In this groundbreaking new hero’s journey we examine the way we tell stories about ourselves to ourselves — and, most important, the way we can change those stories to transform our business and personal lives.
Your story is your life. As human beings, we continually tell ourselves stories — of success or failure; of power or victimhood; stories that endure for an hour, or a day, or an entire lifetime. We have stories about our work, our families and relationships, our health; about what we want and what we’re capable of achieving. Yet, while our stories profoundly affect how others see us and we see ourselves, too few of us even recognize that we’re telling stories, or what they are, or that we can change them — and, in turn, transform our very destinies.
Telling ourselves stories provides structure and direction as we navigate life’s challenges and opportunities, and helps us interpret our goals and skills. Stories make sense of chaos; they organize our many divergent experiences into a coherent thread; they shape our entire reality. And far too many of our stories are dysfunctional, in need of serious editing. First, we ask you to answer the question, “In which areas of my life is it clear that I cannot achieve my goals with the story I’ve got?” We then show you how to create new, reality-based stories that inspire you to action, and take you where you want to go both in your work and personal life.
For decades, I have been examining the power of story to increase engagement and performance.
Our capacity to tell stories is one of our profoundest gifts. The Hero’s Journey approach to creating deeply engaging stories will give you the tools to wield the power of storytelling and forever change your business and personal life.
About Peter de Kuster
Peter de Kuster is the founder of The Hero’s Journey & The Heroine’s Journey project, a storytelling firm which helps creative professionals to create careers and lives based on whatever story is most integral to their lives and careers (values, traits, skills and experiences). Peter’s approach combines in-depth storytelling and marketing expertise, and for over 20 years clients have found it effective with a wide range of creative business issues.
Peter is writer of the series The Heroine’s Journey and Hero’s Journey books, he has an MBA in Marketing, MBA in Financial Economics and graduated at university in Sociology and Communication Sciences.
When John Huston came back from the war and Humphrey Bogart was a star big enough to choose his next project, the two of them chose to make a film about a seedy loser driven mad by greed. “Wait till you see me in my next picture,” Bogart shouted to a movie critic outside a New York nightclub. “I play the worst s— you ever saw.” The movie was desolate and despairing, the nicest character in it dies trying to defend men who were about to kill him, and the ending is not merely unhappy but like a cosmic joke against the hero’s dreams. Jack L. Warner, the studio boss who sent the crew to Mexican locations and yanked them back when the budget ran out of control, thought it was “definitely the greatest motion picture we have ever made.”
“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948) is a story in the Joseph Conrad tradition, using adventure not as an end in itself but as a test of its characters. It involves moral disagreements between a wise old man and a paranoid middle-aged man, with a young man forced to choose sides. It tells this story with gusto and Huston’s love of male camaraderie, and it occasionally breaks into laughter — some funny, some bitterly ironic. It happens on a sun-blasted high chaparral landscape, usually desolate, except for the three gold prospectors, although gangs of bandits and villages of Indians materialize when required. At the end, it has Bogart in a delirious mad scene that falls somewhere between “King Lear” and “Greed.”
Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, one of the movie characters everybody can name. In 1925 in Tampico, he meets another drifter from America, Bob Curtin (Tim Holt). Both have been cheated out of hard-earned wages by a dishonest employer named McCormick, and when they corner him in a bar, they beat him so savagely that it seems pointless to hang around town. Their next move is suggested by the old-timer Howard (Walter Huston), who they’ve overheard talking about gold. They think he’s good for advice and not much more, but he has the stamina of a goat and is soon filling their ears with practical advice about how to find gold, which is not too hard, and how to keep it and not get killed, which is not too easy.
The heart of the movie takes place on the slopes of mountains, which the title identifies but the characters never do; they simply address it as “mountain.” They are so exposed in this landscape that only Howard’s experience and rough Spanish get them through. They start out as partners, but the moment they find real gold, Dobbs grows avaricious, suggesting they divide their gains three ways, every night. Soon they’re hiding their gold separately, and there is a long night when Dobbs awakens in the tent to find Howard gone, and then Curtin awakens to find Dobbs gone, and finally old Howard observes the turn has come back around to him and so why don’t they get some sleep because they have work to do in the morning.
Howard has been here before (“I know what gold can do to men’s souls’). He plays a tactful peacemaker, agreeing with Dobbs’ paranoid suggestions because he knows they will make little difference at the end of the day: Either they’ll get out with their gold, or they won’t. The performance is a masterpiece by Walter Huston, John’s father, and won an Academy Award (John Huston won two more, for direction and screenplay). Listen to the way the senior Huston talks, rapid-fire, without pause, as if he’s briefing them on an old tale and doesn’t have time to waste on nuance. He does a famous dance when he finally finds gold, playing the stereotype of a grizzled prospector, but see how his eyes are sometimes quiet even when he’s playing the fool; he reads every situation, knows his options, tries to slow Dobbs’ meltdown.
Bogart shows not a shred of star ego in the role, but then he didn’t become a star by being a pretty face. His wife Lauren Bacall writes in her memoirs that Bogart began to experience rapid hair loss on “Dark Passage” (1947), and was completely bald when he arrived at the “Treasure” locations. Doctors blamed his drinking and a B-vitamin deficiency; B-12 shots helped his hair return, but in “Treasure,” all three men wear wigs that were carefully muddied and matted every morning to reflect that day’s difficulties.
Bogart’s break in pictures came in John Huston’s own first film, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), after the much bigger Warner Bros. star, George Raft, turned it down. Not tall, balding, with a scar on his lip, Bogart could play a hero but loved to be the scrappy little guy; remember his Charlie Allnut in Huston’s “The African Queen” (1951). In “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” he plays a character who diminishes steadily as the story moves along, finally disappearing into himself and his delusions. Although Howard saves Dobbs’ life just by being a seasoned mountain man, and Curtin pulls him unconscious from a collapsed mine, he doesn’t trust either one and finds he is capable of killing either one just to get a bigger share of the gold.
He thinks he has killed Curtin, and the moment he does, he tips over into madness. But the harsh logic of the situation has earlier shown that murder is always a choice in these mountains. There is a poignant episode involving the soft-spoken American Jim Cody (Bruce Bennett), who tracks them down to their camp, offers his help, wants a share and analyzes the situation for them: They can either make him a partner or kill him. The scene where the three men take a vote shows clearly how their moral weight balances out.
The movie is based on a novel by the elusive, legendary B. Traven, whose work shows men cornered by the shrinking options offered by nature and danger. Traven was famous for being unknown; the name was a pseudonym, the author was never seen, and indeed the Hollywood agent Paul Kohner, who represented both of the Hustons, acted as Traven’s literary agent without ever meeting him — or did he? Both Huston and Kohner told me in the 1970s that an unprepossessing little man turned up on the Mexican locations and described himself as Traven’s representative. This was, they decided, clearly Traven himself, but they went along with the fiction.
I’ve seen “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” many times, but watching it again today, I found myself gripped as always by Bogart’s closing scenes. The movie has never really been about gold but about character, and Bogart fearlessly makes Fred C. Dobbs into a pathetic, frightened, selfish man — so sick we would be tempted to pity him, if he were not so undeserving of pity. The other two characters get more or less what they deserve at the end of the film, but with less satisfaction for the audience. After Howard is taken in by an Indian tribe, there is a gratuitous shot, where a young maiden pats his whiskers and he all but winks directly at the camera; this shot, and the idyllic village life surrounding it, belong in a lesser movie.
As the stories of Howard and Curtin evaporate into convention, however, Fred C. Dobbs somehow moves to a higher level of tragedy. Hearing things in the night, desperate for a drink of water, staggering under the desert sun with the gold he valued so much, Dobbs is the tragic hero brought down precisely by his flaws. There is a pitiless stark realism in these scenes that brings the movie to honesty and truth. Leading up to them is a down-market Shakespearean soliloquy when Dobbs thinks he is a murderer and says, “Conscience. What a thing! If you believe you got a conscience, it’ll pester you to death. But if you don’t believe you got one, what could it do to ya?” He finds out.
Your Story is your Life
What do I mean with ‘story’? I don’t intend to offer tips on how to fine-tine the mechanics of telling stories to enhance the desired effect on listeners.
I wish to examine the most compelling story about storytelling – namely, how we tell stories about ourselves to ourselves. Indeed, the idea of ‘one’s own story’ is so powerful, so native, that I hardly consider it a metaphor, as if it is some new lens through which to look at life. Your story is your life. Your life is your story.
When stories we watch in the movies touch us, they do so because they fundamentally remind us of what is most true or possible in life – even when it is a escapist romantic story or fairy tale or myth. If you are human, then you tell yourself stories – positive ones and negative, consciously and, far more than not, subconsciously. Stories that span a single episode, or a year, or a semester, or a weekend, or a relationship, or a season, or an entire tenure on this planet.
Telling ourselves stories helps us navigate our way through life because they provide structure and direction. We are actually wired to tell stories. The human brain has evolved into a narrative-creating machine that takes whatever it encounters, no matter how apparently random and imposes on it ‘chronology and cause – and – effect logic’. We automatically and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us and ‘stuff just happens’ is no explanation.
Stories impose meaning on the chaos; they organize and give context to our sensory experiences, which otherwise might seem like no more than a fairly colorless sequence of facts. Facts are meaningless until you create a story arond them.
By ‘story’ I mean those tales we create and tell ourselves and others, and which form the only reality we will ever know in this life. Our stories may or may not conform to the real world. They may or may not inspire us to take hope – filled action to better our lives. They may or may not take us where we ultimately want to go. But since our destiny follows our stories, it is imperative that we do everything in our power to get our stories right.
For most of us, that means some serious editing.
To rewrite your story, you must first identify it. To do that you must answer the question: In which important areas of my life is it clear that I cannot achieve my goals with the story I have got?
Only after confronting and satisfactorily answering this question can you expect to build new reality – based stories that will take you where you want to go.
Your life is the most important story you will ever tell, and you are telling it right now, whether you know it or not. From very early on you are spinning and telling multiple stories about your life, publicly and privately, stories that have a theme, a tone, a premise – whether you know it or not. Some stories are for better, some for worse. No one lacks material. Everyone’s got a story.
And thank goodness. Because our capacity to tell stories is, I believe just about our profoundest gift. Perhaps the true power of the story metaphor is best captured by this seemingly contradiction: we employ the word ‘story’ to suggest both the wildest of dreams (it is just a story ……) and an unvarnished depiction of reality (okay, what is the story?). How is that for range?
The challenge? Most of us are not writers. That is what I intend to do here in this hero’s journey. First, explore with you how pervasive story is in life, your life, and second, to rewrite it.
By 1952, movie-goers knew exactly what to expect from a Western: a clean-cut, self-assured hero facing down a good-for-nothing villain in a climactic shoot-out, lots of action, gorgeous scenery, and not much in the way of thematic depth. This was a time when the Western was at the height of its popularity, and when stars of the genre, like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, were revered as heroes of the Old West. Then along came Stanley Kramer and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, and the Western was never quite the same.
Many fans of the genre regard High Noon as the best Western ever made. There are other contenders for the titles (including, but not limited to The Searchers; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; The Wild Bunch; Unforgiven; and Dances With Wolves), but there’s no debating that High Noon is amongst the elite – it is as much above the garden variety Western as something like Die Hard is above the generic shoot-’em-up action thriller.
High Noon contains many of the elements of the traditional Western: the gun-toting bad guys, the moral lawman, the pretty girl, and the climactic gunfight. But it’s in the way these elements are blended together, with the slight spin put on them by Zinnemann and screenwriter Carl Foreman, that makes High Noon unlike any other Western. Audiences in the early ’50s were drawn to the theater by the promise of a Gary Cooper film. Many viewers left confused, consternated, or vaguely dissatisfied, because things didn’t play out in the expected way. It is rumored that John Wayne criticized High Noon’s ending as being “un-American.”
Indeed, 1952 was the time of “un-American” things, with Senator Joseph McCarthy wielding the power of paranoia and fear in Washington as he presided over the 20th century Salem Witch Trials. This time, the targets weren’t servants of the Devil, but Communists (although some at the time might have said there was no difference). Carl Foreman, the screenwriter of High Noon, was blacklisted soon after writing the script. Also on McCarthy’s list were actor Lloyd Bridges and cinematographer Floyd Crosby. To hear McCarthy tell it, High Noon was a veritable hotbed of “un-American” activity. And the story can easily be seen as allegorical -a man is turned on by those he called friends and comrades, and comes to see that the most valued principle of the masses is self-preservation.
Foreman’s script was loosely based on the story “The Tin Star”, by John W. Cunningham. Although there were only bare-bones similarities, Kramer bought the rights to “The Tin Star” to avoid copyright issues. Foreman fleshed out the tale using a combination of his imagination and his real-life experiences with the McCarthy Commission. The more one considers the atmosphere in which Foreman wrote High Noon, the easier it is understand the grim tone that underscores nearly every frame of the motion picture. The typical Western was a story of great heroism and derring-do. High Noon highlights much of humanity’s base nature.
Cooper plays Marshal Will Kane, and, when High Noon opens, it’s a little after 10 o’clock in the morning, and he is being married to Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), a woman less than half his age. At the same time, trouble has arrived in Kane’s sleepy Western town. Three outlaws, the henchmen of convicted murderer Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), are waiting at the railroad station, where Miller, recently freed from prison, is expected on the noon train. He has one goal: revenge, and the target of his hatred is Kane, the man who brought him down. Kane’s friends, including the town’s mayor (Thomas Mitchell), the local judge (Otto Kruger), and the former Marshal, Martin Howe (Lon Chaney), urge him to flee, but he can’t. Against the wishes of his Quaker wife and with no one in the town willing to stand beside him, Kane prepares to face Miller and his gang alone.
High Noon is about loyalty and betrayal. Loyalty on Kane’s part – even when everyone deserts him, he stands his ground, though it seems inevitable that the action will cost him his life. And betrayal on the town’s part. Many of the locals are agreed that they owe their prosperity to Kane, but they will not help him or defend him, because they believe his cause to be hopeless. There are even those who welcome Miller’s return. In the end, Kane is forced into the showdown on his own, until, at a crucial moment, Amy proves herself to be a worthy wife.
