Top Ten Movie Speeches…for now

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My daughter was in a reminiscent mood the other night. She was talking about highlights from the previous school year. One memory that she was particularly happy about involved a homework assignment that created a shared experience: she had to watch a civil rights themed movie. “Hidden Figures” was chosen and we watched it together. She recalled how I declared one of the speeches from the film “easily in my top ten movie speeches.” Naturally she wondered what my top ten was but we never completed that conversation. However, she brought it up again and we did, in fact, have that chat. I will now share those results, sort of, with you.

Wait. Sort of? What the hell does that mean?

Okay. Here are my ground rules and reasoning.

  1. Lists like this are never completely stable. For example, I did not include two “revenge speeches” on my list, opting to include Maximus Decimus Meridius’ “Father of  murdered son…” speech from “Gladiator.” But, sometimes, I find Wyatt Earp’s “I see a red sash I kill the man wearing it” rage fueled denunciation from “Tombstone” the pinnacle of revenge speeches. On other occasions it’s the famous “What I do have is a particular set of skills” from “Taken.” Top ten lists can be influenced by present moods and preferences between relative equals.
  2. Some speeches, however, go beyond moods and preferences between relative equals. Sometimes speeches speak directly to personal dreams, fears, hopes, desires, or values that are deeply imbedded in our psyches. When a speech collides with our humanity (for a reminder of my 5 core human traits please return to my “Black Panther” post) it becomes a true favorite, not easily displaced.
  3. A scene is not a speech. I would love to include Robert De Niro’s “The working man is the tough guy” from “A Bronx Tale” or the opening scene of “Inglorious Bastards” but those installments are better examples of dialogue than singular speeches. Perhaps a list for another day.

 

“Hidden Figures”: Bathroom Speech

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This seems like the most logical place to start since it’s where the conversation started with my daughter. Katherine Globe Johnson’s (played by Taraji P. Henson) stirring pronouncement of personal dignity and deep self-respect in the face of ignorance and smug racial and sexist superiority was pure fire and inspiration. The fact she endured as much as she did for the proverbial “good of the team” adds an additional layer of connection. There is a common cliche that if you love a job or activity enough, who you work for shouldn’t matter. This thought, in my experience, is usually shared by superiors seeking to justify the poor or dismissive treatment of subordinates. Be a good team member often sounds like, “stop thinking and do what I say.” And while there is some truth to the reality we must sometimes sacrifice for the good of the team, personal integrity should never be part of that exchange. There was no doubt that Katherine loved math (a thought that, frankly, is mystifying to this writer). In the film she endures mistreatment for the good of the cause and the love of the work. Pushed beyond her considerable patience she unleashes a torrent of bottled up frustration and a plea for dignity. In the film we also witness an instantaneous positive result when Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison is moved to action instead of defensiveness and reprimand. We could stand for life imitating art in this manner more often.

“Lincoln”: Now is the Time

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There are two main aspects of this speech that I will focus on. The first, much like the previous entry, brings the idea of human dignity to focus. “We’ve stepped out on the world stage…with the fate of human dignity in our hands.” It appears as I live here in my 48th year that I will never have the authority of Lincoln, who did in fact hold that precious parcel in his grasp. On a small scale, however, I may from time to time hold the dignity of one person in my hands. In those moments I hope I have honed my character well enough that my thoughts, words, and actions bring hope and healing.  Lincoln also emphasizes that importance of the here and now in our lives, going so far as to claim, “…it’s the only thing that accounts.” Somewhere Yoda, with his reprimand of Luke Skywalker’s inability to stay focused on “where he was and what he was doing,” is nodding his green head in agreement on the importance of the oh so precious present.

“Rocky Balboa”: It ain’t about how hard ya hit…

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This may be the greatest three minute summation of the human will to stand before the existential challenges of life and, despite the uncertainty of outcome, to continue to fight the good fight. Its demolition of the desire to make excuses and the habit of casting blame to avoid responsibility, combined with honest and yearning fatherly compassion makes for a powerful assault on apathy and immature prattle. Rocky’s response to his son is a fundamental approach to life any can embrace, regardless of your athletic prowess.

“John Wick”: We are cursed, you and I

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This is the only entry on this list from an antagonist, but Viggo Tarasov’s providential explanation for the symbolic suffering shared by himself and John Wick is magnificent. Viggo openly posits that “many of us suffer for our misdeeds” before opening the door to the possibility of a moral universe beyond the control of human action. Viggo claims that John, who in his life as a hitman has killed an untold number of people, lost his wife to  terminal illness as comeuppance for his violent life. Viggo, however, owns his own vicious criminal life as he concludes god has unleashed the tenacious John Wick upon him as a form of justice. How literally one takes Viggo is a matter of interpretation, but we can’t pretend he didn’t utter the words. Moreover, the speech comes after we learn Viggo uses a church as a front for some of his criminal activities. The existence of the terribly flawed institution has zero influence on the ontological view Viggo shares. As a philosophy teacher, I can only describe a pop-culture source that allows conversation on the meaning and possibility of a providential universe (or threads of karma is we take an eastern approach) with one word – Priceless! 

