Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The narration of our lives

I recently saw The Great Buck Howard, a movie starring John Malkovich and Colin Hanks. While I watched, I couldn't help but think about Colin trying to get out of his father's shadow. Tom Hanks is like the male Jennifer Aniston or Sandra Bullock; an iconic, person-next-door kinda, much beloved actor/celeb. His son just doesn't have the same magnetism, at least not yet. For instance, the kid tells nothing with his eyes or face.

While I mused over whether Colin is any good, or at least watchable, I realized part of what bugged me was the narration. Colin is narrating his own story, the movie being a tad more about him than his quirky employer. As if his acting isn't enough to carry the story, he tells us what he's thinking, or about to do. Is it harder to write a screen play in which the characters' lines and acting carry the story without the spoken insights? Can a good actor overcome insight gaps with facial expression, movements, gestures? Does Kevin Costner overcome his narra...--nevermind. Don't don't get me started on Costner. I love Field of Dreams, BUT... guess I need to think on that some more.

What are examples of narration in a good story? A number come to mind. The Princess Bride, The Big Lebowski, The Shawshank Redemption. I can't imagine any of them without the omniscient narrator embellishing things. And hey, I'd listen to anything Morgan Freeman narrates, including a Denny's breakfast menu.

In making a story, there are two kinds of narration: reliable and unreliable. The three examples above are reliable, the narrator is giving you true insights; an excellent example of unreliable would be The Usual Suspects. The narrator there, Kevin Spacey, is making things up as he goes along but you don't know it (for sure) until the end. His unreliable narration IS the story. The same is true of Edward Norton in Fight Club. So maybe I'll make this generality for the moment--while reliable narration EMBELLISHES a story, unreliable narration tends to BE the story.

If art imitates life, what does that say about our narration of our lives? That voice in our heads, our stream of consciousness, the avatar of our self image. Are we reliable or unreliable narrators? I'm thinking we pretty much reliably embellish our stories, and here's why.

I once received a real gift in the form of a blind personal evaluation conducted by a military school I attended. I was in my 40s at this point and well established in my career. The evaluation included opinion sheets filled out by by at least 3 each of my subordinates, my peers and my bosses. The results would be anonymous except by group, and revealed to me only after I left my job, so as to prevent any hard feelings. After attending this school, you move on to a different job posting.

My own opinion of myself was pretty good--that I was overall competent and valued, responsive to my bosses, loyal to my peers and just a hell of a great boss to subordinates. To mix the poll up a bit though, I sent one to a boss I "knew" didn't like me, a friend I considered my "very closest," and subordinates I thought would at least be a spectrum of opinion, from great to so-so.

I'll get straight to the point--across the board I was almost universally average at best. In a couple areas, a little below. That means the boss that hated me didn't destroy me, my best friend didn't elevate me, and worst of all (I thought), not one of my subordinates worshiped me. In hot-button areas like competence, fairness, personality--average. It gets worse, because there may have been a "halo effect" in which people tend to be a little kinder than completely truthful. Well, I refuse to believe I'm a complete ogre, but clearly my self image was wrong.

What to do, what to do. I like to think I adjusted myself both to be more realistic and to improve the areas I already thought were good. I don't know how I did, because I'll never get blind honesty again like that again; but I know for sure that like the saying goes, never believe your own press.

As far as movies, most narration is not a cop-out, and mostly reliable--but you're not being painted into a corner like we probably do in real life...

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