MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

1,000 Monkeys: The Real Things

Ronni Chasen’s untimely death this week reminded me of a post I’d intended to write last week before I got waylaid by walking pneumonia and spent most of the week in bed. I wasn’t feeling up to watching a screener, even though I really needed to, and since I could barely lift my head off a pillow, I felt even less like putting enough coherent thoughts together to write anything, even though I really needed to do that too. So I was idly flipping through my local newspaper (yes, printed on real paper!), and toward the back of the issue an obituary caught my eye.

Now, I am not yet old enough or morbid enough to be interested in reading the daily obits like my grandmother did when she reached a certain stage of her own life, but I do remember clearly both her and my great-grandmother reading obits out loud to each other with I was a little girl. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the obits were one of the highlights of every day for them.

It didn’t matter if they knew the person or not (though they often did, especially if the obits were from the Catholic paper because all the Catholics knew each other), what mattered was how well written the obits were, how well they conveyed what had been important about the person’s life. Young people’s deaths were always termed “tragic,” while older people were generally deemed to have had a long and satisfactory life. If they’d gotten at least 70 years in, my grandmother figured, they didn’t have any reason to complain about being dead.

So this guy’s obit caught my eye, at first because in his picture he looked so much like a guy I went to college with that I did a double-take, and then because of how sweetly it was written. This man, who died suddenly in his sleep at 54, was a mechanic. And these are the things I learned about who he was, from the words written about him by those who loved him: He was the kind of man who would stop and help strangers stalled on the side of the road in pouring rain, who would change a flat tire for a mom on the road alone with her kids, or jump start a battery in a parking lot if he saw you needed help. If friends or relatives had car troubles, they could count on him to help them out in a heartbeat, and he never took any money for helping you. He married his childhood sweetheart and they had three daughters. Odds are, he never shook hands with a celebrity, or knew anyone rich, or famous, or “important,” and probably he didn’t care. He was loved by those he loved, and he is missed.

Something about this particular obituary — the details that his family worked into it that told you what was important about this man and why he was loved — really struck me, gave me pause, and made me think about my own life. What are the most important things about me, about the way in which I live my life, that I would want people to say about me when I die? And am I living my life now in a way that reflects that? I thought a lot about this last year when I was sick and the future was uncertain, and my kids and I weren’t sure what the outcome of my surgery would be.

When people ask what I do for a living, I tell them: I am a film writer and editor. And that is what I DO, but it is not who I am, it does not define me. Who I am is, first and foremost, the mother to my kids … five of my own and now two fine stepsons.

I want my children to look back on their childhoods and know that I always put their needs first, especially when they were small. They were nurtured and held when they needed it, they were never left alone in the dark to cry themselves to sleep. I have homeschooled them, even though it sometimes takes a lot out of me, in the belief that the best education they can have is one which takes into account their individual learning styles and needs and interests.

So far, this belief has been well borne out, and they are self-motivated, smart learners who glean lessons from everything they experience in life. They know that learning is not something confined to worksheets and homework. And if it’s true, as Lucy Maud Montgomery said in her Anne of Green Gables books, that the foundation and direction of our moral character is formed, for better or worse, by the time we’re 20, I hope that I have helped to guide my chicklets toward having a solid foundation of responsibility and spirituality on which to build their own adult lives, and good moral compasses with which to guide their own decisions.

I want my family and friends to look back and think of me, in spite of my numerous flaws of temperament and character, as being a thoughtful, kind and considerate person. It cannot be said of me that I’ve never said anything which I regret, but I hope it can be said that, when it’s pointed out to me that I’ve hurt or wronged someone, I was humble enough and brave enough to admit it and apologize. I hope that, when the ledger of my life is tallied up, I will have given to others more than I’ve taken, in time, in friendship, in support and in love.

These are the things, now that I am 42 and on the other side of scary illness with life smelling sweet again, and with the days and months and years of my childrens’ childhoods slipping past me ever faster, that I ponder when I pause to consider where my life is now, and who I am and aspire to be. Frankly, they are not, generally, the kind of things you tend to think of in your lean and hungry 20s or 30s, when work seems to be all that matters. But at 42, I’ve learned the wisdom of the words Socrates wrote so long ago: “Beware the barrenness of the busy life.”

I write best, I’ve learned, when I feel passionately about what I write. Life, politics, philosophy, and the ways in which the best movies interweave all these things, thinking about a film and weaving together a review that expresses more what I thought about it than what it’s about, delving deeply into a particularly interesting or artistic filmmaker … these are the things that interest me much more these days than the business of Hollywood, or how many millions the latest blockbuster might make, or who just got promoted, or who’s blogging something that pissed someone off, or who’s the forerunner for this or that award.

