[00:00:00] Hello and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
[00:00:11] Today, I want to take a little detour of sorts because I want to talk to you about what the difference between a legitimate piece of work and one that might be what I would call self-aggrandizing or self-indulgent.
[00:00:28] And part of the reason I want to talk about this is because we're coming up to the Academy Awards. In fact, by the time this episode airs, who knows? Maybe we'll already have had it. And in my humble opinion, a lot of the things that are nominated right now that are being allotted as these amazing stories are actually not. In fact, I would call them self-indulgent.
[00:00:51] And the truth is I'm also getting a lot of material from people that are submitting things to me to read that I would also categorize as self-indulgent. And it's a tricky, tricky label, right? It's a tricky, tricky thing.
[00:01:06] What constitutes something as self-indulgent? What does that look like? What are some of the markers of self-indulgence that we should be looking for. And it's not something I've ever tried to address before, so I'm going to do my best to try to articulate what I mean when I label something with that term. What do I mean by self-indulgent or self-aggrandizing?
[00:01:31] I think one of the answers to that question starts with the term itself. Self-glorification. What does that mean? Well, it's a tendency to glorify self somehow in the midst of the material. And what I mean by that is it's a tendency to try to draw attention to one's self that goes outside of the parameters of the story, per se.
[00:01:52] Maybe drawing attention to your own cleverness or something that you think is particularly profound. Some thing that you want to say that you think you're doing it in such a special way. It's a very tricky thing, but it does exist.
[00:02:07] This is where a lot of biopics end up making errors. If you saw, for example, the film Rocket Man. Rocket Man was about Elton John, but Elton John was very involved in that story, and to me it felt very self-indulgent because really what he wanted is he wanted everybody to see what a victim he was.
[00:02:28] And while it was a lot of fun, in many ways, it was also really, really heavy handed on the "poor me, poor me, oh, what a victim I was, and this is why I'm this way" and less about the journey of the character. It was meant to sort of emotionally manipulate a response in the audience to get them to see him in a particular way.
[00:02:53] And I felt that it was a little self-indulgent in that regard. Not to say that there wasn't merit there, but it was self-indulgent to that degree.
[00:03:02] Okay. What's another example? Well, a lot of Quentin Tarantino's stuff tends to borderline on this. Now, Quentin Tarantino is a good enough writer/director that he often gets away with it, but you cannot tell me that his stuff isn't self-indulgent.
[00:03:19] It indulges something. It explores something beyond the parameters of the story itself. And it forces the audience to sit through that whether they want to or not, whether it has anything to do with the story or not. It becomes almost more about the filmmaker than it does about the story or the characters within the story.
[00:03:39] So a good example of this would be Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Now, I liked the movie. I really did, and I thought there was some very interesting things and I learned things from Quentin Tarantino every single time. So this isn't a criticism per se.
[00:03:54] But I will tell you that this film did not resonate with people outside of Hollywood the way that it did with people inside of Hollywood because in many ways it was self-indulgent for the Hollywood crowd.
[00:04:08] It was a love letter to Hollywood, if you will. And you had to be in movies to sort of get a lot of the references that didn't have anything to do with the story. Even the story itself was a reworking of Hollywood mystique and magic. And taking this terrible, terrible tragedy that happened in the Hollywood history and now making it sort of fantasized or somehow it becomes a fairytale. So it's an interesting twist in that regard, but it's not for everyone.
[00:04:42] And all of those sections where Leonardo DiCaprio would say, reenact these real audition pieces, or these real movie moments from famous movies that had gone before, they weren't necessary to the story. It was just fun for the filmmakers to do that.
[00:04:59] And he was kind of showboating. There's a certain amount of showboating that goes into self-indulgence, like, "look at me. I'm so cool."
[00:05:08] And again, I think Quentin Tarantino is cool. And yet it was self-indulgent and hopefully that makes sense to you. It's a little self-aggrandizing in that regard.
