Tag Archives: America

4 Thoughts I Had While Watching Transformers 4

Transformers 4 - Wahlberg, Peltz, Reynor

Look, let’s get a few basics out of the way. Plenty has been written over the years about Michael Bay’s storytelling problems, his directorial tics, his troubling portrayal of women, homosexuals, and non-white characters, and his fetish for big guns and magic hour. You can also debate whether Transformers 4 is his most blatant cash-grab ever or the prototype for a new international-era blockbuster. (Maybe it’s both.)

But here’s the catch: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Michael Bay film that I completely hated. In fact, even at their most flawed and least coherent, Michael Bay’s movies are still entertaining. They’re also surprisingly rewatchable, as you realize every time you catch yourself watching Armageddon on cable.

So how does Michael Bay manage to make films that fail on both a taste level and a logic level, yet still excel as cinema? Here are four things Michael Bay gets right in Transformers 4 that explain his cinematic upside.

Michael Bay movies are always about what it means to be American.

Yes, nearly half of Transformers 4 takes place in China, but it’s still an American movie — not just in its financial origins, but in its central theme. After the city-smashing alien battles of the previous Transformers films, this is a story about America trying to figure out its place in the changing world. Its three subplots involve a widowed American inventor who just wants to provide for his family, a wealthy American scientist in search of his conscience, and a grizzled American operative who’s determined to defend his country from alien incursion at all costs.

Is this all a metaphor for immigration, foreign policy, global finance, and the double-edged sword of the military-industrial complex? Of course it is.

It’s also a film that takes bizarre pride in the minutiae of laws. This is a film about giant alien robots that still finds time to include plot-driven arguments about intellectual property, search warrants, and statutory rape. Its villains have a binding contract, to which they honorably adhere. And while the entire third act is basically a nonstop chase-fight scene, it’s happening because one character’s crisis of conscience negates a different contract, which means the villains are essentially justified in exacting their violent revenge.

It all seems to imply that America is nothing without its laws, and without people who live within them, even when they disagree with them. You don’t like a law? Work to change it. Laws are meant to serve the people, and as the needs of the people change, so must the laws. Not exactly a concept I expected to see in a film about a robot pterodactyl, but there you go.

But the characters in this film also grapple with Americanism on an individual level, because…

Michael Bay movies are always about what it means to be a man.

Mark Wahlberg’s hero Cade Yeager (Seriously? Yeah, seriously.) is a macho ex-football star and widowed inventor with a hot teenage daughter whom he tries to protect from the leering advances of every other guy on the planet. He doesn’t want her to make the same mistakes he made as a teenager — a teenage pregnancy among them — and he hates the idea of men lusting after the daughter he still thinks of as pure and perfect. She’s the embodiment of the future he always thought he’d be able to sustain and provide for, but with every year he finds himself farther from his idyllic self-image. And with his daughter about to head off to college, who will he be with no one else to worry about but himself?

Kelsey Grammer’s black ops director is a shadowy figure working to keep America safe at any price. He doesn’t have room for emotion. He doesn’t even seem to take pleasure in his work. What he wants is success, and what success means to him is a complete and total elimination of external threats. It’s a fool’s dream, and if this was a movie with more depth, Grammer might get a scene where he admits what the audience already knows: that no matter how effective he is, he’s just delaying the inevitable need to adapt and assimilate with outsiders. And yet, the need to defend what we know from our worst expectations of what could be is as fundamentally American as wanting to provide for our families and excel in our chosen fields.

Which brings us to Stanley Tucci, who gives the film’s best performance as industrialist Joshua Joyce, a thinly-disguised caricature of Steve Jobs at his most tyrannical. Yet, like Jobs, Joyce just wants to make a difference in the world. Sure, he wants the world to remember that he’s the one who made that change, but it’s progress that fuels him. And it’s his fundamental similarity to Cade — the innocent spark of curiosity mixed with the hubris of wanting to be remembered for having done “the right thing” — that sets the events of the final act into motion.

