life is an independent film


    A week or so ago we did some catching up on our movies and finally saw The Visitor, an amazing and well-told story captured and the intersection of privilege and despair. I would tell you to stop and go watch it now, but I want you to read. So, finish reading and then go watch it.

    The film is of the small, independent variety – Sundancey, if you will – which also means it is full of space. There is not a soundtrack that fills up every second, there are not any noticeable special effects or computer generated beings. There’s a lot of walking around and talking and just getting through life. Which led me, hot on the heels of my last post on metaphor, to this conclusion:

    Life is like an independent film: low budget (at least in our case); character driven; no big stars to speak of, but a lot of people you look at and think, “I’ve seen them in something else”; and; for the most part, nothing happens. You just see their lives from Point A to Point B and then everyone goes their separate ways.

    Life is a movie where nothing happens for the most part, where all the action is in the details, where we share the experience of being human at some of the most surprising intersections, where our laptops suffice for what computer generated aid we get, and where there are few special effects and even fewer stunt doubles. Somewhere in the stack of stuff that belongs to me is a greeting card with a quote by Ashleigh Brilliant (her real name) that says,

    My life has a superb cast, but I just can’t figure out the plot.

    Life is that kind of movie.

    One of the things I love about indie films is the lack of focus on one person, usually. If we’re talking Sundance flicks, we’re talking ensemble casting: it takes a village to tell a good story. Regardless of how much the star making machinery tries to tell us who matters in the world, the great stuff doesn’t really happen on a grand scale. What matters most happens everyday, over and over: people find ways to dream dreams and love one another and build things and tear them down and hope and fail and lose and find, all in that layer of the universe where it matters if you can find a parking place, or when pay day is, or what you are having for dinner. In this movie, we are all small players with a few scenes, all of which matter because they are the story.

    What does it mean to the story that I have peeled and diced more pounds of onions and carrots than I could even begin to count for soups that lasted only a day or two and then were forgotten? There’s a question underneath that one, though, that might begin to offer an answer: how did I dice and chop?

    How have I grown and changed in the middle of the mirepoix? Who have I become? Have I let the details of life become drudgery that have soured me into cynicism? Do I think more about what I am doing without than who it is I am working with? Can I, as I wrote once in a song, hear the music through the circumstance, or am I simply going through the motions?

    The answers are as daily as the details. It may depend on which day we’re shooting the scene, if you catch my drift. Some day the movie metaphor may fall from independent project to boring instructional video or, perhaps, absurdist foreign film. A great deal depends on how well I’m listening because that’s the first act in paying attention and responding well.

    Last night at the Durham restaurant, I walked out into the dining room to get a cup of coffee. We were about twenty minutes from the end of service on what turned out to be a very busy night, and I was tired. A man and woman were being shown to their table just as I got to the coffee pot.

    “How are you?” I asked.
    “Ready to be impressed,” he said with a big grin.
    “Cool,” I answered. “Thanks for being ready. That makes things so much easier for us.”

    I already knew he was going to have a great meal because he was ready for one. And I don’t mean that simply as some sort of positive thinking projection technique to imagine my way into a new reality. What I mean is he came in expecting we were going to play the scene well. Knowing he was already pulling for us made the scene a lot easier to play. I was working on the nightly order sheets by the time they left the restaurant.

    “How did we do?” I asked him.
    “It was everything I expected,” he said, and we both went on to our next scenes and, not too long after, I let the credits roll on my evening.

    Today at work, my phone rang about 4:30, as it does most afternoons I’m at work, because Ginger calls right before service just so we can have a chance to talk. It is one of the details that demonstrates her love for me. I know the scene by heart and I never get tired of playing it. Life is the kind of movie that gets told in those kinds of details – in calls and touches. Redemption rides on small gestures and simple acts; forgiveness has fingerprints.

    Just watch this closing scene from Big Night. If you haven’t seen the movie, all you need to know is the two brothers who end up in the closing shot had both hurt each other deeply the night before. Do notice the whole five minutes is done without an edit. About as real life as it gets.



    1. Just think of what Hollywood would have done to that shot– close up of the eggs being cracked, medium shots of the actors walking in the rooms, close ups of the exchanged glances between the actors (because of course you can’t trust the audience to figure it out) subdued classical guitar in the background…

      FOund it particularly moving when the third man walked in, and coudn’t figure out why– then it dawned on me: there was one last portion of omlette saved, before he entered.

      That’s grace, all right.

    2. “Redemption rides on small gestures and simple acts; forgiveness has fingerprints.” Very nice. Thank you for writing so well and for letting us read it!

    Leave a Reply