I’ve heard that a few times in my life in a few different contexts. The latest is from an unexpected source - my improv acting teacher. (A few months ago I capriciously decided to sign up for improv acting classes, inspired thru this article.) We witness great art, he claims, when characters own up and take responsibility for things. Part of it is the ability to admit you’re wrong and the willingness to be vulnerable in front of others. You can see it in the best actresses. The more that I think about it, the more I’m beginning to see that true beauty – at least in other people – lies in vulnerability. Good looks are important, but vulnerability underlies it. It’s what makes good looks look good, and it extends so much further. Consider
Back to taking responsibility. In order to judge a principle’s worth, Robert Pirsig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) believed, you use the principle like a scalpel to divide and classify phenomena, and then you ask yourself whether you’ve made a clean deep cut. By these standards, the idea of taking responsibility seems meaningful. It makes a clean cut in my life.
But it’s not as obvious as it may seem. Another student in my improv class pointed out that Steven Speilberg’s main characters are notorious for doing everything except taking responsibility. They never change, they never do anything but just run around and have things happen to them. This really set my mind turning. I’m a sucker, you see, for good movies. There’s nothing better than a well-made film, and it’s not just about the explicit elements of character and plot, it’s about the visual and audio portrayal of human experience. That’s why Shakespeare rarely makes for great cinema and why black and white is rarely as good as color. Directors make up their own grammar in the style in which they make films. And Speilberg is one of the best at doing this.
But the student was completely right, I just hadn’t thought about it that way. And it’s not just Spielberg. A lot of films are chock-full of producing a range of experience all of which just swirl around the main character. This post was partly inspired by a review of the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (an intelligently shot and edited film which, I believe, fell way over top-side from a gimmicky story that went on for too long). Here are some snippets from the review. Consider how many other films the criticism could apply to.
Button is the star of the film, but also its least interesting, least developed character, a soothing blank of a protagonist who seems to want little, feel nothing, and never have anything to say.
Most of the scenes in the movie consist of Pitt giving pleasantly docile looks while others blather on. During one fairly long scene with a woman he's having an affair with, Button utters a total of three lines, two of which consist of only two words: "You make me feel young." "What mistakes?" And finally, "I'm freezing." Later, he's asked about his years of travels, and the only answer he provides is, "I saw some things." Which is accurate enough: he's an observer, a cipher, a blank screen, but nothing more.
Though the movie stretches past the two and a half mark, and Button is in every scene, it is impossible to say anything specific about him, except that he appears to desire Daisy. Button is not merely generic, he is utterly empty, like one of those carefully wrapped fake Christmas gifts displayed under a department store tree.
These points can apply to every other film produced these days. And I have to admit they apply to some of my favorites.
Consider Tom Hank's empty expressions throughout Forest Gump (written by the same screenwriter as Benjamin Button).
Or the classic American action hero.
How vulnerable is he?
But maybe there’s an appeal to the story of the man who is victim of his circumstances. The sort of person who merely has to watch life unfold around him, and he can come out saying, “The things I’ve seen. Oh, the life I’ve led.” Tom Cruise in Steven Speilberg’s War of the Worlds - all he had to do was run from the machines, and honestly what a great movie that made. Maybe that’s part of our modern world. Or maybe humans have always felt that way. Modern society can certainly be so alienating that it’s easy to feel like we’re just the victims of our surroundings or technology, and that that alone gives life a meaning worth fighting for – or running from.
Pirsig makes the point that while it’s easy to feel alienated from everything, technology was made to benefit us. There’s nothing inherently wrong with technology, or the system, or it all. It’s our mindset that’s wrong. Science has advanced so quickly that we lack the proper tools for incorporating it into our mindset. When your computer freezes your first thoughts are “it’s acting up again, what in god’s name is it up to?” You just want to take a bat to it! But the computer is just a tool, one that was meant to work with us. What the situation needs is someone to take responsibility for it. Because surely it’s not the computer’s fault. And I don’t think you have to know much about computers to realize this. But it’s not necessarily intuitive. And it doesn’t mean that you’ll solve the problem. But on the other hand the “condemnation of technology”, Pirsig wrote, “is ingratitude, that's what it is.”
I’d like to take more responsibility and perhaps allow myself to be more vulnerable. I’m not sure if that’s a tangible goal, or what it’d necessarily look like. But that’s my New Year’s resolution.
Media (in order of appearance):
Photo: (1) Natalie Portman II, 10/23/2007, Mira(on the wall); (2) Portrait of Julia Roberts; (3) zooey deschanel of she & him, 04/23/2008, by Dese'Rae L. Stage; (4) vlcsnap-959983, 02/22/2007, dooby brain;(5) Portrait of Jennifer Gehrt from the 2007 documentary Confessions of a Superhero; (6) zooey deschanel of she and him, 04/23/2008, by Dese'Rae L. Stage; (7) Photo of Kathryn Aselton, from the 2005 film The Puffy Chair; (8) Promo from the 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; (9) Photo from 1994 film Forrest Gump; (10) Photo from the 2008 film of Rambo; (11) Photo from the 2005 film World of the Wars; (12)Happy Christmas Shopping, 12/16/2006, by Sherlock77; (13) Jason Campbell of the Washington Redskins.
Video: Music video of the song "Lovers in Japan (acoustic version)" by Coldplay from the 2008 album Viva La Vida.
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