And yes, all of this happens amid car chases, shootouts, fistfights, and sweaty closeups of muscles, breasts, and luscious legs filmed against hypersaturated sunsets. Because Michael Bay movies are also obsessed with the human body and its place in the world. And with masculinity vs. femininity, and with vitality vs. obsolescence, and with thought vs. action. If you’re not acting, if you’re not defending or attacking, if you’re not trying to get somewhere or obtain something, then you’re just waiting to be passed by. That’s life. That’s America. That’s humanity.

That’s cinema.

Michael Bay movies are always going somewhere.

Michael Bay – What is Bayhem? from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

This short clip explains Michael Bay’s aesthetic better than I ever could, and it’s totally worth your time from a film studies perspective. But I can sum it all up by saying you know you’re watching a Michael Bay film when small people are caught between giant problems and have to keep moving to survive, both literally and figuratively. There are almost no static camera moves in a Michael Bay film, or flat medium shots. The close-ups are always dramatically lit. The wide shots are in motion on multiple planes of action. And the characters are almost always shot from below, framed against massive backdrops that constantly remind us how insignificant they are against the collective shrug of society, industry, or nature.

Transformers 4 is about age and decay, about desire vs. actuality, and about man’s (and robot’s) eternal quest to understand why things happen. The “what” is the MacGuffin that keeps the story moving forward — hunted robots, kidnapped daughters, stolen weapons — but the “why” is what every hero is truly after. For all his presumed favoring of style over substance, Michael Bay’s movies are gravely concerned with where we as a nation, as a species, as a gender, and as a planet, are headed — and whether any of it actually matters.

Michael Bay movies are a textbook example of emotional logic.

Look, Transformers 4 is a pretty dumb movie. It’s a “dark” take on a popular ’80s cartoon that was created to sell toys to preteen boys, so you’re not dealing with unimpeachable source material here. And yes, the characters make intellectually questionable decisions at every step, not just because this is an action movie that requires them to keep getting themselves in trouble in order to justify its own existence but because Michael Bay doesn’t really care about the same logic that you and I care about.

Instead of logical cause-and-effect — “He did X, so they did Y, and therefore he should now do Z because he wants to achieve A” — what Michael Bay movies deliver is emotional cause-and-effect: “His actions made me feel X, and now I the viewer want to feel Y.”

For example, Cade spends most of the movie trying to keep his daughter safe. At least, that’s his stated goal, but his actions perpetually debunk his statement. This is a dad who nearly gets his daughter killed numerous times, sends her out to shoplift, and belittles her boyfriend at every turn, all under the guise of protecting her physically and emotionally from external threats.

While Cade’s intellectual logic doesn’t hold up, his actions (and his daughter’s reactions) fuel our emotional logic. We know he can’t protect her forever, and we also realize she’s probably more capable than he gives her credit for. So what we, the audience, end up wanting from this story arc is to know that Tessa can take care of herself so Cade won’t have to worry about her. And her final act in the movie closes that loop and provides us with the emotional catharsis we needed, even if its intellectual logic is as questionable as anything else in the film.

Similarly, Tucci’s Joyce isn’t just the most entertaining character in the movie; he’s also the movie’s resuscitated heart. While Cade has been brave from the beginning because he’s fighting for his freedom, Joyce is the one who has to choose between what he could be and what he wants to be. And when a film gives us a villain who realizes the error of his ways, we spend the rest of the movie hoping he’ll live long enough to become a better man.

Whatever that means in Michael Bay’s world.

8 Lessons I Learned from Playing Video Games

Arcade I was born in 1977, so I’ve been playing video games since they became part of the American mainstream. I grew up in video arcades, and I’ve had a video game console in my home since I was 7. From Pac-Man to Mario to Mega Man, my childhood memories — and my outlook on life — have been shaped by what I learned from video games; both from the games themselves and the act of playing them.

Here are eight lessons that pixels and joysticks taught me about life and love.

We Are All Playing Someone Else’s Game

ms-pacman-cabinetWhen I was 5 or 6, my parents used to go to Perkins every day for breakfast. (Perkins is like Denny’s, only green.) This particular Perkins had a Ms. Pac-Man machine next to the restrooms, and I would play it every day.

Even though I played it all the time, I wasn’t very good at it. I’d rarely get past the first few levels. My parents would give me a few quarters every morning, and I’d usually be back at the table asking them for more after just a few minutes.

