When I was 14, I had the opportunity to meet Kurt Vonnegut in Midway, KY. Having recently read Slaughterhouse Five for English class, I shared a question about the book that had been puzzling me.
CL: “Sooo, Mr. Vonnegut, you describe the Tralfamadorians as seeing humans in four dimensions, and you illustrate them as caterpillars, with little baby legs in the rear eventually transitioning into geriatric legs in the front.”
CL: “OK, but if they really see people in every instant of their life, wouldn’t they see a blur instead? Like, wouldn’t discrete legs be imperceptible to them?”
KV: “What the hell are you trying to do? Ruin the book?!”
[Awkward moment as he autographs my book]
This anecdote came to mind while I reflected on last night’s Q&A session, referenced in the prior post. No one asked interesting questions, and I’ve been wondering, “why?” Since I’m as guilty as everyone else in the audience of not asking interesting questions, I figured I’d start with myself. Why didn’t I ask anything?
My unasked questions all revolved around the film’s themes and what Mr. Schiller was trying to communicate through various episodes and devices. However, as the Q&A veered into film arcana instead, I caught myself wondering, “Is no one asking about the story because it was just obvious to everyone?” I mean, these were mostly “advanced” film people in the audience; maybe I was going to do the equivalent of asking James Cameron why “NO FATE” is important in Terminator 2. Basically, I was afraid of looking stupid.
Questions about story are tricky; in order to ask one in the first place, you need to have a perspective on what the story “means.” The question presumes or implies a given interpretation, which could be incorrect. This dynamic requires you to be vulnerable in a way that asking assorted variations on, “So what’s it like to never have your film released?” does not.
In an “advanced” film crowd (with folks like Tim League in the audience), the stakes are even higher. Questions are funny things, because they’re not just an opportunity to learn, they’re also an opportunity to show off. I remember when I visited Georgetown University as a high school senior, and a young woman in my tour group asked, “Is there a language requirement if I’m already fluent in French?”
Ultimately, all we’re talking about is ego. My ego’s self-preservation mechanism (insecurity) prevented me from asking my question. Presumably, other people’s egos mutated their questions into opportunities to show off (haha, or maybe I’m just projecting).
Most ironically, this entire post (hell, this entire series of posts) is built on my self-centered perspective that what I deem “interesting” is in fact interesting or more inherently worthwhile than the audience’s collective investigation into the film’s production and commercial rejection. In truth, it’s really just what I find interesting.
Regardless, I’d be interested to know how many billions of dollars of value have been left on the table because someone was afraid of looking stupid. Like most everything else, it’s a paradox. If you want to look (or be) smart, you have to be willing to look (and be) stupid.