Zen and the Art of Watching Tom Cruise Run

The current legacy of America’s most complicated movie star has long been defined by a YouTube clip of him jumping on a couch, but—praise Xenu—we finally have something to replace it.

Now that a thin-skinned demagogue of a presidential candidate has officially pushed the limits of what, exactly, we consider to be truly fucked up in this country, maybe it’s time to reassess the standards to which we hold the only group that we tend to scrutinize more than our politicians: our entertainers. That is—our entertainers that are truly entertainers. You know, the ones who don’t seem to have a stake in anything except, uh, entertaining.

Exhibit A, Tom Cruise, doesn’t need our sympathy (and he certainly doesn’t need more of our money), but he did unnecessarily fall victim to some blurred line of expectation back when he jumped on Oprah’s couch in May of 2005—a blurred line that deserves to be put into focus, or perhaps just erased all together. As Amy Nicholson wrote in the LA Weekly a few years ago, Cruise wasn’t truly an offscreen personality at that point. But due to some bad timing (YouTube had just been launched) and some manipulative clip-grabbing (the viral version of the interview doesn’t include the full context of Oprah being the one who encouraged him onto the couch in the first place), it became a defining moment for him—and for celebrity culture as a whole.

When I watch the clip now, I still see what I saw eleven years ago—an awkward and alien attempt from a very out of touch individual at what one might call “normal human interaction”—but I also see something more. I see someone misreading the social cues presented to them (somewhat tragically I might add), making an error that is apparently just as common on Oprah’s soundstage as it is in real life: misreading a crowd to be laughing with you rather than laughing at you.

“Tom Cruise Loses His Mind on Oprah” is an all-timer in YouTube history, that much can’t be denied. What can and should be denied, however, is its place in the legacy of Cruise himself. Stripped down to its core components, the appearance was a meme-worthy gaffe delivered at a time when our online culture hadn’t yet figured out how to process memes without altering the core perception of the subject itself. Tom Cruise became the meme, and that, along with his (admittedly troubling) ties to Scientology, took over. Suddenly, the couch and Katie Holmes and Xenu were all we knew about one of the most talented actors of the last half-century. But if we’re willing to look past the Degrassi memes and still see Drake, or willing to look past the Xenu worship and still see Beck, we need to be willing to look past the couch and still see Tom Cruise.

If we’re willing to look past the Degrassi memes and still see Drake, or willing to look past the Xenu worship and still see Beck, we need to be willing to look past the couch and still see Tom Cruise.

Last week, Burger Fiction made a supercut of something that’s been a bit of a meme in its own right—though functionally so—in Cruise’s career for some time now: his constant running. There’s been a Tumblr devoted to this as far back as 2012, and the joke has even made its way into Cruise’s own Twitter bio (“Running in movies since 1981”), but this video is next level, compiling eighteen minutes of raw footage—all of it featuring Cruise in a legitimate sprint around the sets of some of the most iconic films ever made. Chronologically ordered and mercilessly free of context, it’s a veritable tour of modern movie history, from Risky Business to Mission: Impossible to Collateral to Edge of Tomorrow. And even while leaving out a few of his finest performances (Magnolia immediately comes to mind), it’s still basely astounding to witness the sheer number of cultural touchstones that this dude has just sprinted right on through in the last three decades, hall pass or no.

So maybe he’s a bit off his rocker, and maybe he’s overcompensating for something in how ridiculously hard he runs in these movies, but it’s that intensity and drive that have made him so successful within the film industry in particular—and approximately nowhere else. To be completely honest, Cruise offscreen is kind of a failure, is he not? Onscreen, though, he’s a legend, and a walking—or running, rather—reason why filmmaking, when done right, is still the most entertaining, sustainable medium, bar none.

I haven’t seen Jack Reacher 2…mostly because I didn’t see Jack Reacher 1. Whatever, man. Again, Cruise is doing just fine without my—or your—help. That said, don’t let the couch narrative take over. When you put people under an Oprah-sized light for long enough, they’ll blemish in one way or another, especially when they’re Scientologists—and if it’s alright with you, I’d like to enjoy watching things like The Simpsons without having to dwell on the fact that people like Nancy Cartwright have a first-class seat on a DC-8–sized spaceship headed for planet bullshit.

As long as Cruise is running to Jon Voight, say, and not running for public office, then it’s time to move on from the meme. If you think about it, “Zenu,” when spelled phonetically, is only one letter away from “Zen” anyway. That DC-8–sized spaceship has an in-flight entertainment system, and it’s simply footage of Tom Cruise running on repeat. There is no substitute. Hallelujah.

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