That winter, my parents bought me a book of level-by-level maps and strategies for beating Ms. Pac-Man. As I learned from the diagrams, there were patterns you could follow to safely complete every maze. All you had to do was memorize them.

I was shocked.

Because in my little kindergarten brain, I realized that someone — a human being — had to have programmed those ghosts to move in a certain way. And that meant I was playing a game created by a person. Which means I wasn’t just trying to beat the game; I was trying to outwit a person.

And that’s really what each of us does with every social system we encounter, all life long.

Everybody Thinks the Game Is Fixed

One day, we took my grandfather to breakfast. When I asked my parents for a few quarters so I could play Ms. Pac-Man, my grandfather told me it was a waste of money.

“You can’t win. Those games are rigged. You can’t beat ‘em. They just take your money.”

I tried explaining that there were patterns you could follow and you could win, but he remained convinced that these games were just money-making schemes for their creators.

Technically, we were both right. But just because a game is fixed, that doesn’t mean you can’t win. You just have to understand how the game works. Beyond that, I realized that my grandfather only saw games as something to be won, whereas I saw them as an experience to enjoy. And for that, I was willing to play (and pay) whether I won or not.

Everything Has a Price, Which Is Different from Its Value

That Christmas, after all the other gifts had been opened, my parents had saved one gift for last. My dad brought it up from the basement. It was huge, probably as large as I was.

I unwrapped it. Inside, there was another gift.

And another.

And another.

I probably spent ten minutes unwrapping a multitude of nested boxes, each one getting smaller and smaller, until I finally got to the last one. And when I opened it, I found the real gift:

Four quarters.

“What’s that for?” my grandmother asked.

“So he can play Ms. Pac-Man.”

My mom called it a booby prize. My grandmother thought we were nuts. I was just excited because it meant I could play four more games of Ms. Pac-Man the next time we went to Perkins.

Sometimes life is all about perspective.

Every Hero Is Just a Villain in Someone Else’s Story

Dig-DugDig-Dug is a classic arcade game. In it, you control a space helmeted dude who digs tunnels underground and destroys the monsters he finds there by blowing them up before they can reach the surface.

Dig-Dug is also a sociopath.

The game gives you no context about why Dig-Dug is tunneling underground and killing these creatures. Like any game, you play it because it’s there. You don’t ask questions… until you’re old enough to step back and realize that these creatures were probably just minding their own business underground when all of a sudden some terrorist jackass invades their homes and blows them up in front of their friends and families.

In life, the truth depends on the teller.

Learn by Doing

Growing up, my dad and I used to go to Putt Putt Golf & Games at least once a week. It was a mini golf course that had a video arcade, and we’d play all the latest games as they came out. That was where I first played the original Mario Bros., and Food Fight, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and perhaps the trippiest game ever created, Journey (in which you… uh… played as the band Journey).

dragons_lair_largeOne game that fascinated me was Dragon’s Lair. It was larger than most arcade games, and it was animated (by Don Bluth’s studio, which also produced The Secret of NIMH and An American Tale) to play like a movie that you could control. It was also the first game to cost fifty cents in an era when other games only cost a quarter. And, to me, it was hard as hell. The game flashes directional hints of what you’re supposed to do next at all times, but if you miss them, you make the wrong choice and Dirk the Dragon Slayer dies a horrible (but amusing) death.

One day, an older kid saw me playing the game. When I lost, he said that if my dad gave him fifty cents, he’d show us how to beat the game. So my dad did. And this kid proceeded to play, and win, the whole game. He lost a few times along the way, but he’d gotten much farther than we ever had — and we were so interested in seeing the ending — that my dad kept paying his way.

When it was over, we were both really impressed. I think the kid hustled my dad for a few more bucks — which was basically a tip — and then he left to go play a different game. But then a funny thing happened: I stopped playing Dragon’s Lair.

Having seen the ending meant I’d seen the whole thing, so what reason did I still have to play it? And yet, all these years later, what do I remember of that ending? Almost nothing. Watching someone else win the game was nowhere near as fulfilling as winning the game myself would have been, plus it robbed me of my appetite for exploring the experience myself.

