The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, May 16, 2008

Stress and Strain

One of the things I hate about politics is the way opponents excoriate each other, then join hands and sing Kum-bah-Yah afterwards. The followers of the candidates seem to take it all much worse than the candidates themselves: note the blog comments by furious, heart-broken women pledging to work against Obama. I have no idea if equal percentages of Obama supporters would have been screaming if the percentages were reversed.

But take a good look at this, if you want to understand something about human nature. And that is that when you look at a group that claims itself to be disadvantaged (and everybody belongs to one or another of such groups) as soon as they can identify their shared grievances, they begin to display the same self-destructive, name-calling, childish, self-centered, tunnel-visioned behavior that they often criticize in others. Blacks, gays, women, the obese, the poor, the rich (!), fringe political or religious groups, parties out of office...whatever the group, they say remarkably similar things. And I suspect that in one form or another, they often end up "burning down their own neighborhood." It's an interesting phenomenon, and as far as I can see, is wide-spread enough to feel universal.


Jodie Foster just broke up with her girlfriend (supposedly). I kind of think that she came out of the closet, found out that it hurt her career, and ducked back in. I sense a similar pattern with Phillip Seymour Hoffman (about whom rumors were swirling, then he started making very public appearances with models on his arm) or Ann Heche. I think that we're very close to the place where people can simply be themselves in this sense...but not quite there. It's like Will Smith not having sex in movies--he is certainly big enough to say "I want it" but realizes it will hurt his box-office down the line. Gays in Hollywood are definitely disproportionate to the general population--they're actually making many of the decisions about what images will make it to the screen. The reason you don't see more gay stuff in movies is because it would hurt business, plain and simple. They're not crazy: they have to pay the bills. But the public isn't ready for that yet. Soon, though...

But if gay men have sex in movies more often than blacks, I'm gonna be seriously pissed, I kid you not. Hell, they already have "Brokeback Mountain"...(although note the moral lesson embedded in the story line: have gay sex, and die. I've seen the same embedded lessons concerning interracial sex for forty years. Can't clearly remember a single movie with a black man having sex with a white woman, where one or the other didn't sustain tissue damage or SERIOUS emotional trauma during the film. Often, death.)


Remember: stress isn't the problem. STRAIN is the problem: stress which has a negative effect on the organism. Before stress becomes strain, there are predictable physiological changes which occur. By learning to relax under stress (disciplines like martial arts, yoga, meditation, etc. do this) you are programming your nervous system with important, generative lessons. By selecting goals in the three major areas, you will run into whatever obstructions your unconscious mind uses to slow you down. Push forward, and you get stress. Keep the stress from becoming strain, and you get stronger. Eventually, you will find yourself on the other side of the barrier. The trick is consistent, flexible action: keeping the mountain in sight but trying this path, and then that one, asking native guides, consulting maps, forging rivers...trying again and again and again...until you reach your goal.

Now, truth be told I know people who really don't need goals. They are already happy with where they are in all major life areas. These people have mastered an aspect of life: to simply do what you do, and still accomplish everything that needs to be done with a sense of grace, purpose, and joy. They are incredibly fortunate, and it is in modeling them that I'm reverse engineering the I.D.E.A. concept.

The question of the day is: Have any of you known people who never really had specific goals, but just Zenned their way into a wonderful, satisfying, healthy life? What qualities did said people possess that seemed uncommon?


joshua said...

On black men having sex with white women onscreen, have you seen The Wire?

It's a show full of human beings, flawed, but trying.

One of the coolest characters is a handsome, virile Steve Barnesian badass policeman with integrity who in later seasons has on screen luvvin' with an attactive (to me, anyway) white gal.

And for ONCE, they get away with it without having the requisite samboish sacrifice 'himself to save a white person', or self destruction. He lives and thrives.

Unfortunately the show didn't. But they never compromised the consistent view of humanity.

Flawed, but trying.

It's only ONE example. But it's something.

Is it safe to think Hancock will have Will Smith stealing the white girl from the white guy and paying the traditional price?

Have you heard?

And I'm about ready for In The Night Of The Heat.

Just sayin'...

Steven Barnes said...

Again, I was talking about movies. Television plays by different rules, and I have no way of measuring ratings as precisely as box office, which makes it difficult to guess how much this or that image impacted the audience.
Hancock? Pretty sure that the original script was a romance (for Spoilerish reasons I won't go into.) The script seems to have been written for their relationship to, instead, be a "tragic, impossible love" or some such bullshit, about as convincing as the "identity switch" bullshit in Bad Boys. Smith is smarter than hell--he knows which way the wind blows.
And I'm not particularly interested in seeing black men with white women--only that I'd like to see it as often as I see the other way around. What I really want to see is black men having sex with women, period. And not dying. And I consider that image (or lack of it) to be the equivalent of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of the marketplace: a measure of unconscious racism in America and the world.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

I have no idea if equal percentages of Obama supporters would have been screaming if the percentages were reversed.

