Finally, it makes sense.
The second hand embarrassment of loving Karate Kid (1984) comes from the acting. It’s not the story at all: this movie is 80s perfection. The music is all air punching and the quick passage of teenaged time. Everyone except Pat Morita (poor, poor Pat Morita) is acting so hard that to watch it is to crush rock candy with your molars. None of this offends because the genre demands it and movies like this have given essential shape to your understanding of what a story is.
What offends is this: Ralph Macchio plays Daniel LaRusso with the brassy attitude of a chatty taxi driver who takes people from LaGuardia to midtown 15 times a day. He speaks like a 50 year old Dad with a throat full of gravel. “Must have” slops over a bucket and becomes “musta”. “Going to” is stretched like a rubber band into “gonna”. Hey, sluggger, he greets his 16 year old girlfriend with the headband as she pouts outside of Golf ‘N Stuff. And he won’t shut up about Reseda. If you didn’t already have opinions about it then, you did by the time the movie was over.
While flipping though channels this evening, someone will pause on The Matrix (1999) for a few minutes.
You came of age in the late 90s, so this movie is supposed to mean something to you: you were supposed to be inspired by its anticapitalist rhetoric, and if that did nothing for you, at least you had the CGI. However, what The Matrix means to you is this: it reminds you of someone you broke up with before you let it get too serious. All of his references were Matrix-focused. He batted around an attempt at a too-symbolic nickname. He was too tall and too skinny, wore Nehru collared shirts…but he didn’t have one, he had like 10 of them, as if hoping that the collar was a shorthand, no, a signal. It said: I’m cool. come back to my room and I have Dark City on tape and my roommate is never home.
And now, it comes back: the memory of when you realized you needed to break up: once you randomly had déja vu in the line in the dining hall and he gravely told you that there must be a glitch in the matrix. He wasn’t kidding. He sprinkled some furikake from a baggie he carries on to his rice, and then went to sit down at a table with his friends, where they talk about a supervirus that spread by chemtrails that mutates the human genome. He saves you a seat right next to him.
Later, you learned that he was a Japanese professor at a small liberal arts college outside of Los Angeles. You can see him there: he’s wearing wire rimmed 90s sunglasses and an unseasonably long black coat that makes him look like a techy seminarian.
But you see him smiling, and you reflexively smile too. You have always been satisfied by a solid consistency of character.
Watching the final duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, it suddenly clicks for someone who has seen this movie many, many times. This is why creating music for a movie is called scoring. It’s not a mere scratching or accenting, it’s the application of a force that presses into the moment and reshapes it, like a bread lame etching diagonal cuts into dough.
Here’s when it happens. Toward the end of the film, with rust rimmed eyes, the emperor says, “Good. I can feel your anger. I am defenseless. Take your weapon! Strike me down with all your hatred, and your journey towards the dark side will be complete!” Luke’s eyes are like marbles on the deck of a lazy ship when muted horns—a trombone, a trumpet — open up a sonic trapdoor, and a half a second later, Luke falls through it then catches himself, throwing his arm out to summon his light saber.
It’s a simple, theatrical gesture in a movie that you know in your bones, but this time, you feel the artful intention tighten in your chest and it feels a little bit like lust. This bright, single note, marked with a quick, blinding crescendo reveals a landscape you were traveling in but never stopped to observe before. The world is new again.
Anne Rubin is a writer working in Minneapolis, MN. She writes house-related flash fiction at @domesticconjecture on Instagram