Anything worth doing is worth doing firsthand. The rest is just a fee.

Teamwork and Tenacity Pay Off in the Long Run

By the time I was in high school, I had graduated from having a Colecovision to an NES to the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. And yet, despite having state-of-the-art home video games at my fingertips, I still spent most Saturdays playing video games with my friends at the Millcreek Mall’s two (!) arcades. Tilt was the seedy, maize-colored arcade located in the mall wing that no one ever walked down, while Red Baron was located next to the movie theater, the McDonald’s, and the coolest of the mall’s three (!) record stores. The Red Baron was obviously the “winner” of the two, and it was where we spent most of our time (and money).

Then Tilt got a new game called NBA Jam, and everything changed.

NBAJam1993Keep in mind that until 1993 it was extremely rare to see professional athletes portrayed in video games. They may have lent their name or likeness to a title or package, but you almost never got to play as them. And then along came this amazing game where you could play as two NBA stars at the same time, with sick dunks and clutch three pointers from anywhere on the court.

In the golden age of SportsCenter (and the NBA itself), my best friend Tom and I were quickly addicted.

One problem with an addictive game is that everybody else wants to play it too, and that means you have to get good if you want to stay on. So Tom and I played against the computer a lot, just in case two other guys came along to challenge us. We got good, and we won more than we lost, against both the computer and other players. We also learned each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and we learned how to pep talk each other and pick up the slack when the other was off his game.

One day, two assholes challenged us.

We knew they were assholes because they chose to play as the Knicks (because who else chooses to play as the Knicks except a couple of assholes?), and because they were just absolute dicks. These guys were cocky, and they kept trying to intimidate us by mocking us out loud and by constantly knocking us down in the game so we could never get into a rhythm.

Because these guys were loud, they attracted a crowd.

And because Tom and I were good, we forced overtime.

And then came “the three.”

In my mind, this happened at the end of the first overtime, but I may be remembering it wrong. What I do remember is this: Tom and I were playing as the Orlando Magic, which was our usual team. He loved Shaq’s unparalleled ability to dunk and I loved Scott Skiles’s range. In the game, Skiles could hit a three from almost anywhere on the court.

I don’t know how we ended up in this situation, but with the clock running out, I (Skiles) had to attempt a three from well beyond half court or we were going to lose.

And I hit it.

And these guys LOST THEIR MINDS.

They were convinced we were only surviving against them out of dumb luck, but what they didn’t know was Tom and I had played the game so many times before that we each knew I could hit that shot. Were we relieved? Hell yes. Did we think it was just dumb luck? Hell no.

And that’s when these guys started to sweat.

No matter what they threw at us, we stayed with them. When we realized what their game was, we started trash-talking them back. And when they realized we wouldn’t fade, they started to get frustrated.

Eventually we knew they were getting rattled and desperate because they started complaining about the game and yelling at each other. One of them would try to knock us down, but he’d miss and we’d score, and then his teammate would bitch him out. Or we’d get a goaltending call in our favor, and they would complain that the game was conspiring against them.

I don’t remember how much we won by. All I remember is that we won, and these two assholes stormed off while a few people in the crowd stuck around to congratulate us and tell us they were glad that we shut those other guys up.

Now, you could say this is a lesson about practice. Or about keeping your mouth shut and getting the job done. Or about respecting your teammates and keeping your cool, rather than panicking or blaming someone else for your own mistakes.

Regardless, the reality is this: when the trolls find you — and they always do — don’t back down. It’s your game, too. Know how to play it.

NBA_Jam_1993_Shaq_Skiles

Everyone’s Window of Mastery Has a Shelf Life

When the NES got popular, video games started getting more complicated. My dad’s interest, and his ability to stay competitive with me in these games, declined. The turning point for him was probably Super Mario Bros., which doesn’t seem complicated to anyone born after 1980 but which was just enough of a departure from games like Burgertime and Frogger that my dad voluntarily checked out of trying to keep up with the advances in arcade games.

But there was still one game that he and I could play at home: R.B.I. Baseball.

