Is It Better Not To See?
It is my joy today to tell you about the best movie you’ve never heard of. If you’re of my generation, there’s almost no chance you’ve heard of the 1989 classic See No Evil, Hear No Evil starring acting legend Gene Wilder and comedy legend Richard Pryor.
In this timeless classic, Wilder is deaf, whilst Pryor is blind. They are both in the wrong place at the wrong time when a murder takes place and are wrongly accused.
They suffer from a lack of awareness of what is going on given their disabilities, and this makes them vulnerable: Pryor’s character hears the gunshot for the murder, but can’t see anything. Wilder’s character sees the legs of the real perpetrator walking away, but does not hear the gunshot.
Take now a very different Hollywood classic, released ten years earlier – Apocalypse Now! Directed by the legendary Francis Ford Coppola, and starring the great Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen.
Much less comedic, much more intense and dark. Set in the Vietnam War, Sheen’s character is sent into the jungle to retrieve a rogue commander (played by Brando). In a narrative based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, Sheen becomes more and more lost as he heads into the literal darkness of the forest, which reflects his own internal darkness.
When he meets Brando’s character he is confronted by the logic behind his madness, his reasons for abandoning his homeland; Having seen the terror and pointlessness of war in Vietnam, he becomes disillusioned by all he has come to know – questioning the integrity of the very people he has sworn to serve.
Colonel Kurtz: We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!
This is a real challenge to Sheen’s character in the movie, who is almost seduced by Brando’s enlightened perception. After all, Sheen has seen crazy, terrible things – pointless loss of life and the infatuation with war for the sake of war (the movie’s famous line is “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning” – deeply cynical right?).
Bend It Like Beckham
This time we go to a much lighter story once again. The 2002 film details the struggles of a young Indian-English girl who tries to reconcile the expectations of her culture with her love of playing football.
For much of the film, Jesminder Bhamra, who Anglicises her name to ‘Jess’, deceives her old-school parents, hiding the fact that she is playing football. Her strategy is to live two lives; playing the part for her cultural life whilst protecting and hiding her authentic one.
Obviously she is found out sooner-rather-than-later and suffers huge kickback from her parents. Next, after some time, their expectations relax and they give her permission to go and play once again.
Our Perceptions of the World Are Contained within Stories.
In each of these three examples of Hollywood classics we see a clash between expectations, perceptions, stories and reality. Whether light-hearted and comical (See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Bend It Like Beckham) or intense, dark and philosophical (Apocalypse Now!), the same struggle emerges.
In Bend It Like Beckham we see Jess’ story; believing that she must hide her true self. The parents’ story is that their culture provides the best blueprint for how their daughter should live her life. These stories are thrown into turmoil when perspectives clash – Jess is about to give up and conform, but then her parents begin to see a different, third perspective, after realising that their daughter’s happiness is the real priority.
The clash between these imagined ideas, these stories, gives birth to a third unified perspective: That Jess can still honour her culture but pursue her dreams of playing soccer professionally.
In Apocalypse Now! We watch characters struggle with their loyalty to their own team, being forced to question the ethics of and intentions behind the US’ War in Vietnam. In See No Evil, Hear No Evil, we see Pryor and Wilder’s characters struggle to piece together and convey reality.
This is the very tension which makes the film so funny – you and I can understand the full reality, but all the other characters only have pieces of the jigsaw – from the main characters to the police detectives. The lack of awareness creates miscommunication, poor decision-making and conflict.
Is It Better Not To See?
I reflect on these notable films to explore a question I get asked very often. The themes of my podcast and writing continually promote thinking which is both broader and more in-depth. The term my friend and colleague Liam Hounsell coined to discuss this journey is ‘truth-seeking’, which does not need explaining.
The question is, is it better to see the truth?
Is seeing the truth always a good thing?
How do people deal with confronting truth? There are certainly negative ways of dealing with an uncomfortable reality – we’ve seen erratic whistleblowers like Julian Assange, as well as cynics like Friedrich Nietzsche. It is easy to take a cynical view of the world or uncover uncomfortable truths that discourage us as to the state of the world.
If more people understood how our monetary system worked or how criminal and ineffective modern AID and charity are, we might digress into rebellion and global rioting overnight!
We all live lives contained by the stories we hold of reality. As explained in my Without-The-Box Thinking Framework, we are contained by ‘boxes’ of thinking – we think within certain boundaries, and rarely question these boundaries if left unprompted. For example, the Indian parents in Bend It Like Beckham think within a box of traditional Indian Culture, and stubbornly stick to this box because it is familiar, it is safe, and it has been marketed to them as the way.
It really begs the question – are we better off with the blue pill, or the red pill?
Hollywood’s ultimate exploration of this concept is undertaken throughout the Matrix Trilogy, which began with The Matrix in 1999. This film beautifully paints a portrait of this dilemma and the reality of modern life; that there is a very seductive illusion of the world that we inherit when we are born – but that it is just a distortion.
When we see the real world through the eyes of Neo, the protagonist of the series, we see a reality that is dark, stormy and decaying. At first glance, the only real upside to seeing the truth appears to be seeing the truth – the life of denial and ‘ignorance in bliss’ seems to be an experience with less friction and trauma.
So why not uphold the story?
Bliss Is Thin.
Neo does not live an actualised life in the Matrix. He mentions in the film a feeling he’s always had that ‘something is wrong with the world’.
This is how Martin Sheen is presented to us in Apocalypse Now! – he is conflicted, first introduced to the audience whilst having a delusional episode in his smokey hotel room. He is given an order to find Brando’s character and terminate him – despite the simple fact that Brando’s character is hiding harmlessly in the jungle. The order seems extreme – a box-thinker would execute it mindlessly, even though there is no logic behind it.
