**Minor spoilers for Swiss Army Man ahead.**
I’m sorry; excuse me. When I think back on all the times I’ve said this, or at least the significant times that I can remember, I realize how often an apology wasn’t necessary. But I am prone to apology, fearful of wrongness real or imagined. There is a part of me, no small part, that already feels sorry for the words I’ve yet to write—as if even my thoughts could be damning. There are so many thoughts left unstrung into sentences that I’ve sent off to die, to leap from the high bridges of my memory in the acknowledgment of their own supposed worthlessness. This is of course one of the great tragedies of being human—to have minds overflowing with infinite seeds of potential, left unsown by fear, rational or not. I am almost always afraid of something. Chalk it up to anxiety, depression, or sins of the father, but that fear is very much a part of my reality. Swiss Army Man, Daniels’ life-song played on film, frightened me. Of course that sounds silly. What’s there to be afraid of in a movie about man’s journey home with a talking, farting corpse serving as his multi-purpose tool kit? But I never said my fears weren’t silly, only that they were real. If Swiss Army Man can teach us anything in a general sense it’s that even that which is most silly, most vulgar in its approach, can carry the weight of reality, and matter. But I don’t happen to think Swiss Army Man is silly, and it was the revelation that it wasn’t which made me afraid. It wasn’t wrongness of the film that made me feel so, but rather its rightness, and the realization that it is a burning bush of answers and more questions that had been cast down from a digital projector instead of the heavens. I left feeling awakened, shaken, and changed by a new found sense of something, so much so that I was afraid to write about the film for fear that I would lose it or that I would fail to do it justice. Change is scary, it doesn’t come easy, and it certainly didn’t when I decided to save these thoughts and commit them to ink. I don’t like writing about myself, not in a serious way that would leave me revealed, and yet I knew that in order to convey what Swiss Army Man meant to me I would need to so. After all, Swiss Army Man is a film composed out of what many would deem seemingly worthless ideas and created in an effort to encourage a celebration of honesty and things left unsaid—the beauty and ugliness of life with no need to apologize for it.
I’ve been surrounded by death this year, both in terms those I knew and loved personally and those I only watched on a screen or heard through speakers. Yet each one has carried a varying degree of importance and I’ve carried the weight of them around with me. Like Paul Dano’s Hank it’s all too easy to find myself on a shore of despair, each telephone call, text message, or trending name a wave that could carry with it more bad news and crash with more dead bodies. Perhaps selfishly, this confrontation with death doesn’t just leave me with a sense of loss for myself and those around me, but with a constant reminder that death is unavoidable. Yes, of course it is, and many of us learn to accept this at a young age and cope with that fact by living life to the fullest and believing in the afterlife. I still have trouble accepting this, the notion that everything I’ve done, thought, created, and felt could cease to exist or at least transform into something else. My greatest fear is that nothing matters. It is this struggle with acceptance, this fear that has at times, like Hank, prevented me from living, and left me with recurring thoughts of suicide—thoughts I’ve gladly sacrificed again and again with the help of people I love. Yet these thoughts I still feel shame about and often hide away instead of using them to help others. There is no Manny, no corpse to magically act as my life-saving tool kit, so I instead rely on the living. But even so, it’s still possible to get lost in the woods while being so close to home. Swiss Army Man, and all it represents, helped me find the right path.
No one gets lost in the woods by themselves, that tangle of insecurity and doubt we all find ourselves in from time to time, or more frequently than we’d like was also created by the people around us. Hank’s shipwrecked status and eventual displacement was a result of both his own inability to reach out and the bottling up of himself. But he also found himself lost in the woods as a result of an emotionally- distant father who called him a “retard” growing up. In my case it was “stupid,” but the result was the same. There are times when I feel shrunken inside myself, unable to feel socially comfortable because I’ve been conditioned to believe that the world wouldn’t accept me as I am, and conditioned to believe that most wouldn’t accept the reasons behind that conditioning. Thus I frequently find myself in a cyclical battle of what to say and what not to say. This battle forms the heart of Swiss Army Man. As Hank tries to remind him what being human is by telling him there are things he just can’t say, Manny reminds Hank what being human should be—the embracement of openness and honesty with your fellow humans. Manny’s candor about farting and masturbation, while crude, forms the central idea that these things inside of us should be released if only for the fact that they make us happier in the end. But of course that’s easy to say in the woods, where isolation creates a barrier against judgement. In isolation we can revel in our social inelegance, the personality-trash that others have thrown away, and from amongst the heap we can build fiction out of the idea of who we’d like to be when we finally step out of the trees. Hank uses the trash pile in the woods to create a social construct, beautiful in its imaginative yet rudimentary design. This imitation of life provides a freeing experience for Hank and Manny until it becomes a living thing, albeit one built on the lie of a romance that never existed. And thus like Adam and Eve learning of their nakedness once eating from the forbidden fruit, Manny learns the shame of humanity once he realizes that human beings lie and hide themselves from each other in hopes of proving socially normal. It is only then that Manny learns doubt and fear, the threat of being weird and unaccepted. This is true death. This is something I have control over and this collection of thoughts is my choice to live fully.
Late in the film Hank tells Manny that he wishes they could remain in the forest forever, just the two of them. And it’s hard not to want them to, because we know what kind of civilization lies at the edge of the trees. It is the one that regardless of time or place has always been a collection of the normalized and a scattering of outsiders. In the woods, farts are acceptable. I can admit that I’d sometimes rather not go to something than be faced with the possibility of meeting new people. I can say that I wish my father read the things I wrote. I can say that I wish I heard from my friends more regularly. But in society public farts are forbidden, so I hold them in. And if one accidentally slips out then I’m the first to apologize, or deny it. Such is the way of the world we’ve created. But as Swiss Army Man taught me, the stuff that stinks can propel us and save us, like Hank riding on top of Manny, propelled across the sea by the power of flatulence. We can let go of it; all the hardships, the stuff we keep in, the jokes we think no one will laugh at, the fear of rejection and death. We can let go not because it doesn’t matter, but because it does and without it pushing us forward we’re missing out on fulfilling our true humanity and forming the connections that make life worth living. Swiss Army Man is a multi-purpose gift, one that’s helped me say I’m glad to be here, I’m glad for every beautiful ugly thing inside me, and I’m glad I could let some of it go. I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m getting there.
Featured Image: A24