Wednesday, August 21, 2013

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue: Graduating from New York University

Note: I wrote this piece this past May after graduating from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. I believe the piece more or less deals with a lot of my fears immediately after graduation, and, to a certain extent, the piece still reflects a lot of my feelings even months after graduation.

There’s a deep, profound sadness during this time of transition. It’s about that time when regrets start bubbling up in my mind, although, for me, they never seem to really leave, and my days are spent recounting and reliving the social errors and faux-pas I made over the past four years.

If I’m concerned or preoccupied with anything, both in my everyday life and in my creative work – it’s behavior. Specifically, my own, over which I am significantly concerned. But I suppose in the days surrounding graduation, my normal state of anxiety has risen to a full-out existential crisis.

What behavior do other people remember? I think that my latest film, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory, deals with this question a little bit. Is it possible to act like a buffoon in front of a large group of people, but still manage to salvage your reputation and retain some pride for the next day? Is everyone thinking mostly about their own moral failings, their own insecurities and disappointments? I know that I’m guilty of overanalyzing my own behavior, but I also know that I’m able to sometimes behave on autopilot, unaware of what my words might mean or suggest to someone else.

If only we were given a transcript of everything we said during a given day – every word, every action – then I would have a way of analyzing my behavior closely to see how I did (and I wouldn’t struggle to recall every significant thing I said). Was my behavior as awkward as I remember? Did I alienate anyone along the way? After reviewing it, I would probably hand the transcript over to someone else – a witness – to receive some sort of validation that I’m not doing as terribly as I think I am.

There are opportunities for opening up, but I squander them. I imagine most students who graduated last week are experiencing a kind of existential crisis to one degree or another. But my concern isn’t having an existential crisis – my concern is that I’ll continue to mask that crisis behind sarcasm and a snarky sense of humor that shoots down any real kind of conversation with another person. I build walls.

I also struggle immensely without structure. I began feeling comfortable and respected in high school when I became a part of our school’s wonderful theatre department, but that was a long time ago. I think I’ve been able to survive in college through the structure of the film school and keeping busy with making movies.

What structure remains now? There will be the weekly Wednesday evening meetings with my Advanced Production class, where we screen rough cuts of our advanced films and, ideally, screen feature-length films afterwards. The class is made up of people who I love dearly, and perhaps it’s because I love them all so dearly that I fear my excitement in seeing them each week will result in the kind of behavior I long to end. I’ll talk too much, I’ll get started on a rant about films, or perhaps a political issue about which I know far too little, and when the evening is over, I’ll take a look at myself and promise to do better the next week. But this is one of the only surviving structures in which there is the luxury of having a next week. And it won’t last for long.

But When We Get to the End, He Wants to Start All Over Again

That’s right, so many of the structures and institutions that give direction to my life are disappearing before my eyes. The Dean’s Scholars group, the classes, the internship, Tisch New Theatre – all have come to an end.

There are many friends (and people I wish I knew better) moving to Los Angeles soon, and maybe I’ll have the chance to see some of these wonderful people one last time before they leave. But there likely won’t be enough time for me to re-shape how they think of me, or for me to deepen my friendship with them in a significant way. Of course, I always tell myself I need more time – it doesn’t matter how long I have with someone. If I spend ten hours with another person, for instance, I’ll very likely squander 9 ½ of those hours by telling nonsense jokes, ranting about movies and acting bizarrely in an effort to gain some sort of attention or respect. And then, in the last half-hour, I’ll suddenly scramble to make some kind of real, true emotional connection with the person and achieve what I failed to do in the previous hours. That’s my nature.

Although some of us will remain at Tisch and continue editing our senior films in the months to come, the vast majority of people I know will move on, and what was once a fresh class of students and artists will drift away. I think I’ll miss it the most precisely because, just as I was learning how to become a part of it, it ended.

But for the past four years, every night was a chance to look back at the day behind me, review the possible mistakes I made and try to reinvent myself for the next day. I’m not sure there were very many days where I took that opportunity.

Now, I have that slightly lonely feeling you get after a shoot is over, except it feels like one giant film shoot has come to an end. Most shoots themselves feel like a rush of quick decisions, small arguments with other people – an entire laundry-list of sometimes questionable behavior. When they’re over, everything slows down. Suddenly there’s time to think through everything carefully, but it’s too late to change anyone’s opinion of you because everyone has moved on, and that rush that comes with having so much to do has vanished. There’s the need to lay low, make amends and keep quiet for a while, and you’re not totally sure if there will always be a next shoot, and you know you may not see many of these wonderful people ever again after spending so much time with them.