The movie transpires virtually in real time, with a minute on screen equaling one in the theater. In one of many departures from the traditional Western, there is little action until the final ten minutes, when Kane shoots it out with Miller’s gang. The lone exception is a fistfight between Kane and a former deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges). Other than that, the movie is comprised primarily of Kane’s failed attempts to rally the townspeople to his cause. High Noon’s tension comes through Kane’s desperation, aided in no small part by Elmo Williams’ brilliant editing as the clock ticks down to twelve. For a motion picture with so little action, the suspense builds to almost unbearable levels.
Many have called High Noon more of a morality play than a Western, and, in some ways, that’s an accurate description. Aside from the primary plot thread, there are other quandries to be considered. Amy must choose between her dearly-held peaceful beliefs (which she adopted after her brother and father were killed) and standing by her husband. It’s easy to be non-violent when there’s no price to pay. Harvey Pell must decide between ego and friendship. High Noon places many facets of human nature under the microscope, and therein lies the complexity in a seemingly simple idea. The deeper one looks, the more High Noon has to offer.
The climactic gunfight is not played out with two men staring down one another across an empty expanse of street, with a tumbleweed or two blowing around in the background. Instead, it’s a quick and dirty business, with a hostage-taking and a man being shot in the back. When Kane wins the day, as he must (this is, after all, Gary Cooper), it has the feeling of a hollow victory. And the Marshal’s final action – throwing his badge into the dirt before he and Amy ride out of town – gives us a taste of the bitterness that has settled in his mouth.
There are really only two men one could envision playing the part of Marshal Kane – James Stewart and Gary Cooper. Cooper, the older of the two men, is the better choice. He brings a world-weariness to the part. From the beginning, we sense that he’s a reluctant hero, and this is confirmed as the story moves along. He admits to being afraid, and one senses that he wants nothing more than to get on the wagon with his wife and head out of town before Miller’s arrival. But his overpowering sense of duty, coupled with the concern that Miller will eventually hunt him down, is strong enough to keep him where he is. Cooper imbues Kane with equal parts dignity and humanity. There’s no doubt that he’s a hero, but, unlike the usual Western good guy, he is filled with doubts and all-too-human weaknesses. These are the frailties each of us finds in ourselves; seeing them in Kane allows us to identify with him intimately. It makes the film more personal. In 1952, the movie was unsettling for some because they were unprepared to see a reflection of themselves on the screen. They expected an invulnerable hero; they got a man.
As important as it was to humanize High Noon’s protagonist, so the villain remained largely faceless – an unseen menace riding in on the railroad tracks. Although his presence looms large over the proceedings, it isn’t until the final fifteen minutes that Miller finally shows up, disembarking from the train, girded for battle. In a way, the arrival of actor Ian MacDonald is almost anti-climactic. By this point, Miller had been so thoroughly demonized that the appearance of a normal (albeit tough-looking) man is a little disappointing.
High Noon offered high-profile exposure to two actresses. Katy Jurado, a Mexican performer, received rave reviews for her tough-as-nails portrayal of Helen Ramirez, Kane’s former lover. This movie represented Jurado’s entré into American cinema; after High Noon, she enjoyed a nice career in Westerns, appearing in such notable films as Broken Lance (for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination) and One Eyed Jacks. High Noon also offered the first high-billed opportunity to Grace Kelly, who would go on to capture an Oscar, the eye of Alfred Hitchcock (she became his favorite female lead), and the hearts of millions (including the Prince of Monaco). For Kelly, this certainly isn’t a great performance (she is a little wooden at times), but it was enough to get her noticed.
As is true of nearly every great film, all of the elements mix together in High Noon. The black-and-white cinematography is perfect for setting the dark mood. The music is relentless. And the editing (with the possible exception of the fight between Kane and Pell, which is choppy) is nearly flawless. But the real elements to applaud are the acting, the script, and the direction, all of which are top-notch. Cooper appeared in more than 100 films during his long career; few aspired to the level of High Noon, much less attained it. And no credit on Zimmermann’s resume is as impressive. The Western may be one of the few truly American art forms, and High Noon shows exactly how much potential it can embrace.
Your Life is your Story
Story is everywhere in life. Perhaps your story is that you are responsible for the happiness and livelihoods of dozens of people around you and you are the unappreciated hero. If you are focused on one subplot – your business – then maybe your story is that you sincerely want to execute the major initiatives in your company, yet you are restricted in some essential way. Maybe your story is that you must keep chasing even though you already seem to have a lot (even too much) because the point is to get more and more of it – money, prestige, power, control, attention. Maybe your story is that you and your children just can’t connect. Or your story might be essentially a rejection of another story – and everything you do is filtered through that rejection.
Story is everywhere. Your body tells a story. The smile or frown on your face, your shoulders thrust back in confidence or slumped roundly in despair, the liveliness or fatigue in your gait, the sparkle of hope and joy in your eyes or the blank stare, your fitness, the size of your gut, the tone and strength of your physical being, your overall presentation – those are all part of your story, one that’s especially apparant to everyone else. We judge books by their covers not simply because we are wired to judge quickly but because the cover so often provides astonishing accurate clues to what is going on inside. What is your story about your physical self? Does it truly work for you? Can it take you where you want to go in the short term? How about ten years from now? What about thirty?
You have a story about your company, though your version may depart wildly from your customer’s or business partners. You have a story about your family. Anything that consumes our energy can be a story, even if we don’t always call it a story. There is the story of your relationship. The story of you and food, or you and anger, or you and impossible dreams. The story of you, the friend. The story of you, your father’s son or your mother’s daughter. Some of these stories work and some of them fail. According to my experience, an astounding number of these stories, once they are identified are deemed tragic – not by me, mind you but by the people living them.
Like it or not, there will be a story around your death. What will it be? Will you die a senseless death? Perhaps you drank too much and failed to buckle your seat belt and were thrown from your car, or you died from colon cancer because you refused to undergo an embarrassing colonoscopy years before when the disease was treatable. Or after years of bad nutrition, no exercise, and abuse of your body, you suffered a fatal heart attack at age fifty – nine. ‘Senseless death’ means that it did not have to happen when it happened; it means your story did not have to end the way it ended. Think about the effect the story of your senseless death might have on your family, on those you care about who you are leaving behind. How would that story impact their life stories? Ask yourself, Am I okay dying a senseless death? Your immediate reaction is almost certainly, “No!, of course not!
Unhealthy storytelling is characterized by a diet of faulty thinking and, ultimately, long – term negative consequences. This undetectable, yet inexorable progression is not unlike what happens to coronary arteries from a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet. In the body, the consequence of such a diet is hardening of the arteries. In the mind, the consequence of bad storytelling is hardening of the categories, narrowing of the possibilities, calcification of perception. Both roads lead to tragedy, often quietly.
The cumulative effect of our damaging stories will have tragic consequences on our health, engagement, performance and happiness. Because we can’t confirm the damage our defective storytelling is wreaking, we disregard it, or veto our gut reactions to make a change. Then one day we awaken to the reality that we have become cynical, negative, angry. That is now who we are. Though we never quite saw it coming, that is now our true story.
We enjoy the privilege of being the hero, the final author of the story we write with our life, yet we possess a marvelous capacity to give ourselves only a supporting role in the ‘storytelling’ process, while ascribing the premier, dominant role to the markets, our family, our kids, fate, chance, genetics. Getting our stories straight in life does not happen without our understanding that the most precious resource that we human beings possess is our energy.
It is our storytelling that drives the way we gather and spend our energy. Stories determine our personal and professional destinies. And the most important story you will ever tell about yourself is the story you tell to yourself.
So, you would better examine your story, especially this one that is supposedly the most familiar of all. Participate in your story rather than observing it from afar, make sure it is a story that compels you. Tell yourself the right story – the rightness of which only you can really determine, only you can really feel – and the dynamics of your energy change. If you are finally living the story you want, then it need not – it should not and won’t – be an ordinary one. It can and will be extraordinary. After all you are not just the author of your story but also its main character the hero. Heroes are never ordinary.
In the end your story is not a tragedy. Nor is it a comedy or a romance or a thriller or a drama. It is something else. What label would you give the story of your life, the most important story you will ever tell. To me that sounds like a hero’s journey.
End of story.
“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life,” says one of the searchers through the warehouse of treasures left behind by Charles Foster Kane. Then we get the famous series of shots leading to the closeup of the word “Rosebud” on a sled that has been tossed into a furnace, its paint curling in the flames. We remember that this was Kane’s childhood sled, taken from him as he was torn from his family and sent east to boarding school.
Rosebud is the emblem of the security, hope and innocence of childhood, which a man can spend his life seeking to regain. It is the green light at the end of Gatsby’s pier; the leopard atop Kilimanjaro, seeking nobody knows what; the bone tossed into the air in “2001.” It is that yearning after transience that adults learn to suppress. “Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost,” says Thompson, the reporter assigned to the puzzle of Kane’s dying word. “Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything.” True, it explains nothing, but it is remarkably satisfactory as a demonstration that nothing can be explained. “Citizen Kane” likes playful paradoxes like that. Its surface is as much fun as any movie ever made. Its depths surpass understanding. I have analyzed it a shot at a time with more than 30 groups, and together we have seen, I believe, pretty much everything that is there on the screen. The more clearly I can see its physical manifestation, the more I am stirred by its mystery.
It is one of the miracles of cinema that in 1941 a first-time director; a cynical, hard-drinking writer; an innovative cinematographer, and a group of New York stage and radio actors were given the keys to a studio and total control, and made a masterpiece. “Citizen Kane” is more than a great movie; it is a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound, just as “Birth of a Nation” assembled everything learned at the summit of the silent era, and “2001” pointed the way beyond narrative. These peaks stand above all the others.
The origins of “Citizen Kane” are well known. Orson Welles, the boy wonder of radio and stage, was given freedom by RKO Radio Pictures to make any picture he wished. Herman Mankiewicz, an experienced screenwriter, collaborated with him on a screenplay originally called “The American.” Its inspiration was the life of William Randolph Hearst, who had put together an empire of newspapers, radio stations, magazines and news services, and then built to himself the flamboyant monument of San Simeon, a castle furnished by rummaging the remains of nations. Hearst was Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates rolled up into an enigma.
Arriving in Hollywood at age 25, Welles brought a subtle knowledge of sound and dialogue along with him; on his Mercury Theater of the Air, he’d experimented with audio styles more lithe and suggestive than those usually heard in the movies. As his cinematographer he hired Gregg Toland, who on John Ford’s “The Long Voyage Home” (1940) had experimented with deep focus photography–with shots where everything was in focus, from the front to the back, so that composition and movement determined where the eye looked first. For his cast Welles assembled his New York colleagues, including Joseph Cotten as Jed Leland, the hero’s best friend; Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander, the young woman Kane thought he could make into an opera star; Everett Sloane as Mr. Bernstein, the mogul’s business wizard; Ray Collins as Gettys, the corrupt political boss, and Agnes Moorehead as the boy’s forbidding mother. Welles himself played Kane from age 25 until his deathbed, using makeup and body language to trace the progress of a man increasingly captive inside his needs. “All he really wanted out of life was love,” Leland says. “That’s Charlie’s story–how he lost it.”
The structure of “Citizen Kane” is circular, adding more depth every time it passes over the life. The movie opens with newsreel obituary footage that briefs us on the life and times of Charles Foster Kane; this footage, with its portentous narration, is Welles’ bemused nod in the direction of the “March of Time” newsreels then being produced by another media mogul, Henry Luce. They provide a map of Kane’s trajectory, and it will keep us oriented as the screenplay skips around in time, piecing together the memories of those who knew him.
Curious about Kane’s dying word, “rosebud,” the newsreel editor assigns Thompson, a reporter, to find out what it meant. Thompson is played by William Alland in a thankless performance; he triggers every flashback, yet his face is never seen. He questions Kane’s alcoholic mistress, his ailing old friend, his rich associate and the other witnesses, while the movie loops through time. As often as I’ve seen “Citizen Kane,” I’ve never been able to firmly fix the order of the scenes in my mind. I look at a scene and tease myself with what will come next. But it remains elusive: By flashing back through the eyes of many witnesses, Welles and Mankiewicz created an emotional chronology set free from time.
The movie is filled with bravura visual moments: the towers of Xanadu; candidate Kane addressing a political rally; the doorway of his mistress dissolving into a front-page photo in a rival newspaper; the camera swooping down through a skylight toward the pathetic Susan in a nightclub; the many Kanes reflected through parallel mirrors; the boy playing in the snow in the background as his parents determine his future; the great shot as the camera rises straight up from Susan’s opera debut to a stagehand holding his nose, and the subsequent shot of Kane, his face hidden in shadow, defiantly applauding in the silent hall.
Along with the personal story is the history of a period. “Citizen Kane” covers the rise of the penny press (here Joseph Pulitzer is the model), the Hearst-supported Spanish-American War, the birth of radio, the power of political machines, the rise of fascism, the growth of celebrity journalism. A newsreel subtitle reads: “1895 to 1941. All of these years he covered, many of these he was.” The screenplay by Mankiewicz and Welles (which got an Oscar, the only one Welles ever won) is densely constructed and covers an amazing amount of ground, including a sequence showing Kane inventing the popular press; a record of his marriage, from early bliss to the famous montage of increasingly chilly breakfasts; the story of his courtship of Susan Alexander and her disastrous opera career, and his decline into the remote master of Xanadu (“I think if you look carefully in the west wing, Susan, you’ll find about a dozen vacationists still in residence”).
“Citizen Kane” knows the sled is not the answer. It explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means. The film’s construction shows how our lives, after we are gone, survive only in the memories of others, and those memories butt up against the walls we erect and the roles we play. There is the Kane who made shadow figures with his fingers, and the Kane who hated the traction trust; the Kane who chose his mistress over his marriage and political career, the Kane who entertained millions, the Kane who died alone.
There is a master image in “Citizen Kane” you might easily miss. The tycoon has overextended himself and is losing control of his empire. After he signs the papers of his surrender, he turns and walks into the back of the shot. Deep focus allows Welles to play a trick of perspective. Behind Kane on the wall is a window that seems to be of average size. But as he walks toward it, we see it is further away and much higher than we thought. Eventually he stands beneath its lower sill, shrunken and diminished. Then as he walks toward us, his stature grows again. A man always seems the same size to himself, because he does not stand where we stand to look at him.
What is Your Story?
With relatively few variations, heroes and heroines tell stories about basically five major subjects.
By asking yourself basic questions about how you feel about what you do and how you conduct yourself – and by trying honestly to answer them, of course – you begin to identify the dynamics of your story.