We’d first seen it in a hotel arcade in Orlando in 1987, before I even owned an NES, and we bonded over it partly because I’d just started collecting baseball cards and partly because it was one of the few games that let users play as real athletes. When my parents eventually got me an NES and I saw R.B.I. Baseball for sale at K B Toy & Hobby (!), it was a must-buy.

rbi_baseball1My dad didn’t have much time to play games at home, but we played that one whenever we could. The problem was, I had a lot more time to play it than he did. And I played it obsessively.

I got so good at it that I couldn’t lose to the computer anymore. I would win most games by the 10 run mercy rule before the fifth inning. The computer no longer presented a challenge, but I loved the game so much that I still played it anyway, because it was one of the only games that my dad could still play.

The first time I beat him, it felt great.

The second time I beat him, it felt a little less great.

The tenth time I beat him, it didn’t feel very good at all.

Eventually, he stopped being able to win against me, and we stopped playing R.B.I. Baseball… which meant we stopped playing video games together, because there were no other games left for him to play.

With video games being such a huge part of my childhood, it was sad to realize this was no longer an activity that my dad and I could enjoy together. It was also frustrating for me to think that a game as relatively simple as R.B.I. Baseball had too many nuances for my dad to keep up with. Maybe if he had as much time to play it as I did, we’d have still been even. But he didn’t, so we weren’t. And somewhere deep down I also realized this meant that someday there would be technological advances that I would have trouble keeping up with myself, even though they’d probably seem intuitive to the rest of the world.

Ironically, that day was only a few years away.

The good news is, my dad and I would find a different way to bond a few years later, when I would spend more than a year traveling the country with him.

The bad news (in this context, anyway) is that a new kind of game became incredibly popular in that year when I wasn’t gaming: DOOM, the first-person shooter that revolutionized the entire video game industry. By the time I finally sat down to play it, I was so hopelessly out of touch with its interface that I was terrible… and I didn’t feel like getting better at it. Either I’d moved on from games, or games had moved on from me.

Every Ending Is a Lie

As anyone who’s ever finished Super Mario Bros. knows, the endings of most video games suck. And if you feel compelled to win the games you play, very few of them reward you in such a way that seems worth your time and effort.

But that’s only if you’re judging the experience by its final moments, rather than appreciating all the fun you had in getting there.

The truth is, the endings of most films suck too. And most books, and most stories in general. That’s because it’s hard to end a narrative in a satisfying way. The best stories make us want more of what we just experienced, so even their earned ending feels bittersweet, while the worst stories leave us with unanswered questions and empty hearts.

Only after you finish Super Mario Bros. do you realize that it was never about rescuing the princess; it was about exploring and improving, and the thrill of new challenges and discoveries. The princess, like most goals, was just the excuse to attempt the adventure.

super-mario-princess-another-castle-message-generator.php

I haven’t played video games much since 1993.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Maybe what I should say is, I haven’t played most kinds of video games since 1993.

My love of sports games persists. I’ve lost years of my life to Madden and NBA Live, among others. And I’ve always liked simulation and strategy games. Every few years, I dust off my old CD of Heroes of Might & Magic III and I binge on it for a month, until the rush wears off.

But I’ve never once played Grand Theft Auto, Halo, Call of Duty, or Warcraft. I have zero experience with the whole post-DOOM evolution of combat games. I’ve played enough Resident Evil to know I don’t enjoy it, and I’ve never even seen Braid, though I’m told I’d love it.

Now I’m the one who doesn’t have time for video games.

But that’s okay, because I have video game memories. I’ve spent countless hours exploring someone else’s puzzles, and trying to outwit them at their own games.

And I don’t regret that experience for a minute, regardless of the ending.

When Did “Making” Become a Bad Word?

ThoreauQuoteWhen I was little, I wanted to be a farmer. I remember this because I distinctly recall throwing a penny into the Millcreek Mall fountain (right outside JCPenney) when I was eight and wishing that I would grow up to be a farmer. I liked grass, and the Playskool farm seemed pretty cool.

At some point, I realized being a real farmer would involve a lot of hard work, so I ruled it out.

Later, I wanted to be a chef. Then, in high school, I wanted to be a comic book artist. And in college, I split my studies between becoming an animator or a filmmaker.

