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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Writing Themes-Slicker than Slick

As we continue the topic of using universal themes in writing, here's another movie just chock full of 'em. Not many comedy movies do such a brilliant job of juxtaposing humor with heavy issues, but City Slickers is a gem of an example. Half the time you don't know whether to laugh or cry--if you're paying attention.

There are two big themes happening in this movie. The most obvious is related to Mitch, Phil, and Ed and their midlife crises. They go off on adventures and try to find thrills to offset the growing truth that they are not getting any younger and maybe the best of life has passed them by. Mitch voices the problem when he says, "what if this is the best I'll ever look, the best I'll ever be, the best I'll ever do--and it's not very good?" The theme, then, is: how do we find true meaning and happiness in life--is it something we need to look for outside...or inside ourselves? Can true happiness be found, or do we just have to settle for a mediocre life and learn to live with it? This major theme is closely tied up with the second one, and by answering the latter, the former is solved.

The second theme is presented by Curly, the trail boss. In his enigmatic way, he looks hard at Mitch and says, "do you want to know what the secret of happiness is?" Mitch says yes and Curly holds up his finger. "It's this," Curly says. "One thing." "What? Your finger?" Mitch says. Curly explains the secret of happiness is different for each person--you have to go figure what it is, but when you do, you'll know it--and you'll be happy.
It may sound trite and simple, but when the three friends run into real danger and have to make tough choices, they find that being true to who they are and what they believe in is what leads them to their "one thing." For Mitch, it's risking his life to save Norman, the calf, as he's swept downriver. Yet, it's bigger than that. Mitch is suffering from feeling unimportant, that his life is meaningless, makes no difference to anyone, doesn't matter. But when he saves Norman, his act mattered--maybe just to a cow, but the symbolism to Mitch is huge. He made a decision and gave it all he had because he believed it was the right thing to do. He wasn't standing on the sidelines anymore but engaging in life.

Ed deals with his anger at his delinquent father, and Phil deals with his compromised and squelched life. Their problems aren't miraculously solved by going on a cattle drive, but they do learn the true secret of happiness--and it had nothing to do with seeking out the greatest adventure or challenge "out there." They discovered, to their surprise, that happiness was in the last place they would ever imagine--inside them. Rather than look outside to find happiness, Mitch learns that he needed to change his attitude. "I'm just going to do everything better," he tells his wife when he gets home. There's a bit of Zen philosophy here--the collect water, chop wood realization that joy can be found in simple unimportant tasks, because even those kinds of tasks have value. This reminds me of the Scripture: "Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31).

There's an interesting little bit at the end, when the three friends bring in the herd, to the surprise of the cattle ranchers. When Mitch, Ed, and Phil are told the cows are going to market to be butchered and wrapped in plastic, they get upset. But they're told, "it's not like those cows have anything to live for. This is what they're bred for; they're not an endangered species." Mitch jokes: 'well, Phil doesn't have anything to live for either, but we're not going to kill him." This is a nice subtle tie-in with the movie's theme, implying that we humans do have purpose--we're meant for more than mindless wandering from one place to another. And just as those cows have their place in the universe, so we too have a place--we just need to look inward and find out what it is. And, for a follower of Jesus, it means we entrust our lives to him and ask him to show us that purpose, the higher purpose and path our lives are meant to take. Thankfully, he's not like Curly, leaving us puzzling and confused. He himself charts our path and leads the way. And as I traverse this inhospitable desert of life without a map, that thought comforts me. For me, that's what Curly's pointing finger is all about--pointing up to the only one who knows the way. That may be my personal interpretation, but, that's what a well-written movie does--lay out the theme so you can apply it to your life. City Slickers does just that.


  1. This great, Susanne, I really like your interpretation, to see the layers within the movie. I just went to a one-day class in Mpls with Michael Hauge on Story Mastery and he used several movies as great examples. His class was all about character arch, much like what you've told me, identity vs. essence and how to pace it. Perfect timing as I get started on Seeds finally!

  2. I've always liked the movie "City Slickers" but never thought of it in that light. ;)