20 Jan Character
In the story that I’d like to write, my interaction with my teenager would go like this,
“Honey, it’s time for bed. Put down that ipod and brush your teeth.”
“Can I just say good night to my friend?”
“Right, its already a half hour past bed time- one text, that’s it. Then straight to the bathroom to brush your teeth.”
A few moments later she puts down her ipod, kisses me on the forehead and quietly trots off to the bathroom.
It went like that up until the last line. It did not go that smoothly. Instead it continued like this;
Instead of putting down the ipod, she starts into a machine gun explanation as to why she has to finish the conversation. It’s important to note that this is a conversation she wasn’t supposed to even be having because she was told that her time on the ipod was up hours earlier after not putting it down all day. The ipod causes an inordinate amount of conflict in our house, and more than once I have fantasized about just snatching it out of her hand and launching it into the woods. I watch as the ipod sails slowly in a gracious arc, disappearing into the dark night.
This evening, there’s a lot of panicky responses, dismissive eye-rolling, and desperate explanations about why this text conversation is so important. I’m torn between empathy for how powerful her need is, and frustration that I am constantly bending backwards to recognize her emotions while at the same time having to stifle my own. I have a powerful urge to just leave the house; to go for a walk and put the conflict behind me. I’m struggling to understand why she can’t do any of the work to find a middle ground. I want to fix the situation – not just in this moment- but it’s hard to do it all by myself.
In the fantasy version, I lose my temper a little bit but we quickly find a solution to the problem and move on. Unfortunately, in reality the conflict continues to escalate and I storm into the back room of the house where I express my frustration by putting my fist through the wall. The 1/4 inch sheet rock collapses like a cereal box.
For the last year, I have been working on a documentary film in which my own story plays a role. Trying to fit the messiness of my own experiences and emotions into the confines of a movie has been inordinately stressful. As I do with my daughter, I try to find empathy for myself, but I’m also pretty frustrated that I too get stuck in the same unproductive and unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior. Being forced to examine myself as a character has been useful and difficult at the same time.
As we’ve gone through the process of showing rough versions of the film to people, there has been a general push toward making my story a bigger part of the film, and toward making my journey more heroic, redemptive, and more complete. People want stories to have clear narratives and even cleaner endings. When we break down any story we can find the arc, but when we are living it, things are a little more complicated.
This film began as a project about the work of Dr. John Sarno and his focus on the relationship between the mind and the body in regards to chronic pain. We came to the story because my family has a long history with his work. My father had suffered with back and neck pain for years when he finally was given a copy of one of Dr. Sarno’s books in the 1980s – and it helped him to get over these problems. Then my brother went to see him in the 1990s after being told he had to have surgery on his collarbone to free up the nerves going to his hands- and he immediately got better. I ended up in his office in 2004 and that’s when we began to make the film. At that point, I had no intention of being in front of the camera at all.
As filmmakers, we like to follow characters as they fight for what they believe in. The characters we follow rarely win these fights, so the films don’t have Hollywood endings, which has made it difficult to push them out into the world. However, our characters do tend to engage in the kind of conflict that drives a good story- one that helps the audience see the world from their point of view. Most of the time they are dealing with issues that the culture at large isn’t ready to tackle, so they have a rough time. However, the films age well because the issues they deal with eventually rise to the surface.
If anyone tells you that you’d make a great character in a documentary, it isn’t necessarily a compliment – although it needn’t be taken as an insult either. Documentary characters often have big personalities that lead to the kind of conflict that make for compelling films. Telling someone that they aren’t a great character for a documentary can go either way as well. When my wife and I wrote our first script, we were trying to document a music scene that we were a part of- and that we loved. I already knew that I was a bit too close to that world to make a documentary about it, which is why we were making a narrative film. When I sent the script to my father (who was something of a movie fanatic) for notes, he simply scrawled across the front, “Where the fuck’s the conflict?” He was right. We had been so conflict-avoidant because we liked all of the people so much that it was a boring story. Drama draws us in; it creates energy. This kind of energy is great for storytelling, but it isn’t always so good for relationships.
Dr. Sarno was not a great character for the kind of documentaries we tend to make. He didn’t have the personality or interactions that create the kind of conflict that a film needs to be riveting. While his positions on treating back and neck pain ran counter to almost every one of his colleagues, he didn’t take the fight to them directly. He simply treated his patients and wrote books for lay people about his ideas. When he first started to work with his ideas surrounding mind body medicine he was supported by his institution. However, as the leadership changed hands he was pushed to the side essentially ignored by his colleagues and the medical field in general. There was no conflict for us to film. He even put out another book while we were shooting, but he didn’t do any events or interviews about it. In the first three years of work, we shot only six hours of tape. On any other project we would have shot close to a hundred hours. We were lost.