Colonel Kurtz: You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.
In Bend It Like Beckham, Jess cannot live the best version of her life by fitting neatly into her parents’ story. Trying to hide the story she believes in within their story is at best a short-term strategy, and guarantees confliction.
In See No Evil, Hear No Evil, there is no justice in the distorted reality. The real perpetrators will go free if Pryor and Wilder are wrongfully incarcerated, and Pryor and Wilder are only at risk because their senses are deprived.
In my opinion the blue-pill-red-pill ultimatum is not really a difficult decision. Buying into the delusion, to the story designed to contain and control behaviour, is to surrender one’s freedom. That leaves one option – seeking the truth.
Box-Thinking is captivity. It is often captivity that is disguised as freedom. In Apocalypse Now! Sheen’s character appears to have freedom, after all, he is not forced to be in Vietnam and go on his mission is he? In truth though, he feels uneasy because he does not have full control of his reality. He is in a large prison cell of thinking – but he is still in a prison cell.
The modern, everyday example in our lives is probably having a mortgage. For most of us a mortgage and property ownership are meant to be markers of success and independence – they are marketed to us that way. In many cases, the mortgage restricts a lifestyle much more than it enhances flexibility.
The blue-pill-red-pill decision in The Matrix can be reframed as follows: Would you like to sit in a well-decorated, luxurious and comfortable prison cell, or have greater control of your life? The problem is, a fancy prison still creates the feeling of captivity.
Reflection One: The Choice Is Not Really A Choice
My reflection is firstly that this choice is not really a choice. This is why I unapologetically pursue Without-The-Box Thinking in my own life. Without-The-Box Thinking is freedom, not anarchy – these are different things.
Without-The-Box Thinking enables us to think through the boxes that suit and serve us, when they suit and serve us. We all play some combination of what James Parse dubbed ‘Finite and Infinite Games’. The value of Without-The-Box Thinking is being able to choose the games we play, whilst maintaining the perspective that they are just games.
A game of soccer or basketball often feels like life-and-death once we begin playing with intensity, but rarely is. We need to be able to take a break and disassociate from the outcome of the game every now and then. This parallels how we should think about life, and in particular, the specific example I made of the mortgage.
Freedom, not anarchy, and here’s why…
Reflection Two: The Reality I see encourages us to play the Ultimate Infinite Game together.
The real advantage I see is that a pursuit of the truth and self-awareness leads all people to the same conclusion – what I refer to as ‘The Thousand Doors’, and the reality that the best way to open a Thousand Doors in our own lives is to concentrate on opening Doors for others.
Take racial discrimination as an example. The story that we need our race or culture to be superior to others is what promotes racism, but it is just a story. The work of Henry Tajfel and other social psychologists has shown that it doesn’t take much for us to start identifying aggressively with our group – in one study on Social Identity Theory, Tajfel and colleagues were able to create affinity for a group based on how they counted dots!
In theory, all people should work together collaboratively. In theory, we should not place barriers between people based on racial differences (or any differences). What is the upside to doing this? At best we have a crude mental shortcut to predict how we will get along with someone from another race…
If only we could do without these boxes and the game of being the most powerful and high status racial group – in such a case, we would be allowed to accomplish more and be less divided as a global community. The rising tide lifts all boats – what’s good for you is good for me, what’s good for me is good for you. This is a positive-sum game.
Freely Choosing the Right Games.
When I was studying at high school, I studied for pride. I studied to boost my ego. I wanted to study film, I did not need a high post-school mark. So I wanted to win and come first in every subject, and for that reason I studied very aggressively trying to wrote-learn everything in every text book. It was not healthy or well balanced.
Elon Musk by contrast aced certain subjects like maths and science, but barely scraped by in others. Only when it was explained to him that he needed to perform well in all subjects to get into a certain course, or meet the next outcome, he started blitzing the other subjects too!
The difference is I played the game with a lack of self-awareness, and therefore I did not play it as effectively as Musk. I had a box and I focused on winning within that box – but that box was only one small part of a big picture.
Do you want to win in a box that feels important, but equates to little overall? Or, do you want to perform better and help more people by being able to be more strategic, deliberate and objective?
At time of writing, I have become infatuated with the concept of self-transcendence, and I think this is a logical end destination from pursuing self-awareness and truth about the world. Self-transcendence involves overcoming our ego, our unhealthy beliefs about our own self-importance, to focus on how we play as one small piece of all living things.
For some this journey will lead them to withdraw from modern society, to live a reclusive life as a monk or hermit. Such people are welcome to do so. But this is not my hope, and this is not necessary at all.
Much more I think that Without-The-Box Thinking is the way to do it all, to play fun games in life, to help others, all whilst keeping a healthy and balanced perspective. To live the way that logically makes sense, which is the way to make life as good as possible for ourselves and all those around us.
Which is to concentrate on opening Doors for others.
Because Neo opts into the truth, he is able to fulfil a role as a saviour. Because Jess in Bend It Like Beckham reconciles her identity with her family, they can share a loving relationship and she can go on to be a role model for others. Sheen’s character in Apocalypse Now! Can freely decide whether he feeds a flawed box for his country, adapts to the cynicism of Brando’s character, or chooses a different path that aligns uniquely with him.
Of course the simplest of the films I mentioned was See No Evil, Hear No Evil. I don’t think we want to live life by the title of this film, opting into deafness and blindness. This is a short-term strategy for avoiding ugly sights and sounds that is likely to land us in trouble at some point down the road, removing the agency we have over our own lives.
If you were to imagine your life as one long road trip, you can’t drive if you are blind. You’d have to settle for the passenger seat, and resign to others driving you wherever they see fit.