Courage 101

So, perhaps we should talk about sheep.

As the flock approaches the proverbial cliff, one considers that all sheep are possibly not the same. The safest position to defend, in a disdainfully self-righteous voice, is that all sheep will go over the cliff as a homogeneous blob of stupid wool. As this is the safest point of view, I challenge the viewer to defend their normality of view, as they go over the moral cliff, in their fiercest expression of collective individualism.

As the cliff draws closer, some sheep within the flock somehow compute, of their own warped sense of individuality, that bad things happen to sheep who fall over cliffs, and try to change course at the last minute, perhaps swept by the over into the void anyway, too late. Some may survive by running out to the side, screaming at their fellows to stop, “You foo-oooo-ools,” eventually finding themselves lonely without the flock, but alive and wiser. Now, to survive the wolves.

The lead sheep, who, for all we know, are not leading, but just running as fast as possible for fear of being trampled by the second rank, are the first to sense their imminent doom. As the horizon tilts vertical, they plunge, in horror, for they see themselves as honorable and loyal sheep. Going over cliffs is what good sheep do. Alas.

And now we come to the unique and rarefied strain of sheep who act completely wrong, they see the cliff, and the sky, and the other side’s cliffs vastly distant. Inexplicably, they lower their heads, swell their shoulders, and lunge fanatically into the air, only to find that they have grown wings, and soar majestically out into space.

It is these, the astrosheep, who have found a second chance, to find another flock, to warn them about the cliffs and how they must be avoided — of course, only to be ridiculed, “Silly sheep, we have no minds of our own, we just follow the flock whatever it does. And who told you you could fly?”

Now, being of independent mind and some courage, the gifted ones will position themselves at the lead, so as to be between the flock and the cliff. Confident in their abilities, they will wait until the last minute, and call out to their comrades, “Follow me, do as I do, run right off the cliff and spread your wings, it’s your only chance!”

Needless to say, it should be clear by now that there are, in fact, differences between some sheep and others, and how devastated and confused our flying sheep end up after watching their followers go off the cliff with that quizzical expression they have a second before vanishing downwards. Then looking over to see that they have company in the sky. You’re not many, but you’re not alone.

As an artist, I’ve been hardened by the fact that some people just have no soul when it comes to music. They are great at being the concert-goer and backstage partier, but to me it’s always been painful to try to play in front of people who just can’t see. Especially my parents. Secondly, as children, we may subconsciously make decisions concerning our studies and career that do not blossom into practical job skills and useful economic units. Sometimes, especially in the arts, it takes a lifetime to put the puzzle together as to who we are and what we were born to do. It takes a lifetime to acquire the experience, joy, and pain, to craft a bit of living dream that invites the lost souls in to have a cup and nourish their tired psyches. To those of my colleagues that saw this way ahead of me, I salute you, and may I have the courage to fly off the cliff, when the time comes.

As always, whenever I have some epic moment of realization, or as my schoolmates said, a penetrating glimpse into the obvious, I will soon stumble across the words of someone with a deeper understanding and life experience who says it better.

With unreserved admiration and humility, I give you Sir Patrick Stewart.


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index and thumb

In high school, the man who conducted my Psych class stressed the importance of asking “how?”, not “why?”.  Not “why did you strangle someone?”,  but rather “how you became the strangler?”.  Notice I said conducted, not taught.  Riding herd, more like.  Freud, emasculated, by professorial apathy. Still, that one item survived across the years, a useful filter to keep the mind agile.

Dominique Blanchar, George Tyne, Gary Merrill  in Decision Before Dawn, 1951, directed by Anatole Litvak

Today’s epiphany came courtesy of catching an old flick on youtube, Decision Before Dawn.  Brutal times, brilliant execution.  War was still fresh in ’51, I’m sure it resonated — no, wrong word… More like ripped out the viewer’s heart.  How? I was bored, and ran a search beginning with the word “dawn”, and up it came, grabbing my throat by the eyeballs.

That, in turn, led to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.  Gregory Peck vs. Jennifer Jones. Not as strident as Dawn, but blood was spilt on the cutting room floor. Much blood.

Keenan Wynn and Gregory Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, 1956, directed by Nunnally Johnson

Boredom cured.  Addiction set in.  Postwar flicks I missed in childhood.  Before I was born. Think about it, the films you see, unless you’re a film nerd, pretty much revolve around your peer group.  So all these flicks I grew up hearing the titles but never saw.  For me it was Goldfinger, Where Eagles Dare, anything containing Clint Eastwood or Julie Andrews.  Bergman, Truffault, the greats, ah, but as a child was I ready for them? Went along with George Lucas, and so on…  Whereupon Hollywood seemingly took 20 years to die and no longer sees a tail to chase, not even its own.

Cut to the one queued up next, A Portrait of Jennie, in the first 3 minutes I’m hooked on the cinematography, the play of light through trees, the camera motion, all the intrinsic stuff.  Debussy.  Killer.  Jennifer Jones again, splendid.

Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones in A Portrait of Jennie, 1948, directed by Wilhelm Dieterle

I took the obligatory history of film course as a junior, learnt the terms and concepts a bit, but as the course was [again] conducted rather than taught, it had little impact, then.  Catherine Deneuve, Rosebud, Metropolis, Yellow Submarine.  3 credit hours in the bag, while my soul rusted away.

Ah, but planted was the seed.  This, dear reader, is my point:  Enlightenment comes not on a silver platter for the asking.  Light attaches to nothing that is not in opposition to the light.  Your retina, for instance, or a carefully managed shadow on the set. Positioning oneself at the right place at the right time to “get it” takes time, just as the cinematography finds the light where it lands in a special way. If you don’t see it, you don’t get it.

The bits of time you carry forward in memory, if they have some value, over 40 years or so, need something to hit before they exist. Those of us fortunate enough to own a lifespan spanning the original release of Star Wars back in ’77 through the anticipated 2019 IX may well share the theatre with our grandchildren. The light perhaps projected on the very same screen, even, as if to teleport DNA through an ancestral lens.

Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette, 1943, directed by Henry King

A good story depends not on a seamless chain of smoothly polished mechanical charades.  No, it requires bad decisions, imperfect intentions, answers that taunt and break windows and run away in the dark.  They did it better in the postwar honeymoon than they do now, methinks. They had a better how.  The brutal rawness of war demanded an artistic certainty at the movie theatre. It serves the present better that the present does itself, putting up jagged barriers for the fragments of light to finally illuminate the dusty corners of memory, to illustrate timeless truths about human relationships, the inevitable disasters of broken dreams and self-delusion. The secrets that burn their way out, yet don’t quite kill us, luckily, by a thread. Beautiful.

To live is to move.

“Procrastination is killing me,” he thought. “Not like a disease or a physical catastrophe, but in the time it robs my life of value while I stay alive.” The missing pieces from childhood coming together in a revelation of tragedy and failure, and the cold hard fact that he was not meant to be. The engine is broken. It’s up to the patient, now, there’s nothing left for us to do. The search for meaning to justify a movement, in any direction, stuck at the greasy table sharing fries with a mocking reflection, in agreement with the forecast of self-doom.

“I need some fresh air”, he said, and walked out.