Monday, June 14, 2004


Let Me Tell You Something Kid, It was Pretty God Damned Glorious

I watched Vision Quest twice today. One of the benefits of premium cable. On the movie type channels on my cable system, one channel might show a movie at let’s say 8:00 p.m. The same channel might show the same movie the next morning at 6:00a.m. and then again that afternoon at 4:00p.m. That’s three times in less than 24 hours. In addition, many of the movie type channels have an east coast and a west coast feed. A movie I watch at noon on the east coast feed I can watch again three hours later on the west coast feed. Now of course for a movie like Vision Quest or About A Boy, this is a great opportunity. However, every silver lining has a cloud, and this cloud comes in the fact that a movie like Gigli will also be shown over and over. Well, nothing’s ever perfect, but Vision Quest comes pretty close.

If you haven’t seen it, please consider watching it soon. Then come back and read this. It’s about a high school senior, who is trying to drop enough weight to wrestle in the 168lb weight class, the toughest weight in the state. The state champ at 168 is Brian Shute, three years undefeated, one of these types who has a legendary status as a wrestler who cannot be beaten. Our hero, Louden Swain, has just turned 18, and is bothered by the feeling that even though his age might indicate he’s a man, he hasn’t really accomplished anything to earn that status. Even though Louden is a senior, he is unusually aware of mortality and that no one lives forever. Louden’s dad is a mechanic, and in the beginning of the movie, they meet a 21 year old woman whose car has broken down while on her way to San Francisco to become an artist . Carla comes to stay with Louden and his dad while waiting for the car to be fixed, and the movie goes from there.

So what is a Vision Quest? Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary has to say:

vision quest (noun): A period of spiritual seeking among certain Native American peoples, often undertaken as a puberty rite, that typically involves isolation, fasting, and the inducement of a trance state for the purpose of attaining guidance or knowledge from supernatural forces.

Or Margaret Sanger (1879–1966):

“It is ... marvelous ... to have a period of apparent fanaticism. No obstacle can discourage you. The single vision of your quest obscures defeat and lifts you over mountainous difficulties.”

Pretty good stuff, but what does it have to do with a wrestling movie? Well Louden has a coach, who is practical. Coach refuses to let Louden drop the weight, feeling his obligation as coach means keeping Louden at 190, where he can be state champ and earn a college scholarship. Louden’s only goal is to wrestle Shute. For Louden, the future, college, even a scholarship, are all part of the worldly urges that hinder us from transcendence. Challenging Shute, whatever the cost, is that transcendent goal for Louden. He convinces his coach through a feat of strength unattainable by even the strongest wrestler on the team. To make the weight, Louden has to fast, skipping meals while fanatically exercising, even doing pushups while waiting for elevators at his hotel job. He faints in the hallway at school. The school mascot is Native American, and the team name is the Warriors. Louden is clearly on a vision quest.

Louden has chosen the path of adventure, and finds himself on what Joseph Campbell would call the Journey. A hero on the Journey of course faces any number of tests and challenges. These include the fasting and training. Louden has to make the weight before he can even attempt the challenge of facing Shute. There is another challenge, and that is embodied in Carla. Louden has enforced his discipline over the merely physical. He is steadily losing the weight. Louden does eat, but only a very small amount. He has mastered the basest eating impulse of life. Carla’s test is of a higher impulse: sexual lust. She isn’t motivated by this, or doesn’t intentionally set out to have this affect on Louden. Louden perceives her this way because he hasn’t yet become a man. In Carla’s presence, Louden is distracted by the sexual impulse and disheartened and embarrassed that he is still a virgin, another missing part of his manhood.

Every hero on a journey finds assistance from wiser/elder/spiritual/magical helpers. Louden’s English teacher helps him to form his thoughts and ideas about seizing the day and wanting to achieve. Louden comes to him the day of the match to tell his teacher how much he means to him. Louden explains he wants to let people know how he feels, “just in case I get paralyzed from the eyeballs down.” His teacher notes that this is the first time he feels sorry for Shute. Louden is thinking outside the purely physical personal, and is becoming aware of his obligations and relationships with and to others, not just to himself.

Louden’s coworker at the hotel is Elmo, an older, single man who has an appearance of being not materially wealthy, not very well educated perhaps, lower class somehow. After all, he’s in his forties, no family, working the late shift cooking for hotel room service. Could this be the life of a successful man? How could a man like this give some sort of special aid? Well for me, he is perhaps uniquely qualified. Elmo is clearly unmotivated by financial concerns. He is not bound by family concerns. He is a free actor in his own life, and he hasn’t spent that time unprofitably. Elmo tells Louden of a time he watched Pele on Spanish television while sitting in his tiny apartment. Pele made an incredible goal, jumping in the air, flipping upside down and kicking the ball into the goal. A soccer fan could tell me if it’s really called a bicycle kick, a term I’ve heard somewhere or other. Pele tears off his jersey, waving it as he runs around the field to the cheers of thousands. Elmo couldn’t even understand what they were saying, but he found himself crying. He was moved, to paraphrase, because “…another human being, a species which I belong to, when he kicked the ball, he lifted all of us sorry human beings up with him, just for a moment. Let me tell you something kid, it was pretty God damned glorious.“ Elmo has made the connection, knowing that he and the other are one. He has given up a day’s pay to go and see the match. Money isn’t everything. Every one of us is connected. Pele’s moment was a moment for all of us, of all of us. And our own glories are everyone else’s. A fruitful life is not lived on the level of personal physical needs, but on the awareness of the connection between oneself and all other life. Compassion, for and with the other, gives one a full life.