Your Story around your Business
You have a story to tell about your passion for your work and what it means for you. And because more than half our waking life is consumed by working at your business, how we frame this story is critical to our chance for passion and happiness.
How do you characterize your relationship to your work? Is it a burden or a joy? Deep fulfillment or an addiction? What compels you to get up every day and go to work? The money? Is the driving force increased prestige, power, social status? A sense of intrinsic fulfillment? The contribution you are making? Is it an end in itself or a means to something else? Do you feel forced to work or called to work? Are you completely engaged at work? How much of your talent and skill are fully ignited?
What is the dominant tone of your story – inspired? challenged? disappointed? trapped? overwhelmed?
Does the story you currently tell about work take you where you want to go in life? If your story about work is not working, what story do you tell yourself to justify it, especially given the tens of thousands of hours it consumes?
Suppose you did not need the money: Would you continue to go to work every day? Write down five things about working at your business that, if money were no issue, you would like to continue.
Your Story Around Family
What is your story about your family life? In the grand scheme, how important is family to you? So … is your current story about family working? Is the relationship with your husband, wife, or significant other where you want it to be? Is it even close to where you want it to be? Or is there an unbridgeable gap between the level of intimacy, connection and intensity you feel with him or her and the level you would like to experience?
Is your story with your children working? How about your parents? Your sibblings? Other family members?
If you continue on your same path, what is the relationship you are likely to have, years from now with each of your family members? If your story is not working with one or more key individuals, then what is the story you tell yourself to allow this pattern to persist? To what extent do you blame your business for keeping you from fully engaging with your family? (really?) Your business is the reason you are disengaged from the most important thing in your life, the people who matter most to you? How does that happen? According to your current story, is it even possible to be fully engaged at work and also with your family?
Your Story Around Health
What is your story about your health? What kind of job have you done taking care of yourself? What value do you place on your health, and why? If you continue on your same path, then what will be the likely health consequences? If you are not fully engaged with your health, then what is the story you tell yourself and others – particularly your spouse, your kids, your doctor, your colleagues and anyone who might look up to you – that allows you to persist in this way? If suddenly you awoke to the reality that your health was gone, what would be the consequences for you and all those you care about? How would you feel if the end of your story was dominated by one fact – that you had needlessly died young?
Do you consider your health just one of several important stories about yourself but hardly toward the top? Does it crack the top three? top five? If you have been overweight, or consistently putting on weight the last several years; if you smoke; if you eat poorly; if you rest infrequently and never deeply; if you rarely, if ever, exercise; what is the story you tell yourself that explains how you deal, or don’t deal, with these issues? Is it a story with a rhyme or reason? Do you believe that spending time exercising or otherwise taking care of yourself, particularly during the workday, sets a negative example for others?
Given your physical being and the way you present yourself, do you think the story you are telling is the same one that others are hearing? Could it be vastly different, when seen through their eyes?
Your Story about Friends
What is your story about friendship? According to your story, how important are friends? How fully engaged are your with them? (that is don’t calculate in your mind simply how often you see them but what you do and how you are when you’re together). If close friendships are important to you, yet they are clearly not happening in your life, what is the story you tell yourself that obstructs this from happening?
To what extent are friendships important to your realizing what you need and want from life? If you have few or no friends, why is that? Is this a relatively recent development – that is, something that happened since you got married for example, or had a family, or got more consumed by work, or got promoted, or got divorced, or experienced a significant loss, or moved away from your hometown?
When you think of your closest friendships over the last five years, can you say any of them has grown and deepened? People who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their work, get more done in less time, have fewer accidents and are more likely to innovate and share new ideas.
Suppose you had no friends – what would that be like? This may seem like a morbid exercise but write down three ways in which being completely friendless might make your life poorer (no one to turn to in times of crisis and celebration, no one to mourn your passing, etc.)
“To Kill a Mockingbird” has remained the favorite of many people. It is currently listed as the 29th best film of all time in a poll by the Internet Movie Database. Such polls are of questionable significance, but certainly the movie and the Harper Lee novel on which it is based have legions of admirers. It is being read by many Chicagoans as part of a city-wide initiative in book discussion. It is a beautifully-written book, but it should be used not as a record of how things are, or were, but of how we once liked to think of them.
The novel, which focuses on the coming of age of three young children, especially the tomboy Scout, gains strength from her point of view: It sees the good and evil of the world through the eyes of a six-year-old child. The movie shifts the emphasis to the character of her father, Atticus Finch, but from this new point of view doesn’t see as much as an adult in that time and place should see.
Maycomb is evoked by director Robert Mulligan as a “tired old town” of dirt roads, picket fences, climbing vines, front porches held up by pillars of brick, rocking chairs, and Panama hats. Scout (Mary Badham) and her 10-year-old brother Jem (Philip Alford) live with their widowed father Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and their black housekeeper Calpurnia (Estelle Evans). They make friends with a new neighbor named “Dill” Harris (John Megna), who wears glasses, speaks with an expanded vocabulary, is small for his age, and is said to be inspired by Harper Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote. Atticus goes off every morning to his law office downtown, and the children play through lazy hot days.
Their imagination is much occupied by the Radley house, right down the street, which seems always dark, shaded and closed. Jem tells Dill that Mr. Radley keeps his son Boo chained to a bed in the house, and describes Boo breathlessly: “Judging from his tracks, he’s about six and a half feet tall. He eats raw squirrels and all the cats he can catch. There’s a long, jagged scar that runs all the way across his face. His teeth are yellow and rotten. His eyes are popped. And he drools most of the time.” Of course the first detail reveals Jem has never seen Boo.
Into this peaceful calm drops a thunderbolt. Atticus is asked by the town judge to defend a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who has been accused of raping a poor white girl named Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox). White opinion is of course much against the black man, who is presumed guilty, and Mayelle’s father Bob (James Anderson) pays an ominous call on Atticus, indirectly threatening his children. The children are also taunted at school, and get in fights; Atticus explains to them why he is defending a Negro, and warns them against using the word “nigger.”
The courtroom scenes are the most celebrated in the movie; they make it perfectly clear that Tom Robinson is innocent, that no rape occurred, that Maybelle came on to Robinson, that he tried to flee, that Bob Ewell beat his own daughter, and she lied about it out of shame for feeling attracted to a black man. Atticus’ summation to the jury is one of Gregory Peck’s great scenes, but of course the all-white jury finds Tom Robinson guilty anyway. The verdict is greeted by an uncanny quiet: No whoops of triumph from Bob Ewell, no cries of protests by the blacks in the courtroom gallery. The whites file out quickly, but the blacks remain and stand silently in honor of Atticus as he walks out a little later. Scout and her brother sat up with the blacks throughout the trial, and now a minister tells her: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, your father’s passin’.”
The problem here, for me, is that the conviction of Tom Robinson is not the point of the scene, which looks right past him to focus on the nobility of Atticus Finch. I also wonder at the general lack of emotion in the courtroom, and the movie only grows more puzzling by what happens next. Atticus is told by the sheriff that while Tom Robinson was being taken for safekeeping to nearby Abbottsville, he broke loose and tried to run away. As Atticus repeats the story: “The deputy called out to him to stop. Tom didn’t stop. He shot at him to wound him and missed his aim. Killed him. The deputy says Tom just ran like a crazy man.”
Atticus drives out to Tom Robinson’s house to break the sad news to his widow, Helen. She is played by Kim Hamilton. On the porch are several male friends and relatives. Bob Ewell, the vile father who beat his girl into lying, lurches out of the shadows and says to one of them, “Boy, go in the house and bring out Atticus Finch.” One of the men does so, Ewell spits in Atticus’s face, Atticus stares him down and drives away.
The upbeat payoff involves Ewell’s cowardly attack on Scout and Jem, and the sudden appearance of the mysterious Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, in his first screen performance), to save them. Ewell is found dead with a knife under his ribs. Boo materializes inside the Finch house, is identified by Scout as her savior, and they’re soon sitting side by side on the front porch swing. The sheriff decides that no good would be served by accusing Boo of the death of Ewell. That would be like “killing a mockingbird,” and we know from earlier in the film that you can shoot all the bluejays you want, but not mockingbirds — because all they do is sing to bring music to the garden. Not exactly a description of the silent Boo Radley, but we get the point.
One of the most dramatic scenes shows a lynch mob facing Atticus, who is all by himself on the jailhouse steps the night before Tom Robinson’s trial. The mob is armed and prepared to break in and hang Robinson, but Scout bursts onto the scene, recognizes a poor farmer who has been befriended by her father, and shames him (and all the other men) into leaving. Her speech is a calculated strategic exercise, masked as the innocent words of a child; one shot of her eyes shows she realizes exactly what she’s doing. Could a child turn away a lynch mob at that time, in that place? Isn’t it nice to think so.
Your Hero’s Journey
Who has a why to live, can bear with almost any how.
When you have a great passion, it dramatically changes your willingness to spend energy and take risk. When the stakes are a large sum of money people don’t take great risks. When the stakes are love and life and that which has incalculable value, people go the extra mile.
A great passion is the epicenter of everyone’s hero’s journey story. Passion is one of the three foundations of good storytelling
Without passion, no character in a book, or movie or in art would do anything interesting, meaningful, memorable, worthwhile. Without passion, our hero’s journey story has no meaning. It has no coherence, no direction, no inexorable momentum. Without passion, our life still ‘moves’ along – whatever that means, but it lacks an organizing principle. Without passion, it is all but impossible to be fully engaged. To be extraordinary.
With passion, on the other hand, people do amazing things: good, smart, productive things, often heroic things, unprecedented things. Passion is the thing in your hero’s journey you will fight for. It is the ground you will defend at any cost. Passion is not the same as ‘incentive’, but rather the motor behind it, the end that drives why you have energy for some things and not for others.
I have seen many seen articulate their passion to themselves and to others. But articulation is not nearly enough; in fact it is really not even worth of a pat on the back, so long as one continues to live one’s life in a way that does very little, if anything, to support that passion. Indeed, to say you have a passion and then to do nothing about it is, first, a sham, and, last, a tragedy.
Most people who have been living in this way, when inspired to be passionate, will quickly identify what they claim to be their true passion in life.
To find one’s true passion sometimes takes work. Fortunately, the skill it requires is one that every person is blessed with.
For a few people, naming one’s passion comes with remarkable ease. The individual feels it in the deepest part of his or her soul; the passion has always been there, even if it got lost for a very long while, remaining unexpressed to oneself and to those who are the objects of one’s passion. Deep enduring passion is virtually always motivated by a desire for the well-being of others.
You know passion when you see it.
To author a workable, fulfilling new story, you will need to ask yourself many questions and then answer them, none more important than those that concern passion. Passion is the sail on the boat, the yeast in the bread. Once you know your passion – that is, what matters – then everything else can fall into place. Getting your passion clear is your defining truth. What is the passion of your life? Whatever it is, it had better be someting for which you will move mountains, cross deserts, seven days a week, no questions asked.
Once you find your passion, you have a chance to live a story that moves you and those around you. A story that make them live happily ever after.
They meet at first in the middle of the prairie, holding themselves formally and a little awkwardly, the cavalry officer and Sioux Indians. There should be instant mistrust between them, but they take each other’s measure and keep an open mind. A civilized man is a person whose curiosity outweighs his prejudices, and these are curious men.
They know no words of each other’s languages. Dunbar, the white man, tries to pantomime a buffalo. Wind in His Hair, a fierce warrior, looks at the charade and says, “His mind is gone.” But Kicking Bird, the holy man, thinks he understands what the stranger is trying to say, and at last they exchange the word for “buffalo” in each other’s languages. These first halting words are the crucial moments in Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves,” a film about a white man who goes to live with Indians and learns their civilization at first hand.
In real life, such contacts hardly ever took place. The dominant American culture was nearsighted, incurious and racist, and saw the Indians as a race of ignorant, thieving savages, fit to be shot on sight. Such attitudes survived until so recently in our society – just look at the B Westerns of the 1940s – that we can only imagine how much worse they were 100 years ago. In a sense, “Dances With Wolves” is a sentimental fantasy, a “what if” movie that imagines a world in which whites were genuinely interested in learning about a Native American culture that lived more closely in harmony with the natural world than any other before or since. But our knowledge of how things turned out – of how the Indians were driven from their lands by genocide and theft – casts a sad shadow over everything.
The movie is a simple story, magnificently told. It has the epic sweep and clarity of a Western by John Ford, and it abandons the contrivances of ordinary plotting to look, in detail, at the way strangers get to know one another. The film is seen from the point of view of Dunbar (Costner), a lieutenant in the Union Army, who runs away from a field hospital as his foot is about to be amputated, and invites death by riding his horse in a suicidal charge at the Confederate lines.
When he miraculously survives, he is decorated and given his choice of any posting, and he chooses the frontier, because “I want to see it before it’s gone.” He draws an isolated outpost in the Dakotas, where he is the only white man for miles around. He is alone, but at first not lonely; he keeps a journal and writes of his daily routine, and after the first contact with the Sioux he documents the way they slowly get to know one another. Dunbar possesses the one quality he needs to cut through the entrenched racism of his time: He is able to look another man in the eye, and see the man, rather than his attitudes about the man.
As Dunbar discovers the culture of the Sioux, so do we. The Indians know the white man is coming, and they want to learn more about his plans. They have seen other invaders in these parts: the Spanish, the Mexicans, but they always left. Now the Indians fear the white man is here to stay. They want Dunbar to share his knowledge, but at first he holds back. He does not wish to discourage them. And when he finally tells how many whites will be coming (“As many as the stars in the sky”), the words fall like a death knell.
At first Dunbar and the Indians meet on the open prairie. One day they bring along Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who as a girl came to live with the tribe after her family was killed. She remembers a little English. With a translator, progress is quicker, until one day Dunbar comes to live with the tribe, and is eventually given the name Dances With Wolves.
There are some of the plot points we would expect in a story like this. The buffalo hunt (thrillingly photographed). A bloody fight with a hostile tribe. The inevitable love story between Dunbar and Stands With a Fist. But all is done with an eye to detail, with a respect for tradition, and with a certain sweetness of disposition. The love story is especially delicate; this isn’t one of those exercises in romantic cliche, but a courtship conducted mostly through the eyes, through these two people looking at one another. There is a delicate, humorous sequence showing how the tribe observes and approves of the romance, when Kicking Bird’s wife, Black Shawl (Tantoo Cardinal) tells her husband it is time for Stands With a Fist to stop mourning her dead husband and accept this new man into her arms.
