Learning from the Movies

A few years ago, I was musing about the usual stuff–writing, Bob Dylan, whether life has any purpose–and I had an odd sort flash into my own writing. Hadn’t looked at it for some time, but I thought about it this morning and went back in the archives, and damned if it was still kind of interesting. I sometimes think on school where students are asked to explicate at heme for a piece by, say, Gogol, and, as a writer, you think: I’ll make you bet Gogol never sat down and said, “I think I’m going to write to this theme.” It just happens. Usually, the last person you want to ask to explicate a theme is an author.

Anyway, here’s the piece:

This morning, I was listening to Bob Dylan’s soundtrack from the Sam Peckinpah film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” one of those films that has always resonated with me on a level that’s sometimes difficult for even me to understand, and I found myself pondering: who’s the main character in this story? Pat or Billy? Or are they equally weighted?

I finally decided it was Sheriff Pat Garrett’s story as his narrative opens and ends the film, and it is his dilemma whether or not to track down his former friend (Garrett was an outlaw before becoming sheriff) and kill him. Pat changes with the times–the closing of the wild American West–and lives; Billy does not, and, in the end, is killed. Wistfully, these days I identify more with Pat than Billy.

And I thought how, in a way, Billy is a part of Pat that he has to subdue to survive, an aspect of his young, free past, and that they are two parts of the same character. In that way, they sort of represent what Freud called the ego and id, with the ego having to tame the id’s powerful, basic impulses, or–in a model I more readily identify with–Carl Jung’s framing of conscious and unconscious mind, the unconscious being the vast mind that lurks beneath the surface of ordinary consciousness and comes through in drives, neurosis, dreams, fevers, intoxication, etc.

That’s a great theme, I thought. A conflict that I feel in my soul. That’d be a hell of a theme to write about, and I realized it underlies two of my other touchstone films, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “Apocalypse Now.” That’s when it struck me: it is my theme. It runs through much of my work, some of which, like “Delusion of Darkness,” give the advantage to the unconscious, and others of which, like the war plays (in which the characters’ rationality must overcome their attraction to the raw madness of violence), give the conscious mind the winning hand.

To give creedence to the power of the unconscious mind, I was not fully aware of the theme until now.

About Steve Patterson

Steve Patterson has written over 50 plays, with works staged in Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Austin, Tampa, and other U.S. cities as well as in Canada and New Zealand. His works include: Waiting on Sean Flynn, Next of Kin, Farmhouse, Malaria, Shelter, Altered States of America, The Continuing Adventures of Mr. Grandamnus, Bluer Than Midnight, Bombardment, Dead of Winter, and Delusion of Darkness. In 2006, his bittersweet Lost Wavelengths was a mainstage selection at Portland Center Stage's JAW/West festival, and, in 2008, won the Oregon Book Award (he also was an OBA finalist in 1992 and 2002). In 1997, he won the inaugural Portland Civic Theatre Guild Fellowship for his play Turquoise and Obsidian. View all posts by Steve Patterson

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