The meaning of life in three easy pieces

‘Quirky’ was how Nicole summed up the past three films we’d watched as the credits for Paterson played out. She’s right; ‘quirky’ is an obvious adjective for Paterson that could almost as easily be slapped on the two preceding films on our home-viewing schedule – Tokyo Story and Get Low. However, on reflection I think I’ve found a subtle, yet more compelling thematic connection; wait for it… drum roll… the meaning of life! Sure, you might say that when it comes to drilling down on this thing called life and all its inherent dramas, this trio can’t be mentioned in the same breath as say, The Shawshank Redemption or Life is Beautiful (neither of which I’ve seen by the way, but both of which I feel like I’ve seen and regularly make those lists of ‘best films about the meaning of life’). Comparatively, there’s only minor amounts of drama in Get Low – and none in Paterson or Tokyo Story; nonetheless in all three the main characters spend much of the film seeking to understand what their own lives are about and how they might be remembered.

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Paterson (2016)

In retrospect, we watched the films in the wrong order; we should have watched Paterson first, not last. According to IMDb, Paterson is a ‘quiet observation of the triumphs and defeats of daily life, along with the poetry evident in its smallest details’. It’s ‘quiet’ alright; pretty much nothing happens as we follow Paterson, a 30-something bus driver, through a week of his very, very routine life. However, what makes Paterson interesting is his poetry; his observations doesn’t traverse much in the way of life-changing triumphs and defeat, but recording them in simple, but warm and insightful verse, brings meaning to his quiet existence. That Paterson will most likely continue along this almost flat trajectory says to me he’s actually quite happy with his life, which suggests he may be well on the way to finding its meaning.

Chieko Higashiyama and Chishû Ryû in Tôkyô monogatari (1953)
Tokyo Story (1953)

The first of our ‘quirky’ trilogy was Tokyo Story (1953), but it fits best in the middle. IMDb again: ‘An old couple visit their children and grandchildren in the city, but receive little attention.’ As with Paterson, nothing much happens in Tokyo Story; in fact, we don’t even have the benefit of poetry to provide insights into the inner lives of the main characters. What Tokyo Story does do – and while it’s certainly not unique to 20th century films and literature it’s done really nicely here – is contrast the clash of the old, traditional ways with the shock of the new. In this particular example, an elderly couple excited to visit their adult offspring in the city are ultimately disappointed in who their children have become and the lives they lead. However, rather than plunge them into despair, the experience confirms for them that they are happy with the simple life that they have had together.

Get Low (2010)

Get Low is a drama about a Tennessee hermit in the 1930s who throws his own funeral party while still alive. A the film unfolds we see a fear-inducing and journey from wanting the world let him know what it really it thinks of him, to wanting to explain himself to the world; specifically the terrible secret that made him the way he is. In unburdening himself of the truth, he gives meaning to his life – heartbreaking, but ultimately liberating.

So there you have it, three films that in their own quirky way got me thinking about the meaning of my life and how I might want it to be remembered. Maybe its’s time to start planning that funeral party…