Forcing the Balance, Or How I Learned to Stop Worshiping Star Wars and Understand Myself


Episode VI: The Circle is Now Complete

Some of the older movie theaters around where I grew up have long since closed. The Roosevelt is still open and seems to be doing well, but for some time now it’s been a multiplex. Like other theaters of its day, it fragmented. First split in two, then into four. By now, the Roosevelt has seven screens, helping it compete with the larger and more modern multiplexes at the area’s malls.

The theaters became small, but only after the movies did. With film school growing in popularity and credibility, these days many people who create motion pictures have only other films and television shows as their main point of reference. Less often do filmmakers seem to know much of anything from other areas — or life itself, for that matter — that could inform their work and elevate it beyond pop culture meditating on pop culture. Studios have come to count on the big opening to make up for the lack of longevity that inevitably sets in when people hear that a movie isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. So they now try to get their films on as many screens as possible to make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. This was the market logic that made movie palaces slice themselves up into multiplexes so they could play each week’s big film on multiple screens and still have room for even the smaller movies to play on a screen at every theater in town. This was the logic that had theater chains build new behemoth multiplexes, with stadium seating to make the movie experience seem a bigger deal than it was, with corridors and electronic signs designed so that finding your movie began to feel like finding your gate at an airport. Paralleling the rise of cable television, we continue, on all our screens, to have more to watch and yet so little worth seeing.

It’s a far cry from the days when one drove 25 minutes to the one theater that was playing the one special film you were interested in seeing. Many believe that it was Star Wars that set the stage for this, the age of the blockbuster imperative. Where Star Wars seemed to have it all in terms of both Hollywood spectacle and storytelling depth, the films it spawned were formulaic, trite, bad, demanding this new way of marketing movies to make a buck. Even many of the episodes in the Star Wars saga itself were accused of this.

For most of my life, though, I was kind to most films. A movie had to be extremely small for me to recommend that people not see it. At the peak in my mid-20s, I was seeing, on average over the course of a year, one or two movies in the theaters each week. Highly indiscriminate.

When I started grad school, there just wasn’t enough time to keep up at that rate. Soon enough, I found myself being more disappointed in movies — going out was a bigger deal, a bit more of a treat, so it had to count more. As my disappointment in movies grew, that fed back to reduce my desire to go out. I was busy with other interesting things, so I didn’t really miss seeing quite so many movies. Then came DVD. With its extras to feed my desire for film schooling, it further kept me from the theater. Only now that I’m a parent do I feel that I don’t get out to the movies as often as I’d like. Yet with the few times I actually get to go needing to be all that much more special now, I’m disappointed most of the time. Hardly anything can live up to expectations any more.

As my passion for seeing new movies waned, I noticed myself starting to have mixed feelings about wanting to make movies. Why spend so much time and effort creating movies when even I was no longer so interested in watching movies in general? It wasn’t clear to me if this new attitude was a response to my circumstantial reduction in moviegoing, or to a decrease in the quality of studio output, or to something changing in myself. Undoubtedly, it was all of these things.

Even now, I still do have dreams of making movies. When I get a really good idea for one, it can jazz me as much as anything. But at times I find myself reacting with dismay when those old dreams pop into my head. Those moments feel similar to the times when old crushes who I never got anywhere with pop into my head and I fantasize about them. Any thrill I might get is tempered with a sense of regret for opportunities lost, compounded by shame that pathetic little me continues to even dwell on such things instead of maturely moving on.

To be fair, this isn’t all the fault of Star Wars. Not by a long shot. When it was time to figure out where I was going to go to college, it didn’t matter that one of my drama club advisors had gotten me a connection in NYU’s dramatic writing program. I gave in to safety and gave up on dramatic writing or filmmaking as majors, conceding communication as practical, something to fall back on that was “close enough” to what I really wanted to be doing. I applied early decision to Cornell. When I was accepted, that was that, not a single other college application. But Cornell just didn’t have a very good communication department. It was a good school in general, to be sure, but it had a mediocre communication department in a state-run portion of the university whose tuition was extremely cheap for an Ivy League education. There I was, a well-rounded overacheiver with a genuine talent for music and a strong passion for film and drama, limiting my considerations to a single school that wasn’t even good for the subject that I didn’t even really want to study, simply because it was a safe major and a good bargain.