Meanwhile, we get to know many members of the Sioux tribe, most especially Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) and the old wise chief, Ten Bears (Floyd Red Crow Westerman). Each has a strong personality; these are men who know exactly who they are, and at one point, after Dunbar has killed in battle beside them, he realizes he never knew who “John Dunbar” was but he knows who Dances With Wolves is. Much of the movie is narrated by Dunbar, and his speech at this point is a center for the film: He observes that the battle with the enemy tribe was not fought for political purposes, but for food and land, and it was fought to defend the women and children who were right there in the midst of battle. The futility he felt on his suicidal day as a Union officer has been replaced by utter clarity: He knows why he was fighting, and he knows why he was willing to risk losing his life.
“Dances With Wolves” has the kind of vision and ambition that is rare in movies today. It is not a formula movie, but a thoughtful, carefully observed story. It is a Western at a time when the Western is said to be dead. It asks for our imagination and sympathy. It takes its time, three hours, to unfold. It is a personal triumph for Kevin Costner, the intelligent young actor of “Field of Dreams,” who directed the film and shows a command of story and of visual structure that is startling; this movie moves so confidently and looks so good it seems incredible that it’s a directorial debut.
Costner and his cinematographer, Dean Semler, are especially gifted at explaining things visually. Many of their most important points are made with a glance, a closeup, a detail shot.
In 1985, before he was a star, Costner played a featured role in a good Western called “Silverado” simply because he wanted to be in a Western. Now he has realized his dream again by making one of the best Westerns I’ve seen. The movie makes amends, of a sort, for hundreds of racist and small-minded Westerns that went before it. By allowing the Sioux to speak in their own tongue, by entering their villages and observing their ways, it sees them as people, not as whooping savages in the sights of an Army rifle. This is one of the year’s best films.
How Faithful a Storyteller Are You?
The manipulations of our story are numerous, often impossible to recognize or calibrate, and by no means always or wholly destructive. But because outside influences have the capacity to exercise profound, at times paralyzing, sway over us and how we live our days, it is imperative – at least for the vast majority of us who have ever felt a ‘misalignment’ in our lives, a gnawing lack of engagement and joy – that we work out figuring out how we ended up doing what we do and being who we are.
We wake up one morning and feel rotten, not knowing it because we have become so dogmatic and our story so inflexible, that we are impervious to change and even fresh input. Unaware that every important decision in our life has been triggered by one goal: the avoidance of pain and risk, professionally and personally.
Is there someone out there to call you out on the phony, self – sabotaging parts of your story? Do you have someone who cares enough to do that, and is himself or herself unentangled? Who sees you and the world with some measure of objectivity? Whom you trust and respect? If you have such a person or persons, that is good. Great, in fact. But een if you do, you don’t want to rely on others to police yourself.
Tragedies happen when we don’t examine our story to see if it is really ours anymore, when we don’t look hard to see if perhaps someone or something else has infiltrated it without our conscious knowledge or consent. If you don’t activate your build in storyteller if you don’t start listening to your intuition, you make your evolving story vulnerable to hijacking, to rerouting, to programming.
That is why it is vital to waken ourselves to the brilliant, subtle methods that individuals and institutions use to indoctrinate us.
Of course, doing what I am suggesting – unerringly knowing what is good for you versus what is bad for you – is anything but easy. The answer ‘it is my story and I’m sticking to it’ speaks to this difficulty. It suggests two things simultaneously. First: my story is an unchangeable story, and second, my story may well be wrong but I will never abandon it so long as it is mine. There is honor simply in clinging to the ‘mine -ness’ of it; better to propagate a false illusion one can call one’s own than rent out a truth beloning to someone else.
No, I never loved you Walter — not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart. I used you, just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me. Until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot.
Is she kidding? Walter thinks so: “Sorry, baby. I’m not buying.” The puzzle of Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” the enigma that keeps it new, is what these two people really think of one another. They strut through the routine of a noir murder plot, with the tough talk and the cold sex play. But they never seem to really like each other all that much, and they don’t seem that crazy about the money, either. What are they after?
Walter (Fred MacMurray) is Walter Neff (“two f’s–like in Philadelphia”). He’s an insurance salesman, successful but bored. The woman is Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a lazy blond who met her current husband by nursing his wife–to death, according to her stepdaughter. Neff pays a call one day to renew her husband’s automobile insurance. He’s not at home, but she is, wrapped in a towel and standing at the top of a staircase. “I wanted to see her again,” Neff tells us. “Close, and without that silly staircase between us.”
The story was written in the 1930s by James M. Cain, the hard-boiled author of The Postman Always Rings Twice.A screenplay kicked around Hollywood, but the Hays Office nixed it for “hardening audience attitudes toward crime.” By 1944, Wilder thought he could film it. Cain wasn’t available, so he hired Raymond Chandler to do the screenplay. Chandler, whose novel The Big Sleep Wilder loved, turned up drunk, smoked a smelly pipe, didn’t know anything about screenplay construction, but could put a nasty spin on dialogue.
Together they eliminated Cain’s complicated end-game and deepened the relationship between Neff and Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the claims manager at the insurance company. They told the movie in flashback, narrated by Neff, who arrives at his office late at night, dripping blood, and recites into a Dictaphone. The voice-over worked so well that Wilder used it again in “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), which was narrated by a character who is already dead the first time he speaks. No problem; “Double Indemnity” originally ended with Neff in the gas chamber, but that scene was cut because an earlier one turned out to be the perfect way to close the film.
To describe the story is to miss the nuances that make it tantalizing. Phyllis wants Walter to sell her husband a $50,000 double indemnity policy, and then arrange the husband’s “accidental” death. Walter is willing, ostensibly because he’s fallen under her sexual spell. They perform a clever substitution. The husband, on crutches with a broken leg, is choked to death before a train ride. Taking his place, Neff gets on the train and jumps off. They leave the husband’s body on the tracks. Perfect. But later that night, going to the drugstore to establish an alibi, Neff remembers, “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
A clever crime. But why did they do it? Phyllis was bored and her husband had lost a lot of money in the oil business, so she had a motive. But it’s as if the idea of murder materialized only because Neff did — right there in her living room, talking about insurance. On their third meeting, after a lot of aggressive wordplay, they agree to kill the husband and collect the money. I guess they also make love; in 1944 movies you can’t be sure, but if they do, it’s only the once.
Why? Is Neff blinded by lust and greed? That’s the traditional reading of the film: weak man, strong woman. But he’s aloof, cold, hard, terse. He always calls her “baby,” as if she’s a brand, not a woman. His eyes are guarded and his posture reserved. He’s not moonstruck. And Phyllis? Cold, too. But later in the film she says she cares more about “them” than about the money. We can believe the husband died for money if they both seem driven by greed, but they’re not. We can believe he died because of their passion, but it seems more like a pretense, and fades away after the murder.
Standing back from the film and what it expects us to think, I see them engaged not in romance or theft, but in behavior. They’re intoxicated by their personal styles. Styles learned in the movies, and from radio and the detective magazines. It’s as if they were invented by Ben Hecht through his crime dialogue. Walter and Phyllis are pulp characters with little psychological depth, and that’s the way Billy Wilder wants it. His best films are sardonic comedies, and in this one, Phyllis and Walter play a bad joke on themselves.
More genuine emotion is centered elsewhere. It involves Neff’s fear of discovery, and his feelings for Keyes. Edward G. Robinson plays the inspector as a nonconformist who loosens his tie, reclines on the office couch, smokes cheap cigars, and wants to make Neff his assistant. He’s a father figure, or more. He’s also smart, and eventually he figures out that a crime was committed — and exactly how it was committed. His investigation leads to two scenes of queasy tension. One is when Keyes invites Neff to his office, and then calls in a witness who saw Neff on the train. Another is when Keyes calls unexpectedly at Neff’s apartment, when Neff expects Phyllis to arrive momentarily — and incriminatingly.
Does Keyes suspect Neff? You can’t really say. He arranges situations in which Neff’s guilt might be discovered, but they’re part of his routine techniques; perhaps only his subconscious, “the little man who lives in my stomach,” suspects Neff.
The end of the film is curious (it’s the beginning, too, so I’m not giving it away). Why does the wounded Neff go to the office and dictate a confession if he still presumably hopes to escape? Because he wants to be discovered by Keyes? Neff tells him, “You know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell you. Because the guy you were looking for was too close — right across the desk from you.” Keyes says, “Closer than that, Walter,” and then Neff says, “I love you, too.” Neff has been lighting Keyes’ smokes all during the movie, and now Keyes lights Neff’s. You see why a gas chamber would have been superfluous.
Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” was one of the earlier films noir. The photography by John Seitz helped develop the noir style of sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely Edward Hopper settings. It’s the right fit for the hard urban atmosphere and dialogue created by Cain, Chandler, and the other writers Edmund Wilson called “the boys in the back room.”
“Double Indemnity” has one of the most familiar noir themes: The hero is not a criminal, but a weak man who is tempted and succumbs. In this “double” story, the woman and man tempt one another; neither would have acted alone. Both are attracted not so much by the crime as by the thrill of committing it with the other person. Love and money are pretenses. The husband’s death turns out to be their one-night stand.
Wilder, born in Austria in 1906, who arrived in America in 1933 and is still a Hollywood landmark, has an angle on stories like this. He doesn’t go for the obvious arc. He isn’t interested in the same things the characters are interested in. He wants to know what happens to them after they do what they think is so important. He doesn’t want truth, but consequences.
Few other directors have made so many films that were so taut, savvy, cynical and, in many different ways and tones, funny. After a start as a screenwriter, his directorial credits include “The Lost Weekend,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Stalag 17,” “Sabrina,” “The Seven Year Itch,” “Witness for the Prosecution,” “Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment” and “The Fortune Cookie.” I don’t like lists but I can’t stop typing. “Double Indemnity” was his third film as a director. That early in his career, he was already cocky enough to begin a thriller with the lines, “I killed him for money — and for a woman. I didn’t get the money. And I didn’t get the woman.” And end it with the hero saying “I love you, too” to Edward G. Robinson.
The Private Voice
Is your private voice yours? Are you sure about that? To help determine this, and whether your private voice is working for or against you, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- What is the general tone of your inner voice? Harsh, bitter and critical? Or supportive, kind and encouraging?
- Estimate how much of the time your inner voice is a constructive force in your life, and how much a destructive one. To what extent does it instill you with confidence and hope? To what extent does it terrorize you with stories of inadequacy, incompetence and regret?
- Ever feel that your inner voice is not really you speaking? If it does not feel like you, whose voice might it be? Consider both content and tone.
- To help you achieve real happiness and to leave the legacy you desire for those you care about most, what changes would you make in the content and tone of your private voice?
- To what extent is your private voice aligned with your ultimate mission in life? What seems to be the driving force behind your private voice? Where is it taking you?
The stories we tell and hear embed themselves more deeply in our subconsciousness the more they are repeated.
In the end though, it is only the one voice that truly matters. Because your inner voice is telling you your story all the time, you are rarely even conscious that you have been telling a story. Indeed it is hard to imagine what it would feel like if suddenly you stopped telling yourself your story, or even just changed this one.
The Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash Jr. – “A Beautiful Mind,” the story of a man who is one of the greatest mathematicians, and a victim of schizophrenia. Nash’s discoveries in game theory have an impact on our lives every day. He also believed for a time that Russians were sending him coded messages on the front page of the New York Times.
“A Beautiful Mind” stars Russell Crowe as Nash, and Jennifer Connelly as his wife, Alicia, who is pregnant with their child when the first symptoms of his disease become apparent. It tells the story of a man whose mind was of enormous service to humanity while at the same time betrayed him with frightening delusions. Crowe brings the character to life by sidestepping sensationalism and building with small behavioral details. He shows a man who descends into madness and then, unexpectedly, regains the ability to function in the academic world. Nash has been compared to Newton, Mendel and Darwin, but was also for many years just a man muttering to himself in the corner.
Director Ron Howard is able to suggest a core of goodness in Nash that inspired his wife and others to stand by him, to keep hope and, in her words in his darkest hour, “to believe that something extraordinary is possible.” The movie’s Nash begins as a quiet but cocky young man with a West Virginia accent, who gradually turns into a tortured, secretive paranoid who believes he is a spy being trailed by government agents. Crowe, who has an uncanny ability to modify his look to fit a role, always seems convincing as a man who ages 47 years during the film.
The early Nash, seen at Princeton in the late 1940s, calmly tells a scholarship winner “there is not a single seminal idea on either of your papers.” When he loses at a game of Go, he explains: “I had the first move. My play was perfect. The game is flawed.” He is aware of his impact on others (“I don’t much like people and they don’t much like me”) and recalls that his first-grade teacher said he was “born with two helpings of brain and a half-helping of heart.” It is Alicia who helps him find the heart. She is a graduate student when they meet, is attracted to his genius, is touched by his loneliness, is able to accept his idea of courtship when he informs her, “Ritual requires we proceed with a number of platonic activities before we have sex.” To the degree that he can be touched, she touches him, although often he seems trapped inside himself; Sylvia Nasar, who wrote the 1998 biography that informs Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay, begins her book by quoting Wordsworth about “a man forever voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.” Nash’s schizophrenia takes a literal, visual form. He believes he is being pursued by a federal agent (Ed Harris), and imagines himself in chase scenes that seem inspired by 1940s crime movies. He begins to find patterns where no patterns exist. One night he and Alicia stand under the sky and he asks her to name any object, and then connects stars to draw it. Romantic, but it’s not so romantic when she discovers his office thickly papered with countless bits torn from newspapers and magazines and connected by frantic lines into imaginary patterns.
The movie traces his treatment by an understanding psychiatrist (Christopher Plummer), and his agonizing courses of insulin shock therapy. Medication helps him improve somewhat–but only, of course, when he takes the medication. Eventually newer drugs are more effective, and he begins a tentative re-entry into the academic world at Princeton.
The movie fascinated me about the life of this man, and I sought more information, finding that for many years he was a recluse, wandering the campus, talking to no one, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, paging through piles of newspapers and magazines. And then one day he paid a quite ordinary compliment to a colleague about his daughter, and it was noticed that Nash seemed better.
There is a remarkable scene in the movie when a representative for the Nobel committee (Austin Pendleton) comes visiting, and hints that he is being “considered” for the prize. Nash observes that people are usually informed they have won, not that they are being considered: “You came here to find out if I am crazy and would screw everything up if I won.” He did win, and did not screw everything up.
