Foolish as They [Are]

Dormammu! I come to bargain!

Is the key line BentoBox CabbagePatch uses to bring yet another Marvel superhero movie, Dr. Strange, to its climax and conclusion. Some kind of conclusion anyways. I kinda stopped paying attention at this point; I was too busy trying to understand just exactly what it would mean to use a time machine in a dimension… without time.

Anything is possible in a dimension that is “beyond time”! Including dialog, physics, Dr. Strange mysteriously continuing to breathe despite what I would assume would be a complete lack of oxygen, and more generally the progression of events causally linked in a linear fashion. So, time. Got it. Makes total sense.

I think the clearer way to frame Dr. Strange trapping Dormammu in a time loop is that Dormammu himself (itself?) is beyond time in a god-like fashion, experiencing all events across time in one long stream of consciousness, not that the realm itself is beyond time. (Yes, I’m contradicting the movie directly here, for the sake of proposing an explanation that makes sense.) Dr. Strange would experience the time loop as a time loop, both mentally and physically (and therefore never die), but Dormammu would perceive it as an eternity. Using a time loop in a realm without time… shouldn’t work, and more generally doesn’t make any sense. I’ll have to ask my physics-major friends what would likely happen if one tried to do so. I’m betting on the dark dimension instantaneously folding in on itself to a single point of mass.

I’d give it a solid B/B+. Probably wouldn’t have watched it if I weren’t on yet another plane from SFO to the east coast and back. But then, that’s also true of another movie, which is the actual topic of today’s post.

So….. I didn’t actually like it….?

I started the movie with both an open mind and a high bar. I had heard very good things from both friends and the media (see the image above), so I was ready both to be impressed and to fall in love. But, well, I really wasn’t a fan. (Really wasn’t a fan. Which is unusual for me. So this one is going to be long, but I swear it is rooted in something real, not just a long list of nitpicks. Also, uh, spoilers.)

Let’s start with the easy stuff. The musical numbers were pretty darn great across the board (though I had some qualms with Fools Who Dream, but more on that later). The pacing of the film was great –  the plot unfolded at a perfect pace, and I never felt the slightest bit rushed or dragged.

I was sold on the movie for the first ten minutes or so, as our first protagonist, Mia, is introduced. Mia (Emma Stone) is a college dropout living and working as a barista in LA as she tries to break into the acting business with constant auditions for every role she can lay her hands on. Completely understandably, she’s having a hard time. Not only has she not landed a role (the implication being that so far she hasn’t landed any role), her auditioners are constantly rude and dismissive, adding insult to injury day after day. Yet, despite all the shit Hollywood throws at her, her life seems relatively together. She lives with friends in a roomy and well-furnished apartment and spends most every waking moment either working to get by or doing anything it takes to get into acting – Her friends are only able to convince her to come to a Hollywood party with the argument that she can schmooze with the other partygoers, perhaps all the way into an acting role.

For contrast, we have the second protagonist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Unlike Mia, Any sympathy I may have had for him went out the window within minutes of his introduction (not including a brief prior cameo when Mia is driving to work). Sebastian is a Jazz pianist, and like Mia, he is clearly exceedingly talented. Unlike Mia, however, he cannot blame his lack of success on the overall grind of the process and bad luck: The guy is stubborn to the point of absurdity, and more generally a bit of an asshole. The opening scene introducing his character demonstrates both of these points so thoroughly that I have no worry that I am reading too far into things. Sebastian, apparently, somehow found employment playing the piano for diners at what appears to be a fairly nice restaurant. His boss instructs him, exceedingly reasonably, to play a setlist of Christmas songs, to fit the festive evening. Sebastian wants to play Jazz instead. His boss says no, and reminds Sebastian that this is his second chance after pulling this stunt once before. Sebastian relents and agrees to play the set. After (presumably) finishing the set, Sebastian somehow decides that the best thing to do is to launch into a freeform jazz piece. Entirely reasonably and entirely unsurprisingly, Sebastian is then promptly fired.

This is a guy who’s well past broke. (We see a “Past Due” bill during a brief scene between Sebastian and his sister.) This is a guy who wants nothing more than to create a jazz club in the old style, which requires first and foremost money. (A good credit score wouldn’t hurt either. One more bit of ground he’ll have to make up.) And yet, somehow, he can’t bring himself to play Christmas tunes for a SINGLE NIGHT.

That’s not artistic integrity. That’s not valor or courage. That’s stubbornness more suited to toddlers than to late twenty-somethings, as well as arrogance that sneers at the very people lending a helping hand. Mia hasn’t had a single chance to pull herself up and reach her dreams, but that hasn’t stopped her from continuing to try. Sebastian has had many chances to start to pull himself up and reach his dreams (which, remember, require quite a bit of startup funding), but that somehow hasn’t stopped him from throwing them away.

