The title of this blog, Gotti Get Out of this Place, is not a typo. I want to talk about the movies Gotti, Get Out and the 60’s hit song by the Animals, “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” all at once.
For the first time in this blog series I am not recommending the featured films –both are too violent and spiritually vacuous. But I think their popularity and the prominence of similar gangster and horror films/social satires represents something very spiritually important for your consideration.
The feature film Gotti (2018) is not only a biopic about the most influential American mob don, John Gotti, but also about his son’s courageous and obstacle-ridden attempt to get out of his father’s business. One year earlier in the break-out movie hit directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out (2017), a black photographer struggles to escape his white girl friend’s home where black young people have been seduced and given brain transplants to be programmed as faithful servants.
The theme for both of these films could be the hit 60’s pop song “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by The Animals, a song which contains these lyrics, “we gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do. We gotta get out of this place, girl there’s a better life for me and you.” I am focusing upon “getting out of this place” because it is a deeper theme which the “greener grass”, “teen rebel” and “trapped in a sinister setting” films all have in common. And it is a theme deep within the human psyche connected to our primal spirituality which I will soon explain.
If you stop to think about it, the theme of “getting out” is also ubiquitous in both classical and pop culture. How many (literally) thousands of plots have been produced by Hollywood, Broadway, Nashville, the ‘great literature” lists, and every (script) writing classroom about lead characters who must escape their small town, restrictive family, doomed relationship, or haunted setting to survive, succeed, find true love, or fulfill their destiny? Whether you choose Burlesque (Christina Aguilera) in the current decade or Glitter (Mariah Carey) from the previous decade or the earlier films of Elvis Presley, the theme of “getting out of this place”, or “leaving the father’s house” to find one’s self or fame, fortune, or purpose seem eternal.
The ancient Biblical stories about Moses and Joseph are about a people who must get out and the more current Exodus classic film by Otto Preminger based upon Leon Uris’s best-seller (and many similar narratives) suggest that the theme of migrating from adversity to “freedom” is an eternal tale. Indeed, the news media are filled with endless tales of attempted, aborted, and successful immigration. Movies about escaping prisons, dictatorships, iron curtains, and failed marriages are a dime a dozen and we even speak of the media itself as a major mode of escapism.
What is going on here?
What are we escaping? Or is this a veiled longing for true “home” and primal spirituality? In films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Lost Horizon, that longing is hardly veiled: the protagonists of those and similar films will do anything to “get out of this place” to find what the Animals refer to as “a better life for me and you.”
Before going deeper, let’s look at the two recent films. In Gotti, we discover themes that we have seen in other films about the mafia, gangsters, and corrupt leaders. The father’s hands are blood-drenched so at least one of his children wishes to wash his hands of all transgressions and leave the family business. Indeed in Gotti, the mother has also lobbied the father persistently to protect their children from a life of violent crime.
In the Gotti narrative about the real life Gambino crime family, John Gotti, Jr., desperately wants to leave organized crime behind to be a loving husband and father. He has “got to get out of that place.” And yet his father, the system, friends, and what the mobsters call “the life” all hold him in chains as an inducted member of the casa nostra. John Jr. has become the likely successor to his father’s title as the New York Godfather.
Moreover, when John Jr. expressed his longing to leave organized crime by signing a plea bargain, he is constantly and firmly reminded by his father that to be a man of worth, he must never deny his loyalty to the “life,” to the (larger mafia) family, and especially to his father. It seems impossible to “get out.”
Get Out, the primary character is shackled in a different way. He is trapped within not only an ominous “home” but also within what might be called the major formula for horror films: Within the first “reel” (the opening scenes) of such films central characters enter a new venue and slowly detect strange characters and events. As the second “reel” (i.e. the second third) of the film progresses, the suspicious characters or events intensify to become more threatening as characters are either killed, restrained, damaged, or they disappear. Then in the final “reel” of the film, a major villain or horror is fully revealed and must be confronted.
Within Get Out, in which the young black photographer discovers he has been abducted by his girlfriend and her family, he too has been trapped by this standard plotline and must escape something larger than a haunted venue. In this case that something seems to be the sadistic racism which is embedded consistently and satirically throughout the film, the nation, and indeed the world.
So Get Out quickly came to be seen as a satiric comment on the “white liberal racism” which hides behind the “color blind” mask. So although the plot follows the traditional horror movie trajectory, it is about the web in which people of color are caught by white “spiders.”
Gotti is also symbolic. The lead character is not just caged by circumstance but he represents all those who are frozen within the type-casting of culture, gender, and family. The New Yorker Italian-American expectations for his life have been laid out before his childhood.