The one thing all of those jobs had in common? They were all about producing something.

Today, I get paid to analyze market trends. (Eight year-old me never saw that coming.)

Granted, I do this for a company that produces consumer goods, so I’m tangentially connected to the manufacturing industry. But I don’t get paid to make anything. Not anything physical, anyway.

Not anything real.

And, most likely, neither do you.

When Did We Become a Nation of Ghosts?

We used to be a nation of makers. Now we’re a nation of marketers.

We used to sell tangible products. Now we sell abstract services.

We used to work for brands. Now we are brands.

When someone asks me what I do for a living, I find creative ways to answer. The truth is, I work in marketing, but I want to be a maker. I just haven’t figured out how to make something for a living yet.

The vast majority of “entrepreneurs” and “freelancers” I meet are people who offer invented, abstract, meaningless services at inflated rates so they won’t have to work very hard. The ones who do work hard are endless self-promoters and self-congratulators who confuse output with value, but because they bleat the loudest, they get heard, and then they get hired. What they get hired to do, I’m still not entirely sure; I’m not sure they know either. And if they can explain it, it’s bound to come wrapped in buzzwords.

What’s more rare is to find someone who makes a living by selling a product, or a tangible service — something that requires a physical action be completed, rather than a digital file be downloaded. I don’t think this is because no one needs anything concrete; I just don’t think as many people have the skills or the interest in producing something real.

We Used to Know How to Do Things. Now We Just Know How to Google.

It disturbs me that I don’t feel like I know as much as I used to. When I was growing up I read constantly and watched far too much TV, but I remembered large amounts of what I took in. Now I surf the web and retain very little. I don’t have to; I can just Google. I don’t even have to remember the name of the page I was reading; my browser does it for me.

I don’t know anyone’s phone number. I don’t know very much that I’d feel comfortable being quoted on, even in a casual conversation, because most of the facts and figures I do recall are vague and hazy. I preface most anecdotes with “I read somewhere” or “Did you know that something like…” If I had to take the GED tomorrow, I’d probably fail.

What am I supposed to teach my kids [when I have them]?

When did the concrete become less valuable than the abstract?

When did we decide that life coaching and corporate storytelling were viable careers?

I’m not sure (but I could probably Google it).

Did You Get Your Boy Scout Badge in Thought Leadership Yet?

Maybe this is all cyclical. Maybe prior generations went through this same ebb and flow of goods versus services, and physical versus ethereal. (Heaven knows the Catholic church made a mint selling sin erasers for centuries until Martin Luther disrupted their market…)

And maybe we don’t need to be a nation where everyone knows how to gut a fish, raise a barn, and sail by the stars. Cool skills, bro, but we’re forever headed forward [until the grid fails], so the modern rise of “soft skills” isn’t entirely useless no matter how arbitrary they may seem to be.

But I do wonder if my weakness for the minor digital gratification of a retweet at the expense of a major creative investment in something epic isn’t more than a byproduct of this immediate digital feedback being suddenly available.

I wonder if we all make less simply because we don’t think making is what matters anymore.

If that’s the case, eight year-old me would be so disappointed.

Career Tips for the Delusional

I pissed some people off when I said this on Twitter yesterday, but I’m sticking by it:

“You are what you get paid to do.”

People disagree because they refuse to be limited or labeled. Notice that I didn’t say you’re just what you get paid to do. And yet, when you identify someone by their profession, they object.

“This is Karl. He’s a busboy.”

Oh. So that’s all Karl is?

No, Karl is probably also a son, a brother, a lover, a friend, a pet owner, a volunteer, a student, an aspiring playwright, and a noteworthy violinist.

It’s just that the only one of those pastimes that actually pays Karl’s bills is “busboy.” Thus, Karl is, for the purposes of declaring his worth to the world, a busboy.

“But what if Karl is the best playwright I’ve ever met?” you ask. “Or what if he’s the best violinist in the city?”

Well, that’s cool too. He can be those things in certain contexts. When he’s sitting in a coffee shop writing a play, sure, he’s an aspiring playwright. When he’s rehearsing the violin in his attic, then he’s a violinist.

