In 2002, two movies adapted from works by Susan Orlean were released. They were Blue Crush and Adaptation, and being a high school freshman (1) (among other things), I was uniquely prepared to imprint heavily on both of them.
Like Diana Vreeland, I envy no one as much as I do surfers and skateboarders, lacking both physical coordination and reckless abandon that make such pursuits possible. Blue Crush arrived during a strange period of vicarious surfing fandom in my life (2) following a string of abandoned sports. It had taken me until age fourteen to finally acknowledge that I might not have some untapped reservoir of athletic ability. Frankly, I’m still grieving over it.
When Adaptation was released, I still didn’t think of myself as a writer and in fact took it as a personal affront when someone complimented my writing. (3) But frustration and creative angst were all too familiar to me. I filled diaries with my disappointments over my fears of being creatively mediocre and unattractive to boys. I was, of course, both.
The two movies didn’t strike me as having anything in common at the time (I don’t think they were made with any anticipation of audience overlap, though I’m sure there are other people besides me sitting comfortably in the center of that Venn Diagram), but watching them in a short span a couple of years ago gave me a much different impression.
Ironically, Susan Orlean source material is the least the two movies have in common, since they both reform her slice of life-y observations into deeply interior Man vs. Self struggles. More specifically, the struggles of people with talent and potential against their mental and emotional limitations. I could have written this around the ten year anniversary of these movies, but instead I chose to live the experience. (4)
The afflictions of Blue Crush's Anne Marie Chadwick and Adaptation's Charlie Kaufman aren't quite identical, but they share a strong connective tissue. Anne Marie, an ambivalent athlete recovering from a near-drowning experience and coping with underpaid work and the responsibility of caring for her teenage sister, has her share of external adversity holding her back. But we see her surfing in the absence of her own and others' expectations of her greatness, and she thrives. Under the pressure of performance or competition, however, she chokes, the misfortune of a person for whom the thing she is best at is also the thing she loves the most. Compartmentalizing is hard when your work is your identity.
Charlie, similarly, grapples with accessing his talent when given the opportunity to do so, hampered by his desire to live up to both his own talent and his exacting critical taste. His is the kind of perfectionism that kneecaps rather than empowers, the kind that keeps you from starting anything on the off chance that it won’t end up meeting your standards.
I remember watching Adaptation at age fifteen and feeling like the third act, where everything unravels, was a cop-out. I resented Charlie Kaufman for not resolving the problem he posed. I got it the joke of it, but I didn’t like it. When I watched it ten years later I loved it, seeing for the first time that sometimes giving up on your grand, brilliant, challenging vision and just getting the damn thing done can an extraordinary triumph in itself. Maybe because I’d had to do that a few times in the decade between viewings.
Anne Marie also succeeds by reframing her understanding of success. Her mid-competition epiphany that she’s not going to win frees her to enjoy herself and to find the perfect ride on the perfect wave, a 10/10 moment that redeems her losing showing. The trick, of course, is hanging onto that mindset for next time, wringing everything you can from it.
At fifteen I wasn’t ready to hear that you can’t always get it right, or even half-right. That the next thing will always be the best thing, but you have to finish the thing that’s in front of you anyway and get what you can out of it. That the things you love won’t always reward you for loving them. That if your wildest expectations are met for even a second? Hell, that’s good enough.
(1) Wanna feel old?
(2) Watching competitions on TV, I used to be able to score surfing within 1 point of accuracy. I have no memory of how I developed this [now lost] skill. The very definition of easy come, easy go.
(3) My acting aspirations hadn’t died on the vine yet, and it seemed to me at the time that to acknowledge my writing ability was to suggest that I was somehow not singularly predestined for the vocation of acting, which spoke more to my interior and guilty awareness of the truth of that fact than it did to the reality of anyone’s insinuations. It took me awhile to grow into the comfortable dilettante I am today. Adulthood fucking rules, even when it doesn’t.
(4) That was a fun time! Yes, I do believe I have talent and potential. What can you do??? Interestingly enough, it did end up marking a (for the most part) departure from essay writing of this kind as I finally got into screenwriting in a serious way. Lol, “finally got into screenwriting in a serious way,” what kind of douche talks like that?*