Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
If you are like me, you probably don’t feel a great deal like laughing right now. With the arrival of the week of March 9 in America, we all saw a fundamental shift in our way of life, our work, our consumption habits, the lens through which we view media and entertainment, and more. A pandemic has come. To say we are now living in an age of high anxiety is putting it mildly. And because of the mixture of the known and the unknown in this pandemic, the darkness of fear can be an overwhelming force, especially as we face it in imposed or self-imposed quarantine.
Most of us will consume stories during these weeks of social distancing from the world, and even though our lens has changed, stories will continue to work on us as they always have: entertaining, reflecting, informing, teaching us how to think. And of particular importance to us right now is that some storytellers, and some stories, are adept at drawing us out of the darkness. There is no particular genre that has a monopoly on this ability. I’ve found it to be true of everything from Science Fiction to Regency Romance. What is true, however, is that some stories will be particularly reflective of experiences we’re now facing, so wherever you can find a story that draws you out into the light, hold onto it, and share it with others.Many of us use humor as a defense mechanism when things go dark, but Waititi seems to use humor as joy-finding—a way of mining light out of dark ore.
I have found writer and filmmaker Taika Waititi to be such a storyteller. The first movie my husband and I sat down to watch in self-quarantine was Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which was written and directed by Waititi. He is a storyteller who looks at the world with an eye to the absurd: the absurd beauty, the absurd quirks, the absurd fears. Waititi holds humor and reverence in balance, and it is because of this, and his ability to find joy in every situation, that he is just the sort of storyteller we need right now.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople takes place in New Zealand, and the story opens when child services agent Paula (Rachel House) drops off 13-year-old juvenile delinquent Ricky (Julian Dennison) at a farm on the edge of the bush. It quickly becomes clear Ricky is there to be fostered by the owners of the farm, the enthusiastic and loving Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her taciturn husband, Hec (Sam Neill). Labeled “a real bad egg” by Paula, this farm and these people are Ricky’s last shot at a real home—if it doesn’t work out for him here, it is off to juvenile detention for him. But when Bella (who Ricky calls “Auntie”) unexpectedly dies, Hec is left with a child he never wanted, and Ricky is faced with the inevitability of Paula returning to take him to juvenile detention.
So Ricky, using the rationale of a 13-year-old, does the only thing he thinks he can do: he tries to fake his death and runs away into the bush by himself. Hec, an experienced bushman, easily finds him, but fractures his foot, stranding the two of them in the jungles of New Zealand while his foot heals. In that time, Paula finds the farm abandoned and assumes the worst—that Hec has kidnapped the child. A nationwide manhunt for the pair ensues as Hec and Ricky run and hide, together, to maintain things that are equally important: freedom, family, self-determination. None of which can be preserved if they re-enter society.
Nothing about this story sounds humorous—indeed, the premise is extremely serious. But Waititi’s signature storytelling style is to handle weighty material with a gentle hand and tease out the joy and absurdity buried deep inside. From the introductions of the characters, to short clips showing Ricky’s deviant juvenile behavior, to his early attempts to run away from the farm, to Bella’s quirky and relentless efforts to assimilate him into her family—Hunt for the Wilderpeople is not only heartwarming and charming, but hilariously funny. Waititi even manages to present humor through tears at the saddest moments of the film. He has a unique ability to find humor in sadness, light in darkness, and levity in fear.
Many of us use humor as a defense mechanism when things go dark, but Waititi seems to use humor as joy-finding—a way of mining light out of dark ore. While it is always okay to sit in lament, and often appropriate and needed in order to heal, we should never build our homes in places of darkness. We walk through the valleys; we don’t stay there indefinitely. And God promises that we are never alone.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a movie about not walking alone, even while in solitude, and even while in grief. Hec would prefer to be alone, but Ricky absolutely will not leave him alone (ever). Ricky relentlessly tries to run away from his last chance at a home, but is loved into belonging (literally) to an unlikely family by “Auntie”. Once they go on the run, Hec and Ricky are socially distanced from the world, but close to each other, and in growing closer to each other as they walk together-alone, they each find more than what they are trying to preserve. They find healing and unexpected joy in each other.
Social distancing during this pandemic is a together-alone-ness, whether you live alone and can only connect with others via the internet, or whether you find yourself trapped in a house with immediate family from whom you suddenly have no escape. It’s a bleak time for most of us, not because we don’t love each other, but because we do, and to protect everyone, we must practice these bizarre social distancing techniques that are not natural to us. We are not designed for this sort of life, not in any prolonged way.
In Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it’s clear from the moment Hec and Ricky’s story goes sideways that their run from the law—their escape from society—is as unsustainable as it is entertaining to watch. And as their story progresses and their situation becomes less tenable, the tone grows more somber. Even though most of the real tragedies in the story are front loaded in the first half, it is the second half of the film that feels heavier as it gradually becomes apparent that something has to give. Ricky and Hec can’t run from society forever—their story has to end with either tragedy or a re-entrance of some sort. Social distancing is meant to be temporary.
Our time of social distancing will be temporary too. I won’t end this with any platitudes that it’s all going to be okay, or anything like that. Because for some people it’s not. That is the tragedy of a pandemic. And we can sit in that grief and mourn, and we should mourn. These are things that break the heart of God, too. As we pray for healing in our lands, in our neighbors, in ourselves, let us also search for the glimmers of light. There are some stories out there that can help lift us up and remind us of the right way to think and be, even as the world feels so wrong right now. No matter how physically distant we are from each other, we are never residents of the valley. We are just passing through. And it’s okay to laugh, even when we’re sad.
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