But at both of those times, he’s also a busboy. Because that’s what it says on his taxes.

The day he gets paid to play the violin, he can say he’s a violinist.

The day he gets paid for the licensing of one of his plays, he can say he’s a playwright.

And the day he gets paid more — and more regularly — to write plays or play the violin than he does to bus tables, by all means, he should say he’s a violinist or a playwright.

Because that’s what it’ll say on his taxes.

I think the problem people have with labels is that they want to be known for their skills and passions, rather than for their ability to earn a living. Getting paid is so transactional, and there are so many more cash jobs than sex jobs, that we yearn to be recognized for our other, rarer, “better” skills.

But there’s a difference between being a writer — a person who suffers for weeks and months on end (or not) to produce a written work that others will pay her for — and, say, being the intern who adds titles and tags to her agency client’s YouTube videos. One of those people is a writer; the other is an SEO apprentice. Both of those people may be ashamed of their jobs (as writers often love to hate themselves), but only one of them is being honest about it.

We might be better off if people were willing to identify themselves as “aspiring” writers, or directors “in training,” or some other qualifier that denotes a person’s pursuit of a passion in which they have not yet achieved a status of transactional relevance. But the Internet is immediate, and we all want to succeed today. Why denigrate your aspirations by declaring them as works in progress when you can call yourself a success before you’ve even begun?

The truth is, if you’re so frustrated by your day job that you prefer to self-identify as something other than what you get paid to do, you should either change careers — preferably into the field you keep telling people you’re already working in — or pursue what you love to the extent that you actually achieve a level of skill that convinces others to pay you for it. Otherwise, you’re fighting a battle of diminishing returns in both directions.

But don’t take my word for it. I’m not a real sociologist; I just play one on the Internet.

My Self-Imposed Cultural Curriculum

A few weeks ago, I decided to go back to school, kind of. Tired of the “straight white male” POV that dominates American pop culture (even though I am one), I wanted to actively seek out books and films authored by voices that don’t fit that mold.

And I asked for your suggestions, because I wanted to know what you thought I should know.

Since then, via blog comments, email, Facebook, and Twitter, I’ve received 21 recommendations for authors and 6 for filmmakers.* Based on those suggestions (plus my own thoughts), I’ve compiled a curriculum for myself to follow between July 1st and November 30th.

Books to Read

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (American female)
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (Japanese male)
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (African-American female)
The Namesake by Jhumpa Laihri (Indian female)
The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish male)

Films to See

? by Akira Kurosawa (Japanese male)
Tiny Furniture by Lena Dunham (American female)
Pariah by Dee Rees (African-American female)
? by Abbas Kiarostami (Iranian male)
TBD (TBD)

My Criteria

Author or director cannot be a white American male
Works should be freely available (presumably at the library)
Works should be self-contained (not anthologies or other formats)
Selected works should be equally representative of female and male creators
No two selections from the same nation of origin in either medium

Caveats

My film selections will be somewhat reliant on what’s available at my local library, which is why I didn’t choose a specific Kurosawa or Kiarostami film up front. I also left a blank spot in the film lineup — presumably to be filled by something from Bollywood — but if a completely arbitrary title catches my eye, I’d like to have that freedom.

Also, I didn’t consider who’d suggested what in my final selection process, so there are no politics or favorites being played here. I did shy away from nonfiction this time around, but I might try all nonfiction if I do this again in the future.

So, Now What?

Now I have to go to the library sometime in the next week and track down a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness (which was the only book suggested to me twice, by the way) and whatever they have in the way of Kurosawa. I may not read and watch these works in the order I’ve listed them, but I figure I’ll start there and adapt as I go.

And then, in December, I’ll write up my thoughts on each of these works individually, and on what I learned from this process as a whole.

If you’d like to join me on this cultural odyssey, feel free. Maybe we could even do a group discussion in the end.

But please: in the meantime, no spoilers.

* I was surprised I only received 6 suggestions for filmmakers who weren’t white men. Then I realized most people probably can’t name more than 6 white male directors anyway. Compared to books, film has a long way to go to reach anything resembling a balanced artistic representation.