The movies have a way of pushing mental illness into corners. It is grotesque, sensational, cute, funny, willful, tragic or perverse. Here it is simply a disease, which renders life almost but not quite impossible for Nash and his wife, before he becomes one of the lucky ones to pull out of the downward spiral.
When he won the Nobel, Nash was asked to write about his life, and he was honest enough to say his recovery is “not entirely a matter of joy.” He observes: “Without his ‘madness,’ Zarathustra would necessarily have been only another of the millions or billions of human individuals who have lived and then been forgotten.” Without his madness, would Nash have also lived and then been forgotten? Did his ability to penetrate the most difficult reaches of mathematical thought somehow come with a price attached? The movie does not know and cannot say.
A Quest is Never Forgettable
As its very name suggests, a movie’s primary intention is to move the audience emotionally. Story is the vehicle through which the movement occurs. Story is what stirs us, terrifies us, breaks our heart. A boring story fails because it doesn’t move us, doesn’t tap our capacity for empathy. Think of the very best stories you’ve ever seen or read or heard, and you remember the depth of your feeling for one or more of the characters.
That’s what happens when we craft your new stories. These stories, finally, move their authors – and others, too – the way great movies do. We feel the potential for heroism in what the author/main character aspires to. If you’re seriously going to write a story powerful enough to get you to do great things, then you’ve got to create a quest and a story so compelling that you are moved to make those corrections in your life, and make them for good.
The only way a story can achieve that level of transformative power is when it supports an unassailable quest.
If I asked you what your quest was, how would you know you had got it right? First and last, does it move you? Really, really move you? Some quests are so obviously faulty that the individual can smoke it out by himself or herself. But other quests sound very, very good, so neat, so on message – and yet they’re not quite THE quest. That is why finding one’s true quest is an exercise that requires real commitment and the courage to be honest with oneself.
An ultimate quest is never small. It is never minor. it can’t be, by definition. It is grand, heroic, epic. You never put your life on the line for something not fully aligned with your Ultimate Quest.
What a bold, mad act of genius it was, to make “Lawrence of Arabia,” or even think that it could be made. In the words years later of one of its stars, Omar Sharif: “If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film that’s four hours long, with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert–what would you say?”
The impulse to make this movie was based, above all, on imagination. The story of “Lawrence” is not founded on violent battle scenes or cheap melodrama, but on David Lean’s ability to imagine what it would look like to see a speck appear on the horizon of the desert, and slowly grow into a human being. He had to know how that would feel before he could convince himself that the project had a chance of being successful.
There is a moment in the film when the hero, the British eccentric soldier and author T.E. Lawrence, has survived a suicidal trek across the desert and is within reach of shelter and water–and he turns around and goes back, to find a friend who has fallen behind. This sequence builds up to the shot in which the shimmering heat of the desert reluctantly yields the speck that becomes a man–a shot that is held for a long time before we can even begin to see the tiny figure. On television, this shot doesn’t work at all–nothing can be seen. In a movie theater, looking at the stark clarity of a 70mm print, we lean forward and strain to bring a detail out of the waves of heat, and for a moment we experience some of the actual vastness of the desert, and its unforgiving harshness.
By being able to imagine that sequence, Lean was able to imagine why the movie would work. “Lawrence of Arabia” is not a simple biography or an adventure movie–although it contains both elements–but a movie that uses the desert as a stage for the flamboyance of a driven, quirky man. Although it is true that Lawrence was instrumental in enlisting the desert tribes on the British side in the 1914-17 campaign against the Turks, the movie suggests that he acted less out of patriotism than out of a need to reject conventional British society, choosing to identify with the wildness and theatricality of the Arabs. There was also a sexual component, involving his masochism.
T.E. Lawrence must be the strangest hero ever to stand at the center of an epic. To play him, Lean cast one of the strangest of actors, Peter O’Toole, a lanky, almost clumsy man with a beautiful sculptured face and a speaking manner that hesitates between amusement and insolence. O’Toole’s assignment was a delicate one. Although it was widely believed that Lawrence was a homosexual, a multi million-dollar epic filmed in 1962 could not be frank about that. And yet Lean and his writer, Robert Bolt, didn’t simply cave in and rewrite Lawrence into a routine action hero. Everything is here for those willing to look for it.
Using O’Toole’s peculiar speech and manner as their instrument, they created a character who combined charisma and craziness, who was so different from conventional military heroes that he could inspire the Arabs to follow him in a mad march across the desert. There is a moment in the movie when O’Toole, dressed in the flowing white robes of a desert sheik, does a victory dance on top of a captured Turkish train, and he almost seems to be posing for fashion photos. This is a curious scene because it seems to flaunt gay stereotypes, and yet none of the other characters in the movie seem to notice–nor do they take much notice of the two young desert urchins that Lawrence takes under his protection.
What Lean, Bolt and O’Toole create is a sexually and socially unconventional man who is simply presented as what he is, without labels or comment. Could such a man rally the splintered desert tribes and win a war against the Turks? Lawrence did. But he did it partially with mirrors, the movie suggests; one of the key characters is an American journalist (Arthur Kennedy), obviously inspired by Lowell Thomas, who single-handedly laundered and retailed the Lawrence myth to the English-language press. The journalist admits he is looking for a hero to write about. Lawrence is happy to play the role. And only role-playing would have done the job; an ordinary military hero would have been too small for this canvas.
For a movie that runs 216 minutes, plus intermission, “Lawrence of Arabia” is not dense with plot details. It is a spare movie in clean, uncluttered lines, and there is never a moment when we’re in doubt about the logistical details of the various campaigns. Law-rence is able to unite various desert factions, the movie argues, because (1) he is so obviously an outsider that he cannot even understand, let alone take sides with, the various ancient rivalries; and (2) because he is able to show the Arabs that it is in their own self-interest to join the war against the Turks. Along the way he makes allies of such desert leaders as Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) and Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), both by winning their respect and by appealing to their logic. The dialogue in these scenes is not complex, and sometimes Bolt makes it so spare it sounds like poetry.
I’ve noticed that when people remember “Lawrence of Arabia,” they don’t talk about the details of the plot. They get a certain look in their eye, as if they are remembering the whole experience, and have never quite been able to put it into words. Although it seems to be a traditional narrative film–like “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” which Lean made just before it, or “Doctor Zhivago,” which he made just after–it actually has more in common with such essentially visual epics as Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky.” It is spectacle and experience, and its ideas are about things you can see or feel, not things you can say. Much of its appeal is based on the fact that it does not contain a complex story with a lot of dialogue; we remember the quiet, empty passages, the sun rising across the desert, the intricate lines traced by the wind in the sand.
Although it won the Academy Award as the year’s best picture in 1962, “Lawrence of Arabia” might have been lost if it hadn’t been for the film restorers Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten. They discovered the original negative in Columbia’s vaults, inside crushed and rusting film cans, and also about 35 minutes of footage that had been trimmed by distributors from Lean’s final cut. They put it together again, sometimes by one crumbling frame at a time (Harris sent me one of the smashed cans as a demonstration of Hollywood’s carelessness with its heritage).
To see it in a movie theater is to appreciate the subtlety of F.A. (Freddie) Young’s desert cinematography–achieved despite blinding heat, and the blowing sand, which worked its way into every camera. “Lawrence of Arabia” was one of the last films to actually be photographed in 70mm (as opposed to being blown up to 70 from a 35mm negative). There was a hunger within filmmakers like Lean (and Kubrick, Coppola, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa and Stone) to break through the boundaries, to dare a big idea and have the effrontery to impose it on timid studio executives. The word “epic” in recent years has become synonymous with “big budget B picture.” What you realize watching “Lawrence of Arabia” is that the word “epic” refers not to the cost or the elaborate production, but to the size of the ideas and vision. Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” didn’t cost as much as the catering in “Pearl Harbor,” but it is an epic, and “Pearl Harbor” is not.
As for “Lawrence,” you can view it on your iphone and get an idea of its story and a hint of its majesty, but to get the feeling of Lean’s masterpiece you need to somehow, somewhere, see it in 70mm on a big screen. This experience is on the short list of things that must be done during the lifetime of every lover of film.
They Lived Happily Ever After?
If all you had to give was your total energy, you could accomplish historic things.
What gets you to focus with the highest level of commitment, of reverence for the moment? Is there something or someone in your life so sacred that nothing and no one – not ringing phones, not errands, not games in progress, not thoughts always running through your head, not money or business concerns, not insignificant noises or images whizzing by – could possibly break your concentration?
When I write about the Hero’s Journey or talk about the Hero’s Journey somewhere in the world as a travel guide, I mean listening, seeing and feeling with full force, experiencing with full force. Yet that is a kind of focus we so rarely give to things now. Why is that? What is the story we tell ourselves that prevents this from happening? Is our lack of full engagement just a stage in our life that will pass someday? Or has it always been like this? Is our story that multitasking is necessary as never before? Hey, time is money. Time is shipping away. We are not getting any younger. Anyway, is our somewhat dilluted attention really all that big a deal. Are we really losing that much by nog engaging fully?
Absolutely. Because it is not about time. It never was and never is.
It is about passion.
Every year I see entrepreneurs buy into this story – that it is about passion, not time – in the hope that it will increase performance, productivity and happiness.
Here is the dirty secret, though: The difference in depth between full engagement and multi- tasking is not incremental. It is binary. Either you are fully engaged. Or you are not. It is really that simple, yet we tell ourselves it is otherwise to keep the painful truth at bay. If a tennis pro preparing to return a 140-mph serve has two thoughts going and one of them does not have to do with returning that serve, do you know what his chances are of returning it well? I do. ZERO. Not 10%, not 5%. The same goes for writing a great story, hitting a golf ball, or doing push – ups the right way or enjoying a glass of wine, or reading a good book.
A distracted hero or heroine will not produce anything of real worth. An entrepreneur with scattered thoughts will not come up with new solutions superior to the competition’s. Indeed, multi-taskers are fortunate even to rise to a modicum of competence. Can’t you always tell when you are on the phone with someone who is simultaneously watching TV or answering e-mail? Does your interaction with that person ever come within a thousand miles of what you would call a satisfying conversation?
Multi-tasking is the enemy of extra-ordinariness. Human beings can focus fully on only one thing at a time. When entrepreneurs multi task, they are not fully engaged in anything, and partially disengaged in everything. The potential for profoundly positive impact is compromised. Multi – tasking would be okay – is okay – at certain times – but very few people seem to know when that time is. If you must, then multi task when it does not matter. Fully engage when it does.
What is remarkable about “It’s a Wonderful Life” is how well it holds up over the years; it’s one of those ageless movies, like “Casablanca” or “The Third Man,” that improves with age. Some movies, even good ones, should only be seen once. When we know how they turn out, they’ve surrendered their mystery and appeal. Other movies can be viewed an indefinite number of times. Like great music, they improve with familiarity. “It’s a Wonderful Life” falls in the second category.
I looked at the movie once again recently, on the splendid video laserdisk edition from the Criterion Collection. The movie works like a strong and fundamental fable, sort of a “Christmas Carol” in reverse: Instead of a mean old man being shown scenes of happiness, we have a hero who plunges into despair.
The hero, of course, is George Bailey (Stewart), a man who never quite makes it out of his quiet birthplace of Bedford Falls. As a young man he dreams of shaking the dust from his shoes and traveling to far-off lands, but one thing and then another keeps him at home — especially his responsibility to the family savings and loan association, which is the only thing standing between Bedford Falls and the greed of Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the avaricious local banker.
George marries his high school sweetheart (Donna Reed, in her first starring role), settles down to raise a family, and helps half the poor folks in town buy homes where they can raise their own. Then, when George’s absentminded uncle (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces some bank funds during the Christmas season, it looks as if the evil Potter will have his way after all. George loses hope and turns mean (even his face seems to darken, although it’s still nice and pink in the colorized version). He despairs, and is standing on a bridge contemplating suicide when an Angel 2nd Class named Clarence (Henry Travers) saves him and shows him what life in Bedford Falls would have been like without him.
Frank Capra never intended “It’s a Wonderful Life” to be pigeonholed as a “Christmas picture.” This was the first movie he made after returning from service in World War II, and he wanted it to be special–a celebration of the lives and dreams of America’s ordinary citizens, who tried the best they could to do the right thing by themselves and their neighbors. After becoming Hollywood’s poet of the common man in the 1930s with an extraordinary series of populist parables (“It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “You Can’t Take It With You”), Capra found the idea for “It’s a Wonderful Life” in a story by Philip Van Doren Stern that had been gathering dust on studio shelves.
For Stewart, also recently back in civilian clothes, the movie was a chance to work again with Capra, for whom he had played Mr. Smith. The original trailer for the movie (included on the Criterion disk) played up the love angle between Stewart and Donna Reed and played down the message–but the movie was not a box office hit, and was all but forgotten before the public domain prints began to make their rounds.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is not just a heart-warming “message picture.” The conclusion of the film makes such an impact that some of the earlier scenes may be overlooked–such as the slapstick comedy of the high school hop, where the dance floor opens over a swimming pool, and Stewart and Reed accidentally jitterbug right into the water. (This covered pool was not a set but actually existed at Hollywood High School). There’s also the drama of George rescuing his younger brother from a fall through the ice, and the scene where Donna Reed loses her bathrobe and Stewart ends up talking to the shrubbery. The telephone scene–where an angry Stewart and Reed find themselves helplessly drawn toward each other–is wonderfully romantically charged. And the darker later passages have an elemental power, as the drunken George Bailey staggers through a town he wants to hate, and then revisits it through the help of a gentle angel. Even the corniest scenes in the movie–those galaxies that wink while the heavens consult on George’s fate–work because they are so disarmingly simple. A more sophisticated approach might have seemed labored.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” did little for Frank Capra’s postwar career, and indeed he never regained the box office magic that he had during the 1930s. Such later films as “State of the Union” (1948) and “Pocketful of Miracles” (1961) have the Capra touch but not the magic, and the director did not make another feature after 1961. But he remained hale and hearty until a stroke slowed him in the late 1980s; and he died in 1991. At a seminar with some film students in the 1970s he was asked if there were still a way to make movies about the kinds of values and ideals found in the Capra films.
“Well, if there isn’t,” he said, “we might as well give up.”