“Gladiator”: Father of  murdered son…

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Step aside Wyatt, “Gladiator” wins the day! The painful loss, raw determination, and seething rage with which Russell Crowe delivers this one still makes me shudder. In my mind the movie could end right there, with Commodus simply handing a sword to Maximus and whispering a last request, “Make it quick.”

“The Hurricane”: Writing is magic

 

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Denzel Washington’s Rubin Carter succinctly and brilliantly sums out the power of writing. The images of admired mentors, the spirit of fictional characters, and the never ending quest for the elusive flow that turns staggering sentences into symphony is the vision quest of the writer, even if, unlike Rubin, the writer is only imprisoned by their minds and self-doubt. Write, fellow reader, write! You’ll be amazed how when the pen start moving the words find you.

“The Two Towers”: Stories that really mattered

 

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I’m just going to let the great Joseph Campbell introduce this one for me.

“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, mythology is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth…”

Stories, you see, are the life blood of hope. We have all heard that reading to children is the number one predictor of success in schools. What a limiting view of stories, as if their primary purpose is to produce students. They can produce mature adults who weather storms and find themselves smiling in the rain. Samwise shares a profound message, “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered…Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why.” The stories we loved as children find a home in our souls, the truth of the myth becoming our supporting staff on the ever unfolding path. Sometimes – despite the attempts of many to dismiss some tales as false, childish, or too old to have meaning in today’s world – the lessons of those tales return to us as adults. In my life, neither the cynic nor his pollyanna shadow has helped me through a crisis. But those stories and archetypes from my youth have been powerful guides. I have no qualms dismissing pompous dolts who claim myths are false because they lack the eyes to see and the heart to feel. Teach the children well because someday when they are far beyond your grasp that story you told might just might be the beacon in the dark that keeps them going.

“Good Will Hunting”: The Park Bench Monologue

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Holy. Crap.

The gentle verbal beat down Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire delivers to Matt Damon’s Will Hunting is as elegant as it is searing. Shredding Will’s arrogant intellectual superiority with the power of experience, Sean allows a glimpse of wisdom in action. Will’s stunned silence speaks volumes in the scene and Sean’s last line – “Your move, chief” – may be the greatest mic drop in cinema history.

“Grumpier Old Men”: I Just Like that Story

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I think I broke my third rule on this one but it’s just so damn endearing. And funny. And just plain entertaining. Did I mention awesome? Jack Lemmon’s dutiful John Gustafson Jr. listens to his dad’s story, enjoying the time while looking for (perhaps straining to see) a little of dad’s wisdom. In the end, John Sr. proclaims “There ain’t no moral! I just like that story.” Well, maybe there was no moral, but there is a always a point to sitting down for one more story from dad. This one’s for all the sons who listen, all the dads who share, and anyone who wishes they could hear just one more story from their old man. Peace be with you.

“Hidden Figures”: No choice but to be first

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Loved this moment in the film! Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson brings a different kind of thunder than our first entry. Her surgical strike was aimed (as it likely would have to be) at the judge’s ego. Prepared for her appearance in court and armed with research for her opponent she brings forth an intelligent and determined argument that could not be ignored. She chose her weapons well and won the day – even if the judge held onto his prejudices by assigning her to night school. Good for you Judge Whatsyername, that’s Mary Jackson and she deserves to be remembered!

 

Well, that’s the list. Hope you found the entries interesting and worthy of your time. Go enjoy a good movie or surrender to a story…who knows what you’ll encounter!

Socrates in School

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We live in a technological age. The eye is drawn to it, the mind bounces from stimulated
to stupefied by it, commercials guarantee that the latest gadget will simplify our lives and make them more fulfilling, and schools scramble to prove they are on the cutting edge. But what if it is all a bluff? What if we have been seduced to looking at the bottom line or the party line and have completely lost sight of the finish line? Professor Isaac Kandel, in the middle of the 20th century, lamented that education followed a “hollow doctrine” and was all but bereft “intellectual vitality or moral purpose.” Moreove, in the absence of strong guiding principles education celebrated “change for its own sake” (1). Maybe it is not change we need but a challenge. If it is a challenge one needs than the gadfly of Athens is an able presenter.

St. Socrates, pray for us

Erasmus wrote, “Saint Socrates, pray for us” (2). There are a multitude of possible prayers Socrates would likely say on our behalf…and a legion of prayers he would consider that I could not possibly fathom. Such a thought exercise may have a purpose but I believe it far more prudent to consider what I, as a teacher, would pray to Socrates for. What boon would I seek? The answer is simply to find the patience and words to awaken people (myself most definitely included) to the possibility of living from our learning minds.
Socrates theorized “the soul of every single man is also divided in three” (3, line 580d). Each aspect of the soul sought specific pleasures and led to the habits and actions of a particular kind of person. The three aspects of the soul are the learning, spirited, and one that has “many forms…but we named it…the desiring part…” (4, line 580e). The descriptions Socrates offers of each division and the corresponding pleasures can be quite instructive.