[00:05:20] So there's a tendency to want to showboat to show people how clever and ingenious you are and also to the detriment of the story itself. It's sort of like, "I'm going to do this, whether it's good for you, the audience or the story, because I think I'm so clever. I'm a little bit in love with my own stuff."
[00:05:40] It's really hard to put your finger on, and that's why it's a difficult label. But I'm trying to give you some parameters of how I might come up with those conclusions.
[00:05:48] So another movie that I think is super guilty of this and it has a lot of other flaws too, and it's blowing my mind that it is so popular and it's getting all of these award nominations and even wins would be Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.
[00:06:07] To me, this was not a good movie for so many reasons, and I could go into all of the reasons, and I might mention a couple of them here, but one of the main ones is it was self-indulgent. And part of the reason that's true is because the mythology of that fantasy world doesn't even make sense.
[00:06:30] There were no rules. There were no parameters that were consistent. There was no one consistent way for the character to enter into the multiverse, which is where all of her other selves would've gone if she had made a different choice back in the day. There was no one rule. There was no one formula. There was no anything that you could sink your teeth in that was a standard way. There were no rules.
[00:06:54] And when there are no rules, now you're just playing and now you're forcing that on your audience without any way for them to really even understand the rules. It's more about you showboating to them.
[00:07:09] And so sure enough, one of the things that they did in that film is—I mean, my goodness. They could have gotten to the point of it much sooner, but it just kept going on and on and on, and I remember watching it with a friend of mine and going, oh my gosh, do we still really have another 45 minutes? Like, aren't they done? They're making the same point over and over, but it was like the filmmakers thought they were so clever. They thought they were being so unique and ingenious. They just kept going over it and really hitting it on the head.
[00:07:43] And part of the reason that it ends up being self-indulgent in my humble opinion is because there wasn't anything new said anyway. It was a terribly cliché and flawed message. It was terribly trite and banal. It just, there was nothing fresh, nothing new, nothing that even made sense.
[00:08:02] I mean, what is the moral of the story? Be kind? I mean, is that it? And there's the everything bagel, which is everything is the bagel, and it's just so overt and on the head and on the nose.
[00:08:15] There's no subtly in it. And yet he's not saying anything profound or important. There's nothing in this movie that is particularly profound or important. It is all cliché and yet the filmmakers thought that they were being so deep and profound. They thought they were giving something that was so fabulous. And they were in love with their own material in my humble opinion.
[00:08:39] Now I will say it was very well acted and anything that the actors get, they deserve. Because they actually took what I believed to be incredibly trite and banal material and gave it life in a way that it didn't otherwise have. So the actors were fabulous.
[00:08:58] But the other reason why I feel that this was just a failure of a film is because it was just so gratuitously perverse. Unnecessarily so. It was really gross a couple of places. And they just took it for granted. They just forced those things on you.
[00:09:17] Here you have this one premise which is also, the premise is, pandering to the audience. That's another clue that something is self-indulgent. It's a pandering to the audience. And I think they totally did that here.
[00:09:30] The basic premise is you've got this young Chinese girl. The parents own this laundromat. And the mother introduces the girl's girlfriend, her lesbian girlfriend to the grandfather character as a friend. And it ignites this conflict between mother and daughter. And it also highlights the distancing that's been happening between the husband and the wife for years and years and years and all these things. That's what launches the story into action.
[00:10:01] The problem is we've seen that. Way, way— I mean, that's, that's an old school premise. That's old news. We don't, we don't even, that's not even a conflict anymore. So it doesn't even feel like, why are we even rehashing that? That's been resolved thousands of times and in much better stories.
[00:10:19] Now one will argue, "well, not in the Chinese culture." Okay. Maybe, I don't know, but it, to me, it just did not feel very fresh at all. And then all of the things that they did to engage it.
[00:10:31] Now, but even let's say that it was fresh. Well then they do these very weird things by introducing these very sexualized elements. Like there's one scene where the daughter is fighting with the mother with these dildos in her hands. These very big, big dildos that are like— Well, what is that about?
