Category: inspiration

DEAD POETS SOCIETY: The System Always Wins

Great film. One of my favorites. But…

DEAD POETS SOCIETY is famous for several things: Robin Williams’ Oscar nominated performance, the beautiful cinematography, and its uplifting message of nonconformity in the face of an overwhelming system designed to trample the individuality out of every single person within it.

The thing is, the system absolutely wins in the film. After all the speeches and the rebellions throughout the film, Neil is still dead, pushed to suicide under his father’s oppression, Mr. Keating is still fired, and the status quo is successfully protected. Through that lens the film doesn’t cry out “Carpe diem!”, but meekly whimpers “There is no true victory against the system.”

Yes, the students at the end of the film engage in one last act of protest, demonstrating the lasting effect Mr. Keating has had on them, but it’s largely performative. The students are still stuck at Wharton, having sold him out to keep their spots at their parent’s behest, and have actively made their situation worse in their brazenness. Now, instead of having Mr. Keating to engage their hearts, they are stuck with Mr. Nolan.

The system would allow for some rebellion, as it knows that’s how to keep people in line. Allow for small acts of individualism in controlled situations to give everyone a sense of freedom, without ever allowing true deviance from the norm. If the students had the maturity to realize that playing within the bounds of the status quo, slowly pushing against it until it expands without breaking, they would have gotten nearly everything they wanted.

Mr. Keating knows this, having 15 years of life experience over his students. That’s why, after Charlie Dalton gets in trouble for writing an editorial arguing that girls should be allowed at Wharton, only to follow it up with a disruptive “phone call from God,” Mr. Keating tells him, “Sucking all the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” In short, in order to live as freely as possible within the system you have to work with it, not against it. Otherwise bad things happen.

In that sense, if we accept that as the film’s true message, it hews much more closely to how we each experience life. In school we’re given standardized tests that don’t care what our individual experiences or inner lives are like. As an adult we work within organizations that need everyone to move toward a common goal as efficiently as possible, which necessarily limits the quirkiness with which we can approach our jobs. It is limiting by design, because conforming to a larger purpose than we can achieve on our own is the only way a company can pump out 10,000,000 plastic widgets per year.

The fabled system, the one that keeps society as it is, for better or worse, is more powerful than any of us. DEAD POETS SOCIETY, despite all of its inspirational lectures, sneaking around at night, and proclamations of love in the middle of classrooms, understands that. What’s amazing is that despite this clear understanding, the film still feels inspirational. We’re still left with the feeling that individualism matters.

But it’s a trick.

Just like the system designed.

Behind the Vignette: To Go Back

If you haven’t, yet, read TO GO BACK before continuing.

When I was barely into my 20s I went on a bike ride with my best friends. It was something we hadn’t done in a long time, having graduated from bikes to our own cars years before. We rode around our old neighborhood, then expanded into other neighborhoods nearby. I remember the day clearly, not least of all because I had a nagging thought throughout the adventure that it would be one of the last times the three of us would do something like that.

More recently, there has been a meme going around Facebook about going outside to play with your friends for the last time and not knowing it. It’s corny, but it’s true.

These feelings got me thinking about appreciation. About how, without the benefit of hindsight, impossible it is to fully appreciate the moment you’re in or the people you’re with. We’re not built to have that perspective. But what if there was a way?

Time travel has always fascinated me. In a sense, time travel is the ultimate form of control. If you make a mistake but have access to a time machine, that mistake can be corrected. And if you remember the last moments you had with someone, you can relive it to better appreciate it at the time.

Both of these concepts–nostalgia and time travel–are core concepts in some of Ray Bradbury’s work. You may sense some of his influence in the story. I don’t try to ape his style (anymore), but for this story I wanted to hit the same tone he might. Use some of the same language. Especially for Barry. He strikes me as a Bradbury-type character.

Most of all, I hope that this story makes you consider being a bit more present. Reflect on the moments you have with the ones you love with no distraction.

The Art of Theft

Recently I’ve decided to check out the miniseries The Story of Film: An Odyssey. You know, because I’m into movies and shit. I’m only a few episodes in, but the third episode (about early world cinema) got me thinking about something that is talked about pretty consistently in writing: cribbing from others.