There’s plenty more to the movie than just the opening scenes of the two main characters, but that was enough to sour it for me. In addition to being a waste of perfectly good piano talent, Sebastian manages to pull Mia into starting to think a bit like him. With a bit of prodding, he convinces her to stop trying to break into the business through auditioning and instead take a much more dramatic (and much riskier) path – writing and starring in her own play. And what should she do if people don’t come and no one likes it? In Sebastian’s own words, “Fuck ’em”.

Watching Mia drink Sebastian’s artistic-purist kool-aid was very frustrating. Clearly, Mia was having no luck with the traditional process, but that’s not a valid reason to transition to a no-more-guaranteed approach that involves much more effort and much much more risk. From this point on, I wasn’t happy with the actions of either character.

After thinking about the movie for the past couple days, I think the real reason it got so deep under my skin is that I fundamentally disagree with the philosophy I believe the movie was trying to push. In Mia’s final audition that would turn into her big break, she tells (sings) a story about an aunt jumping into a river in Paris. Here’s the chorus:

And here’s to the fools who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make

The story (as well as the movie as a whole) romanticizes the artistic dreamer, one who never gives up on their dream, no matter what. It doesn’t matter who they hurt in the process, including themselves. It doesn’t matter that they might have achieved happiness a different way. It doesn’t matter if they found love along the way. Everything must be sacrificed in pursuit of the dream. To do any less is sacrilegious. To give in to the pressure and take an easier or more standard path, claims the movie, is worse than an eternity of failure. I could not more strongly disagree.

When I was in middle school, my dream was to be a game designer. I wanted to make games that would make people’s minds explode with infinite possibility, that would be both remembered fondly and be sources of endless entertainment and challenge. I still do. But time passed, and many things changed. For one, I learned that for the game industry, all that glitters is not gold. Working my way up in a major game company to a level where I could have actual design impact, I found out, would be positively grueling. Making my own independent game would be terrifyingly stressful, and I would need to be exceedingly lucky to see it succeed. Moreover, I found out that I vastly enjoy computer science in a non-game context. I like the puzzle of intelligently designing programmatic architecture for ease of use and extension. I like striving to find the optimal balance of wide capability and narrow, specialized speed. It is undeniably not the same to me – I like computer science, I love game design. Yet when I totaled everything up, I came to the conclusion that I would have a vastly easier and more enjoyable life if I gave up on game design.

So, I took the easy route. I sold out. And you know what? Every day I wake up and I’m so happy I made that choice.

People change. People change as they grow older, but also as they process the events that unfold around them. Beliefs one currently holds may be completely alien in just a few years’ time. This is a central aspect of what it means to be human and as such deserves to be celebrated, not fought against tooth and nail. Without change, there is no forgiveness, no discovery, no growth. One’s (singular) dream, as the most succinct expression of one’s desires, is all the more likely to change over time. There should be no stigma associated with the decision to stop pursuing an old dream and start pursuing a new one, or to simply put the dreaming on hold for a while and aimlessly enjoy living.

Sebastian doesn’t allow either of them to change. Mia asks Sebastian if he enjoys playing pop music, to see if maybe his direction in life has shifted. He dodges the question. Later, after Mia has hit rock bottom and is considering pursuing a new path in life, Sebastian shows up to demand that she go try out for one more role, despite her protests that another rejection will kill her. Thankfully this a movie, and having the protagonist fail her last audition is the kind of anti-climax that doesn’t win a ton of awards, but if it were real life there would be the all-too-real chance of yet another failure, and thus doing what Sebastian did is downright cruel.

I’ve heard that many were crying when the end of the movie came around. Personally, I was smiling – Sebastian finally got everything he wanted. He got his Jazz club, packed to the gills with audience members who are there to honestly appreciate jazz (and eat the chicken). By his insistence at the start of the movie, he couldn’t possibly have been happier. There was just one problem – two of the audience members were the woman he would always love, and her husband. Not only is it very possible to find happiness after straying from the path to your dream, there’s also no guarantee that following your dream will lead to happiness. Sebastian had a chance at happiness and love. He chose not to do everything in his power to keep hold of it, and instead let it slip through his fingers. All in pursuit of a pure artistic dream that in the end didn’t make him happy.

Meanwhile, I am the alternate-universe Sebastian, happily living out the pop-band life, reminiscing bittersweetly back on the days when I wanted nothing more than to open a Jazz club. How steadfast I once was, so certain of my path forward despite knowing so little. If I am any wiser now, it is only because I am no longer so sure that I know what the next decade will hold for me. Even so, I wouldn’t change a thing. After all, this path led me here, and it’s been pretty fun so far.