I watched a movie during Spring Break. This is a significant fact, because I never watch movies. Tell me the title of a movie, and I guarantee you I haven’t seen it. The Godfather? Nope. Star Wars? Bits and pieces. Shawshank? Uh-uh. Frozen? What’s that? I have seen fewer movies than all of the people who were alive before movies were invented have seen put together. But this break I did see “Defending Your Life,” a 1991 rom-com starring Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep, and it impacted me more than any Hobbit movie could.
Brooks’s character Daniel dies in a car crash and wakes up in Judgment City, a utopia in which delicious food is prepared instantly, everything is free, and everyone is dressed in clean white robes. Judgment City is not heaven — in fact, it’s more like purgatory. In Judgment City, dead people are judged by their life on Earth — through a trial process complete with prosecutors and defenders — to determine whether they have become “enlightened” enough to move on to the afterlife. If not, they are sent back to Earth to try again. Daniel is accused of not conquering his fears, and thanks to a skilled prosecutor, his prospects for ascendance look grim.
The novelty of the premise only somewhat obscures the trad story line: Daniel falls for Julia (Streep), a proto-manic Pixie Dream Girl clearly on her way to the afterlife, and he struggles to feel adequate against her happy-go-lucky demeanor. But as the movie progresses, a darker and scarily human theme emerges. Seeing the inexplicably obtained footage of Daniel’s life at various ages — used in the trial as evidence to prove his spinelessness, his uncertainty, his fear — made me paranoid, that even I’m being watched, dissected for my worthiness of afterlife. The trial wears Daniel down as he is consistently shown anecdotes that prove his shortcomings. In the film’s climax, he confesses to Julia, “I’m tired of being judged.”
This is the film’s appeal to empathy, eliciting an emphatic “Yeah!” from me as I agreed with Daniel’s complaint. Hell yeah, I’m tired of being judged! I’m tired of being judged for not watching movies. For laughing weirdly. For eating alone in dining halls. For feeling anxious about the possibility of being judged for things that are silly to think I am being judged for. In his confession, Daniel yearns for a society that accepts him for who he is, no matter his shortcomings.
The movie, however, seems to question whether this is possible. No matter how Daniel’s story ends, the implication is that Judgment City will continue on, that at the core of its society of perfect omelettes, egalitarian clothing and friendly hotel concierge is a system forever based on judgment. This gave me pause. For all of my anxiety about being judged and how cruel the world can be, I pass judgment every day. It is an automatic response; I don’t even notice that I am doing it: “He’s a ridiculous person.” “She’s so annoying in seminar.” “He sucks.” All without a thought.
I had dinner with a close friend on Monday. Our conversation turned to a mutual acquaintance, who my dinner partner described as judgmental. He acknowledged the hypocrisy behind his judgment of this judgmental person, and we said nothing further about it. I glanced down at my plate. My first thought was that even noticing judgment, as my friend did, could be a step in a new direction, towards the frame of mind Daniel longed for. My second was, “These fries would probably taste ten times better in Judgment City.”