Defending Your Life
Albert Brooks’ afterlife romcom is much better when directing the actor/comedian’s dry cynicism towards the projected mechanics of the beyond, rather than attempting to fulfil the rom part. It isn’t just that he isn’t the ideal romantic lead – he’s the perfect fit for the spurned never-to-be, as per Broadcast News – but also that he has no one’s idea of an ideal romantic partner, Meryl Streep, as his love interest (at that point in her career, exploring her comedic “range”, which mostly revealed she should stick to erratic and exotic accents). In Broadcast News, there was such chemistry with Holly Hunter that you felt his pain. In Defending Your Life, you rather wonder why he’s bothering with that last-minute declaration of eternal besottedness.
And there’s something too. Brooks not being the most mainstream of talents, did he really need to fall back on something so mundane and, well, as spiritual conceits go, hackneyed? Loving one person over and above progressing towards loving all is a bit of a cop out, as these things go, but I guess there’s nothing like putting (potential) commercial cachet first. It worked for Warren Beatty – in Heaven Can Wait – so why not Albert?
One might loosely characterise Brooks’ cosmology here as New-Agey – he wheels on Beatty’s sister Shirley MacLaine as herself, introducing the deceased to a selection of previous selves in the Past Lives Pavilion – since he opts for reincarnation as the determining system for humanity. Consequently, he nixes hell – obviously written for the trailer/clip line: “Actually, there is no hell. Although, I hear that Los Angeles is getting pretty close” – and by implication heaven too (“This is more a waiting room, or a purgatory, if you will”). Much of what he details here conforms to reincarnation theory, then, albeit with an idiosyncratic Brooks spin.
To wit, the title focusses on the idea of the life review, whereby the formerly incarnated consider the substance of their previous incarnation and assess what’s needed next. Brooks takes this literally, for comic effect, such that there are prosecuting and defence attorneys and presiding judges. So none of the more metaphysical notions of going somewhere to experience healing if necessary or considering the ego personality of that individual in relation to the “broader” soul and its ongoing experience. However, the hearing is designed to consider who goes on to where, and give or take that one might not be leaping into another incarnation – indeed, it doesn’t seem to be the preferred option, and those eager to do so are often considered hasty – but rather nourishing the soul in other “interlife” fashion, be that through learning or experiencing other modes of existence, this would seem to be about the size of the actual deal.
The objective, Rip Torn’s defence attorney Bob Diamond tells Brooks’ Daniel Miller, is knowledge, gathered as one grows, which might be on the rudimentary side (experience would probably be a better word) but isn’t too far off. When one has “overcome” various impediments to progress – in Daniel’s case, the prosecution, Lee Grant’s Lena Foster, is big on his failure to confront and overcome fear – one may move on elsewhere. The terms are somewhat limited, however, such that Daniel’s had approximately 20 lives and is considered slow going (Bob, now posted permanently in the afterlife, it seems, only needed 6). Which is very “optimistic” (the problem with this generally is seeing experience or lack in pejorative terms, albeit, Brooks makes this point himself).
Various ideas come into this that would be too distracting for a romcom, but the notion of going elsewhere in the Universe for experience appears to be a valid one (the Seth Material vouches for Rob and Jane, annotator and channeller respectively, doing exactly this after those, their final Earth incarnations). Ascension isn’t something to be concerned with, nor the (definitely pejorative) definition of NPC/non-player character, which describes the limits of awareness/experience of most incarnated on Earth (again, 20 lives is very optimistic, but the idea that incarnation is something to move beyond is also a flawed one).
There’s no referencing of higher-dimensional progression (ascension if you will), but the closest Brooks gets is Bob advising on those on Earth using only 3-5 percent of their brains (“When you use more than 5 percent of your brain, you don’t want to be on Earth, believe me”). Bob uses 48 percent of his; “Little Brains” is the derogatory NPC equivalent for Earth dwellers here, and there are “many more destinations for smarter people”. Naturally, those smarter people Daniel meets display no discernible difference in character or wisdom.
In addition, according to Seth, it is the inner ego – the “subliminal self”, per psychologists – that survives death, with the “physical” ego only a part of it: “Any survival that was based upon the survival of the physically-oriented ego alone would be as shallow as a paper cut-out”.
There’s also that, for the purposes of a narrative, some of the opaquer aspects wouldn’t wash. The Seth Material discusses how the idea of past lives is misleading. It’s easier to consider them this way from our 3D perspective, because we’re stuck in time, but “In actuality you see, these separate existences occur simultaneously. It is only the ego who makes the time distinction”. Seth advises that “In a basic manner, as you know, the past, present and future exist at once in the spacious present”, and “Since all events occur at once, there is little to be gained by saying that a past event causes a present event… When it is said that certain characteristics from a past life influence or cause present patterns of behaviour, such statements… are grossly simplified simply to make certain points clear”. Essentially, cause and effect do not operate in quite the way we think, or perceive they do (“Past experience does not cause present experience. You are forming both past, present and future experience simultaneously”).