Such predictable cultural expectations constitute another Hollywood genre which appears in many national flavors. For example, within the Pakistani culture it is portrayed most recently in The Big Sick. In the nation of Botswana, it was articulated in the previously recommended United Kingdom. From Israeli society we have Women in the Balcony and from the Greek tradition, there is My Big Fat Greek Wedding and its sequel. All of these films, and many others, feature protagonists who are trying to break free of the trappings of cultural tradition and rigid family expectation.
Why is this social entrapment motif so prevalent in popular culture? If we look beyond the outer clothing of each situation, there is a universal awareness of the feeling that we are all being shackled by the human condition. Indeed the manacles are as old as the ancient story of Sophocles’ Antigone and as well-known as the family-imprisoned lives of Romeo and Juliet. Every generation has struggled to break free and “get out of this place.”
Have you ever felt confined by family expectations or by something you mistakenly did or said? Somehow you could not undo your action and perhaps your mind was locked into overdrive trying to work out a solution?
Have you ever felt that there was no way out of a situation that you or someone else (perhaps a relative, boss, or in-law) created? Or have you sensed that you were locked within your own skin making the same mistake again and again with no place to hide and no ability to be someone else?
Such feelings are part of the human condition. We all feel imprisoned by our emotions, thoughts, or expectations at one time or another. Those who cannot find a door to freedom implode or escape to drugs, drinks, violence or suicide. Whether we are physically restricted or not, we are often mentally or emotionally trapped in a room with no exit.
I am not suggesting that these films are only about this deeper level or psychological confinement. These stories may also ring true on the surface too. We audience members might well have had confining parents, conservative communities, or threatening relationships from which we wished to escape. In such cases, films about “getting out” may precisely mirror our own situations. No wonder humanity has paid billions of dollars for “escapism” about escape.
Some of my friends who joined the military felt imprisoned when they realized what it felt like to kill other human beings and to have to watch their own colleagues be killed in action. There seemed to be no way out of horrific war zones and a life of nightmares. Other friends have married someone who initially seemed quite attractive only to discover that their partner had addictions, inner demons, or patterns of abuse which led to irreconcilable differences.
So there are many forms of entrapment that are well captured in film and television. And yet what about those of us for whom all seems well on the surface? What if we seem to be free of such situations and yet we lead lives of “quiet desperation?” We too want to “get out.” We don’t need laws, wars, uniforms, ties to the mob, nor prisons to sequester us. We do that to ourselves.
In consciousness, so many patterns make us feel “caught.” And since media are “dreams that money can buy,” what seems like one celluloid prisoner’s struggle in one way or another is really about all of us.
Even horror movies and gangster films are our nightmares writ large. That is why there is great relief when John Gotti, Jr., or the hero of Get Out finally breaks out of a tangled web. It is, in essence, the same moment as when we too come free of a particular fear or experience which haunts us.
Knowing our indigenous spirituality provides the ultimate answer to such dilemmas. It is not enough to “escape” because wherever our exodus might lead us, we carry ourselves and our fears along. We cannot ever truly escape our self.
So the true key to such dilemmas was voiced by the spiritual leader Uranda. He wrote “when you can no longer find a way out, you will find the way in.” It is impossible to find true outer freedom without first knowing inner freedom. So one must first become liberated from fears and obsessions and relax into the inner freedom already available to be truly “out.”
A major source of human “entrapment” also comes when one faces a vexing ethical decision. A blog in this series has already been devoted to movie characters who face such “no win” situations and who will face criticism and serious risks no matter which choice they make. John Gotti, Jr., is torn ethically between loyalty to his father and “the family” and his wife and children.
In such situations indigenous spirituality once again offers a fresh alternative. People caught in dilemmas wonder “Do I honor X or do I honor Y?” They might well be asking “Do I move to the left … or to the right? “ What spiritual identity provides in such situations is a third alternative. Instead of having to choose the decision on the “left” or on the “right,” one may move in another direction: upward. There is always another way to see from above.
Sometimes simply giving thanks or worshipping or sharing an attunement can allow one to see the seemingly difficult choice in a brand new light. And the process of “lifting up” the situation to higher authority may also lead to its transformation.
Ultimately, one understands the deep-seated feeling voiced in the lyrics: “We gotta get out of this place.” It is a feeling which revisits us all whether it is about a place on earth, a place within a family or relationship, or a place in consciousness. The media reflects such feelings chronically in films as different and as recent as Gotti and Get Out.
While they may prove to be engaging entertainment, and while we may breathe a sigh of relief when the characters do get out, we must be reminded that in the spiritual world there is always a sequel to “getting out” called “getting in.” This is the “inception moment,” when we look deeply within.
“Getting in” and seeing who we truly are is the key to awakening. “When you no longer find a way out, you can find the way in.”
Within us all is the road less travelled. And it is the road which leads to what might be called “the new Jerusalem,” the city of sacred revelation. On that road is the only exit where we can “get out of this place” and the only real entrance to a better life for me and you.