The Three Rules of Storytelling
Purpose, truth, action.When writers really want to emphasize something, they put it in a one sentence paragraph. If they suspect even that is not emphasis enough, then they go to Plan B: break things up into still more melodramatic, one-word paragraphs.
All good storytelling coheres around those three ideas. They are the three criteria, taken together, by which we judge the workability and ultimate success of our story. With those three principles in your pocket, you can summon your best story to live. You are virtually guaranteed to keep your story vital, moving, productive, fulfilling.
Let us review them:
What is my ultimate purpose? What am I living for? What principle, what goal, what end? For my whole life, and every single day? Why do I do what I do? For what? What is the thing that would get me to be fully engaged, and to be sure and at peace that it is the right decision, the necessary one, the only one? What is the thing I am driving toward – or should be – with every action I take? Have I articulated to myself my deepest values and beliefs, which are the bedrock of who I am and which must be inextricably tied to my purpose (and vice versa)? Who do I want to be at the end? What legacy do I want to leave? What epitath about myself could ‘I live with’? When all is said is done, how do I want to be remembered? What is non- negotiable in my life? What do I believe must happen for me to have lived a successful life? Is my story taking me where I want to go? Is it “on – purpose”? Consistently? And why am I telling this story? What is the real motive? Is my purpose noble or ignoble?
Is the story I am telling true? Does it conform to known facts? Is it grounded in objective reality as fully as possible; that is, does it coincide with some generally agreed-upon portrayal of the world? Or is it true only if I’m living in a dreamland? Is it a lie I tell myself when I think, ‘This is the way the world is’ – my own, probably biased evaluation of things, one that is dubiously defensible, and which I repeat to myself because it provides false comfort for the way my life has turned out? Do I sidestep the parts of my story that are obviously untrue because they are just too painful to confront? Is my story I still believe when I really dig down, when I listen to my most candid, private voice, when I do my best to shut out other influences and hear instead what I genuinely think and feel? Which is the truer statement: My story is honest and authentic or My story is made up? Is my story closer to a documentary or a work of fantasy? What myths am I perpetuating that could potentially steal my fate in areas of my life that really matter?
A good story is premised on action … is it mine? With my purpose firmly in mind, along with a confidence about what is really true, what actions will I now take to make things better, so that my ultimate purpose and my day-to-day life are better aligned? What habits do I need to eliminate? What new ones do I need to breed? Is more of my life spent participating or observing? Are my actions filled with hope – hope that I will succeed, hope that the change I seek is realistically within my grasp? Or is my ‘action-taking’ really more accurately portrayed as ‘going through the motions’? Do I believe to my core that, in the end, my willingness to follow through with action will determine the success of my life? Do I believe that if I act with commitment and consistency I will end up where I want to be, where I have always felt I am capable of being? Does the story I tell myself move me to action? Does it inspire hope and determination in me? Am I confident that I can make any necessary course correction, no matter what stage of life I am in, no matter how many times I may have failed at it in the past? Do I proceed in the belief that I will never surrender in this effort because my happiness and success as a human being is what is at stake?
One must hold one’s story up as if against a three – part checklist: your story must have purpose (can you name it?), your story must be true (is it?), your story must lead to hope-filled action (does it?).
When a hero achieves a breakthrough, it is always – always – because he or she has come to a fundamental understanding of the interlocked nature of all three rules of storytelling. It is nog good enough to satisfy one or even two of the three rules and content yourself that your story has now improved; it will not leave you 33% better off or 67% better off. More likely, you may have fulfilled one or even two of the three rules but because all three rules are not followed, your story remains dysfunctional.
While one needs to understand deeply each of the three rules of storytelling, not all rules are created equally. Truth and action probably give people more trouble than purpose. For example, what about those people who have purpose nailed…. but not action? This is probably the most common of the permutations, and in some ways the most tragic. In this group you find the novelists who have yet to set pen to paper, lovers who are single and celibate, entrepreneurs who don’t know the first thing about how to attract customers.
Howard Hawks didn’t direct a film for four years after the failure of his “Land of the Pharaohs” in 1955. He thought maybe he had lost it. When he came back to work on “Rio Bravo” in 1958, he was 62 years old, would be working on his 41st film and was so nervous on the first day of shooting that he stood behind a set and vomited. Then he walked out and directed a masterpiece.
To watch “Rio Bravo” is to see a master craftsman at work. The film is seamless. There is not a shot that is wrong. It is uncommonly absorbing, and the 141-minute running time flows past like running water. It contains one of John Wayne’s best performances. It has surprisingly warm romantic chemistry between Wayne and Angie Dickinson. Dean Martin is touching. Ricky Nelson, then a rival of Elvis’ and with a pompadour that would have been laughed out of the Old West, improbably works in the role of a kid gunslinger. Old Walter Brennan, as the peg-legged deputy, provides comic support that never oversteps.
Wayne and the other men and the gambling lady inhabit a town that is populous and even crowded, but not a single citizen, except for an early victim, a friendly hotel owner and his wife and of course the villain, ever says a word to them. The shadows are filled with hired killers with $50 gold pieces in their pockets — “the price of a human life.” All that buys Wayne and his deputies a stay of execution is the prisoner they precariously hold as a hostage. In a film with suspenseful standoffs and looming peril, even a scene where Wayne and Martin walk down Main Street after nightfall is frightening.
The story situation was fashioned by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, two veterans who wrote Hawks’ great film “The Big Sleep” (1946). It centers on four men holed up inside a sheriff’s office: a seasoned lawman, a drunk, an old coot and a kid. This formula would prove so resilient that Hawks would remake it in “El Dorado” (1966), John Carpenter would remake it as “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976) and directors from Scorsese to Tarantino to Stone would directly reference it. It is a Western with all of the artifice of the genre, but the characters and their connections take on a curious reality; within this closed system, their relationships have a psychological plausibility
Wayne, as Sheriff John T. Chance, plays what he himself called “the John Wayne role.” He even wears the same hat, now battered and torn, that he had worn in Westerns ever since John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939). Yet here he calls upon the role and his own history to bring nuance and depth to the character. Grumpy old Ford, seeing Hawks’ “Red River,” said “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.”
Wayne is effective above all when he simply stands and regards people. “I don’t act, I react,” he liked to say, and here you see what he meant. His Chance doesn’t feel it necessary to impose himself, apart from the formidable fact of his presence. He never sweet-talks Feathers (Dickinson), indeed tends to be gruff toward her, but his eyes and body language speak for him. There is a moment when he is angered that she didn’t get on the stage out of town, stalks upstairs to her hotel room, barges through the door and then — in the reverse shot — sees her and transforms his whole demeanor. Can you say a man “softens” simply by the way he holds himself? With the most subtle of body movements, he unwinds into the faintest beginning of a courtly bow. You don’t see it. You feel it.
Dickinson was 27, looked younger, when she made the film — her first significant feature role after bit parts and TV. Wayne was 51. No matter. They fit together. They liked each other. They make this palpable without throwing themselves at each other. If you will go to chapter 21 of the DVD, you will see a romantic scene so sweet and unexpected, it may make you hold your breath. Dickinson absolutely holds the screen against the big man. Her carriage and deep, rich voice project a sense of who she is — not a saloon floozy but a competent professional gambler accustomed to sparring with men.
She was the type of woman Hawks liked, and returned to time and again: Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, indeed the future studio executive Sherry Lansing. He loved to use again what had worked for him earlier; when Dickinson asks Wayne to kiss her a second time, because “it’s even better when two people do it,” there’s an echo of Bacall in “To Have and Have Not,” telling Bogart, “It’s even better when you help.” Peter Bogdanovich notices this in a supplement on the DVD and praises the long opening sequence in “Rio Bravo,” which runs, he says, five minutes without dialogue. And no wonder: Hawks used the business of a coin thrown into a spittoon in the silent film “Underworld” (1927), for which he wrote the scenario. And where might Hawks have found inspiration for the scene where Wayne lifts Dickinson in his arms and carries her upstairs?
Much of the strength of the Chance character comes from the way he holds himself in reserve, not feeling the need to comment on everything. His delicate relationship with Dean Martin’s alcoholic character Dude involves a minimum of lectures and a lot of simply waiting to see what Dude will do. When Dude and old Stumpy (Brennan) get in a loud argument, Hawks holds Chance in center background, observing, not interfering. Chance is always the unspoken source of authority, the audience the others hope to impress.
The score by Dimitri Tiomkin evokes a frontier spirit when it wants to but also helps deepen the film, which rarely for a Western marks the passage of days with sunsets and sunrises, and makes the town streets seem lonely and exposed. There is also the introduction of a theme known to the Mexicans as “The Cutthroat Song,” which the villain Burdette (John Russell) orders the band to play. Chance reads it as a message: “No quarter taken.” The song haunts the film.
There is another use of music that some will question. In a lull in the action, the men relax inside the barricaded sheriff’s office, and Martin, resting on his back with his hat shielding his eyes, begins to sing about a cowboy’s loneliness. Nelson picks up his guitar and accompanies him. Then Ricky sings an uptempo song of his own, with Martin and even Brennan in harmony. Does this scene feel airlifted in? Maybe, but I wouldn’t do without it. Martin and Nelson were two of the most popular singers of the time, and the interlude functions well as an affectionate reprise for the men before the final showdown. Needless to say, Sheriff Chance doesn’t sing along.
The brave sheriff takes a stand against the outlaws who threaten a town. It is a familiar Western situation, which may remind you of “High Noon” (1952). In 1972, I interviewed Wayne on the set of his “Cahill, U.S. Marshal” in Durango, Mexico. “High Noon” came up, as it will when Westerns are being discussed.
“What a piece of you-know-what that was,” he told me. “I think it was popular because of the music. Think about it this way. Here’s a town full of people who have ridden in covered wagons all the way across the plains, fightin’ off Indians and drought and wild animals in order to settle down and make themselves a homestead. And then when three no-good bad guys walk into town and the marshal asks for a little help, everybody in town gets shy. If I’d been the marshal, I would have been so goddamned disgusted with those chicken-livered yellow sons of bitches that I would have just taken my wife and saddled up and rode out of there.”
They Lived Happily Ever After!
How do you live happily ever after?
I identify the three things I want to get finished that day – never more than three. At the end of my day I use my 10 – 6 – 1 scale to rate myself. Now I am giving myself 10’s all the time. I found that I actually got more accomplished more completed – and at a higher level – than when I was doing lots of things. I stopped multitasking at meetings and suddenly they became shorter, crisper. The effectiveness of conversations improved threefold. Plus, it has been more enjoyable.
Learning to invest your full and best energy in whatever you are doing at that moment in full engagement is what I call The Hero’s Journey. A story i have developed over more than two decades, which posits at its core that life is enriched, flow occurs, happiness is felt because of the commitment, passion, and focus we give it, not the time we give it. These fully – engaged – in the present moments – I call ‘Moments of Bliss’ – created me more ‘Moments of Bliss’ and ‘Days of Bliss’ in two weeks than I had in the five years before, or than I probably would have in the next five years had my life and business continued the way it was going.
One of the exciting discoveries I have made is the almost perfect correlation between engagement, on one hand, and happiness, on the other. Engagement is an acquired skill that allows us to be in the present; it is where people feel happiest. (The happiness we feel about an upcoming event is really not future-oriented, but rather present-oriented happiness in the anticipation). The more engaged we are in something, the more alive we tend to feel; the more alive we feel, the happier we feel. Becoming fully engaged in our hero’s journey that deeply matters brings a rich sense of meaning, depth and dimension to our lives. Disengagement as the opposite, tragic effect. It pulls us from the core of life – characterized by intensity, passion and meaning – to its boundaries, characterized by safety, protection and disassociation.
By being engaged we experience true happiness and joy in our lives. We ignite our talents and skills.
The switch from black and white to color would have had a special resonance in 1939, when the movie was made. Almost all films were still being made in black and white, and the cumbersome new color cameras came with a “Technicolor consultant” from the factory, who stood next to the cinematographer and officiously suggested higher light levels. Shooting in color might have been indicated because the film was MGM’s response to the huge success of Disney’s pioneering color animated feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937).
“The Wizard of Oz” fills such a large space in our imagination. It somehow seems real and important in a way most movies don’t. Is that because we see it first when we’re young? Or simply because it is a wonderful movie? Or because it sounds some buried universal note, some archetype or deeply felt myth?
I lean toward the third possibility, that the elements in “The Wizard of Oz” powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children. For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together.
This deep universal appeal explains why so many different people from many backgrounds have a compartment of their memory reserved for “The Wizard of Oz.” Salman Rushdie, growing up in Bombay, remembers that seeing the film at 10 “made a writer of me.” Terry McMillan, as an African-American child in northern Michigan, “completely identified when no one had time to listen to Dorothy.” Rushdie wrote that the film’s “driving force is the inadequacy of adults, even of good adults, and how the weakness of grownups forces children to take control of their own destinies.” McMillan learned about courage, about “being afraid but doing whatever it was you set out to do anyway.
They’re touching on the key lesson of childhood, which is that someday the child will not be a child, that home will no longer exist, that adults will be no help because now the child is an adult and must face the challenges of life alone. But that you can ask friends to help you. And that even the Wizard of Oz is only human, and has problems of his own.
“The Wizard of Oz” has a wonderful surface of comedy and music, special effects and excitement, but we still watch it six decades later because its underlying story penetrates straight to the deepest insecurities of childhood, stirs them and then reassures them. As adults, we love it because it reminds us of a journey we have taken. That is why any adult in control of a child is sooner or later going to suggest a viewing of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Judy Garland had, I gather, an unhappy childhood (there are those stories about MGM quacks shooting her full of speed in the morning and tranquilizers at day’s end), but she was a luminous performer, already almost17 when she played young Dorothy. She was important to the movie because she projected vulnerability and a certain sadness in every tone of her voice. A brassy young child star would have been fatal to the material because she would have approached it with too much bravado. Garland’s whole persona projected a tremulous uncertainty, a wistfulness. When she hoped that troubles would melt like lemon drops, you believed she had troubles.
Her friends on the Yellow Brick Road (the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion) were projections of every child’s secret fears. Are we real? Are we ugly and silly? Are we brave enough? In helping them, Dorothy was helping herself, just as an older child will overcome fears by acting brave before a younger one.