When you work on films for 10 years or more, you have to have several going at the same time. We got back to work on the other films that we were shooting, and over time, those other projects took our attention away from Dr. Sarno. The six lonely tapes we had shot ended up in a drawer. For the next five years, we unconsciously waited for a plot point that would propel our story forward. In the meantime, we premiered a film about a land grab in Brooklyn in 2011, and the stress and pressure surrounding the release of this project built up until I found myself on the floor in panic-inducing pain. In that moment, I screamed, “Grab the fucking camera!”. I knew that we finally had a way to tell our Dr. Sarno story. We needed a character and I was willing to give it a shot.
Often, when we’re looking for a project to shoot, we’re attracted to people who are brutally honest in ways that don’t always make them look good. This scenario trends towards reality television when the filmmakers exploit the vagaries of that character. Conversely, when filmmakers try to make the character look too good, the story becomes hagiography. In either scenario, the audience often loses trust in the storyteller as well as in the character. We have always focused on finding enough good and bad to keep things balanced. Our first documentary was called “Horns and Halos,” because – as the main character pointed out – a real character has both.
Dr. Sarno’s approach to healing has to do with this issue- of coming to understand our own horns and halos. Yet, For the most part, we want to be good people and that puts a great strain on us. In order to live up to the ideal of the “good person,” we have to repress the negative desires and emotions that cloud that image of ourselves that we desperately hold onto. This process is largely unconscious: well beyond the realm of our awareness. The five- year-old in us wants to grab the first piece of fried chicken, while our inner critic keeps our hands in our laps til it’s our turn. The six-year-old in us might explode in rage at the customer service person that can’t seem to find our order, even as we apologize for our impatience. This process of keeping our emotions in check helps us to keep peace, but it can affect our health – especially when we remain unaware of how this kind of emotional repression affects us. The more aware we become of how the process works, the more able we are to respond to it, rather than react unconsciously.
Within the realm of our film, my character is focused on trying to get a better understanding of his feelings so that he doesn’t unconsciously react to them (I went ahead and slipped into third person here on purpose because the character on the screen is separate from the person documenting him). One of the challenges is finding the balance between being honest enough to communicate with the audience, but not so naked as to make them turn away. Another challenge is finding a way to be open and honest without infringing on the privacy of my family and friends. It is not an easy balance – and this piece is a perfect example of that conundrum.
The film is called “All The Rage” because Dr. Sarno believes that the majority of chronic pain issues are driven by repressed rage. I’ve had my share of pain and rage, and while it’s no fun to talk about, leaving it unsaid isn’t healthy. When we were filming the above-mentioned “Horns and Halos,” the main character James Hatfield talked about his 2-year-old daughter; he worried that he might get a little too mad when she was “washing her hands in the doggie bowl for the umpteenth time”- and that he “might smack her just a little too hard on the bottom”. Hatfield wrote the first campaign bio of GW Bush before the 2000 election. It got a lot of attention because it contained a hastily added afterword that alleged Bush had been arrested for cocaine possession. However, days after its release, the book was pulled from shelves when it was revealed that Hatfield was a convicted felon. We were talking with him that day hours after a press conference announcing that the book had finally been re-released. This put Hatfield back under the press microscope. Two months later, he took his own life. The crushing weight of the many secrets he was keeping was too much to bear.
I don’t have the kind of secrets that Hatfield did, but like everyone else, there’s plenty of negative crap in my head that I try to keep from thinking. As I stated at the top, my teenager is a powerful driver of conflict (to be clear she’s also a tremendous human being). I try to take the best and avoid the worst parts of my mother’s and father’s parenting as I respond to her, but I don’t always succeed. Over the past couple of years I’ve put a great deal of effort into becoming better at discussing things rather than reacting to them. This has gone very well with my wife, who is working with me to change our less successful patterns of interaction. My daughter, on the other hand, hates to “talk about it”, which makes this process a lot more difficult. The contempt quotient is pretty high- she’s a teenager.
The other night, the discussion about going to bed continued for way too long. I got pretty frustrated and I left my wife to deal with putting my daughter to bed. I felt a surge of frustration and anger and I went to the back room of the house to get away from the conflict. I had a very powerful urge to release some of that pent up rage by putting my hand through the wall and through the wall it went. I didn’t feel any better and I had a hole in the wall to fix.
My daughter’s normal teenage behavior had set off a powerful surge of emotions within me and I knew it was my responsibility to figure out what went wrong. I spent a lot of time writing and thinking about it, and I made a lot of good connections. I think my response had as much to do with the fact that my herculean efforts to be “a good parent” weren’t working out as I wanted them to. All day long, I had bent over backwards to respond rather than react, and by 11:30pm my reserves were shot. There is no question that because of the work I’ve been doing on the film and on myself, I am wildly better off than I was a year ago. I am also human, and subject to all of the “foibles and pratfalls” that this condition entails. Having the kids at home for a four-day weekend as I struggle to put my demons in a nice dramatic format for public consumption is tough. I take no pleasure in writing about losing my temper, but I also understand that if I hide the truth from myself, I’m not doing myself – or anybody else – any favors.