Knowledge and the Search for Meaning in Five Classic Films

[Editor’s note: In this guest post, Toronto Pursuits 2017 leader David Schmitt gives us a glimpse of the five films participants will watch and discuss in his seminar Cinema and the Art of Concealment and how these films challenge us to take a second look at what we know, and what we don’t, about ourselves and others.]


“Things I Know”

I know how my heart skips a beat when the music starts and I walk on stage feeling beautiful
I know how the wind spins when I perfect
a turn

I know how the ground shakes when I leap across the
midnight black stage

I know how my body freezes when I forget a move and I stand there, lifeless

I know how my hair whips when I strike a pose,

I know how my expressions enchant the audience as I sweep across the stage

I know the feeling when the crowd roars and I smile,

What do you know about your lived experience? How do you know it? And what good does it do you? In Cinema and the Art of Concealment, we’ll watch five films that allow us to come a little closer to answering those questions. Each is a completely different kind of film than the others, and each comes at knowledge and the role it plays in our lives in a completely different way. Here’s a small sampling of the films.


Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane, 1941, Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Coton, Agnes Moorhead

Rosebud. What does that mean? What does a person’s life “mean” and how can we determine that meaning?

Man’s search for meaning in life is an eternal search. Citizen Kane searches through time, through memory, through blurred understandings and assumptions for that meaning in a great man’s life. We all know this film, one of the greatest films in American cinema—yet how well do we know it?

[Newspaper reporter Jerry] Thompson: Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, I don’t think it would have explained everything. I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle … a missing piece.


The Searchers

The Searchers, 1956, John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood

The Searchers, one of the finest of John Ford’s many very fine movies, is about a search for two young girls kidnapped by Indians. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Marin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) search for Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood), a search that will take them years. They don’t know what they will find, nor do they quite know what they will do when they find her. The search becomes all.

This film is much larger, though. It is about Edwards’s search for himself and for some measure of personal redemption. A search we might all make. It’s the search by Martin for his adopted sister, but really it’s his search for his place in a community.

Laurie: [Martin is preparing to join a raid against the Indians and rescue Debbie] You’re not goin’, not this time.
Martin: Are you crazy?
Laurie: It’s too late. She’s a woman grown now.
Martin: But I gotta go, Laurie, I gotta fetch her home.
Laurie: Fetch what home? The leavings a Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own?
Martin: [upset] Laurie, shut your mouth.
Laurie: Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He’ll put a bullet in her brain. [Pause.] I tell you, Martha would want him to.
Martin: Only if I’m dead.

Our endless, remorseless searching.


The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects, 1995, Bryan Singer
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri

Tell me what happened. Tell me the truth. Ah, but truth is in the eye of the beholder. What can we know from a story told? What truth can we find? The Usual Suspects is a fascinating film that enthralls more deeply upon repeated viewings.

Verbal [played by Spacey]: Who is Keyser Söze? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Söze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that, poof. He’s gone.

Being John Malkovich
, 1999, Spike Jonze

Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich

OK, this may well be one of the strangest films you will ever see, and it’s certainly the strangest of these five films. But what a delightfully strange experience it is! Watch it again. And again. And again.

Being John Malkovich

Craig Schwartz, a puppeteer played by John Cusack, finds a portal into the mind of John Malkovich.

Craig Schwartz: There’s a tiny door in my office, Maxine. It’s a portal and it takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich’s eyes … and then after about 15 minutes, you’re spit out … into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.
Maxine: Sounds great! Who the fuck is John Malkovich?
Craig: Oh, he’s an actor. He’s one of the great American actors of the 20th century.
Maxine: Oh yeah? What’s he been in?
Craig: Lots of things. That jewel thief movie, for example. He’s very well respected. Anyway, the point is … this is a very odd thing. It’s supernatural, for lack of a better word. I mean, it raises all sorts of philosophical-type questions, you know… about the nature of self, about the existence of a soul. You know, am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich? […] Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is? I don’t see how I could go on living my life the way I’ve lived it before.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon), 2007, Julian Schnabel
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Max von Sydow

After a stroke, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) is locked into himself, with only his left eye available to see the world, to communicate with the world. But communicate he does, producing a lyrical autobiography by blinking out one letter at a time. What is it like inside a man’s head, inside your head? His entrapment, like ours, can be freeing, if we so choose. This is a remarkably beautiful film.

Jean-Dominique Bauby: I decided to stop pitying myself. Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed, my imagination and my memory.

I love these movies! I’ll look forward to knowing more with you in Cinema and the Art of Concealment at Toronto Pursuits 2017. These are all masterpieces of filmmaking that will be added to your list of favorite films; I know it.

– David

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