How this affects an interlife experience (such as life reviews) is less explicit, but one would infer there is nevertheless a means for movement, change, development. Seth, who is in 5D, comments ‘In my terms you see I simply exist in the now” and adds “The whole self or identity is aware of the experiences of all the egos, and since one identity forms these egos there is bound to be some similarities between them, and characteristics”.
Ian Lawton, wrestling with the logistics of time vs cause & effect, has come up with a rather convoluted method for explaining reincarnation and the soul, but one comes away from his distillation reasonably convinced the issue – if you’re on board with the general thrust of reincarnation, obviously – is a basic incapacity to perceive such metaphysics from a 3D-time perspective (which is to say, attempting to break the elements down and reconstitute them in a manner that works from a 3D-time perspective is surely an arse-about-face approach that can’t possibly satisfy).
Lawton’s The Wisdom of the Soul, in which various hypnosis subjects present their accounts of the interlife experience, is nevertheless fascinating reading (with the proviso that one cannot assume these testimonies, often at odds with each other, aren’t filtered and distorted in the process of accessing the information, as well as being limited by the place the soul, or that part of the soul, is at on their “journey” at that “point”). One comment suggests all experiences are variable “It may be that the healing and development between lives is so automatic that it occurs just by going through the different energies of the spirit realm”. Another suggests “Older, more established souls tend to be the ones who experience the denser, more traumatic lives, so they tend to take more time to understand these lives”. Conversely, “there is, perhaps, more teaching when you are younger. More advanced souls tend to act as teachers”. There is also the suggestion that some souls can become too damaged, whereby reuniting with Source is suggested (less abrupt than Rip’s “Eventually, they’ll throw you away” if you fail to advance on Earth).
Brooks doesn’t get into the actual planning for and choosing of a new life, which you might expect to be part of the review. The Wisdom of the Soul suggests souls who rashly leap to reincarnate would have their lack of healing taken into account (“It depends on what they need to learn, and whether they have sufficient energy remaining” for the proposed life; if not, “it would be an easier life”). Most of the proceedings are about proving his life – in contrast to note-perfect Julia (Meryl) – has been lived in abject submission to fear; as some consolation, Bob comments “Well, everybody on Earth deals with fear. That’s what Little Brains do”.
Lena’s job is to have a go at him for every moment, from 11 years old onwards – peculiar, then, that the children who die don’t need to defend themselves; this period should be non-admissible, then, by rights – while Bob’s parries aren’t especially effective (Buck Henry is called in as a substitute attorney on one day, when Bob is stuck with the title quote, and is patently even worse).
Daniel is variously guilty of failing to stand up for himself, lying, or making rash errors – such as passing on an investment in Casio, “one of largest manufacturers in the universe”: I had to check if they were still going – and his general malaise is confirmed with “a compilation of general misjudgements”. For his part, Brooks makes Daniel reassuringly glum (I hadn’t noticed before how much he can sound like Jeff Bridges), less than convinced that absolutely everything highlighted is about fear – his diatribe concerning the snowmobile, “a rotten contraption”, is especially winning – but resigned to whatever fate he is consigned (the best he can offer in summary is that, if he’s allowed to move on, he’ll “do the best I can”).
In between court appointments, Bob gets to romance Hollywood hermaphrodite Meryl (now deceased, so much like Julia), dine out a lot in Judgement City, doubtless modelled on LA (much is made of how one can eat as much as one wants without worrying, which seems like a very American, or LA, thing; Bob, with his rarefied capacities, eats food that tastes like horseshit, however. Further showing the picture’s of-the-period obsessions, there are several references to AIDS that now seem rather forced).
There’s a highlighting of the abject materialism of Bob’s former life; he was an ad man, bought himself a BMW for his birthday (which he crashed, while listening to deceased Mr Barbra Streisand; no wonder he died, and the response to a passing motorist, “Do we all have to hear that?”, says it all). Daniel visits a stand-up club (asked how he died by the comic, he replies “On stage, like you”, which I’ll wager was the entire reason for the scene, except that Brooks’ comedian dad DID die on stage).
Streep is mostly there as an adjunct to Brooks’ thing, of course, so largely inoffensive, but entirely failing to make the part very interesting. Thus, their moving to the next phase of existence together (“Brave enough for you?”) doesn’t feel especially earned or convincing. He probably has a better rapport with the old lady stroking his hair on the bus (“You make me think of my little poodle”).
Brooks was angling for a “non-religious, non-heaven-like after-life”, but he still contrives to adopt some of the de rigueur devices (all the deceased wear white robes). He said that, rather than being about what’s next, most important was “what is says about earth” and self-examination, which may be why everything is hinging on fear (rather than, say, love, or doing good, or the Law of One’s Service to Others vs Service to Self; how high might a fearless bastard fly?) We don’t see anything grim – nor murderers or maniacs or politicians or Elite – and the worst we hear are that teenagers go somewhere else (they’re too unruly). Brooks’ confection is likeable, pithy, and very much in the tradition of insubstantially affirmative cinematic ruminations on what comes next.