Sunday, January 19, 2014

My Most Powerful Movie Moment of 2013

I reviewed well over 60 films in 2013. That's only a fraction of the total films that were released last year, but still a generous total. For a recent episode of "The KJZZ Movie Show," I was asked to identify the most powerful moment I encountered out of all those films. Not an easy task, especially when any potential candidate will have to compete with Vin Diesel's flying torpedo-skull.

The clip I finally landed on took place late in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," which came out on Christmas day late last year. Since (at this writing) the movie is still in the theaters, I couldn't elaborate too much on that moment on the show. But I can afford a little more liberality on my blog. So consider this a spoiler alert.

"Walter Mitty" is the story of a shy daydreamer (played by Ben Stiller) who finally decides to take charge of his life. Part of this charge-taking involves finally engaging his dream girl, but most of it involves tracking a mysterious photojournalist (Sean O'Connell, played by Sean Penn) across the globe in search of a missing negative. (Walter works for LIFE magazine and needs the negative for LIFE's final print cover.) Over the course of the film, Walter goes from Manhattan to Greenland to Iceland, back to Manhattan, then to Afghanistan, and finally up into the remote Himalayas in search of his target. And that is where my favorite moment takes place.

When Walter finally catches up to his man, he finds him perched behind a telephoto rig high up in the mountains. O'Connell is on a hunt of his own, trying to photograph the elusive snow leopard. The two men have an amusing exchange about the negative, then the leopard appears.

But O'Connell never takes the shot.

To Walter's confusion, the cryptic photojournalist merely gazes at his muse through his viewfinder. He explains that sometimes, in situations like this, he chooses not to take the shot, opting to stay in the moment instead. On the surface, it's a completely illogical if not insane decision. All that work, and you don't even take the shot?

But after several years of shooting on my own, it makes perfect sense.

As a photographer, you can find yourself in the middle of a situation and completely removed from it at the same time. I can't tell you how many times I've gone back to my computer after a shoot and scanned through the results, wondering what it would have been like to actually participate in the experience I just documented. I've photographed three different Holi Festivals, and never thrown chalk in the air myself. I photographed several friends at the Dirty Dash a couple of years ago, capturing the elation of diving headfirst into a pool of muddy water, yet never felt that cold, jarring sensation on my own. Photography is one of my deepest passions, and most important creative outlets, but it is not a substitute for living life. That's what "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is all about.

Luckily, that lesson didn't come with a rush of regret after a wasted life. Even if at times I've let my camera separate myself from the world, I've taken advantage of other chances to engage my surroundings, whether it was hiking the Zion Narrows, driving up the PCH south of Big Sur at sunset, or talking my way onstage at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago. But sometimes I do need to remind myself to get out from behind the viewfinder and suck in the moment for myself, and at the end of a long year of reviewing movies, "Walter Mitty" provided that valued reminder.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Road Less Traveled

Five years ago I was confronted with a difficult choice. After spending ten years of my life attending young single adult wards, I was asked to move on. My options were to attend a traditional family ward, "upgrade" to the mid-singles ward, or just stop going to church altogether.

Going inactive was never an option, so the choice came down to whether I wanted to continue the marital-status-segregated tradition in the mid-singles ward or take my chances with a traditional family ward (there was also a half-joking notion that I would start a geriatric biker gang, but sadly that never came to fruition). After mulling things over, I began attending the family ward at the end of my street, sucking in my gut and preparing for the crying-baby-chaos of Mainstream Mormondom. Out of obligation, I made a token visit to a mid-singles ward in Salt Lake, but quickly decided that I would rather feel out-of-place with the married people. At least at the family ward I still felt like I was in the game. Plus I actually liked having all the little kids around.

Throughout the transition, and even at times today, I felt resentment at an unspoken message I had been hearing ever since my old YSA bishop announced that they would be clearing the records of anyone over the age of 31. The message was that I didn't fit anymore, and needed to go off with my own kind.

Of course, no one ever said this, at least in those words. My YSA bishop initially invited all the old-timers to continue attending activities, and bristled at the notion that we were being "kicked out." But whenever I swallowed my pride and dropped by occasional YSA activity, it always felt like I was welcome, but out of place, like I was going back to prom after having graduated high school.

I said "no one ever said this, at least in those words." But they did say it in other words. One person responded to the blog post announcing my departure by saying guys in their '30s shouldn't be chasing 18-year-olds anyway. Months later, when I didn't quickly endorse a friend's regular get-together that featured guys and girls exclusively in their '30s, she remarked, "well, unless you would rather chase 18-year-olds." Both responses were understandable, but based in rhetorical fallacies. Just because I didn't feel like going cold turkey and dating women in their '30s exclusively didn't mean I wanted to chase 18-year-olds. I didn't even have a problem dating women in their '30s, anyway. I just wanted to make the decision on my own, not be pushed off into some social category by cultural mandate. As a grown man, I resented the idea that my social circles were being dictated to me.

My experience confirmed an idea I'd long suspected: that YSA culture is a simultaneous blessing and cursing. If you get into a good ward (as I had), your entire social life never need extend beyond the doors of your weekly sacrament meeting. There are more than enough activities and more than enough dating options to keep your social calendar active and vibrant throughout the year. This is great if your desires for marital success are fulfilled in a timely fashion. But if you put all your eggs in one social basket, then get too old to stay on the farm, well...

In the time since I left the YSA ward, I've seen my social life take a drastic turn. A routine of almost daily activities and weekly dating has become a lot of empty weekends and a dating pool that is shallow at best. People I thought were going to be lifelong friends have redefined the concept of "out of sight, out of mind." But while the frequency may have flatlined, the people I have maintained friendships with and the girls I have dated have been as high if not of higher caliber than the people I encountered during my YSA firehose years. At times I've wondered if passing on the overcrowded mid-singles scene was wise, if not an act of outright rebellion. But that wonder has never led to conviction.

Readers have debated the sentiment of Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken*" for decades. Is Frost happy he chose the less-traveled path, or is his poem a statement of regret? Five years after getting off the LDS singles ward train, I'm inclined to say "both."

(Note (1/10/14): OK, it turns out I misquoted the name of that Frost poem when I first published this post. It's fixed now.)