After all, what possible connection could there be between The Karate Kid and a romantic comedy by Charlie Chaplin, what would link Victor Hugo’s 19th century work with a film about aliens secretly infiltrating and controlling our society? Had I not included a comment someone made on YouTube regarding They Live, I would not now try to convince anyone that any connection exists. After all, the clip I included is a fight scene, the one that inspired the “cripple fight” from South Park. The movie stars Rowdy Roddy Piper, the professional wrestler. It includes lines like: “I’m here to kick ass and chew bubble gum…and I’m all out of bubble gum.” Nothing very profound here, right? But the reference to Plato’s Republic got me thinking.
Plato stated that most people’s perception of reality is akin to “cave dwellers” who merely see the reflections of the real, shadows cast upon the cave walls. If one of them were to leave the cave and see things in the light of the sun, he would initially be blinded and confused. Furthermore, if that person were to return to the cave and tell others what he saw in the daylight, they would consider his vision madness. This is the story related in They Live, where special glasses reveal the subliminal messages that are to be found everywhere: “Watch T.V.”, “Do Not Question Authority”, “Consume”. In the clip I included, Piper’s character has returned to the cave to tell others of his revelation, while Keith David’s character thinks him crazy. And like anyone else comfortable in his misconceptions, he is willing to fight for them.
In the Karate Kid, Daniel’s patience, trust, and desire are tested. Acting on faith and need, he puts up with the endless tasks Mr. Miyagi assigns him until he is fed up. He does not see Mr. Miyagi’s ultimate aim, and so he feels he is being used. Even when the meaning of his work has been revealed, it will take some time for the reality of it to sink in.
The flower girl from Chaplin’s City Lights also perceives reality as something other than what it is. She awaits her prince charming, the rich man that Chaplain’s Tramp has pretended to be. Since undergoing an operation that has restored her sight, she is on the lookout for the dapper millionaire who paid for the operation. When she sees the Tramp, she looks upon him with condescending pity, neither aware that it is he who gave her the money, nor the personal cost of his generosity.
Jean Valjean is an ex-convict who has been taught throughout his life that power and law are the only truths. When the bishop opens his house to him and shows him compassion, he cannot begin to understand where this generosity is coming from. It has no place in the world he has known, and so he falls back into the only way of behaving that he knows: that of selfishness and violence. But when the bishop exemplifies for him the teachings of Christ (“When someone slaps you on one cheek, turn and give him the other; when someone takes your coat, let him have your shirt as well”), Valjean can never again see the world in the same way again. Before, he was an animal without free will. Now he is confronted with the choice between the bishop’s example and the world he has always known.
In each of these scenes, a person’s shallow misperceptions are shattered by an almost spiritual (or very spiritual) revelation. Arrogance and ignorance give way to humility and the beginning of wisdom. We are in an age where filmmakers can create an entire world (Avatar), or destroy one (2012). But nothing in cinema will ever impress me as much as the look in a character’s eyes as a world more profound and beautiful than any they had ever known begins to take shape before them.