Halfway through the program, when I discovered that what lie ahead were poor professors and equipment, I nearly had a breakdown and pleaded with my parents to let me switch from the state-run parts of Cornell to one of much more expensive fully private schools there to major in Theatre Arts. To their genuine credit, they decided immediately to grant my request. By this time, though, opportunities had already been lost. I was in the wrong place to study what I really wanted to study the way I really wanted to study it, and so I studied theatre figuring I’d steep myself in the study of dramatic literature in order to eventually become a better writer. Did I even consider switching schools, given that the expenses now wouldn’t be so different and the choice of major no more practical? Unbelievably, that option didn’t occur to me until just now.

When I graduated college, even though I’d somehow gotten a few connections and had at least one good opportunity for an internship at a Hollywood production company, I didn’t go to California as I’d been planning to for the previous four years. The imperatives in the air about how my life would be ruined if anything happened to me while working a job without health insurance seemed too much to bear. And thus I began the desktop publishing of ads at a newspaper. And thus I began a life in the workforce in which I have yet to make a living doing any of the things that I’m truly best at, any of the things that truly fulfill me.

I often think about these and other crossroads I’ve come to in my life. I ask myself endless questions about the various roads that diverged in the various woods, and I fantasize that changing the roads I chose might have made all the difference. It’s easy to blame others, or circumstances, for the choices I didn’t make. Believe me, many times I’ve told myself it was someone else’s fault. Sometimes, I’ve told myself that I was simply too scared or weak to pursue what I really want — and then I’ve blamed others for that weakness. Now, I’ve come to see that if you can heal in yourself the thing you blame someone else for, you realize that they only did what they did because of something that was never healed in them, and so on, and so on — so it’s simply not possible to blame anyone. The healing isn’t done for me, the blame is still there, but I write it off because I understand how pointless it is. In the end, then, fault aside, it may simply be that I’ve had no idea what I really want because I haven’t ever been allowed — or allowed myself — to be who I really am.

And that’s why, despite the other factors, Star Wars is significant. It’s significant because, best I can tell, it’s the first time I consciously chose a life path, and because that first time I did so the choice was made with ignorance of my true self. The precedent was set, the dam broken. It would now be possible to make more and more choices that seemed like good ideas but would actually make me stray further and further away from what would work well for me. Kind of like what our culture does in general, not at all coincidentally.

So here I am, looking back and seeing that my creative peak was Cupid’s Arrow, shallow as it was and half my life ago. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this was the highpoint since it integrated music with writing and directing. Either way, as much as I’ve done since then, it’s all in a sense been downhill from there. As much as I have that’s good in my life, I constantly dwell on what I don’t have.

What, then, am I to do? What is anyone to do?

When I saw The Incredibles a year ago, it certainly seemed to exemplify what I know to be the answer to that question, as I wrote in an essay. At the very end, a young child and his guardian started to leave the theater. As they walked past me in the aisle, I heard the boy say that he’d liked the movie so much that he wanted to get an Incredibles T-shirt, or a lunch box, or something. I almost came right out and said to him, “Don’t you have any idea at all what this movie was about? The studio that made it might be happy for you to go out and buy their souvenirs of the film, but that’s not what the guy who wrote and directed it wants you to do. As far as he’s concerned, when you see this movie, you’re supposed to be inspired to go out and be the best you that you can be. You’re supposed to say, ‘I liked this movie so much that I’ll never let anyone or anything stand in the way of me being true to myself every minute of every day of my life. I liked this movie so much that I want to spend the rest of my life doing what I do best so that I can be as satisfied with my life as the Incredibles came to be with theirs.'”

Of course, I didn’t say a thing to the kid. But how I wish I did.

Of course, what I really wish is that there was someone there when I saw Star Wars. Someone to say to me, “Star Wars is a great movie. Worth enjoying. But film is not who you are. You are something else. You are music. You already know it, and that’s very rare for someone as young as you. You don’t just give that up. Stick with it, be who are you are, and you won’t be disappointed. And even if you didn’t know who you are yet, that’d be no reason to hold on too tightly to film right now, that’d be all the more reason to keep exploring and make sure that you choose your path only after you’re sure it’s yours.

“Nobody will help you with this. Nobody you ever meet will have had help with this, and so nobody you ever meet will know how to help you. You have to do this by yourself, for yourself. Stay on track, and you’ll be giving yourself the best possible chance that good things will happen to you. Use the talents you discover in yourself, and that will be the best way to create opportunities to do all the other things you’re interested in. You don’t have to deny yourself your many interests and abilities, you just have to prioritize. Bring along everything you like, but lead with your best assets.

