Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell—the 20-something from 20-something years ago.
Allow me to (re)introduce to you perhaps one of the greatest dialogue scenes in American cinema. It’s from a classic: Top Gun.
Yes, I hear you laughing, but I want you to watch this scene again, because it may help to explain what you or someone you know is facing. There are spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Top Gun, a) relive your childhood, and b) watch at your own discretion.
I could write a paper about this scene alone and its contribution to American cinema. Notice the change in the angle of the sun from when they leave the house and walk to sitting down: the crew had maybe an hour to set up and shoot the dialogue. There was no time for a master shot. And can you imagine shooting that close to the ocean? The sound crew had to be spot on with cutting out ambient noise during the takes to edit it back in in post (“Uh, sorry, we’re going to have to shoot that again; there was a seagull”).
Sorry, I geeked a little. Let’s get back to the metaphors and how they apply to 20-somethings today.
Here we have the talented, hotshot protagonist (that’s us) after one really, really bad day (I mean, the guy lost his best friend in the plane he was flying; isn’t he supposed to be the best?) talking to a member of the older generation about events that happened during the their rise to fame as he tries to relate to us what this shitty feeling is, just what exactly is dragging us through the dirt.
All we are really told of is successes; we don’t hear about the times they got it wrong.
We’ve been sung to all our lives about the heroes who came before us, yet we still don’t know the whole truth—for better or worse. We don’t hear about their doubts, their failures or the days or even years of darkness they waded through to get there. America does not like to talk about failure.
Even now, an abhorrent amount of decades after the fact, we are just beginning to understand PTSD well enough to treat it, or really looking at the political intricacies and back-room deals that gave us all of this sunshiny progress. All we of the younger generation is told is to “be better.” But when asked what to be better than, we often find that such information is “classified.”
Tom Skerritt, playing Viper, replies, “Simple. First, you’ve acquired enough points to show up tomorrow and graduate with your Top Gun class.”
“Or you can quit.”
Cue theme music. Cut to Maverick’s face.
The ego, I believe, is like a song; it’s the anthem that starts to play in someone’s head when they face adversity.
“There’d be no disgrace,” Viper adds; “that spin was hell—it would’ve shook me up.”
There would be no disgrace for quitting. Pack it up. Go home. Do something else. Millions have paved that path.
The trouble with the 20-somethings is that we have a collective confidence problem.
Something happened between school and the real world that keeps us from engaging. It may be different for each one of us, but I know what it’s like to sit there at the end of a runway watching planes come flying in. No one wants to feel the pain, the upset or the guilt of a failed project. So we ask ourselves, why bother?
There is only one question relevant to us 20-somethings: can our love of flying outweigh our fear of falling?
Every audition, every interview, every time we put ourselves out there to do what we love, we risk criticism, we risk failure; we risk injury not to our bodies, but to our morale. And we’re all fine with risk, up until we’re in a 26-turn flat spin, losing altitude fast.
Remember Cougar, back at the start of the movie? He lost it, turned in his wings. Remember, he was better than Maverick. Had he gone to Miramar, it’s not unfathomable that he would’ve graduated and even given Iceman a run for his money. But, as we saw as well, his fear of losing his life was not unfounded. By not going to Top Gun—by doing what we call “quitting”—Cougar may very well have set in a course to be a father to his children and a husband to his wife, while others were not so fortunate.
Quitting is an option.
“So you’re telling me to quit?”
Viper didn’t say that. Now, while Tom Skerritt’s not about to blow sunshine up our asses, he has some great information about life in general:
“A good pilot is always compelled to always evaluate what’s happened, so he can apply what he’s learned.
Up there, we gotta push it. That’s our job.”
We don’t talk a lot about failure.
This country has a bad way of dealing with it: we would rather shove it under the rug or put it behind bars and pay someone else to deal with it. Insurance covers a lot of what willful blindness cannot deal with. So when we young folk hear all about the stories of the Greatest Generation, we’re given only a single side: we hear blaze of glory. Someone else may hear terrorist initiative. But we don’t want to talk about that.
Let me repeat a little point Viper made: the battle that killed Maverick’s father occurred over the wrong lines. Remember when Maverick dropped below the hard deck to “kill” Jester?
We young folk tend to believe—or were led to believe—that failure is not an option. Whether it’s in interviews, in art or in dating, all we know is success or (…). When we face adversity, we don’t understand what the people giving us our stories did that we’re falling short on. And since no one wants to relate to us what failure should feel like, what it actually feels like and that everyone goes through it, how can we have a dialogue on it?
Without understanding failure and how to use it, and so long as we continue to foster this fairytale idea of this nation and its notion of success, we will continue to do incredible, unforeseeable damage to our younger generations. We of the 20-somethings will continue to not even attempt ventures where success is not guaranteed. While that is perhaps a valid strategy for stock investors, in young artists it is tantamount to the death of culture.
Here is J.K. Rowling on failure:
The entire speech is available here.
Being the best means you make mistakes. It doesn’t mean you go out and play volleyball with the boys and perpetually chew gum. It means you miss deadlines, screw up; it even means you crash and burn. But while you’re sitting there on the runway’s edge watching the planes come in, at least you know your choices: you can be up there with them, or you can quit.
It’s your option. All yours.
Kevin Macku is a 20-something fledgeling yogi with a love of words. He is a trained actor who occasionally appears in local movies and on stage. His preferred methods of expression are based in movement: Suzuki’s Training for the Classical Actor, Viewpoints and Butoh to name a few, all of which benefit from the practice of yoga. In the midst of a rigorous physical practice, he discovered he was undergoing a spiritual transformation, and began to document the experience. These entries can be found at http://doafy.posterous.com/. Kevin himself can be reached at [email protected].
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta