All That Heaven Allows You to Eat
Suzanne Scott on Defending Your Life
Limbo. The very word has such a delicious ambiguity, such limitless imaginary potential, that it seems to transcend all denominational boundaries, blurs the polar absolutes of heaven and hell. Films that focus on the way station between life and death tend to embody the ethos of another dead guy: it’s the journey, not the destination, that ultimately matters. The pleasure is in the process, and there is no more euphoric or enlightening depiction of afterlife logistics and heavenly bureaucracy than Albert Brooks’s 1991 rumination Defending Your Life. Brooks, in his tale of underachieving yuppie Daniel Miller’s fatal encounter with Los Angeles mass transit and the resulting examination of his existence, creates a truly postmodern afterlife, paved in concrete rather than clouds. Religion, spirituality, these intangible concepts are all null and void, replaced with a system of Orwellian surveillance operating alongside a mutated version of Warhol’s theory that we will all be granted our 15 minutes, here with possibly damning results. In a nod to the materiality that has supplanted spirituality in our culture, Brooks contends that we are all prey to the great camcorder in the sky, convicted to eternal reincarnation based on the panoptic quality of Big Brother’s home movies as we each are put through a trial where moments in our lives are replayed and analyzed.
Fittingly, the moments we see in Daniel’s life as “evidence” in his trial (or “examining period,” as his lawyer so diplomatically puts it) are as banal as they are life-altering. We don’t witness his first steps, or his graduation from college, or his wedding, or any other of the events typically considered momentous in their ability to mold us into our true selves, we witness Daniel cowing to a schoolyard bully, or suffering a bout of stage fright before an important presentation, each just a moment among many others, deemed a turning point only retrospectively. The assumption Brooks operates under is not that lives follow a linear trajectory from decision to decision, cause to effect, but rather that we are a product of a collection of all moments and memories at once. The reflexivity of Daniel’s trial, his visible discomfort in the cinematic retelling of his past (prompting curiosity as to why the omnipotent documentarian in question chooses to shoot everyone’s life with a Lifetime movie of the week aesthetic), is seemingly grounded in the nature of selective memory. The moments chosen as evidence are not worthy of home movie footage, they aren’t performative in the least. Rather, Brooks’s emphasis on the minute detail of daily existence, those we are most likely to forget but that form us nonetheless, supersedes the surreal nature of his story’s locale.
Likewise, Daniel’s first encounter with Julia (Meryl Streep) is fittingly mundane, their subsequent interactions comprised of getting-to-know-you banter and slightly awkward goodnight pauses that seem all too familiar without veering into the “meet cute” logistics of most romantic comedies. Perhaps that is what makes the pair so refreshing, their instant love affair so remarkably believable, the combination of Brooks’s nebbish nervous nellie and Streep’s alluring affable achiever seem somehow plausible. Perhaps it’s the miracle of the caftans, and Thomas Moore was onto something with his Utopian vision of ensemble uniformity giving way to equality. Or perhaps it is simply situational. In a space that exists somewhere between Earth and the great beyond, love is a trial in and of itself. Limbo is an ironic locale for love to flourish, as love has everything to do with a lack of judgment.
But, speaking of judgment, back to that pesky destination for a moment... “This reminds me of Disneyland,” Julia remarks of Judgment City, with its color-coded trams and strategically designed “familiarity,” and Disneyland is precisely Brooks’s model for his vision of this layover to the hereafter. This reference to “the happiest place on earth” is as fitting as it is disturbing, as the whole of Judgment City seems to thrive on watered-down, socially encouraged sin despite its artifice of pleasantry. To quickly run the list: Gluttony (the orgy of consumption in this “all you can eat” buffet in the sky), Greed (the town is overrun with lawyers, even if they are pro bono), Pride (Daniel’s constant fretting over Lady and the Tramps ), Envy (“I” ), Wrath (Daniel’s simmering annoyance with his legal proceedings), Lust (Julia’s open invitation to Daniel, which he hasn’t the courage to fulfill), and Sloth (Daniel’s palpable jealousy over Julia’s Backdraft-worthy rescue of her family from a burning building functions as an indictment of his own ineptitude). Sure, the murder rate is nonexistent, but Judgment City still functions as a geriatric Pleasure Island, where diversions abound (comedy clubs, dancing, horseback riding, and on and on, all touted by billboards and incessant television advertisements) all in the hopes of making death a little more enjoyable.
But even here, in the land where everyone is equally dead and the perks extend to all, there exists a hotel hierarchy, and the difference between what types of chocolates are left on your pillow every night could mean the difference between going on and going back to square one. “You’re very concerned with ‘normal,’ aren’t you? It’s cute,” Daniel’s bemused defense attorney (boisterously embodied by Rip Torn) remarks early in their meeting. It is a throwaway line, especially in an environment that we are repeatedly informed has been constructed to seem as “normal” to its temporary denizens as possible, but it crops up again and again, the middle-class American struggle for the status quo. From the smallest of gestures (Daniel fishing absently in his robe for a tip from the hotel bellboy) to the film’s more whimsical touches (the Past Lives Pavilion, which provokes horror-induced hilarity from most everyone who visits it in the hopes of a star-studded past and is shown less than stellar incarnations of their reincarnated selves), Brooks concurrently satirizes our all-encompassing preoccupation with conformity as he reinforces its importance through Daniel’s obsession with averageness.
We’re told that the point of this whole thing, the life we live, is to keep getting smarter, to reason away the fears that threaten to wield their control over us. And what a message, to be steeped in such blissful absurdity, to be sandwiched into what is ostensibly a love story, in which Daniel must learn to love himself before he can truly love another. Love, cannot be rationalized, nor is it convenient: as Daniel sardonically notes, “Where do we find it? In the pit stop. Thanks, God!” And, in this place of judgement, love is its own lapsed religion, it feeds off of faith rather than rational thought. The running gag that all the “little brains” dwelling on Earth are utilizing less than three percent of their brain capacity seems somewhat poignant in this regard. While intellect is held above all else in Judgment City, love is what ultimately saves Daniel, passion free from reason and ultimately free from fear.
Like Hirokazu Koreeda’s 1998 film After Life, another sterling example in the same thematic and situational vein, Defending Your Life is a film that prompts self-assessment from its deft play with questions of consequence. While After Life depicts a “middle point” in which the recently deceased are asked to select, film a re-enactment, and be ultimately reabsorbed into their happiest memory, Brooks proactively elicits an examination of the memories we are each currently making, ultimately encouraging each of us to leap along with Daniel towards what we may not rationally allow ourselves to desire and create our happiest memories in the process. A blistering comedy as insightful as it is gut busting? You bet your life.