That’s what graduation feels like.

After the Gold Rush

It’s late at night when I get the most anxious – when I realize that all of the plans and dreams I had for a given day did not come to fruition, that I accomplished very little and that, frankly, I regressed in many ways. And then I fight against the night to fix what I can before I run out of steam and energy. When I wake up in the morning, the world seems so full of opportunity and promise again. Energized by the potential of the day, I get a little giddy, and I goof around, leaving the work for just a little bit later, and I goof around some more – until it’s nighttime, and I realize that I let all of that opportunity and promise slip away. But that’s okay, because the next morning –

When you get to the end, you know there are so many people who you could have gotten to know better. Oh, how I wish I had been more candid, more genuine and free of cynicism.

It’s true that there are wonderful things that await me. I get to live with two of my dearest friends this summer. I will continue working on my advanced film, a project I’m very proud of, and I will be faced with a few more opportunities, perhaps, to better my behavior in front of people I respect and admire.

But, for me, there’s always going to be a tension every day between the need to behave, to be rational, to make a good impression on others – and then the impulse to somehow transcend the day, to act a little bit crazier and take a few risks – but in doing so, maybe you get the chance to earn the love and respect for which you’ve been searching. And then there’s the fall – where the behavior comes crashing down and those risks turn into regrets, and you wonder why you didn’t play it safe and just behave like a normal human being.

Our last advanced production class with Yemane Demissie profoundly moved me. He screened Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt for the class, and although the film is one of my favorite movies, I didn’t initially understand why Yemane selected the film to end our class. He told us that he thought showing a transition film about college graduation might be a little obvious, so he wanted to show a film about a different moment of transition in a person’s life. The movie, as it always does, made me tear up a little bit at the end. But, after it ended, Yemane sat in front of the class and connected About Schmidt to my future in a way that I had never considered.

Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) plants a seed at the beginning of the film by sending a monthly donation to a six-year old child named Ndugu, who lives in a developing country, through a program called Childreach. It’s exactly the kind of thing an American man in his late sixties might do to give back, or to feel he’s doing some good in the world. Schmidt expects nothing by sending the check, though – it’s a genuine act that results in him writing letters to Ndugu throughout the film, speaking his mind and sharing his insecurities with a young boy who probably doesn’t understand what he’s talking about.

Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Schmidt has planted nothing with his family – after his wife dies, he’s left to fend alone against his daughter and her fiancĂ©. By the end of the film, Schmidt is alone. He has nobody left, and he has failed. His daughter marries the imbecile he so strongly urges her not to, and after the wedding, she’s gone, out of reach.

His wife is gone, too. He is mostly forgotten by his co-workers from his insurance office. “Relatively soon, I will die,” Schmidt writes to Ndugu. “Maybe in 20 years, maybe tomorrow, it doesn’t matter. Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all.”

In the last scene, however, he opens a letter from a Sister who works in a small village in Tanzania and cares for young Ndugu. She tells Schmidt that Ndugu reads all of his letters and thinks of him every day. Enclosed with the letter is a painting by Ndugu, which shows two stick figures – one shorter than the other – holding hands. Schmidt breaks down crying. In the end of the film, Ndugu is his salvation. He expected nothing from it, and put his time and energy into relationships that ultimately failed him – but it was Ndugu that gave him his salvation.

Yemane asked us to remember, as we go forward in life, that if we plant something small and expect nothing from it, it could very well end up being our salvation. You never know what is going to end up saving you, and it may very well come from the place you least expect.

The graduation speech I needed came from Yemane Demissie. But it also made me wonder, where or what is my Ndugu? I worry and struggle through so many strained relationships, but which are the ones that will come through in the end?

How many times I have felt just like Schmidt – my last-ditch ambitions foiled, forced to return home, disappointed and defeated, only to have my spirits lifted by the smallest and most unexpected source. However deluded my happiness – or Schmidt’s – might be, it’s what keeps me going.

And so I move forward into a world of uncertainty and anxiety. My expectations are unrealistically high, and hopefully I won’t be crushed with disappointment. I only wish I knew the identity of my Ndugu, so that I can keep my eyes open and my heart ready for whatever ends up being my salvation.

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