[00:10:51] And there's another scene where you have to trigger going into the multiverse, and there's weird things that they would do. Again, no rules. So it might be that they switch their shoes, put 'em on the wrong feet, or they might chew a piece of gum or snap something or something weird. But in one scene, she ends up fighting these people who have triggered these powers by having things up their bottoms.
[00:11:16] I mean, it's just like really disgusting and gratuitously perverse, completely unnecessary.
[00:11:23] And yet it's taken totally matter of fact. It's taken totally for granted that everybody should be on board with that kind of perversion, which I think is a type of indoctrination. And I think it's a type of abuse of the audience because in a way you're desensitizing us to gratuitous, disgusting things simply by so casually including them into this mythology where they do not belong.
[00:11:50] And that is self-indulgent. That is self-aggrandizing, and it's just, I think, bad filmmaking.
[00:11:57] Of course, I guess the joke's on me because everybody's raving about this film. And I literally could barely get through it. I mean, I just could barely stomach getting through it. I thought it was so bad, but I want to be informed.
[00:12:11] I want to know what's out there. And I did it and it was not good. So I don't recommend that you see it if you haven't.
[00:12:19] There's also this scene at the end where, you know, she's talking about the theme, I mean, the theme which is on the nose spoken. And it is poorly articulated and expressed in this banal language anyway, and yet, nevertheless, here it is, it is being beaten over the head and completely overtly spoken.
[00:12:41] Be kind, whatever. And so at the end, she has this scene where she's trying to engage the other characters the way that her husband would, because he's kinder and he's gentler and he's a more tempered person. You know, he's the mild mannered person. So she's trying to somehow embody some of his characteristics, but that includes something weird where all of a sudden there's this one character who apparently "kindness" to him is accepting his S & M dominant type fetish. And so she spanks him and puts him in a harness or whatever and she like engages that with him.
[00:13:22] And it's just a quick bit, but it's like, really? That's kind? Like indulging that is kind? That is really, really crazy and really odd. And again, it's this weird sort of forcing these perverse values on an audience that have nothing to do with the actual story. And it feels, again, self-aggrandizing and self-glorifying.
[00:13:48] So again, what I'm harping on here is the idea that when you include elements that are important to you as the writer or the filmmaker or whatever, but don't actually have anything directly to do with the narrative, or if you include it because you think it's important in the narrative, but it's in a way that calls attention to itself and really doesn't fit the narrative because you are trying to get it in there, then I think that it's self-indulgent and I think that that would be a good description of self-indulgence.
[00:14:21] Furthermore, it's self-indulgent when you comment on your own stuff, when you comment on your own wisdom or your own cleverness, where you seem to be in love with your own material to the exclusion of the audience, where you're going to force it on the audience, even if they're not interested in it per se. Or especially if it doesn't have anything to do with the actual material or the actual story.
[00:14:49] It's that part of the book where they comment on their own profundity, if you will. It's that part of the book where you're managing the audience's perceptions of yourself because you want them to perceive you in a certain way and by God, you're not leaving it up to the audience to interpret you, you are trying to control the narrative in that regard. You're trying to control their perceptions. You're managing them.
[00:15:14] I recently did a critique of a gentleman's project who was writing an autobiographical piece that had to do with him developing this business. And he created a particular brand of baseball and of course paraphernalia having to do with that. And then he sold it for quite a bit of money.
[00:15:35] And he did that all on his own, self-made in that regard. And then in the meantime, he has all of these marital problems and all of these issues on the personal side.
[00:15:44] So he was probably trying to draw a dichotomy between having a lot of success professionally versus some failures on the personal level and some of the ironies there.
[00:15:56] But really it felt very self-indulgent to me because it was show boaty. Again, it was, "Look at me. Look at me. Look at how smart I am. I really want you to see it. Look at how clever I am. I'm going to go ahead and extrapolate on this. I'm going to let you see how swell I am, even as I reveal my bad stuff over here. But if you see all this, you won't think that bad of me here."