“If you give yourself over to film right now, your pursuit of it will always be spoiled, sullied with box office gold and historic success and multiple Oscars and the love of millions. Deep down, that’s what you’ll always be after, and unless you’re one of the most charmed people in the history of the planet, it’s nothing you’ll ever be able to measure up to. Sure, go ahead and be inspired by Star Wars and what a great and successful movie it is. But know that all its success came because the guy who made it, George Lucas, was doing for himself just what you need to do for yourself. He wasn’t looking for money and recognition and history. He was simply pursuing what was truly important to him, what he is truly best at.

“In the words of the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, ‘Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.’ Don’t pursue the specific things possessed and achieved by the people you admire. Live a life worth admiring.”

Powerful advice. And simple enough if you learn to do it early. Very difficult to follow the later in life you learn it.

Nowadays, what that person might have said to me would probably be even more cautionary. With digital video equipment and software so available and inexpensive, just about anyone can get hold of the tools to make a motion picture even if they don’t have any real talent for it. I hear over and over about how this revolution in equipment will democratize movie-making, putting it in the hands of the masses for the first time, giving more voices the opportunity to reach an audience than ever before. Well, it’s all well and good to make things accessible, but just because every kid can get a box of crayons doesn’t mean they’re all going to become the next Picasso. Why, there are now festivals and contests for movies made with cell phones, and about one of out every five people in the United States has a cell phone with video capabilities. Add to this unfathomably increased access the fact that the field of movie-making is no less seductive than it was in the late 1970s, probably only moreso, and the results can only be even more people whose talents lie elsewhere being pulled off their path because someone made it all too easy for them to wrap their hands around a camera. The upshot will be even more competition for the relatively few opportunities that will actually allow people to make a living doing the work — and more crappy movies we’ll all have to choose from. Indeed, this would have been a far more dangerous time for me to have been a seven-year-old turned on by a very big movie.

Sometimes when I think about what I’ve learned, I think that being true to the best of who I am would involve rejecting much of who I am, who I’ve been whenever I’ve been something other than who I was when I was seven. I think that I must reject the filmmaker in me. I think I have to stop being someone who thinks hard about things and tries to give them meaning. I think I need to give up my interest in the intellectual understanding of the systemic worldview. I think I need to somehow stop being a generalist. Yet I’ve done and been these things for so long now that, despite whatever potential I might have had to turn out differently, these really are big parts of who I am now.

Where as a child I wore the mask of Darth Vader for Halloween, I now fancy myself to be like Anakin Skywalker in a somewhat more substantial way. Tempted by some things that in some ways might have been bad for me, I’ve had to transcend simplistic dichotomies and embrace the variety in my life’s experience. As Anakin had to reconcile the two sides of the Force, I’ve had to integrate the various parts of myself that have come to be. This is how I felt when I began grad school and realized that I was actually pursuing an interest in science that I’d had when I was younger. This is how I felt when I was putting together disparate information to write my thesis. This is how I felt when I refocused myself on the arts instead of remaining depressed that my non-fiction book wasn’t getting done. This is how I’ve felt when I’ve realized that, within the artistic part of my experience, there are countless ways that I can pursue both music and film in fulfilling ways. This is how I feel when I simultaneously pursue the arts as a top priority while also developing Emergent Associates with Howard to keep me engaged in the ideas behind the systemic worldview. And I imagine I’ll feel it all the more by finding ways to integrate the arts with the sciences. I certainly take heart that I’ll be one of the people whose artistic works are informed by at least a thing or two outside the arts themselves.

In the end, it seems that the best any of us can do is to follow Basho’s advice. And to do that as fully as possible, we also need to heed the words of the Delphic Oracle, “Know thyself.” We need to become aware of who we are as opposed to who we’re not, as humans in general and as individuals in specific. But we cannot stop there. We need to honor what we’ve learned by accepting it, embracing it, and, most importantly, acting on it. And no matter what has happened to us in the past, it is never too late — and always the best idea — to follow this advice.

As I write these closing words, the clock ticks away the final hours of Thanksgiving 2005. I know what I’m thankful for this year, and it is what I will be most thankful for every year from now on. I’m thankful for increasing self-knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge to determine the path of my life. This seems to me the thing most worth having. Why? Because it is the only path to balance that any of us have.

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