weighing so heavy on our minds.

In the opening scene, war-weary knight Antonius Block challenges Death incarnate (a mysterious man in a hooded black robe) to a game of chess. The stakes are high: if the knight wins, Death will let him go, otherwise he dies. The movie proceeds to follow Block as he travels across the country to re-unite with his wife, all the while his metaphorical chess match with Death continues in the background.

We learn a lot about Block on his journey. He questions God, lacks faith in anything, and struggles to find meaning in life. Faced with the sudden prospect of dying, the nihilistic Block confesses to a priest (who is actually Death in disguise) something most of us probably feel on some level: he wishes to perform one meaningful deed before he dies, which would ostensibly give his life significance. Like most of us probably do, he initially imagines this deed should be a grand one because, in his calculus, only a deed of truly heroic magnitude could counterbalance the profound existential torment he feels living in a plague-stricken, Godless and careless world. What good is planting one tree while the whole forest burns?

But he learns, eventually, that’s not how life works. Existential dread is not counterbalanced any more effectively by dramatic gestures or heroic performances than by the small activity of living everyday life. It is life’s seemingly trivial moments that best soothe our deepest anxieties: simply laughing with a friend can effectively ward off the specter of death, at least temporarily. In a moment of explicit optimism, Block picnics with a young couple and their child. He finally stops distressing over big questions relating to God and death and faith and happily embraces the present communion:

I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be an adequate sign to me, and it will be enough for me.

Block continues on his journey to see his wife, with Death following close behind. Block of course finally loses the chess match with Death. But before he does, he briefly cheats Death: he purposefully knocks over the pieces on the board. Distracted by putting the pieces back in place, Death fails to notice that Block has just given his friends the opportunity to escape Death, for the time being. “What did you gain by this reprieve?” Death asks. “A great deal,” says Block.

And that’s it. That’s the lesson. We are all playing a losing game of chess with Death. We can strategize all we want, and we can look 3, 4, 5, 20 moves ahead. But it always ends the same. For all of us. We can play to gratify our own sense of competition, hopelessly trying to outwit Death. We can agonize over the unanswerable questions Death raises, callowly believing knowledge somehow functions as a soothing cosmic ointment. Or we can cheat Death one day at a time, little by little.

Cheating Death can take many forms, at different times, some of them heroic but most of them banal. Right now, cheating Death is simple: it means staying in, so you’re not a vector of transmission. Even if you’re not worried about losing your chess match soon, staying in means others might escape Death for a bit longer. It’s a small reprieve, staying in, but right now there’s a great deal to gain in doing it.

Other People

Other People movie review & film summary (2016) | Roger Ebert

This movie absolutely excels in its realistic details. There are no major metaphors, and it doesn’t try to offer some fancy overwrought soliloquy on the nature of sickness, death, and loss; it’s a movie that reports on its subject in unsettling but clarifying detail, like wearing glasses for the first time after you can’t read the chalkboard. Ironically, it’s the honest singularness of depicting one family’s struggle that ends up making the themes resonate on a more general level, evoking the big common human emotions relating to death. Cancer for many is what happens to “other people,” but the success of this movie is that it’s sincerity renders cancer not so “othered.”

The plot sometimes veers into attempts at comedic relief that don’t quite hit, but the performances of Plemons and Shannon mostly make up for that. Joanne giving David his own “birch trees” moment by reminding him he needs only to “see his sisters” when he misses her is one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve seen in recent years. Because, again, it’s not overwrought; it’s real, sincere, specific, and true.

A movie without a metaphor

“We can’t lose.”

Mississippi Grind captures a feeling of casual recklessness that, when embraced in youth, is edifying and exciting. When that same recklessness is embraced by a mid 40s gambling addict, it’s despairing. But, somehow, the movie manages to make Gerry’s middle-aged, addiction-riddled spiral feel like nothing more than youthful recklessness. I think this is largely due to the reassuring presence of Gerry’s counterpart, Ryan Reynolds’s mysterious character.

