It has been half a dozen years, I think, since this column last spoke about a film in the theaters. It is time to mention another.
“Living” is set in mid-20th-century London when office work was entirely on paper. The principal characters, who are in the accounting part of the London County Council building, measure success by the height of the stack of work on their desks. There seems no incentive to solve problems and high incentive to palm off files onto other departments.
The rather dictatorial head of this little group learns that his cancer is terminal and he has but a few months to live. He waits in the dark in his home to tell his son and his son’s wife, but when they arrive they say they have no time to sit and talk. Alienation is thick in the air. He decides the next day to go to a beach village and there, to a stranger who is a generation younger, he first tells his story. They go to various pubs and the like, as gradually the old man starts to come out of decades of severely circumscribed life.
The unfolding is all the more moving for its understatement. Whenever the dying man comes close to speaking about his cancer, he prefaces it by saying that it’s all really boring. In the event, he dies without his son or his colleagues knowing he was ill.
The screenplay is by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel-prize-winning author of Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go and the recent Klara and the Sun. Some of these have themselves been made into films that also were about what is not said as much as what is.
It does seem to me that there is a perspective from which our personal medical conditions are boring. Bill Buckley is reported to have had a rule that no one was to speak more than 30 seconds about health or travel problems. Such problems are things we can bond over—they are human universals—but they are not things that augment what it means to be human. More recently I have found myself thinking: Life is too short to be spending it with doctors. We need doctors, of course, but it’s not for the joy of visiting their offices! Rather what is important is what happens outside their offices: the life that we are given to go on living.
These truths underlie the reticence that sees health problems as boring things to spend time talking about. On the other hand, I would underline that such talk is necessary in order for us to convey other important things (particularly expressions of love and kindness). In the film “Living” what is important is what the main character does in his final bit of life: he gets something done that is important. I will say no more about it. It is a beautiful film. See it.
Out & About. This Sunday, January 22, I will be at Annunciation in Lewisville, Tex., celebrating the Eucharists and also leading the adult class, at 9:45 a.m., on friendship.
The next Good Books & Good Talk seminar will be Sunday, February 19, on A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. In this case it is more true than usual: Don’t see the film—read the book. The conversation will begin at 5 p.m.
On the Web. I was recently on the Scattered Seeds Podcast in a conversation on love, friendship, loss, grieving and healing. You can listen to it here: https://www.buzzsprout.com/2049774/11941827-episode-96-victor-lee-austin