March has been an extraordinary month on a number of unwelcome levels.
But one detail that astonishes me as people take to their houses and pull down the shutters is the record number of viewers streaming Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 disaster film Contagion as an escapist distraction from the health crisis.
This strikes me as similar to pepping up the sea-born troops before the D-Day landings with a screening of Saving Private Ryan.
In the midst of catastrophe, it’s becoming less important to use popular entertainment to imagine what viruses are capable of doing – we have plenty of sources for that – and more important to remember what people under extreme pressure are capable of doing.
With this in mind, I’ll be skipping Contagion, Outbreak and The Andromeda Strain and tuning to a few of these classics, featuring some of the most inspiring and uplifting sequences in history.
The singing of La Marseillaise, Casablanca (1942)
There are as many inspirational moments in Casablanca as there are endings in LOTR: The Return of the King, but this is the best of them.
Outraged at German soldiers drunkenly singing Die Wacht am Rhein in Rick’s Café Americain, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) orders the band to play La Marseillaise, which they do after a nod from Rick (Humphrey Bogart).
All Rick’s patrons rise to drown out the Wehrmacht, none more loudly and proudly than Yvonne (Madeleine Lebeau), who minutes before had been the centre of punches being thrown between a French soldier and her German bar companion.
This scene was replicated with astounding stoicism in 2015 when, amid multiple Paris terror attacks, thousands of French soccer fans exited the Stade de France singing their national anthem.
Nothing it seems is more powerful and unifying than collective, defiant singing (as someone whose vocal cords never recovered from the MCG chorus that erupted after the 1989 AFL Grand Final full-time siren – can confirm).
Singing The Faithful Hussar, Paths of Glory (1957)
What’s uplifting about a searing anti-military drama depicting the sacrifice of three soldiers by cynical, scheming generals?
I challenge anyone to watch the last scene of Paths of Glory without tearing up.
Soldiers of a French regiment, emotionally ravaged by the deaths of their comrades, get rowdy at an inn when a captive German girl is dragged up on stage and made to sing.
The soldiers join in her humiliation, cat-calling wildly, until touched by the innocence of her voice, innocence they’ve lost, they join in singing as if to protect her, realising she is not their enemy.
Director Stanley Kubrick also directed the iconic ‘I’m Spartacus!’ scene, another fine depiction of common humanity being all that remains for us to cling to in extremis.
Chief Bromden’s escape, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The battle between R P McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) and Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) for the soul of the asylum inmates seems lost when McMurphy is returned to the ward lobotomised.
But Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) has a final shot to fire.
After freeing McMurphy by smothering him, he rips the water fountain from its fittings, crashes it through a window and makes his escape to the cheers of fellow inmate Taber (Christopher Lloyd).
The Chief’s inmate uniform illuminates the night landscape – white on black, white on black, then gone.
It must be an iconic scene to have been parodied on The Simpsons.
The Wedding Waltz, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Woody Allen’s second-last great film is one of his darkest.
At the conclusion, Judah (Martin Landau) has gotten away with murder and Cliff (Allen) has lost his great love to an insufferable boor.
But the concluding lines, delivered by Professor Levy, the subject of Cliff’s documentary (who inexplicably killed himself) remind us how amid an uncaring world we can still find comfort and meaning:
We’re all faced throughout our lives with agonising decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale, most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made.
We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love that give meaning to the indifferent universe.
And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.
Tiny Dancer, Almost Famous (2000)
Another unforgettable moment that elevated Tiny Dancer from an obscurity to a staple at Elton John live shows.
After disappearing during an LSD trip, guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup) rejoins the tour bus and the band members and their entourage sit in stony silence, angry and exhausted with each other.
Then Tiny Dancer comes on the radio, one by one they join in singing, and their bond is restored.
None of them could articulate what’s holding them together, but the song is enough – the words she knows, the tune she hums.
The tunnel song, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Charlie (Logan Lerman) has survived the breakdown caused by traumatic recovery of memories connecting his childhood sexual abuse to his aunt’s death.
He drives through a tunnel with his friend Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his love Sam (Emma Watson) and realises this is a victory of sorts.
‘You’re not a sad story. You’re alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder … And in this moment I swear, we are infinite.’
The credits explode with the intro to Bowie’s Heroes and we know if Charlie survived, even triumphed, so can we.
Heroes got another triumphant workout at the conclusion of last year’s Jojo Rabbit, where Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), venture outside as the Reich crumbles and conclude the best thing for them to do now is dance.