Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Force to be reckoned with

Warning: Do not see Force Majeure with a significant other, unless you want to have a really uncomfortable conversation afterward.

Knowing this, I didn't even give that a chance of happening. I watched it by myself, and in fact, didn't even tell my wife I was watching it.

Similar to Julia Lektov's The Loneliest Planet, Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure deals with an unexpected moment of danger that triggers an act of impulsive cowardice. In both cases, it's a man guilty of the cowardice. The act is more shameful in The Loneliest Planet, and perhaps a tad less believable. Here, it's more passive and more instinctive, but the aftermath is just as toxic.

Some of that aftermath is two other characters discussing what they would do in the same situation, and one of them making an unfortunate prediction about the other's behavior. The resulting conversation keeps them up all night ... and they weren't even involved in the actual incident.

And this is the kind of conversation you could have with your significant other ... if you're not careful.

And it's easily the type of conversation I could have had ... if I hadn't taken the above precautions before watching it.

See, my crisis behavior is already under the microscope, as far as my wife is concerned. Fortunately for me, it's not cowardice she silently accuses me of. Rather, she accuses me of being a deer in the headlights. I worry that cowardice is not much of a leap from there.

There are two incidents in particular I'm thinking of ... or actually three, but two of those three fall under the same umbrella, making them one incident stretched out over two days.

The first occurred right after we got married. We were given a set of cutting knives as a wedding present, and my wife was washing one of the larger ones -- before we even used them for the first time, I think. We learned after the fact that you're supposed to attach a lucky penny when you give someone knives as a present, to ward off bad luck. But that was no help here, as my wife sliced her finger open, rather seriously.

Not expecting the situation in the slightest, I had to just stand there for a long three seconds, not really knowing what I should do. I didn't run for the medical kit. I didn't dive for the phone to call 911 -- which would have been the wrong response, but would have at least represented some kind of definitive action on my part. I just stood there in shock, not knowing what I should do next.

My wife got me going with a suggestion -- going for the medical kit, I believe it was -- but we both remembered that my instinctual response to the crisis was no response.

There was less danger involved in the next incident, or pair of incidents -- but they are also much more recent, so they have a certain freshness to their sting. Just a few minutes after landing on our recent flight to the U.S., my older son threw up. Again, it was totally unexpected. We were gathering our stuff to get off the plane, and he just started upchucking. Not only did I have an initial moment of paralysis like I did with the cut finger, but I compounded matters by starting to become sick myself once I ventured in to help. I didn't actually throw up, but I had to retract from the situation so that the smell didn't overwhelm me.

My wife, of course, had no such problem. Her stomach did not threaten rebellion, and she did the lion's share of first response. I did as much as possible; I had not limited my involvement by choice. I just didn't want to start a chain reaction of vomiting, which can certainly happen if you don't nip it in the bud.

She was not pleased, but it got even worse the next day when he threw up again in the hotel room. I again had a longer than necessary moment of assessment before running to get a trash can or something to clean my son up, as my wife thought should have been my first instinct.

Now, I don't want to spend a lot of space explaining the logic, such as I could argue there was, to my reaction (once you've started vomiting on the hotel rug, it doesn't matter whether you continue vomiting there or do the rest of your vomiting in a trash can -- in terms of the taint to the rug, a little isn't significantly different from a lot). What I do want to discuss is the idea of how responsible we should be about how we act in a crisis, and whether the above evidence is indeed a predictor of whether I would rise to the occasion or fold in a genuine threat to my family's safety.

On the one hand, it seems like the cowardly father in Force Majeure just caved in to a shameful survival instinct, something deep and primitive over which he had no control. Does this mean he's not a good person and cannot be relied upon to behave with chivalry and kindness in most situations? It does not, methinks.

On the other, his instinctive reaction was tainted by a moment of clear thinking -- he grabbed his phone and his gloves before running from the danger -- that casts a shadow of doubt over the idea that he should not be responsible for how he behaved. He tried to save his gloves, but he did not try to save his children. (This all happens in the first ten minutes of the movie, so I'm not spoiling anything you don't already know from every synopsis of the film.)

How would I respond in that situation? Well, that's the question we all ask ourselves, isn't it?

The closest corollary in my own life -- a life or death situation involving my family -- had an incredibly positive outcome, thanks to me keeping my head. A couple years ago I was rounding a corner in our car when a tree started to fall into the path of the car. Really. A tree. My first thought was that someone had really blown it by not stopping traffic before they felled this tree, but it was a Sunday so it was clearly just an act of God -- force majeure, as it were. I calmly applied the brakes and stopped 20 feet short of the tree.

In truth, my quick thinking did not save us. The timing of when the tree fell -- two seconds earlier than it could have fallen -- was what saved us. All I really did was save us from driving into a fallen tree. I suppose not everyone would have done that, but I think most trained drivers would have.

Still, my wife gave me big-time credit for handling the situation with aplomb. She said she didn't know if she could have kept such a cool head. There was a look in her eyes that suggested I had saved us -- her, me, and our only son, who was facing backwards in the backseat and was none the wiser about any of this.

I hope that if she watched Force Majeure with me, she would remember the falling tree incident, and not the cut finger or the vomiting incidents.

But I didn't trust it enough to chance it.

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