The actors (Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr) had all come up through a tradition of vaudeville and revue comedy, and played the characters with a sublime unself-consciousness. Maybe it helped that none of them knew they were making a great movie. They seem relaxed and loose in many scenes, as if the roles were a lark. L. Frank Baum’s book had been filmed before (Oliver Hardy played the Tin Man in 1925), and this version, while ambitious, was overshadowed by the studio’s simultaneous preparation of “Gone With the Wind.” Garland was already a star when she made “Wizard,” but not a great star–that came in the 1940s, inspired by “Wizard.”
The special effects are glorious in that old Hollywood way, in which you don’t even have to look closely to see where the set ends and the backdrop begins. Modern special effects show *exactly* how imaginary scenes might look; effects then showed how we *thought* about them. A bigger Yellow Brick Road would not have been a better one.
The movie’s storytelling device of a dream is just precisely obvious enough to appeal to younger viewers. Dorothy, faced with a crisis (the loss of Toto), meets the intriguing Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) on the road. She is befriended by three farm hands (Bolger, Haley and Lahr). Soon comes the fearsome tornado. (What frightened me was that you could see individual things floating by–for months I dreamed circling around and around while seated at the little desk in my bedroom, looking at classmates being swept mutely past me.) Then, after the magical transition to color, Dorothy meets the same characters again, so we know it’s all a dream, but not really.
There are good and bad adult figures in Oz–the Wicked Witches of the East and West, the Good Witch Glinda. Dorothy would like help from her friends but needs to help them instead (“If I Only Had a Brain,” or a heart, or nerve, they sing). Arriving at last at the Emerald City, they have another dreamlike experience; almost everyone they meet seems vaguely similar (because they’re all played by Morgan). The Wizard sends them on a mission to get the Wicked Witch’s broom, and it is not insignificant that the key to Dorothy’s return to Kansas is the pair of ruby slippers. Grownup shoes.
In the ending Dorothy is back in Kansas, but the color has drained from the film, and her magical friends are mundane once again. “The land of Oz wasn’t such a bad place to be stuck in,” decided young Terry McMillan, discontented with her life in Michigan. “It beat the farm in Kansas.”
Do You Have The Resources to Live Your Best Life Now?
Without proper exercise, nutrition and rest, the body slowly begins to break. You are operating at a perpetual deficit. You are always exhausted. You are seriously disengaged. Your body is now in survival mode. Your stories change. To rationalize how and why this happened requires that, at some fork in the road, smart people must become suddenly stupid; pragmatics, illogical; straight shooters. There are other, totally defensible stories that bring us to this overtaxed point of course – lots of responsibility, good intentions, aging, ambition, sudden change in circumstance – but they are almost never the whole of the story.
You tell yourself things you cannot possibly believe. In an impoverished physical condition, how can you hope to live a good story? How can you hope to have the energy even to figure out what that story is?
Our physical state influences the stories we tell
Do you think the story you tell changes if one or more of the following conditions is true?
- You are tired or fatigued
- You have low blood sugar
- You have a headache
- You are ill
- You are in pain
Of course it does! When your physical story changes as by a sudden drop in blood sugar – then your whole story changes.
Many of us know that losing weight on a traditional diet is terribly difficult. One reason for this is that the story most people are telling themselves – lose weight and look better – is frankly not exactly a narrative for the ages. As a life goal for far too many people the objective of losing twenty or forty or even one hundred pounds simply to look better is just not compelling enough. Many who fail at losing weight that way have lost it when their motivation changes to something more urgent, powerful and transcendent – lose weight to be around for your grandchildren; lose weight so you will not be wheel-chair bound the last portion of your life; lose weight to improve your changes of making great journeys in world cities :). By finding motivation from a higher, passionate source or mission, you can affect your physical energy too.
The body we start out with is capable of wonderful things. But if we wish to achieve something truly extraordinary in our lives – be it athletic, intellectual, social, artistic, professional – we must build on this ‘standard – edition’ body and invest it with extraordinary energy.
“The Big Lebowski” is about an attitude, not a story. It’s easy to miss that, because the story is so urgently pursued. It involves kidnapping, ransom money, a porno king, a reclusive millionaire, a runaway girl, the Malibu police, a woman who paints while nude and strapped to an overhead harness, and the last act of the disagreement between Vietnam veterans and Flower Power. It has more scenes about bowling than anything else.
This is a plot and dialogue that perhaps only the Coen Brothers could have devised. I’m thinking less of their clarity in “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men” than of the almost hallucinatory logic of “Raising Arizona” and “The Hudsucker Proxy.” Only a steady hand in the midst of madness allows them to hold it all together–that, and the delirious richness of their visual approach.
Anyone who cares about movies must surely have heard something about the plot. This is a movie that has inspired an annual convention and the Church of the Latter-Day Dude. Its star, Jeff Bridges, has become so identified with the starring role that when he won the 2010 Oscar for Best Actor, Twitterland mourned that his acceptance speech didn’t begin with, “The Dude Abides.” These words are so emblematic that they inspired a book title, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, by Cathleen Falsani. This is a serious book, though far from a dreary theological work.
The Dude is Jeff Lebowski, an unemployed layabout whose days are spent sipping White Russians and nights are spent at the bowling alley. There is always a little pot available. He has a leonine mane of chestnut hair, a shaggy goatee, and a wardrobe of Bermuda shorts, rummage sale shirts, bathrobes and flip-flop,. He went to Woodstock and never left. He lives in what may be the last crummy run-down low-rent structure in Malibu. Trust the Dude to find it.
It is widely known that the Dude was inspired by a real man named Jeff Dowd, a freelance publicist who was instrumental in launching “Blood Simple” (1984), the first film in the Coen canon. I have long known Jeff Dowd. I can easily see how he might have inspired the Dude. He is as tall, as shaggy and sometimes as mood-altered as Jeff Lebowski, although much more motivated. He remembers names better than a politician, is crafty in his strategies, and burns with a fiery zeal on behalf of those films he consents to represent.
In the film, Jeff Lebowski tells the millionaire’s daughter (Julianne Moore) that in his youth he helped draft the Port Huron Statement that founded Students for a Democratic Society, and was a member of the Seattle Seven. In real life Jeff Dowd was indeed one of the Seattle Seven, and remains so militant that at Sundance 2009 he took a punch the jaw for insisting too fervently that a critic see “Dirt,” an ecological documentary Dowd believed was essential to the survival of the planet. True to his credo of nonviolence, the Dude did not punch back.
In “The Big Lebowski,” our hero has left politics far behind, and exists primarily to keep a buzz on, and bowl. He is never actually drunk in the movie, and always far from sober. His bowling partners are Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi). Walter, even taller than the Dude, is a proud Vietnam veteran and the strategist of the three. He and the Dude never mention politics. Donny is their meek sidekick, always a step behind the big guys. He says perhaps three complete sentences in the film, all brief, and is often interrupted by Walter telling him to shut the f— up. He is happy to exist on the fringes of their glory.
Details of the plot need not concern us. It involves a mean-tempered millionaire in a wheelchair who is the Big Lebowski (the Dude becomes, by logic, the Little Lebowski). He broods before the fire in a vast paneled library, reminding me of no one so much as Major Amberson in “The Magnificent Ambersons.” His trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) appears to have been kidnapped. This leads indirectly to the Dude being savagely beaten by hit men who mistake him for the Big Lebowski. Well, how many Jeff Lebowskis can there be in Malibu? One of them urinates on The Dude’s rug, which he valued highly (“it pulled the room together”), and the whole movie can be loosely described as being about the Dude’s attempts to get payback for his rug.
The inspiration for the supporting characters can perhaps be found in the novels of Raymond Chandler. The Southern California setting, the millionaire, the kidnapped wife, the bohemian daughter, the enforcers, the cops who know the hero by name, can all be found in Chandler. The Dude is in a sense Philip Marlowe — not in his energy or focus, but in the code he lives by. Down these mean streets walks a man who won’t allow his rug to be pissed on. “That will not stand,” he says, perhaps unconsciously quoting George H.W. Bush about Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. The Dude does not lie, steal or cheat. He does swear. He wants what is right. With the earliest flags of the republic, he insists, “Don’t tread on me.”
The Coens have always had a remarkable visual style, tending toward overwhelming architectural detail — long corridors, odd interior decoration, forced perspectives, lonely vistas, lurid cityscapes. Even in ostensibly realistic settings, such as the suburbs of “A Serious Man” (2009), they like to insist beyond the point of realism. Their suburb is the distillation of Suburbhood. In “The Big Lebowski,” their anchor location is the bowling alley, their dominant colors what might be described as Brunswick Orange and turquoise. The alley is strangely underpopulated, its lanes vertiginous in length. There is one POV shot from within a rolling bowling ball. When Jeff hallucinates or is unconscious, he inhabits bizarre fantasy worlds.
One of their fellow bowlers is Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), a man who has converted himself into an artwork in his own honor. Another trio of supporting characters, the Nihilists, is led by Peter Stormare (who played the man feeding the body of Buscemi into the wood chipper in “Fargo”). A considerable role is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Brandt, the worshipful assistant to the Big Lebowski. Some of its fans have seen this movie dozens of times. I suppose they’ve already observed that that Hoffman and David Huddleston, who plays the Big Lebowski, bear a strong family resemblance. Someone knowing nothing about the film could be excused for suspecting that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays both characters, the older man with skillful makeup effects. A coincidence? I would not for one moment put it beyond the Coens, Ethan and Joel, to encourage this misapprehension. I suspect they cast Huddleston for the physical resemblance.
The film is all about Jeff Lebowski’s equanimity in the face of vicissitudes. He is pounded, water-boarded, lied to and insulted. His rug is pissed on and his car set aflame. He is seduced by a woman who wants only his seed. He has a fortune dangled before his eyes, only to have it replaced by telephone books and used boxer shorts. To heal and keep himself whole he stirs himself another White Russian, has a toke, sits in a warm bath. Like the Buddha, he focuses on the big picture.
The film is narrated by The Stranger (Sam Elliott, never more gloriously mustached). It is he who observes at the end that the Dude Abides, and says he hears there is a little Lebowski on the way. The Dude however is denied matrimony, and indeed seems to have no women at all in his life, except by lucky chance. Does this depress him? Is he concerned about being chronically unemployed? No. If a man has a roof over his head, fresh half-and-half for his White Russians, a little weed and his bowling buddies, what more, really, does he need?
Only 5 % or less of the mind should be classified as the ‘conscious story’ – controlled by self – regulatory, willful acts – while an astonishing 95% is non-conscious, automatic, instinctive.Residing in your subconscious is most of the hidden matter that influences our stories – all the instinctual urges coded in genes (governing autonomic responses like fight-or-flight, for example), all the conditioning that took place during childhood, all the indoctrination that has occurred since the first day of life. All the conflicts and challenges beneath the surface, waging a constant battle between our wants and needs.
It is this subconscious story that is hardest to retrieve and bring to the surface, to full awareness. Yet it is the mortar that goes a very long way in determining who we are and the shape our life story has taken.
Many people find it hard to accept that our lives are ruled by habitual stories rather than moment – to – moment acts of conscious stories. They don’t want to acknowledge that our stories might actually be so profoundly influenced by factors outside our normal state of awareness. After all, once we acknowledge the extent to which our behavior is governed by subconscious forces, how daunting is it to exercise full responsibility (whatever the means) for our life when but a paltry 5% of that life is really under control?
Rather than being troubled by the percentages, and the perception that they may give rise to, I see them as a glorious challenge. Forget that so much, percentage-wise, of what we do is out of control. The part that does matters – the part that makes the real difference – is the part that we control. It is this capacity that separates us from all other life forms. This evolutionary masterpiece is the only hope we have for making course corrections in our life story.
The evolution of the human species has, despite frequent missteps, moved progressively towards greater self awareness. The more self aware we are , the greater our capacity for conscious, deliberate storytelling, for creating new stories – the better able we are to change directions, to adapt, to survive and thrive. While consciousness may represent a mere 5% of our complete story, the influence this fraction exercises in the whole story of our life is far profounder than that.
It is our conscious 5% that allows us to make story corrections to the future, especially when the 95% has taken us off a desirable course. The conscious 5% is unquestionably the most important portion inside us. It is, in fact, what truly separates us from all other species. It is what creates the possibility for self – directed change.
The more aware we are of hidden needs, conflicts and past dilemma’s, the better chance we have of crafting stories that meet the three criteria of storytelling (purpose, truth, hope-filled action). Once a memory of an important event or happening can be brought into your conscious story you can start to explore how that past material might be affecting your current story.
Some people become clowns; others have clownhood thrust upon them. It is impossible to regard Roberto Benigni without imagining him as a boy in school, already a cutup, using humor to deflect criticism and confuse his enemies. He looks goofy and knows how he looks. I saw him once in a line at airport customs, subtly turning a roomful of tired and impatient travelers into an audience for a subtle pantomime in which he was the weariest and most put-upon. We had to smile.
“Life Is Beautiful” is the role he was born to play. The film falls into two parts. One is pure comedy. The other smiles through tears. Benigni, who also directed and co-wrote the movie, stars as Guido, a hotel waiter in Italy in the 1930s. Watching his adventures, we are reminded of Chaplin.
He arrives in town in a runaway car with failed brakes and is mistaken for a visiting dignitary. He falls in love instantly with the beautiful Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s real-life wife). He becomes the undeclared rival of her fiance, the Fascist town clerk. He makes friends with the German doctor (Horst Buchholz) who is a regular guest at the hotel and shares his love of riddles. And by the fantastic manipulation of carefully planned coincidences, he makes it appear that he is fated to replace the dour Fascist in Dora’s life.
All of this early material, the first long act of the movie, is comedy–much of it silent comedy involving the fate of a much-traveled hat. Only well into the movie do we even learn the crucial information that Guido is Jewish. Dora, a gentile, quickly comes to love him, and in one scene even conspires to meet him on the floor under a banquet table; they kiss, and she whispers, “Take me away!” In the town, Guido survives by quick improvisation. Mistaken for a school inspector, he invents a quick lecture on Italian racial superiority, demonstrating the excellence of his big ears and superb navel.
Several years pass, offscreen. Guido and Dora are married and dote on their 5-year-old son Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). In 1945, near the end of the war, the Jews in the town are rounded up by the Fascists and shipped by rail to a death camp. Guido and Joshua are loaded into a train, and Guido instinctively tries to turn it into a game to comfort his son. He makes a big show of being terrified that somehow they will miss the train and be left behind. Dora, not Jewish, would be spared by the Fascists, but insists on coming along to be with her husband and child.
