Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Sugarman Fantasy

I love movies.  I find watching a film to be relaxing, exciting, engaging, stimulating, and inspiring all at once.  I didn't realize this until my last few years of college, which led to me to pick up a really fun but admittedly irrelevant minor in Film Studies.  I thought a lot about potentially trying to work in film as a profession but have convinced myself that I don't want to corrupt my love for the art form by being forced to view it through the harsh lens of business.  Still compelled to create and not just observe, I have long fantasized about writing about films.  But I haven't.  Part of it is I didn't know what to write, a fear that I don't have any worthwhile to add, and the recognition that most likely nobody would want to read it.  But today, I'm just going for it.  Still finding my voice, so apologize if it is boring, but here's to getting started, right?

So I've been making my way through the various lists of "Best Films of 2012".  I agree with some of these rankings, others not so much (someone please tell me what was so great about Lincoln), but it has been a highly entertaining exercise because it has led me to question how I evaluate films. And I don't mean in an academic sense, I mean in a popular sense.  What are the ingredients required for you to tell everyone you know, "I loved it, you must see it"?  Sure, it's easy to say, but your recommendation will be judged as a reflection of you.  So in order to put yourself on the line, you must not only be truly moved by a film, but you must have related to it in some very fundamental way and want others to feel that, too.  So what does it take for that to happen?  In order to figure that out, I've been carefully observing and analyzing my own reaction to everything I've watched recently.

My first conclusion is that actually watching the film is just a small part of the overall experience.  There are a million different touch-points to your relationship with a film - from the anticipation of seeing it, to how the narrative engages you while you are watching it, to the bonds you form with new friends over the film years afterwards.  With infinite variations of each touchpoint, the process of watching a film will never get old (unless you're like some people I know and you just fall asleep, then your experience is in fact quite finite and I can't help you.)

To be honest, I wasn't very excited about watching Searching for Sugarman.  The description sounded somewhat mundane: "Two South Africans set out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the mysterious 1970s rock 'n' roller, Rodriguez."  However, the romantic cinematography complemented by Rodriguez's Bob Dylan-esque raspy musical poetry slowly draws you in and before you know it, you're hooked.  How could this guy not be famous?  He's clearly so talented.  Well, the catch is that he was famous, he just didn't know it.  His music didn't catch on in Detroit and consequently his career floundered, but the contemporaneous turmoil of Apartheid in South Africa created a cultural storm that launched him into their mainstream.

A huge part of South Africa's fascination with Rodriguez as an artist was his mystery - nobody knew him or where he came from.  Many believed that fed up with a persistent lack of success and exhausted from years of trying, he was rumored to have committed suicide on stage. However, two particularly eager members of his large fan base in South Africa refused to believe that story and after years of persistently pursuing him were able to track him down alive and well doing manual labor in Detroit, Michigan.  They called him one day and said, 'You have to come to South Africa.  You're more famous than Elvis Presley here.'

Can you imagine getting that phone call?  Isn't that everyone's fantasy?  That your failure isn't a sign that you are not good enough, it is merely the absence of conscious recognition for your talents.  As someone trying to start a business, I dream every day that all of a sudden, a million people will crawl out of the woodwork and shower me with enthusiasm for what I am building.  That there are actually hundreds of people trying to buy tickets to the next General Assembly Hong Kong class, but maybe their credit cards won't go through.  When you struggle and bust your ass to bring every single student through your doors, the idea that there is some latent pool of potential customers out there that you don't know about is both reassuring and depressing.  This secret audience could provide you with both inspiration and satisfaction, but they are stuck in the realm of the 'unknown unknown'.  They could confirm your secret lifelong suspicions of personal grandeur by saying, 'No!  You really are special and you deserve to be recognized for it!'  And oh, don't we crave to hear that, to know that it could be true?

That must feel so good.  Just like falling love, or your company getting funded, or your blogpost going viral.  You find someone (besides your parents) who sees something truly remarkable in you that, until now, has gone unrecognized.  My heart swelled with the thought of how Rodriguez must have felt after years of assuming himself insignificant, looking out to an entire stadium of adoring fans.  Yes, there is hope that they're out there, they could be out there, they might be out there.  Even if you're struggling now, even if you've already resigned yourself to failure, that hope could be enough to keep you going until you find them.  (Sidenote: the fact that Rodriguez changed nothing about his life once he discovered his popularity, there is a distinct possibility that he never did assume himself insignificant but that is an entirely different discussion.) 

This is the power of a truly incredible film.  There is the literal sense of the narrative that is enjoyable in and of itself - two music fans seeking and re-discovering their most significant musical idol.  Then, there are layers of interpretation and application - this journey is not just about an artist, it is about love, it is about entrepreneurship, it is about the value of context.  Most powerfully, it could be about anything.  You can run it through your own filter and dig as deep as you like.  Or -- you could just stick to the synopsis and enjoy the beautiful scenery and the great, classic music.  It's up to you.