Sitting in Judgment

Warner Bros

As far back as Epicurus in ancient Greece, philosophers have stated that there’s no reason to fear death, as it’s not something that happens within our lifetimes. Which might have been fine for Epicurus—but he never picked his head up, looked through the windshield, and saw an LA Metro city bus about to crush him mercilessly. There are certainly a few reasonable moments of terror in that instance. Nor did he ever trip over pool furniture and drown slowly, bleeding from the head, angry at his clumsiness. In Epicurus’ case, he simply had a kidney stone and endured the pain, until one day he expired. Here one minute, gone the next.

So then what? I don’t know. Nobody does. Our visions of the afterlife are informed primarily by literature, cinema, and cream cheese commercials: The ecclesiastical Christian dichotomy of clouds, harp music, and bright bursts of sunlight piercing down from above versus the fiery pit of brimstone and eternal pain in the chasms of Hell below. It’s a system where a soul is judged based on its goodness, charity, and ethics within a society of others, a value system which elevates those who adhere to a societal good over their own selfish needs.

For me, however, the afterlife just looks an awful lot like Los Angeles in the early 1990s.

I wasn’t raised religious. No church, no faith, no belief in a higher power of any kind. Nothing. My parents weren’t religious and they saw no reason to push something they themselves had no involvement with on their children. There are whole swaths of religious knowledge my peers have which are completely alien to me, belief structures complete with a lineage of stories about which I have only the haziest understanding. With no formal education in Christianity, the notion of Heaven was always, to me, unfathomable. I wouldn’t exactly say I was in search of some kind of faith-based structure as a youth, but there was certainly an empty space in my understanding of such things. All of which made the Purgatory of Defending Your Life (1991) my primary touchstone for the afterlife. Albert Brooks—who wrote, directed, and starred in the film—plays Daniel Miller, an average American man who gets hit by a bus within the first five minutes of the film—and on his birthday, no less. He’s instantly transported to Judgment City, a combination of Rancho Relaxo style spa, cruise ship entertainment, and official legal center for the recently deceased. It is here, in Judgement City, where one’s final destination is ultimately determined.

The afterlife as just another place, designed to look familiar to inhabitants from the western United States, paints a mundane, business-like picture of things. Death as business had been depicted before (and as recently as Beetlejuice three years prior), but the overtly normal, almost banal Judgment City of Brooks’ vision stands in stark contrast to the bucolic heavens or strange hellscapes of cinema past. Judgment City is essentially a slightly tilted modern world, albeit with lightning quick food service, fantastic tram coverage, and the imparted knowledge that every single moment of your daily life has been recorded for posthumous review. Attractions in Judgment City include the Past Lives Pavilion (hosted by Shirley MacLaine, of course), comedy clubs, and the Tropicana nightclub. Food is all you can eat and, by the logic of the city, has no adverse effect on your body.

Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), Daniel’s defender, is genial and dedicated, but also condescending. At one point, he gets trapped in a circle of thought (You wouldn’t understand) and abandons Daniel for a day, leaving him with Buck Henry’s silent, seemingly useless Dick Stanley. Stanley makes no effort to deny any of Daniel’s shortcomings, instead letting flashbacks of his failings in life play without comment. Daniel feels wholly powerless, it seems nobody is on his side. Without an advocate, there’s no chance to defend some of his poor financial decisions—why he caved in to a boss who lowballed him, or why the supposedly sure stock tip seemed too risky to him as a young man. Stanley makes no argument for why this behavior may have, in fact, been the correct thing to do, according to the rules of the universe. In contrast, Diamond spends the film feuding with his opposing counsel, Lena Foster, and welcomes every flashback as an opportunity to make a bombastic, Darrow-esque defense of Daniel as a valiant, fearless man—as much to spite her as to support Daniel. (This isn’t Heaven, after all; Judgment City isn’t conflict-free.) Diamond and Foster’s feuds, playing out over Daniel’s trial, makes Daniel feel even more powerless to fate, Brooks acknowledges that there may never be an end to being at the mercy of others for the big moments in your existence.