In the camp, Guido constructs an elaborate fiction to comfort and protect his son. It is all an elaborate game, he explains. The first one to get 1,000 points will win a tank–not a toy tank but a real one, which Joshua can drive all over town. Guido acts as the translator for a German who is barking orders at the inmates, freely translating them into Italian designed to quiet his son’s fears. And he literally hides the child from the camp guards, with rules of the game that have the boy crouching on a high sleeping platform and remaining absolutely still.
The film finds the right notes to negotiate its delicate subject matter. And Benigni isn’t really making comedy out of the Holocaust, anyway. He is showing how Guido uses the only gift at his command to protect his son. If he had a gun, he would shoot at the Fascists. If he had an army, he would destroy them. He is a clown, and comedy is his weapon.
The movie actually softens the Holocaust slightly, to make the humor possible at all. In the real death camps there would be no role for Guido. But “Life Is Beautiful” is not about Nazis and Fascists, but about the human spirit. It is about rescuing whatever is good and hopeful from the wreckage of dreams. About hope for the future. About the necessary human conviction, or delusion, that things will be better for our children than they are right now.
The Story Effect
If our Hero’s Journey story is your ultimate life mission, then your Action Story are the actions you take to fulfill the aims set forth in your Hero’s Journey story. They are your concrete measurable evidence that you are acting on your story.
Inevitably, there are many changes you wish to make to turn your life into the story you want it to tell. It would be nice to think that all these changes could be made in one enthusiastic burst of self-transformation. But that does not happen. Pick a few changes and just make sure that each is:
- Important enough to you
- Realistically fixable
- Clearly defined
- Supportable by behavioral changes (rituals) that will do the trick
There is a training effect for stories. With each repetition of a story you tell yourself, that story travels your neural pathways more easily. Tell yourself that story again and again and again and soon enough pathways that were once unpaved roads, metaphorically speaking, have now become slick six – lane superhighways. Gradually repetition reinforces the primacy and value of that story – not to mention pushing away or ignoring alternative stories undeserving of your energy, which then atrophy or die, and the pathways they once traveled now narrow again, growing less supple with disuse. You become indoctrinated by your current story. You are training yourself to believe it and to live it.
Every story we tell has some effect. Stories move the needle every time we tell them. Because of this powerful story effect it is imperative that the story you tell be a constructive, not destructive one. The effect of training makes it hard to break the bonds that form. It is crucial then, to be utterly conscious about who you are and what you are doing with your life – in other words, to be brutally truthful with yourself about your purpose – so that you are aware of your story and can assess whether and how it is helping or hurting you.
There is a problem , though. You may be thoroughly well – intentioned about examining your story, yet often it is difficult, if not impossible, to see the immediate consequences of your story on yourself or others. Your story’s impact may not reveal itself for years.
It is a strange comment to make about a film set inside a prison, but “The Shawshank Redemption” creates a warm hold on our feelings because it makes us a member of a family. Many movies offer us vicarious experiences and quick, superficial emotions. “Shawshank” slows down and looks. It uses the narrator’s calm, observant voice to include us in the story of men who have formed a community behind bars. It is deeper than most films; about continuity in a lifetime, based on friendship and hope.
Interesting that although the hero of the film is the convicted former banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), the action is never seen from his point of view. The film’s opening scene shows him being given two life sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover, and then we move, permanently, to a point of view representing the prison population and particularly the lifer Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman). It is his voice remembering the first time he saw Andy (“looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over”), and predicting, wrongly, that he wouldn’t make it in prison.
From Andy’s arrival on the prison bus to the film’s end, we see only how others see him – Red, who becomes his best friend, Brooks the old librarian, the corrupt Warden Norton, guards and prisoners. Red is our surrogate. He’s the one we identify with, and the redemption, when it comes, is Red’s. We’ve been shown by Andy’s example that you have to keep true to yourself, not lose hope, bide your time, set a quiet example and look for your chance. “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really,” he tells Red. “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”
The key to the film’s structure, I think, is that it’s not about its hero, but about our relationship with him – our curiosity, our pity, our admiration. If Andy had been the heroic center, bravely enduring, the film would have been conventional, and less mysterious. But we wonder about this guy. Did he really kill those two people? Why does he keep so much to himself? Why can he amble through the prison yard like a free man on a stroll, when everyone else plods or sidles?
People like excitement at the movies, and titles that provide it do well. Films about “redemption” are approached with great wariness; a lot of people are not thrilled by the prospect of a great film – it sounds like work. But there’s a hunger for messages of hope, and when a film offers one, it’s likely to have staying power even if it doesn’t grab an immediate audience.
“The Shawshank Redemption” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 1994, and opened a few weeks later. It got good reviews but did poor business (its $18 million original gross didn’t cover costs; it took in only another $10 million after winning seven Oscar nominations, including best picture).
There wasn’t much going for it: It had a terrible title, it was a “prison drama” and women don’t like those, it contained almost no action, it starred actors who were respected but not big stars, and it was long at 142 minutes. Clearly this was a movie that needed word-of-mouth to find an audience, and indeed business was slowly but steadily growing when it was yanked from theaters. If it had been left to find its way, it might have continued to build and run for months, but that’s not what happened.
Instead, in one of the most remarkable stories in home video history, it found its real mass audience on tapes and discs, and through TV screenings. Within five years, “Shawshank” was a phenomenon, a video best seller and renter that its admirers feel they’ve discovered for themselves. When the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the “Shawshank” groundswell in April 1999, it was occupying first place in the Internet Movie Database worldwide vote of the 250 best films; it’s usually in the top five.
Polls and rentals reflect popularity but don’t explain why people value “Shawshank” so fervently. Maybe it plays more like a spiritual experience than a movie. It does have entertaining payoff moments (as when the guards from another prison, wearing their baseball uniforms, line up to have Andy do their taxes). But much of the movie involves quiet, solitude, and philosophical discussions about life. The moments of violence (as when Andy is sexually assaulted) are seen objectively, not exploited.
The movie avoids lingering on Andy’s suffering; after beatings, he’s seen in medium and long shot, tactfully. The camera doesn’t focus on Andy’s wounds or bruises, but, like his fellow prisoners, gives him his space.
The Morgan Freeman character is carrier of the film’s spiritual arc. We see him at three parole hearings, after 20, 30 and 40 years. The first hearing involves storytelling trickery; the film has opened with Andy’s sentencing, and then we see a parole board, and expect it’s about to listen to Andy’s appeal. But, no, that’s when we first see Red. In his first appeal he tries to convince the board he’s been rehabilitated. In the second, he just goes through the motions. In the third, he rejects the whole notion of rehabilitation, and somehow in doing so he sets his spirit free, and the board releases him.
There’s an underlying problem. Behind bars, Red is king. He’s the prison fixer, able to get you a pack of cigarettes, a little rock pick or a Rita Hayworth poster. On the outside, he has no status or identity. We’ve already seen what happened to the old librarian (James Whitmore), lonely and adrift in freedom. The last act, in which Andy helps Red accept his freedom, is deeply moving – all the more so because Andy again operates at a distance, with letters and postcards, and is seen through Red’s mind.
Frank Darabont wrote and directed the film, basing it on a story by Stephen King. His film grants itself a leisure that most films are afraid to risk. The movie is as deliberate, considered and thoughtful as Freeman’s narration. There’s a feeling in Hollywood that audiences have short attention spans and must be assaulted with fresh novelties. I think such movies are slower to sit through than a film like “Shawshank,” which absorbs us and takes away the awareness that we are watching a film.
Deliberate, too, is the dialogue. Tim Robbins makes Andy a man of few words, quietly spoken. He doesn’t get real worked up. He is his own man, capable of keeping his head down for years and then indulging in a grand gesture, as when he plays an aria from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” (The overhead shot of the prisoners in the yard, spellbound by the music, is one of the film’s epiphanies.) Because he does not volunteer himself, reach out to us or overplay his feelings, he becomes more fascinating: It is often better to wonder what a character is thinking than to know.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography is tactful, not showy. Two opening shots, one from a helicopter, one of prison walls looming overhead, establish the prison. Shots follow the dialogue instead of anticipating it. Thomas Newman’s music enhances rather than informs, and there is a subtle touch in the way deep bass rumblings during the early murder are reprised when a young prisoner recalls another man’s description of the crime.
Darabont constructs the film to observe the story, not to punch it up or upstage it. Upstaging, in fact, is unknown in this film; the actors are content to stay within their roles, the story moves in an orderly way, and the film itself reflects the slow passage of the decades. “When they put you in that cell,” Red says, “when those bars slam home, that’s when you know it’s for real. Old life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.” Watching the film again, I admired it even more than the first time I saw it. Affection for good films often grows with familiarity, as it does with music. Some have said life is a prison, we are Red, Andy is our redeemer. All good art is about something deeper than it admits.
Your New Story
Now that you are familiar with the major concepts from our The Hero’s Journey travel program – how our stories are our destinies; how everything we do, with or without our conscious knowledge, helps to shape our stories; how stories either take us where we want to go or they don’t; and the three fundamental criteria of all good storytelling.
Here is your Hero’s Journey towards a new story in six steps:
- The most important story you will ever tell is your own life story
- The center of your life story is PASSION.
Step 1. Identify PASSION (Ultimate Quest)
Questions to help in the process:
- What makes you happy every day?
- What makes your life really worth living?
- In what areas of your life must you truly be extraordinary to fulfill your destiny
- How do you want to be remembered?
- What is the legacy you most want to leave for others?
- What is worth dying for?
Step 2. Facing the Truth.
Here you must identify and confront your dysfunctional current stories. Some questions to get you going:
- In which of the following areas of your life is your story not working? If your behavior is not aligned with your core passion, then this story cannot take you where you want to go.
- In which areas do you need or want to be more engaged to fulfill your Ultimate Quest?
Step 3. Select a Story to Work on First
Because almost all of the core stories in our lives need at least some editing, here are some questions to help you with the selection process.
- Which of your stories causes you the most concern and grief?
- Which of your stories causes the most disruption in your life?
- Which of your stories creates the greatest misalignment with your ultime quest in life?
- Which of these stories would you most like to work on right now?
The story you have chosen to edit is your first Hero’s Quest. If you are to enjoy genuine transformation, then you must commit to work on this story for the next ninety days.
Step 4. Write the story you have been telling yourself that has allowed the misalignment to occur.
This means including the faulty thinking and strange logic that helped to form the story you now wish to edit. Write in as much detail and with as much specificity as you can. Your task is to unearth completely your current dysfunctional story.
& In what way(s) does the story yourself allow you to ignore that it is not taking you where you ultimately want to go in life – is not on passion?
& What logic do you use in the story to justify that your story does not reflect the truth?
& In what way(s) does the story not inspire you to take action to make this part of your life better?
Before you finish your Old Story, take a few dives into your subconscious world. Ask yourself these questions:
- What hidden influences might be behind some of your faulty thinking and beliefs that helped to create your current story?
- Do you get very defensive about your faulty story? If you do, then what are you protecting? Specifically, in what parts of this story are you most fragile and vulnerable? What are you most afraid of here? If you follow the fear, where does it take you?
- The story you currently tell yourself that you wish to edit clearly has not inspired you to make a change. What is the logic and rationale you have used to keep this faulty story alive in your life for so long?
- Is this really your story you are telling or someone else’s? Whose voice is it?
Step 5. Write a New Story
Write a new story that
- Is fully aligned with your ultimate quest and your passion
- Reflects the truth
- Inspires you to take hope – filled action
To help you articulate your new story, some suggestions:
- Start with the words ‘The Truth is…. ” Describe as vividly as possible what will likely happen if you continue with the Old Story you have got. Face reality head on by connecting the dots.
- Don’t labor over every word. You will edit it later. Just get your initial thoughts on paper, quickly.
- Because your New Story packs a cannonshot of reality it will necessarily stir a lot of emotion (the more powerful the better)
- Your New Story should clearly reflect and connect with your Ultimate Quest in life. Anyone reading your New Story Should have no trouble connecting it with what you care most about.
- Your New Story should be inspirational for you when you read it. It must move you powerfully: move you emotionally and move you to take action.
- Your New Story should contain a strong message of optimism and hope that the change you seek will indeed happen if you remain dedicated and persistent.
- Make sure that this is your story, no one else’s! Be sure this is what you really want!
- If possible craft your New Story in the context of a major turning point in your life. This change you seek should be characterized as a breakthrough.
- Work hard to summon your voice of sincerity. Your inner voice must be able to express the message, content, and direction of your New Story completely and unambivalently.
- In your story aim forward your best voice of passion. These voice can’t come forward without your encouragement.
Step 6. Design Explicit Rituals that ensure your New Story becomes reality
- Rituals are consciously acquired habits of behavior that enhance energy management in service of a mission
- Rituals represent the vehicle by which your New Story receives the investment of passionate energy
- Link the ritual to one or more values
- Invest energy in it for thirty to ninety days
- Acquire no more than a few rituals at a time
- Create a supportive environment
- A particularly valuable ritual is to begin every day of your ninety day mission by reading your new story
“Dead Poets Society” is about an inspirational, unconventional English teacher and his students at “the best prep school in America” and how he challenges them to question conventional views by such techniques as standing on their desks. It is, of course, inevitable that the brilliant teacher will eventually be fired from the school, and when his students stood on their desks to protest his dismissal.
The key conflict in the movie is between Neil (Robert Sean Leonard), a student who dreams of being an actor, and his father (Kurtwood Smith), who orders his son to become a doctor and forbids him to go onstage. The father is a strict, unyielding taskmaster, and the son, lacking the will to defy him, kills himself.
The society was founded by Keating when he was an undergraduate, but in its reincarnate form it never generates any sense of mystery, rebellion or daring. The society’s meetings have been badly written and are dramatically shapeless, featuring a dance line to Lindsay’s “The Congo” and various attempts to impress girls with random lines of poetry.
One scene in particular indicates the distance between the movie’s manipulative instincts and what it claims to be about. When Keating is being railroaded by the school administration (which makes him the scapegoat for his student’s suicide), one of the students acts as a fink and tells the old fogies what they want to hear. Later, confronted by his peers, he makes a hateful speech of which not one word is plausible except as an awkward attempt to supply him with a villain’s dialogue. Then one of the other boys hits him in the jaw, to great applause from the audience.
Here is one of my favorite sentences from Thoreau’s Walden, ” . . . instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.”