I don't know, but I suspect it might well be similar; I remember back around NH time, when it looked as if Clinton was pulling ahead again, more Obama supporters than Clinton supporters were making noises about being unwilling to support the other side in the fall. Now, there were reasons for that - a series of quotes out of the Clinton camp that looked possibly race baiting (some of which I think were out of context or just clumsy wording, but the list as a whole looked sketchy). But there are reasons for some of the anger among heart-broken Clinton supporters now - some Obama supporters (though not Obama himself) have joined in the more misogynist takes on Clinton. As you say, the followers of the candidates often take the whole conflict worse than the candidates themselves.

Jodie Foster just broke up with her girlfriend (supposedly).

Crap! And I was thinking it was such good news that she finally felt OK edging out of the closet, after 14 years in that relationship.

where one or the other didn't sustain tissue damage or SERIOUS emotional trauma during the film. Often, death.

Death for both of them, in a movie I rented this week. Which, on the one hand, can readily be defended as a plotting decision for this particular movie - it's a cautionary tale about guns, and other people die in it - but on the other hand, darn, does it have to also follow cautionary tale about sex conventions? Of course the good chaste blonde lived, while the bad unchaste blonde and all the men who were threatened by guns died. And I wanted the good chaste blonde to live - she was just spirited enough to be a sympathetic good chaste blonde - but still.

Have any of you known people who never really had specific goals

Actually, I'm not sure - do the people I don't know to have specific goals not have specific goals, or just not have specific goals they're telling me? I do think specific goals are a good idea at least for people who tend at all toward depression; it checks one's tendency to give up too soon.

Steven Barnes said...

All plot turns are created. They could just as easily have given a happily-ever-after. Look at the overall range of images, and when they are employed, if you want to grasp the underlying unconscious associations of the creators and the audience. White women with black men appear only (or primarily) in stories of crime and corruption and violence. As opposed to romantic fluff like "Something New" where an interracial relationship is actually presented as a human interaction rather than a social problem.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

Oh, happily-ever-after was ruled out, in this case, at every turn from the moment they met. The woman was a brat who could lead to happiness for no one. But even with that set up (itself, yeah, a creative choice), of course the plot turns could have been set up in some other way than "both these people are going to be shot to death by the end of the movie." At the same time, you could tell, as the movie swung from bad, bratty blonde dying to good blonde being threatened, that probably good blonde would survive, and knew, as the scene shifted from good blonde's survival, that the next scene would almost certainly involve the black man not escaping violent death. Very conventional that way, and all the more annoying conventionality because the black guy was actually a fairly rounded character, and the bad, bratty blonde who slept with him at least a humanly believable brat (as opposed to a not so believable misogynist take on woman as trouble).

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

What I mean is - you know, mostly this "black men getting laid in the movies" thing is an intellectual exercise to me. One where I see your point, but it doesn't hit me where I live. Where I'd be perfectly happy to see sufficiently hot black guys laid on screen with anyone whatsoever, but can manage to be satisfied with other aspects of the story even if said hot black guys never get laid at all. On the other hand, send the black guy into a hotel room with a white woman and then kill them both, well, that's harder for me to watch, at a gut level. But at the same time, there's this other voice in my head saying how it would look to someone who doesn't have the same emotional loading for that.

So, I was watching this movie, enjoying this particular doomed to die black character. And, you know, skip past ominous foreshadowing to the point where the doomed pair are in the hotel room. They kiss, and a sequence of events ensues which leads to him accidentally shooting her within minutes. And one track of my mind is saying, yes, of course this was going to happen, I should have seen it coming; this is exactly what the movie was leading to. And another track of my mind is saying, ack, no, how could they have him kill her? Various people get confronted by guns, we pull away to leave the viewer in suspense about all of them, return to the good blonde - ah, yes, of course, I knew she would live, and at this point I almost don't care that she did (though in general I wanted her to), because I know already what the next scene will be, and is, the black guy is dead, then yet another guy gets killed as an indirect result of that hotel room episode, which is more or less decimating the cast.

And, what's bothering me is, one part of my mind is really disliking this particular version of things, gut level, it mars for me a movie I'd wanted to like (because I really did like that doomed character that just shot the woman to death in the hotel room and was shot in turn, he was, in fact, my whole reason for renting the movie to begin with), and I'm thinking, great, they have sex and die, it's teen horror movie moralism. And the other track of my mind is saying, ah, but if I weren't predisposed to take this personally, see all the neat parallelisms set up between the man who dies and the woman who lives, and, you know, I can totally see how, from another point of view, someone else could fixate on all those other things, and not (at least consciously) see it as "have sex and die."

Of course, it makes a difference that there isn't so much romantic fluff alongside this kind of thing. It would definitely feel less freaky if I'd just seen a similar couple in an Annie Hall style comedy the other day, or something. But also it makes a big difference what your vantage point is when you see it. And there's a certain discomfort in realizing that in this case I'm taking something personally that the movie seems to want me to take, or assume I'll take, another way.

Steven Barnes said...


Note that the sex thing doesn't really impact you until it hits someone of your group--a white woman. THIS is the way human beings are. Which is why members of one group can scream as much as they want, and it really doesn't mean anything to the others. We all do this to one degree or another.

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