The thing about powerlessness is that it tends to make you an asshole. A life of total denial makes every disagreement into a vicious affront, and every disappointment into a crushing blow; it also engenders a wicked sense of entitlement that only someone held back from participating in life can justify to oneself. Plus, film criticism was a substitute that could never give me the full gratification of saying that I was doing what I wanted to do on my own terms; and my dependency on help from the government didn’t exactly improve my outlook. Very often, I took people for what I could get, unwilling to believe I could get anything more fleeting immediate satisfactions, and this happened with Bill as it did with anyone else. I don’t know if that was self-criticism or self-exoneration, but whatever: I could be a prick.
This is a passage from a stunning entry, and possibly the last, by Travis Mackenzie Hoover for the Film Freak Central Blog. I've admired Travis' writings for Reverse Shot and The House Next Door, and I featured his comments in my Shooting Down Pictures entry on My Brilliant Career. It's an incredibly thoughtful piece on how a life-changing personal discovery triggered a radical reassessment of the role that cinema and film criticism had played in one's life. Reading it caused a lot of reflection on my part along those lines. But first, here's the key passage:
Ten years of unsalaried work pass. My uber-quack finally does me the honour of retiring, where it’s revealed that he had diagnosed me with schizoaffective disorder without telling me. This meant that I was referred to a clinic that specialized in schizophrenia- a place of dedicated, caring professionals who were uniformly puzzled by my diagnosis. Half a year goes by with the doctors trying to figure out why the hell I had been sent there, with me half-wishing I was schizophrenic just so I’d have a name for the unnamable thing that had gripped me. And after ten years on the dole, and thirty-four years of stunned incomprehension at the world around me, It was finally decreed: Travis Mackenzie Hoover has Asperger’s syndrome.Plunk. The pieces finally fall into place. My narrow obsession with one subject, my series of fidgety mannerisms and “stims”, my inability to decipher social situations, my tendency to blurt things out without considering the consequences, my problems with empathy in situations that really demand it, my difficulty, my alienation: there was name, a face, and an assurance that none of this was my motherfucking fault. The syndrome wasn’t bad news, it was the key to understanding my behaviour and the behaviour of everyone around me, which before had been humiliating mysteries and which now revealed themselves to be the neurochemical luck of the draw. I wasn’t a victim of Asperger’s syndrome, I was a victim of not being told I had Asperger’s syndrome, and the information lifted my depression and shredded my fear and gave me the first proof that maybe this once-nightmarish world might not be such a bad place after all...
By some strange serendipity, I inherited a small amount of money recently. Not enough to change my life, but enough to get me a DV camera and a computer powerful enough to edit the footage, and it’s here that the next chapter of my life begins. I’m going to try and make something about my experience, and maybe some stuff totally unrelated- in any event, the diagnosis has finally given me the sense of emotional cause-and-effect I need to write convincingly. I’m going to put my theories into practice, and I’m going to see if I can claw my way out of the ghetto and put Aspie culture on the map. And that means I have to clear out certain distractions.By the end of ten years criticism had sort of become a soporific drug to numb the pain... I can now only do the stuff I want to see and write about, to make room for the other things I need to do; and it has to be more occasional, meaning I have to stop anything that keeps me on a grind, that has me doing soul-deadening things I don’t want to see on a treadmill. And that means, after ten years running down that road, I am hanging up my typewriter at Film Freak Central.
Wow. You have to be amazed at how one personal discovery can so radically realign one's values, self-image and interests.
One one level, Travis' essay has me thinking about what cinephilia and criticism (and blogging specifically) mean to me, and what value I place on all the time I spend watching, thinking about and writing movies. Especially because, like Travis, I have grander designs to be a filmmaker and I wonder a lot if the film writing encourages or encumbers the filmmaking. For now I've made a kind of reconciliation of the two through my video essays for the Shooting Project -- they've been an opportunity to experiment with expressing my thoughts and defining my voice as both critic and filmmaker while engaging with a wide swath of cinema (sometimes I wonder if it's too wide, to the point that I can't proceed to consolidate my own vision amidst all this eclecticism). For now, I am content with the nature and extent of my participation in online cinema culture, though its constant evolution no doubt will keep me wondering...
But on another, deeper level, Travis' essay really touched me on the level of self-esteem, and what effect certain events and choices can have in steering your self-image and self-esteem upward or downward. I was depressed for a good stretch of last year after I accepted a promotion at work, one that seemed related to my filmmaking ambitions (at least more related than my previous stint of answering calls and managing databases). It was the practical move, resulting in a 25% salary increase and a chance to hone some of my multimedia and editing skills (put to good personal use with my vid essays). But something was just not right... to the point that I started taking antidepressants. I had no time to work on my documentary and was putting in hours working on the script for my feature, whose shooting date seemed so far away from my humdrum everyday reality. Then around last month I finished the 7th draft of the script, the money was coming together from my partner (who will direct) and suddenly it was time to seriously start looking for our cast. I put out a casting call for our lead actress in New York, to play a South Asian high school girl. Because of my previous documentary work with the Desi community, I got a tremendous response, it was really a trip to be recognized as a brand name filmmaker in the South Asian American community. And these auditions have been an exalting experience -- directing people in these readings makes me wonder what the fuck I've been wasting time with for the past few years, but that's neither here nor there. This was all part of a process I had to go through, to experience, to learn, and to grow. Once you know, you go, and there's no turning back.
There is nothing more valuable than feeling that you have the power to do what it is that you set out to do. I've known what it's like not to feel that way, and don't ever want to go back there. 2008 is going to be an awesome year. Hearing stories like Travis' only encourages me more to keep pursuing that truest sense of who you are and act on that emerging understanding of inner truth.
I sure hope you make that movie, Travis, and make it brilliantly.