Unlike traditional Christian notions of Heaven and Hell, Defending Your Life posits a Heaven in which the value on one’s life is based solely on living fearlessly, and less in adherence to any organization’s morals, scripture, or church decrees. Naturally there’s a great deal of overlap in these philosophies, but Defending Your Life‘s focus on moving forward past fear of one’s own life forms the entire basis of Brooks’ universe. The paralysis we all feel at times, moving from one moment in life to the next, needs to be combated, to be overcome in order to move on to Heaven, lest we end up right back where we started, here on Earth, devoid of any insight we gained from our previous journey but still naively hopeful that we can get it right the next time. This Sisyphean cycle, played out as many times as is necessary fits the type of sensitive, thoughtful sad-sacks Brooks often specialized in playing early in his career. Modern Romance, Lost in America, and Broadcast News all dealt with these concerns; the fear of losing one’s identity as another person’s significant other, the fear of financial (in)stability, the struggle to hold onto your ideals in the face of a world that isn’t as concerned with them as you are. Throughout the 1980s, Brooks’ characters were wracked with indecision and fear. One was confused by love, one lost all his money, one sweat through his clothes in public. These indignities are manifestations of primal fears we all have of loss or embarrassment. They reflect a man so pre-occupied with his own neuroses, he likely second-guesses all his decisions. So it’s understandable he would build a world in which a pair of judges, instead of God, dissects your life’s decisions right in front of you while you haplessly look on, attempting to explain and defend yourself.

Brooks’ melding of religion—the Christian notion of Heaven and Hell (which doesn’t exist in the film but is acknowledged) with Eastern religion’s notions of reincarnation—creates a new kind of spirituality unbounded by the constraints of existing ones. Don’t agree with an aspect of one of the major religions? Scrap it, and make your own. Alchemize a few together. This malleability of faith greatly appealed to me in my youth, and continues to do so. In Defending Your Life, Brooks effectively reshapes the world in his own vision. Throughout his filmography, we find a Brooks who is deeply critical of materialism. My favorite scene in Modern Romance—where Brooks’ real life brother Bob Einstein swindles him into buying every possible piece of workout equipment one could ever need in his most emotionally vulnerable moment—is a direct shot across the bow of American consumerism. It’s Brooks saying “Isn’t this insane?” to the buying culture of the 1980s. Similarly, in both Lost in America and Defending Your Life, his character is embroiled in an expensive, life-altering car purchase. Both the Mercedes he’s buying in Lost in America and the BMW in Defending Your Life are symbols of his wealth and success in life, but as he learns in Judgment City, they mean not a lick to his value as a person. In fact, between the new 3 series and the set of CDs he got for his birthday, these possessions directly lead to his death.

Brooks presents a Universe in which our lives are judged by whether or not we conquered the fear of living. Daniel meets and engages in a romance with Julia (last name unknown, as he discovers when he tries to leave a message at her hotel), one of the few women his age in Judgment City. Julia lived life so fully that she’s a shoo-in for advancement to Heaven. She only has four days of flashbacks scheduled, and so obvious are these moments that her judges actually describe what a pleasure it is to watch her life. Perhaps she was materialistic as well, but the only vision we are given of her life on Earth is her heroic rescue of her children and cat from their burning house. In the midst of literally losing all of her worldly possessions, and she thinks only of fearlessly entering the burning building repeatedly to save and protect the lives of her family, a scene Daniel watches and marvels at.

Defending Your Life gave the younger me a hypothetical vision of the afterlife. But in truth, Brooks had no intention of making any sort of actual predictions or guesses. He simply wanted to present a credo for how best to live one’s life. Defending Your Life presents a set of guidelines for humanity in which going for it is rewarded. Taking chances. Asking for the raise. Fighting back against bullies. Asking the girl out in a hopelessly romantic gesture. That Daniel is finally able to redeem himself, in defiance of the rules of Judgment City, is all we need to see the philosophy underpinning the film. Live well. Live freely, and without fear. Reward awaits you one day.