I’ve come to terms with who I am and what I want to be as a writer. I will never be a fanboy. I will never be a hungry blogger willing to work a 60 or 70 workweek chasing the latest stories on every blog on the internet. I am no longer the person who used to obsess over page views and stats and traffic. I can work 18 hour days and cover the heck out of Sundance or Toronto for seven to nine days, but I can’t, and I won’t, work those kind of hours on a regular basis anymore.

Because I work from home and tend toward being a perfectionist with obsessive tendencies, I’ve had to learn by trial and many errors to carefully guard against allowing work to creep into time that should be spent on other things. Dinner with my family around the table most nights is a priority at our house. Time to play a board game with the kids, or snuggle up watching a movie with them, or to spend a weekend geeking out at a con … these are the things that, in the past year or so, I’ve come to treasure and value more than ever before.

At the end of the day, if I write a bunch of snarky blog posts regurgitating other people’s news, does that matter? Not so much. I review as many movies as I can, because critiquing film is still something that I enjoy and that I think I’m pretty good at, but I also do so knowing that, for the most part, my favorable or unfavorable review of the latest big blockbuster isn’t really likely to make a difference to the film’s bottom line, or the short or long term success of the filmmaker.

On the other hand, if I unearth a gem of a film at a festival, and I champion it and write about it a lot, and recommend it to friends who have connections, and at the end of all that effort that little film ends up getting some distribution, or the filmmaker gets a chance to keep making films, well, then maybe I’ve contributed something positive to the art form, and my work has actually meant something beyond the temporary high of page views.

What I’ve come to learn most over the last year is that the real things of life, the little moments with my family, the consistency of being there for them when it matters, of having the energy to help with costumes on my kids’ latest play, or to lead a middle school youth group at my church, or to snuggle on the couch with my husband and kids while we watch Harry Potter or ET or A Christmas Story for the 89,000th time, just mean more to me than obsessing about work anymore. Work is what I do for a living, and I certainly prefer doing work that I enjoy, and so long as I can get paid to write I will.

But work, folks, is not life, and the endless hamster wheel so many of us seem to be running on is not, in the end, going to get us anywhere that really matters. If you never have time to say “hi” to your friends anymore even on IM or Facebook, much less make time to sit down face-to-face with them over coffee — or better yet, dinner; if you’re rushing bedtime stories with your kids night after night because the siren song of work is beckoning; if you are spending all your spare time watching screener after screener and churning out endless blog posts and Tweets, I have this to say to you: You are working too hard and missing out on the things that really matter.

At the end of your life, no one is going to be tallying up how many blog posts a day you churned out, or how many times you Tweeted this or that thing the world needed to know urgently, or even (unless you are someone like Roger Ebert, whose reviews are actually compiled into books that people will buy and read again) how many films you reviewed in a year.

In terms of your job and getting your paycheck and deriving some satisfaction from your work, sure, these things are relatively important. But only relatively, and certainly they are not more important than your friends, your family, your kids, your husband, your wife. These are the real things, the things you don’t want to look back on with regret at the end of life. I hope I don’t regret anymore the choices I’m making with my own life. I hope that you don’t, either.

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One Response to “1,000 Monkeys: The Real Things”

  1. Tyler says:

    Well said.

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“I really want to see The Irishman. I’ve heard it’s big brother Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. But I really can’t find the time. The promotion schedule is so tight, there’s no opportunity to see a three and a half-hour movie. But I really want to see it. In 2017, right before Okja’s New York premiere, I had the chance to go to Scorsese’s office, which is in the DGA building. There’s a lovely screening room there, too, with film prints that he’s collected. I talked to him for about an hour. There’s no movie he hasn’t seen, even Korean films. We talked about what he’s seen and his past work. It was a glorious day. I’ve loved his work since I was in college. Who doesn’t? Anyone involved with movies must feel the same way.”
~ Bong Joon-ho

“But okay, I promise you now that if I ever retire again, I’m going to ensure that I can’t walk it back. I’ll post a series of the most disgusting, offensive, outrageous statements you can ever imagine. That way it will be impossible for me to ever be employed again. No one is going to take my calls. No one is going to want to be seen with me. Oh, it will be scorched earth. I will have torched everything. I’m going to flame out in the most legendary fashion.”
~ Steven Soderbergh