Can you catch PTSD in a theater?
I was putting away the dinner dishes after alienne came over for dinner, and started humming Franco Battiato's arrangement of the song "Ruby Tuesday," which plays a very important role in a scene in Children of Men. And when I realized what I was humming, I started tearing up. When I tried to explain to Alienne why that scene, and the scenes that followed it from there on, affected me so much -- heck, when I tried explaining it to myself as much as to her -- I started bawling like a baby. Look, it's rare for a movie to bring me to tears. More common than actual life, I grant, by a long shot, but rare. But for a movie to bring me to tears more than 24 hours later? Unheard of.
I mentioned Michael Caine last night, who is almost always a joy to watch perform. He's the one whose character picks out "Ruby Tuesday" to play on his CD player during that scene in the movie. He's also the character that I wish that I identified with. (Oddly enough, he seems to be a fictionalized future self of a real guy. They even seem to have made Michael Caine up to look the way that the guy who drew those cartoons might look in 20 years.) The guy I wish I'd grown up to have been, for the most part? That's him, right there. And by the time of that scene, he's already made sacrifices in his life that I don't think I have the guts to make. What the "Ruby Tuesday" scene marks is the beginning of what, in any ordinary movie, would be a very long and tedious chase scene. His character is the first of a long, long line of people who put their bodies in the way of the war machine, the first of hundreds, maybe thousands who (over the course of the next 36 hours in the film) laid their lives down to save the last human baby on earth ... without hesitation, without being asked, without thinking twice, without regret, without tears, without a doubt in their minds. And they were probably right to do so. And I don't know if I would have done what they did. I think I might have rationalized some way out of the pain that those people volunteered for. But it's not just the shame that tears me up. It's the awful, unthinkable price. Nothing should be worth that price.
The late James Tiptree, Junior (real name Alice Sheldon)'s fiction does that to me, a lot, too, but none more than her 1978 novelette "We Who Stole the Dream." The premise in that one is that human beings have been at interstellar war with another species for generations. The descendants of captured alien prisoners of war have been raised by humans as slaves; because of the extent of human losses in the war, those slaves are universally hated and treated brutally. Finally, one group of nearly a thousand slaves devise a conspiracy to escape from Earth and across the battle lines, to reach their own people. And it is a plan with no illusions: every step of the plan has factored in how many of them will die. And step by step, we watch these aliens, first in small numbers and then by dozens, go gravely to their deaths without complaint because it is worth several hundreds of their deaths that a half dozen of them make it to freedom. There's a twist ending, it being Tiptree, but that's not the part that sucker-punches me about the story. It's the idea that someone might value their own life at 1/100th or 1/1000th, or in the case of Children of Men maybe even 1/10,000th of what it was worth to save a life, by the time the last drop of blood has been paid for that baby's life and freedom. That they would pay that price gladly breaks my heart completely in half, even if they're right.
When I regained my composure, I could only bitterly remember that George Bush sleeps perfectly soundly, having decided to sacrifice 655,000 Iraqi lives and 3,000 American lives to prove that he has a bigger unit than his father. But it's not a fair comparison. No, the part that would break me in half and reduce me to a gibbering sobbing heap would be if they agreed with him that they should pay that price.