Uncut Gems or: The Brave and the Stupid
Uncut Gems is one of my all-time favorite movies, from the first time I saw it sitting in the front row of the Logan Theater in Chicago to watching it alone a few nights ago in my living room, both times staving off a panic attack.
Part of me wants to explore why it is I watch movies that make me feel like I’m panicking, but I haven’t stopped thinking about how often I caught myself rooting for Howie while watching the movie. I think it’s because on some fucked up level, I respect that it is genuinely difficult to tell whether he’s brave or stupid.
I want to first take a look at bravery, which I will define as an act that goes against what one knows (consciously or unconsciously) will help them survive, for the sake of the survival of a greater value or loved one(s). Let’s break that down piece by piece:
- There is an action. It is always an act of bravery. A brave person is one who acts in a way that goes against yada yada yada.
- There is a “going against,” an act of defiance.
- There is an element of knowledge. This can be conscious or unconscious. At some level, for you to be acting bravely, there has to be a knowledge that you’re going against the instinct of your own survival, whether that be unconsciously through physical symptoms of anxiety or making a conscious choice to do something despite its being a threat to your survival.
- There is a survival element in that we have a survival instinct that does exist and does influence our behavior.
- There is another survival element wherein something else takes our place through our action. We may not survive, but the value or person we cherish might.
- There are greater values and more valued people at stake. We would risk our own lives to ensure their survival over our own. These are both external things. There is no such thing as a selfish bravery, but there are selfish values, which would in-turn nullify an action’s being brave.
Of these six pieces, the sixth is the most important in defining an action as brave because there are plenty of actions people can take that go against their better judgment in terms of not dying. These are stupid actions, or actions that go against one’s inclination toward survival either for the sake of nothing or for a selfish value. Note: this does not include suicide attempts as the result of a mental illness.
This gives us four ways to read Howie’s actions in the film because he acts in ways that go against his survival:
- Howie is acting for the sake of a value, which makes him brave. I truly can’t think of an altruistic value he would be acting for.
- Howie is acting for the sake of a person or people, which makes him brave. This reading could work if you believe his character is trying to help his family survive, or at least is doing so in his own demented way.
- Howie is acting for the sake of nothing, which makes him stupid. This is not the case because people who risk their lives for nothing lack conviction, and Howie is chock-full of that.
- Howie is acting for the sake of a selfish value; people who act for the sake of a selfish value are bad. Bad people are stupid. Howie acts for the sake of a selfish value. Therefore, he is stupid. But what is this selfish value? Greed? Power? Pure chutzpah? Howie is greedy, power hungry, and audacious, but those are more character traits than motivations.
None of these satisfies me, so maybe there’s a fifth way to read Howie’s actions: Howie in no way thinks he’s acting against his survival. This is how he wins.
That’s why it’s so hard to decide if he’s brave or stupid: when somebody acts in a way that so clearly seems to go against their survival, we assume they’re one of those two categories, not that they don’t see what they’re doing as something dangerous.
Well, Howie understands what he’s doing is dangerous, but he wholeheartedly believes that it is the means by which he survives. Not just himself, but his family, his girlfriend, and his business.
Is this still stupidity? Probably, but not as defined by its opposition to bravery in the points described earlier. It’s the stupidity of being easily mistaken. A naiveté of sorts. This isn’t to say Howie isn’t a “smart guy,” but he’s also a fucking idiot.
So why was I rooting for him? I want to say it’s because of this error of classification: at first, it seemed like in Howie’s own unhinged way he was being brave, which was technically respectable, but also every decision he makes is so stupid.
But what makes it appear to be bravery in the first place? Why would I make that false classification? I’m sure a lot of people reading this are thinking, “I at no point thought he was being brave.” I think a lot of it has to do with me being a cis man.
There’s a masculine energy to his confidence that deep down I want to identify with, not that I would necessarily make those same decisions, but in that I wish I was (ugh) ballsy enough to make them. That dumb, blind faith in one’s own invincibility is really attractive, or at least a lot of the time sounds better than crippling self-awareness.
One thing we always try to do at my job is include calls to action (CTAs) in digital content. I want to end these blogs (or whatever they are) with the same thing, mostly for myself, but maybe for other people will find them useful.
The first CTA is that I want to get better at catching myself making mistakes based on unplayed masculine fantasies, which seems like a pretty niche CTA, but I’m sure it happens more than I think.
Second, the “fucked up level” from the beginning of this piece ended up being more important than the distinction I wanted to write about, so I want to get better at recognizing when I can’t philosophize myself out of a personal problem. Philosophy and introspection overlap, but they aren’t the same.
Last, I want to continue engaging more deeply with films and writing about ideas I have based on them outside of an ironic Letterboxd review.