Life Doesn’t Get a Montage (You Don’t Get to Skip the Boring Parts)

31 Jan
Already sees in 3D

This guy already sees in 3D

We all love movies. We learn about a hero. His challenges and his desires. He sets off on a path only to be met with failure. Again and again he fails. Resistance come from all sides. Finally and inevitably, he realizes that he must change himself. He turns the corner by letting go of who he thought he was. He must become someone new. His desire has changed. He no longer wants we he did at the beginning. He wants something deeper. More noble. In the end he rises up and achieves his new goal. He wins. And we are all uplifted.

This is the typical narrative progression. One that screen-writer Robert McKee  coaches and one in which Stanford University has dedicated significant resources to teach (i.e. The Stanford Storytelling Project). This structure has stood the test of time because it so accurately represents the human development process that we experience ourselves. The theater needn’t be filled with cognitive-developmental psychologists for it to appreciate how natural and beautifully dynamic this process is. We’ve all had our own moments. Ambitions thwarted. Insights gained. New life received. We’ve all tasted it (on some level). And we keep buying tickets for more.

However, the way  the hero stories are told in the movies is not a perfect one-to-one translation. Within only 120-minutes at their disposal, screen writers and directors must make hard decisions about what to include and how to show it. This is where we have a problem. Far from being light-hearted entertainment, movies have come to define how we learn and think about ourselves and our world. Students learn more about  Greek mythology from watching Harry Potter than from reading Edith Hamilton (She was required reading in school for decades, so if you don’t get that reference, then you prove my point). The narrative structure as presented in movies is the gestalt of our times. It informs how we make sense of our lives. How we think about our relationships. How we think about our own stories. And I think there is one movie convention that sends all the wrong messages – the montage.

As you know, the montage is a series of short clips meant to speed up time/space for the audience. It allows a writer to show lots of action in a short amount of time. This is great for popcorn sales. However, the montage subtly misrepresents how change actually happens. One that, without some attention, may suggest that achieving your dreams is going to be easy. It isn’t an overt promise, but a slight suggestion. The hero’s brutal 6-month recovery.  The community comes together to save the hospital. The painter locks herself away in her studio. All of them only last about 60 seconds. Here’s how the movie Team America handled this phenomena (in case you weren’t already thinking about this):

Obviously, in real life these things take time and courage, but more than that they take resolve and persistence. The problem with the montage is that it skips over the most important part of achieving our goals. The work. The boring and gritty work that it takes to get from point A to B. The montage suggests, by the real estate afforded it, that hard work isn’t really all that  important. By sheer ratio alone, the main characters moment of transformation (the moment the entire narrative is based upon) is usually only a few seconds. The entire movie has built up to this transformation, which it then quickly glances over. Some action happens and then we are then hurriedly ushered into the movies closing scenes. The white wedding. The reluctant apology. The blood-stained trophy raised to a cheering crowd.

The point is that we’re usually pretty good at accepting things that are easy. We’re also pretty good at accepting things that are hard. But we usually really suck at accepting things that are boring. The parts where the hero toils in silence. Working day after day. Grinding out the work that she so desperately needs to finish. She cooks the family dinner then she studies. She cooks dinner then she studies. She cooks dinner then she studies. Day after day. She cooks dinner then she studies. She cooks dinner then she studies. Night after night. Slowing working on her degree. It’s repetitive. It’s boring. But she puts one foot in front of the other and carries on. She is too focused. She cooks dinner then she studies. It would be a horrible movie.

* clang…..clang…..clang…..

The reason is because real work is boring. It is repetitive and bland. Sure there are moments when you might let a smile slip out (or a tear), but real work…the kind that the movies dramatize in the montage…is deep work. It is about becoming more than you were. About becoming someone new and that isn’t going to be obvious to other people. You can’t point to it. It is deeper than your emotions. It isn’t always going to be showy or fun or glamorous. When you’re on the path you’re on it alone. Personal transformation cannot be outsourced. No one can do it for you.

And yet we’ve become conditioned to “achieve” that if we’re told that something is “difficult” or “hard” then we immediately pound our chest and roar, “Bring it on motherfucker!!” But this is a conditioned response. We’ve watched too many movies. Our culture programs us to turn hardship into meaning. Difficultly into challenge. “Me against the World” should probably be on the dollar bill. But this is only one side of the coin. Many people can handle HARD, CHALLENGE, FEAR, COURAGE, ROAR!!!, but far fewer can handle BORING, COLD, GRITTY, GRIMY, MEH. We haven’t learned how to handle boring. It doesn’t come through the front door. It doesn’t announce itself. It isn’t dramatic. It sleeps and waits. The action movie hero doesn’t even want to face it. He gets a montage.

I think Julius Erving might have said it best, “Being a professional is doing the things you love on the days you don’t feel like doing them.” So, it’s important that you’re doing what you love. To me, that is a prerequisite. But finding your passion isn’t enough.  If you really want to understand what it takes to succeed (however you might define that for yourself), then remember that you shouldn’t become too enamored with your own story. Your life isn’t a movie and you don’t get a montage. You don’t get to skip the boring parts. The truth is, our lives are infinitely more mundane and messy than the movies we watch (another reason why I suspect we enjoy watching them). And while that escapism isn’t inherently problematic, it does run the risk of making us feel guilty when our paths don’t match those of our heroes. Stories are make believe. In order to make sense they have to edited and embellished. Our lives are not so neatly structured.

Finally, it only seems appropriate that I end this post by contradicting everything I just said. For all the weaknesses of movies, blog articles by no-name writers are far worse. So, I understand that the montage isn’t an overt statement about how human beings change. They are just a convention of a particular story-telling medium. And more than that, as unrealistic as they are, they are great for getting a little energy boost. So, for all of my pedantic belly-aching over the montage, I love them as much as anyone. Below is one of my personal favorites, which comes to us from Rocky IV (the training sequences of Rocky and Ivan Drago). Watch it, but when you do, focus on the images of Rocky running through the snow. Ignore the music for a moment and imagine that he is doing this for 2 hours everyday… for 6 months. Imagine how difficult and boring that must be. Running. Imagine that he does it first thing in the morning. Running. Even when he is tired. Running. When his angle hurts. Running. When he’d rather be lifting weights. Running. Even when there is no music. Even when there are no cameras. Running.

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