I mostly enjoyed the absolute lack of metaphor in the movie. It is a simple story, brutal at times, but without posturing or lecturing. A guy who needs money and can’t help himself drives to New Orleans to hit it big. Nothing is a proxy for something else. The narrative simply unfolds, and it tells itself without the ironic winking or nudging that seems to accompany every other movie today. Maybe you can only get away with such an utter lack of metaphor or symbolism when the primary thematic components are greed, loss, curiosity, and companionship— fundamental elements of the human experience.

the student gaze

Have you ever seen Dead Poets Society, Stand and DeliverFreedom Writers, or Dangerous Minds? They are all movies about school, and they all follow a basic formula: a troubled group of students is whipped into shape through the innovative, if unorthodox, pedagogy of a maverick teacher, ultimately renewing our hope in the “transformative power” of education.

Despite the feel-good pathos, these movies come under immense and perennial scrutiny, particularly for their glurge. A common criticism takes aim at their depiction, and praise, of what is actually a regressive “solution” to the big problems of our school system: a Hero Teacher.

What’s so wrong with a Hero Teacher? Well, it’s a brutally austere, hyperindividualist, and inherently unscalable solution to systemic problems that extend far beyond schools. When the Hero Teacher saves the day, educational reform becomes in the minds of viewers the responsibility of individual educators, not of the state and federal governments that control the coffers. It should come as no surprise that I agree with criticism of these films’ sycophancy to such an impoverished vision of educational reform, but the criticism is also legion, so I’m not going to add to it here.

Instead, I want to talk about another problem with the Hero Teacher movie. I call it The Ralph Waldo Emerson Problem. Emerson is often credited with this famous definition of success:

“To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

I would argue Emerson’s idea of success forms the scale along which teachers are evaluated in the Hero Teacher movie. Hero Teacher movies always follow one student’s, or one class’s, journey from troubled to top of the class, and with a bar as low as the Emerson scale to clear we always end up declaring the Hero Teacher a wild success. The success is considered that much greater when the teacher helps a particularly “troubled” group of students.

But successful teaching doesn’t work the way Emerson posits. Teaching is not about helping one kid or even one class. Teaching is not a two hour movie; it’s a life long career, a thankless and underpaid one at that. There’s never just one class, or one student, but hundreds and thousands, year after year. Yet the audience never gets that long term perspective. By meeting Emerson’s facile criteria for success, these films ultimately fall prey to what I call The Student Gaze.

The Student Gaze borrows from Laura Mulvey’s notable concept, The Male Gaze. The Male Gaze refers to the idea that movies and literature are overwhelmingly narrated from a masculine, heterosexual perspective. This perspective assumes many things. For one, female characters are inherently sexualized and prescribed roles according to a straight male logic. The Gaze permeates all levels of the cinematic or literary experience, from the camera shots to the characters in the narrative to the audience consuming the media: all are invited to absorb the narrative from a male point of view. Many critics believe The Male Gaze is an example of how media contributes to a larger culture that constrains women along sexual and traditionally peripheral gender role lines.

Not unlike The Male Gaze, The Student Gaze invites the characters in and the audience of movies about education to adopt the perspective of the students rather than the teacher. By the end of the movie, the audience “graduates” and moves on to the next year just like the students they watch in the movie, with the teacher occupying nothing more than a brief stop on the way to something greater. In reality, that teacher is not done with anything, and they have “succeeded” only in a limited sense, because they have new students coming in, they have bills to pay, a family to feed, and so on.

I’d like to see more movies about education told from the teacher’s perspective, instead of the students’, so the audience can see teaching from a different angle. As long as the audience is invited to identify with the students in these movies, teaching will remain mystical and provisional in the popular imagination. Teaching will therefore not be legitimized as a skilled career that requires long hours and devoted practice but instead will be mythologized and viewed as a one time charity donation from a faceless hero with seemingly no family or life or ambitions of their own. The teacher becomes someone who comes into your life for one year, one class, or one theater sitting at a time to help you move on to bigger things. By mythologizing teaching in this way, it’s easier to not give teachers their due.

The Hero Teacher movie doesn’t help anyone who’s not a teacher understand that teaching is a grueling career, and until teaching is treated as the legitimate career it is, teachers will struggle to secure fair wages and sufficient respect from the public. After all, heroes don’t do their job for a salary; they do it out of some ineffable impetus for good. I’d rather be seen as a hard working, skilled teacher than a hero. Let’s stop viewing teachers from the perspective of students.