Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bad Habits My Favorite Movies Taught Me

So I was planning to do a post on the end of my first year of graduate school – a post-mortem, if you will. I told myself I’d write it as soon as my papers were in, and then I said I’d write it as soon as I went on vacation back up to my home country, the Yay Area (the SF Bay Area, for the uninformed). And then I said I’d write it as soon as I got back to Santa Barbara, and, well, that was more than two weeks ago. I’m guessing from the fact that I never summoned the motivation to write the post, and that all I had planned for it was the title – Down the Rabbit Hole and out the Other Side – the post was just not meant to be. Suffice it to say that my first year of grad school was everything I needed and wanted it to be. While I’m certainly enjoying my summer off, I also can’t wait for school to start again, to go back to classes with the brilliant professors and fabulous classmates/colleagues, and to continue my studies. But that’s really all I have to say about that, without risking getting trite.

So I’ll switch to the topic of this post, one that I actually feel I have a lot to say about, mostly non-trite: The bad lessons my favorite movies taught me, and my slow process of unlearning them. As an introduction, for those who aren’t part of my inner circle (thought I still have a hard time believing that anyone not in my crazy inner circle is reading this blog) and don’t already know, my two favorite movies are The Wizard of Oz and When Harry Met Sally. Oz has been my favorite movie since I was two years old and my father brought home the 50th-anniversary video. I wore that video tape out by over-playing long ago, and am now the proud owner of the 3-disc Collector’s Edition DVD. When Harry Met Sally was introduced to me my freshman year of high school, and it just sort of took over my head. I tend to watch it when I’m feeling down, and I know most of the dialogue by heart, and not just the famous bits. So how could two such wonderful movies let me down? In the following ways:

What’s the message of The Wizard of Oz? Don’t worry; I’ll give you a minute to think about it, it may be a while since you’ve seen it. … … … … You back? You thought about it? Did you say, “It’s about recognizing the strengths you already have?” Well, you’re sort of right. Did you say, “It’s about friendship?” Well, yes, but that’s way too vague. Did you say, “It’s about fabulous shoes?” You’re absolutely right. But that’s not my point; not here, at least. No; this wonderful movie has, at its heart, the following lesson: Stay where you are, and don’t dream too far. Aspirations should be avoided, as they can put you in danger. As Dorothy summarizes what she’s learned at the end of the movie, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with!” That’s right, kiddos. Forget about going somewhere over the rainbow. That was a silly, dangerous little dream. Best to stay right here in what L. Frank Baum himself referred to as “gray, dreary” Kansas. I understand the attempt at a message here. Just like the Scarecrow didn’t need the Wizard to give him a brain, and the Tin Man didn’t need the Wizard to give him a heart, and the Cowardly Lion didn’t need the Wizard to give him courage, because they all already had them, Dorothy doesn’t need the Wizard to send her home, because she already has what she needs – both the shoes to get her home, and the realization that home has everything she needs. Ok, yay for the parallel argument, but the lesson that sepia-toned Kansas, with its dust, and its cheesy, slightly pedophilic farmhands (Dorothy’s supposed to be twelve, despite Judy Garland’s obvious adolescence), and violent neighbors, is better, safer, and superior to Technicolor Oz, which may have its witches and flying monkeys and humbugs, but also has great friends and kick-ass shoes, is more than bizarre; in fact, I think it can be harmful. Part of what was so thrilling for me about this past year was that, in addition to it being my first year of graduate school, it was my first year living outside of the Bay Area, my first time successfully living outside of a ten-mile radius of my mother. I’d had an unsuccessful attempt to move to New York my freshman year of college, and after I returned, I felt sorely tempted to stay forever. The Bay Area has pretty much anything anyone could ever ask for (at least in my opinion), and, after all, my heart’s desire couldn’t be any further than my own backyard, right? Wrong. So very, very wrong. I’m not saying that, given the option, I’d rather spend the rest of my life in Santa Barbara rather than Berkeley. That’s not even a comparison for me. But to never go away, to always stay in one place, just afraid of dreaming too big? How sad would that be?

So what bad lesson has When Harry Met Sally taught me ? This one didn’t give me a bad life lesson, but I’m pretty sure it gave me a bad love lesson. And that bad love lesson is to wait. For forever, and ever, and ever. Harry and Sally meet for the first time in 1977, the summer they’ve both graduated from college. They finally get together in 1987, ten whole (pardon my French) fucking years later. And not just because they went so long without seeing each other. No, they spend plenty of time together as friends, waiting and waiting for the love to develop. Now, I know that, in the movie, it takes both of them that much time to develop those feelings. It’s not as if Harry carries a torch for the whole ten years, just waiting for Sally to fall for him. But where I think the movie did me some serious – if unintentional – damage is that it taught me that, if I wait long enough, the right friendship can turn into a wonderful relationship – without my having to help it along. I’ll admit to having fallen hard for a friend, more than once. And I’ll also admit that, pretty much every time that’s happened, I’ve decided to wait it out, Harry and Sally style, for the love to blossom on its own. And not once has it worked out that way. I’ll confess – part of what inspired me to write this post was that I saw someone I follow on Twitter post the following: “I will not ‘When Harry Met Sally’ again. I will not I will not I will not.” First of all, I love the fact that she’s used When Harry Met Sally as a verb. Secondly, I totally get her point, and her frustration – too often, we wait for something wonderful we’re imagining, and in the waiting, the chance for that something wonderful gets lost. I don’t think this one is the fault of the movie itself: after all, in the penultimate scene, as Harry declares his love for Sally, he says one of my favorite lines: “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” That is, don’t sit around waiting for that person you’re hoping will be the Harry to your Sally, or vice versa, to magically guess you’re in love. Say something. This one’s certainly easier said than done. After all, there’s a fear of rejection and awkwardness in the friendship contributing to the desire to wait for the romance, rather than seeking it. I’d hate to preach something I can’t live. But even just letting go of the illusion that romance will magically come to you if you wait long enough for the right person is, I think, enough of a way of unlearning this bad lesson.

So, a question for whatever readers I have (go on, use the comment button below!): Do you feel like any of your favorite movies/books/songs/etc. taught you a lesson you’ve had to unlearn? If so, do tell!


  1. i will ponder your question when i am done with this grant, but i just have to say YOU HAVE SUMMERS OFF?? i am jealous of your grad program. we work straight through, summer after summer after summer.... i'm glad things are going well for you though, and hopefully we'll both in in the bay area at the same time someday soon! xoxo

  2. This is probably the only summer I'll have off. Starting next year, I'll either be doing research or teaching summer sessions. And I really ought to be spending a good chunk of this summer starting the reading for my qualifying exams next year. I hope we'll both be in the Bay sometime soon, too! Miss you, hope all's well!