I don’t mean it in exactly the way most “writing gurus” mean it. When they say it, they mean to actively write in someone else’s voice and steal someone else’s characters and premises in order to learn how to create your own. That’s fine. I still find myself writing like Ray Bradbury, just not nearly as well (that motherfucker could write, is my point).

What I mean is stealing flourishes, visuals, little details that communicate an idea so perfectly you can’t think of another way to do it. Or, to steal because it inspires you.

One could argue that film (or any art, really, but especially film) is nothing but the collaboration of millions of people over the past 120 years or so. They borrow one another’s ideas, techniques, visuals, and use those to tell different stories. Today you need look no further than Tarantino or the Coen Brothers to find filmmakers that built their careers on being referential.

But there’s an art to it. An art they understand and an art that other filmmakers and writers (say… JJ Abrams when he made Super 8) don’t. To just steal, to make a reference that makes people go, “I recognize that!” doesn’t do anything for a story as a whole. What makes a reference, or a theft of an idea, resonate is how that reference or theft is used to further your own story. Tarantino’s movies are loose collections of references to other films, but they still tell his stories with his characters. He still writes crackling dialogue and exciting plots. He doesn’t just do a deep focus with a window in the background and ask if you remember how great that shot was in Citizen Kane because he remembers too. That’s useless. His movies stand on their own because he hasn’t allowed himself to become his influences.

One of my favorite sequences in any movie is in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, oddly enough, when they find themselves stuck in Hell. This is a bit of a cheat because Bill and Ted is clearly a spoof, and spoof’s are easier to talk about when discussing references, but I think it works. Anyway, Hell is clearly influenced by German Expressionism and it absolutely works for that sequence. It adds to the feel of the film and it furthers the story and that’s partially because we, even subconsciously, recognize the significance of the reference. The heavy-lifting has already been done by antiquity so the film could focus on its other priorities, like putting Bill and Ted in situations that would further them from their goals but still make us laugh.

Theft can be an awesome thing if done right. Like Bill and Ted a proper reference can act as a bridge of information for an audience that may not understand what’s immediately going on. But a reference without a purpose actively hurts a story and is best avoided.

The Constant Search for Inspiration

That title is a bit misleading. I, personally, don’t typically search for inspiration. I have no real need to. I’m bombarded by ideas, most of which are shitty and I forget as soon as they happen, all the time. Inspiration is everywhere. The last idea I got that I was excited about what as I was driving through a foggy Pennsylvania after visiting home for Easter. My girlfriend was sleeping in the passenger seat of the car, the fog was the thickest I’ve ever seen, there were woods on either side of us, and we suddenly passed an overturned semi. That atmosphere and jarring image were all it took to shake something loose in my mind, and I wrote up a short treatment as soon as I got home.

Easter may seem like a long time ago. And it was. But ideas (really good ones, anyhow) are fairly rare. For a screenplay I’m happy with maybe two or three ideas that could be considered high-concept per year. Novels are even less than that (although sometimes there is a choice to be made between an idea being right for a screenplay or a novel). Short stories are a different beast. Ray Bradbury believed in writing one short story per week. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have the ability (right now) to be that prolific. However, I think short stories can deal with much more mundane material, perhaps with a twist, and still be engaging. I’m a fan of the slice-of-life and think that sort of thing suits itself well to flash fiction and even longer short stories, if done well.

I’ve run into a problem, though. Recently I’ve lacked some inspiration. I know the cause – my life has been boring. That’s not even completely accurate; you’re life can be boring and still give you fantastical ideas. But you need to seek them out by reading more, observing more, studying more. I haven’t taken the time to do that recently. My more intellectual pursuits have fallen by the wayside. It’s difficult to know if that will change anytime soon. My summer, as of right now, looks like it might be full of work and not much else.

I know what you’re thinking: Who wants to live that way? I should clarify what I mean by “work.” I mean my day job, of course, but I also mean writing work. Finishing scripts, new projects, that bane of my existence I call Manifest Destiny (one day I will break you, Manifest Destiny! One day!). It’s just that between those things and whatever social life I can cobble together in this strange city, there is the risk of enveloping myself in a bubble that doesn’t allow for new experiences or learning new things.

So here’s my point: Inspiration is, literally, everywhere. But you still have to take the time and put in the effort to look. It may be hiding in plain sight, but it’s still hiding.

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