** SPOILER ALERT *** If you haven’t seen these two movies, consider reading this essay after you do.
Watching Bill Murray’s film St. Vincent last week, I was reminded of another movie: The Fisher King, starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. Both the 1991 and 2014 releases are similar, not just because they’re manipulative and contrived, but because they could potentially lead one to view the more downtrodden among us differently. How? Well, that depends on how you look at things. For some, the movies might invoke a spirited response similar to that of Christopher Tookey, who wrote of the Fisher King:
"The sagacity of the saga is diminished by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's naively sentimental approach to homelessness and insanity. Madness in this film can be cured just by knowing that someone cares about you, and homelessness is not a social problem, but a picturesque way that individuals have of coping with personal tragedy.”
Whereas Tookey feared people could stop viewing homelessness as a real problem, I remember walking away from The Fisher King with a more positive thought: that its tale of a personal tragedy might lead people to view homeless in a more humane way, concluding that perhaps it wasn’t drug use, crime, or other poor choices that led their downfall, but rather a terrible event over which they had no control.
Never mind that generalizing a film’s depiction of a fictional character as a universal truth is unfair to a medium that’s primary purpose is to entertain. After all, just because Robin Williams’s character suffered a horrendous tragedy doesn’t mean all homeless people have. But it might be a positive step when we’re confronted with, say, a panhandler, to help use the movie as an example, and consider that this person asking for money may once have been living a full and rich life only to have a tragedy propel them downward (of course, you could argue that it shouldn’t matter one way or the other. A person in need is a person in need, no matter what led to their circumstances).
St. Vincent walks a similar line to that of The Fisher King. Its egregiously manipulative screenplay has the main character – who’s been a complete ass for most of the film – conveniently throw out the remnants of his nobler past just as a neighborhood kid watches through a window, thus casting the curmudgeon in a new light. Like The Fisher King, this film seems to shout out, “Don’t judge a person too harshly – you don’t know what he’s been through.”
And as contrived as this message may be, this is exactly the default setting we should be employing in our lives. When someone cuts us off on the highway, treats us inconsiderately at the cash register or demeans us at the doctor’s office, it’s easy for us to conclude that the person we’re dealing with is simply a low-life asshole who thinks of nothing but himself. And you know what? The easy conclusion may actually be right on the mark.
But aren’t we much better served by assuming that the person who’s cut us off on the highway is in a terrible hurry because he just found out his spouse has cancer, or the inconsiderate cashier just discovered she can’t pay this month’s rent, or the demeaning physician just had to tell a patient that he’s dying. Unlikely scenarios, perhaps, but possible, just like it’s possible the homeless person you encountered lost his wife in an unspeakably horrific way, and it’s possible that the cranky neighbor who everyone dislikes is a war veteran who’s been taking care of his wife with dementia for years.
It doesn’t hurt to assume the best in people, and it could even do a lot of good. As Atticus Finch said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It’s a difficult ideal to live up to, but it’s certainly one to aspire to, and movies like St. Vincent and The Fisher King are helpful – if a bit melodramatic – reminders if that ideal.