I just finished watching the movie, American Animals.
The movie is about a robbery of some rare books in a special collections room in Lexington, Kentucky. The heist was executed by four young men. One of the young men, an artist, Spencer, thinks about how all he is missing is suffering to be great.
The film blends interviews with all four of the young men (now older) telling the story on which the film is based. I thought it was a fascinating way to tell a story and made the film feel more authentic, complete with addressing the fact that some of the men remembered details differently. I believe it was sheer brilliance in movie-making.
The theme that stood out to me was that of pushing the boundaries of life beyond what we think of as normal and extraordinary. When the film finished, I felt anxious and in a contemplative mood. The thoughts bubbling up were part of a larger question to myself; what the hell am I?
In the wake of the movie, I felt somehow unaccomplished. I also felt somehow like I wasn’t living my most authentic life. I’ll still be riding this train of thought for a while but I know where it began and where it will inevitably end.
I write, sure, but I constantly bounce around from learning new things, doing all sorts of jobs, trades, hobbies and giving them up when I realize that I will not be a master of that thing. I may not even ever be a master of writing (the last sentence might be proof of that). Perhaps that is a writer’s curse, that they must experience or put their minds completely into something in order to understand it, and the proof of understanding, to me, is the ability to write it.
How is this related to American Animals? The characters in the movie seemed to continually wonder what it was like to pull off a heist. Even during the planning stage, one of the characters kept thinking that the impassable obstacle would arise that would prevent them from moving forward with the robbery. Spoiler alert, that never came. So that thought made me wonder about the things I think about doing but never act upon, including crime.
I’ve never robbed a store much less a rare artifact. I’ve thought many times about what the life of a criminal would be like. How much violence would be required of me to be a successful criminal? If I weren’t a successful criminal, how much time would I have to write in prison? Would I even be considered a criminal if I were not caught? Would the fact that I’m an imprisoned author make my manuscripts easier to sell to agents and publishers? Would the suffering in prison provide me the deep perspective my inner critic tells me I lack?
The questions keep coming. Is there a correlation between intelligence and violence in crime? The more brains a criminal has the less violence required? Does that somehow even out when a criminal reaches the level of an Escobar, or El Chapo? Where brains and violence abound.
Again, how would my writing be impacted?
I sold weed in college and that rush felt good. However, was it only a thrill because my experience with crime up until that point was safely screened in movies, books, and video games? If I sold drugs out of a feeling of necessity, I imagine that would probably pucker my spoiled ass and ruin any flavor still stuck to the silver spoon rusting in my mouth.
My thinking on crime is bipolar. I’m conflicted about a theft whose only victim is some faceless organization or a person with means to recover or not even notice the damage. A part of me says, fuck ’em.
Another part of me thinks it a lazy travesty to steal. Why not create something of your own, so you know the ache of building something up? In this instance, I see the thieves as hyenas and vultures picking at someone else’s kill. Usually, I only think this when imagining theft or destruction of my own property.
Then I think about why I perceive crime the way I do. Why is it not black and white? I feel that crime in America has been elevated to the status of art. When executed poorly, it is a comedy, farce, cartoon. When bystanders are hurt, crime is a tragedy, horror, abstract painting. Then there is the epic piece, everyone’s favorite, where the criminal is the hero and wins one way or another. The Oliver Twist’s, Count of Monte Cristo’s, Jean Val Jeans.
We all watch, well I watch, and usually root for the “bad guy”. I think it’s because deep down I feel like hopping up onto the stage and finding out whether my story is to be comedic, tragic or heroic. What interesting combination of experiences would push me to become a criminal? Would extravagant success make me feel entitled to steal now and then? Or would it be poverty and pain that pushes me in that direction?
I believe myself to be a principled man but I’m also a man who thinks. What if?
In American Animals, parents and professors begin by saying the same tired scripts, “They were good boys with no records or history of this. I had no reason to believe they could or would do something like this.” Followed by choked back sobs, red eyes, sniffles, and forlorn looks.
Every time I hear some version of that line I take it two ways. One, who do you think criminals are? Two, I take those comments as a challenge.
How many “good boys” or “nice guys” or “friendly neighbors” does it take to realize we’re all criminals. Only the evidence of our intent varies. You have no idea what I am thinking at any given time. That shouldn’t scare you, it should intrigue you because I’m only thinking things you’ve either already thought, or will. It’s just a matter of being in the “right” mood.
So the experiment in American Animals, well the experiment of at least two of the boys, was to find out what it was like on the other side of stealing. What was life like on the other side of something so big? To not only ponder but to know what it is like to have stolen. The story of the four boys has a clear ending. You can and should watch it to find out if you don’t already know. Now they have an experience accompanied by memories that directly answer their original question. Their curiosity has been quenched, maybe.
I, and quite possibly you too will have to continue weighing whether we really want to find out or if we’re satisfied simply thinking about it.
Who knows, perhaps under the correct, or incorrect circumstances (depending on who’s perspective you consider) I’ll be writing to you from a tropical island or behind bars. Either way, I would have a fresh set of experiences and a shiny new perspective.
Or I’ll just keep it all in my head, isn’t that what you do?