Just the Right Size to Fail and Other Stories We Tell Ourselves

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Recently I was talking to a friend of mine who works as a cop in a suburban town. “How’s business?” I asked. “Business is booming,” she said, sadly. She felt crime had changed in her community after the economic crash. In the past she had dealt mostly with petty crimes that were easily solvable: a bunch kids broke into a house, amateurishly leaving evidence behind. Now she was encountering more sophisticated criminals. One of her colleagues found a house that had a multitude of TV’s in every room. This wasn’t some hole-in-the-wall “fence”-- this was a store. .

In her opinion, people were getting worse, and it was depressing her.

We live and die in America by the stories we are told us and the stories we believe. These stories fuel religion, politics, work and love and war. They are the firmament of who we are.

Once upon a time, we were told, there was a country in the Middle East that had had the bomb, and was intent on using it on us. We had all seen the movies, we all knew what had to be done. We had to shoot Lee Marvin so that our little town on the prairie would survive and prosper.

Recently the mushroom cloud came in the form of certain entities that were TOO BIG TO FAIL. It may have been an economic mushroom cloud this time but it was no less deadly. And the fact that things that were TOO BIG TO FAIL existed, meant  that there were other things that were small enough to fail. In fact,calamity fit them as snugly as an alligator in an Everglades python.

So two fearless Sheriff-Presidents rounded up a posse of guys from Metro-Goldwyn-Sachs and set out to save the town. And even though there were some close calls that left us breathless, we never really worried. We knew that they were going to save the things that were TOO BIG TO FAIL, because otherwise they wouldn’t be heroes and we wouldn’t go to their next movie.

And our confidence was well-founded. The things were TOO BIG TO FAIL not only did not fail…they flourished.

But what about the things that were puny enough to fail? Didn’t they deserve movies too?  This is America, and there is a lush bounty of stories for all. The New York Times has been a veritable Sundance lately. It seems that when jobs and homes are lost, families break apart. AIG divorce! More kids run away from these stress-filled homes and live on the streets. Goldman Sachs Teen Prostitutes! Sometimes people to succumb to utter despair. Citibank Suicides!  There’s enough material there to keep Endeavor busy for a long time.

Reading those tales in the Times, I thought a lot about what my friend the policewoman had told me. There was an independent film in there somewhere. The protagonist could be a regular Midwestern guy.  In Act One, he’d never consider buying a stolen TV set—he’d just put down his credit card and pay the price. Sure he’d be taking on debt, but it was debt that he took responsibility for, responsibility built on the foundation of having a job and savings to pay off that card. But then along came Act Two and the arrival of the thing that was TOO BIG TO FAIL--in his case, the thing that failed was his soul. In the meat of the narrative, we learned that there was just so far a face can be ground into the dirt, how many kicks it can take, how much humiliation it can weather. In screenwriter-ese, this was our protagonist’s “story arc.”

So by the time Act Three rolled around it turned out he was that guy who would buy a TV for a $100 that he knew cost $1500. Maybe he had always been that guy. He just didn’t’ know it until hard times revealed it to him.

Admittedly this is a pretty slim premise for a movie. It’s unlikely it would ever get into competition at Sundance, let alone make it to a theatre.

It’s too small.