Carla is also a helper. She eventually does have sex with Louden, fulfilling that component of his search for manhood. This makes Louden feel terrific. Unfortunately, he thinks he’s in love with her. At this point, he is blinded by lust and is willing to give up his goal of wrestling Shute, just to be with Carla. Carla does know the difference between lust and love, and she knows Louden will regret giving up his goal for the rest of his life. He would also end up resenting Carla because he would see her as the one who kept him from it. To get Louden back on track, Carla moves out the day before the match, while he is at school. Louden comes home to Carla’s empty room and is hurt, angry, and filled with despair. Elmo explains to Louden that this match is a chance to live out a defining moment, and convinces Louden to go to the match and carry put his goal. Carla isn’t really gone, and she shows up in the locker room to talk to Louden before he goes out to wrestle. As an angry kid, Louden lashes out at Carla, who ably defends herself. Louden finally internalizes his experiences of the past few weeks, and admits to Carla that he would do it all again. Now these are the words of a developed human impulse. Anyone can enjoy the passionate excitement of lust, but love means an acceptance of all the hurts as well. By accepting this, Louden becomes a man. He has left his childhood behind. His path is merely affirmed when he goes on to beat Shute.

If this is not a life affirming movie, I don’t know what is. Life is pain. From the moment you’re born, you’re on a (hopefully) long, sure, slide to your own death. You’ll suffer terrible losses of parents, friends, lovers, spouses, even children. You will have setbacks. You might get fired. Someone will run over your dog. You may, personally or within your society, face terrible natural disasters or war. So why even live? Why not blow your life savings on hookers and drugs and then kill yourself? A narrower version of this question was asked in an episode of ST:TNG. Discussing betrayal by someone thought to be a friend, Data, who is an android and can’t quite comprehend emotional connections between people, decides having friends isn’t worth it. Commander Riker notes that without friends, you miss out on so many wonderful experiences in life. Data argues that you put yourself at risk for terrible betrayal. Riker replies with a smile, “Every single time.” No matter how many times you get burned, the basic impulse to friendship, compassion with another, is worth the risk. So too with life. Pain cannot be avoided. Hurt cannot be dodged. But life is worth it too. There is so much beauty in this world, beauty that every one of us can experience, beauty we create ourselves and share with others. It doesn’t matter if it is a renowned work of art, a movie like Vision Quest, or a kind word to a stranger. Life is pain, and beauty. And let me tell you something kid, it’s pretty God damned glorious.

Update: How could I forget that wonderful scene where all the boys on the team lay on their stomachs, in tight formation side by side on the mat, forming a large circle, all of them facing inward. Well the boys are slapping out a typical “Cowboys and Indians” movie style drumbeat. Suddenly one boy gets up and begins running around the outside of the circle and diving back down into his spot. The thing is, as soon as he passes the boy right next to him, that boy gets up and follows the first boy. The third boy follows the second, and so on, until the very last boy has made it all the way around the circle. You may have seen people attending sporting events doing “The Wave”. Picture that, and you’ll have some idea of what I’m talking about. Now by the time the first boy makes it around the circle, the next several boys have gone, and there is plenty of room to land as you dive to the mat. The tension and excitement build as each runner rounds the circle, and by the end, these boys aren’t just falling to the mat anymore. They’re leaping into the air and practically hurling themselves to the mat. It’s as if each succeeding runner has to give a more intense physical demonstration of the toughness and invulnerability of the “tribe”. When the last boy lands in his space, all of them surge forward to the center of the circle, forming a big dog pile. This is a thrilling moment. Some might argue that it’s just a movie, and there’s a whole plot and music and it’s just Hollywood making things exciting. Fine, take all that away. Think about the actors performing this ritual. Only a few of them have speaking parts. Some of them have gone on to greater fame and fortune as actors. Others were never in a movie again, and even in this movie, it might be the only scene they were in. But I think if you asked any one of them about those minutes, in that circle, pounding the mat, running, jumping, screaming and yelling, he would tell you it was a highlight in his life. This ritual has another symbolic level. Think of what is often called the wheel of fate or wheel of fortune. On the wheel, you can be at the top, on the way down, at the bottom, or on the way up. Well your life may have these ups and downs. The trick is to not let your actions be ruled by them. You shouldn’t react to events but rather act from your true nature. This is the center. Every boy has to travel the outside of the wheel; everyone will have good and bad experiences. But the center of the wheel, the hub, is where the glory is, and that dog pile in the center is the triumphant moment of the ritual. You can’t beat that.
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