[00:16:21] And it just felt very manipulative of the audience in that regard. Very self-aggrandizing.
[00:16:28] Okay, so again, it is self-indulgent if it panderers to the audience, if it manipulates the audience, if it doesn't have anything to do with the story itself, if it tries to call attention to itself, if it tries to show off or showboat it's own thing for yourself rather than for the good of the story or the audience.
[00:16:51] And again, if it's gratuitous, if it's gratuitously perverse in any way, I think it also crosses the line into self-aggrandizement.
[00:17:02] And here's another example of that, The Wolf of Wall Street. Okay, so The Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In it, he plays this Wall Street guy—true story by the way, of a guy who was just an awful human being. Scammed people out of millions, made a ton of money, cocaine, girls, all these things.
[00:17:24] And why this movie is famous, for other reasons I'm sure, but for this particular reason is because it is known as having more cuss words in it than any other film that's ever been made. Think about that for a second. It has more F words in it than any other film that has ever been made.
[00:17:45] Well, that's gratuitous. Why did we need that many F words? I don't think we did. Now, granted, this is a horrible human being, so I guess it's believable in that regard, but it's still unnecessary and it's an assault on the audience. And that is an area where it is more interested in itself than it is the audience.
[00:18:11] There is a moral responsibility that we have to our audience and that sort of an onslaught is self-indulgent. It just doesn't need to be there.
[00:18:22] It's almost a screw you defiant thing that they're going to force their audience to sit through something that is that assaultive. That is just yuck! Gross. Unnecessary, and therefore self-indulgent.
[00:18:37] And again, I'm not a prude. Like I have cuss words in a lot of my material, but man, when I put a cuss word in it's because I believe it absolutely has to be there for credibility purposes. And it's not just the cheap go-to word. It's actually been really thought through. If it's going to be there it's really been thought through because most of the time we don't actually need it, but sometimes we do.
[00:19:03] So, I'm not afraid of using it if it's necessary, but this was gratuitous and that's the point.
[00:19:11] When it's gratuitous, it's self-indulgent.
[00:19:14] Here's another point about that film that I think ends up being sort of self-indulgent on its own, which is there's really no redemption in that film. It's not like they wanted to show this depraved guy who gets redeemed.
[00:19:28] The truth of the matter is that guy kind of gets away scot-free. It's really kind of glorified at the end of the day. Because, okay, yeah, maybe he goes to prison. Maybe he gets caught. Maybe he's in trouble. But at the end of the day, he is making a million dollars now selling his ideas in being like a, I don't know what is he like some sort of speaker at these conference events? And of course he sold a movie and we all know that.
[00:19:54] I mean it's very, very self-glorifying at the end of the day. Very, very much. There's no consequences for this guy for being how horrible he is. He didn't really pay and therefore he didn't really learn anything, and so forcing the audience to sit through that is just not worth the outcome by any means. It's just not worth it. I don't recommend that movie either.
[00:20:22] Well, I hope that this has been helpful to you and challenging, but not offensive. I don't want to offend. I want to challenge, if you are offended, maybe that's a good thing. I'm going to be willing to offend you, but mostly I'm hoping to broaden our horizons and I want us to think more biblically, more righteously about all of these things, all of our little behaviors. We have a lot of stuff we can learn and grow.
[00:20:49] So these have been a couple of little tangents I've been on because of everything that's happening, and I hope that they've been beneficial to you.
[00:20:57] If so, and you've enjoyed these, maybe think about sharing. I made a big appeal to you last week to try to get you to share an episode with somebody that might need it.
[00:21:07] And I would like to do the same today. And then also, of course, subscribe and rate the show. It's just so important. So there again, I'm appealing, I'm appealing. Please, please, please do that, and that would be a big help.
[00:21:19] Alright, in the meantime, I want to thank you so much for joining me on The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe.
[00:21:27] May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.