The Three Aspects of the Socratic Soul

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Desiring 

The desiring part of the soul seeks immediate gratification of desires. These desires can  be anything from sex to food. From alcohol to money. Socrates calls identifies the pleasure of this aspect as “gain loving” and even “money loving” (5, line 581a). The modern philosopher Jacob Needleman defines materialism as “a disease of the mind starved for ideas” (6). This mind, so barren of ideas that invigorate and intrigue, seeks vitality from material items and physical experiences separated from an emotional core or a community of friends.

It is also important to note that the desiring part seeks quick and easy answers as well. We live in an age of speed as well as technology, almost completely succumbing to the proposition that speed is good. Articles and books are written about the necessity of educators to meet this generation addiction to speed with activities that feed the addiction! Text them, twitter at them, post on-line now! Now! Now! Maybe, just maybe mind you, schools should stand for something more than being a mere mirror to society or a helpless piece of kelp tossed about by the waves of existing culture. Whatever happened to the beauty of a song being the silence that existed between the notes?

Spirited

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The spirited part of the soul was also referred to as “victory-loving” and “honor-loving” (7, line 581b). It is“wholly set on mastery, victory and good reputation” (8, line 581a). Now, our initial reaction to this might be…hell, yea! Victory! That’s where it’s at! Who wants to be the loser? Who doesn’t want the acclaim and accolades due the person of achievement and action? We’re number one! We’re number one! So, what’s the limitation here? 

The problem is this. The spirited part is “wholly set” on victory. It is most definitely not focused on the joy of the game but the outcome. Your value to the person of the spirited soul is dictated entirely by your capacity to bring victory. You are as valuable as your utility makes you. Don’t talk of human value here. What do you bring to the table? Period.

Steroids in baseball…spirited. Lance Armstrong…spirited.Kid kicked out of the  national scrabble tournament for cheating…spirited (9). High school coaches running up scores and middle aged athletes bragging about things they have never done…spirited. Putting others down to build yourself up…spirited. Image over substance…spirited. Party line over seeking truth…spirited. Well, maybe there is a problem with being ruled by the spirited part of the soul after all.

Learning 

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Socrates identified this part of the soul as “learning-loving” or “wisdom-loving” (10, line 581b). Y’know, the part of the souls schools try to awaken with rubrics and jargon heavy lesson plans. Socrates used the phrase “dragged away…by force along the rough, steep, upward way” to describe someone being moved to the point of experiencing their highest nature (11, line 515e). Dragged, as in someone was forcing the individual to progress. Catering won’t get it done. This part of the soul can only be awakened with patience, diligence, and effort.

We love these mentors in movies. Meet such a person in life and they likely annoy the crap out of us. Forgive me as I show my age here, but it is one thing to cheer for Mr. Miyagi. It would be quite another thing to put up with him in real life. Paint your own &*%$@^& fence!

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The Soul and Pleasure

 

Socrates stressed that each aspect of the soul sought, and experienced, pleasure. The true issue, as he saw it, was that the desiring part and the spirited part only saw value in the pleasure of their own domain. The learning part, however, sees pleasure in all of them but maintains a perspective that keeps that allows for balance and the hope of harmony. 

 The various aspects of the soul, however, don’t always work well together. For example one living intently from the spirited soul sees pleasure from money as vulgar but if learning doesn’t bring awards, notoriety, and acclaim then it is “smoke and nonsense”  (12, line 581d). I mean, if no one is telling you that you are the best then why do it? Meanwhile the desiring part wonders  if learning doesn’t get you paid…now….then what is the point? And, please, spare me your praise unless it comes with some kind of physical reward. (13, line 581d).

And schools, well, they certainly can proclaim high-minded ideals but what do they model? What part of soul is fed in education? In you classroom? In mine? Can you build a love of learning by feeding the other parts? What is the unspoken curriculum of the school your students walk through every day? Moreover, what kind of behaviors do we encourage young people to carry into adulthood? Socrates noted that too many people in a country who are dominated by desiring or spirited aspects of the soul leads to “war-like” men and “lover{s} of gain” and “money makers” incapable of appreciating love of wisdom and learning (14, line 583a).

Back to Erasmus: A simple prayer

St. Socrates pray for us that we may grope until we find a method of making love of learning appealing in its own right. That we live praiseworthy lives while not seeking praise. That we should laud only that which is worthy of lauding. That we be worthy of the victories we win and noble enough to bear the burden of the defeats we suffer. That we have the audacity to pursue wisdom and  compassion while, hopefully, leaving the paths we walk just a little better by our passing.

(1) Aeschliman, M. (2007). Why We Always Need Socrates: Some Unfashionable, Unprogressive Thoughts on Teachers, Teaching, Curriculum. and the Theory of Knowledge, with Reference and Thanks to Socrates, Pascal, and C.S. Lewis. Journal of Education, Vol 188.3, p 31.

(2) Erasmus, Ten Colloquies, trans. Craig R. Thompson (New York: MacMillan, 1986), 158.

(3) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.

(6) Needleman, J. The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders (New York, Penguin, 2002), 6.

(7) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf

(8) ibid.

(9)I’m not making that up. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/15/scrabble-player-caught-cheating_n_1778014.html

(10) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf

(11) ibid

(12) ibid.

(13) ibid.

(14) ibid.