The true picture of the past flits by.

I’ve been thinking about a quality of storytelling that I’ve came across in a fair number of films. I had the idea from short stories: in virtue of shortness, every motif in short stories become symbols, and in some cases, these symbols form a coherent whole: a theme, a topic, an image, a world.

I want to call this coherency in symbolism “cleanness,” because it’s more like a sensation, and less a rational judgement. A story can have one or two symbols, or a hundred of them, but numbers don’t matter. The story is no longer clean when symbols are misfitting or misplaced, when there are loose strands, when suspension of disbelief—a notion that hinges largely on the coherency of imagery—is disrupted. “Cleanness,” therefore, is obviously a subjective term. Whenever I say a story is clean, I am in fact saying “I think it is clean,” and someone else is totally free to argue, “no it’s not!” We can then have an interesting conversation about each other’s idea of cleanness, over leftover popcorn or ice cream.

Films, especially feature-length ones, are essentially short stories, but it’s somewhat harder for a film to be clean. A film, for one thing, is often shot on cameras. Through the lenses, we look at a world that is not so different from our own—random, chaotic, with a fair bit of sensory overload. Good films pay attention to what is in the frame, carefully directing the audience’s attention, keeping, as they say, the image “clean.” Animated films, then, should generally be cleaner than non-animated ones, because what is included in the shot is always thought through—in fact, painfully drawn. It shouldn’t be really surprising that Disney movies are quite clean—one might even say that they are “too clean,” or too simplistic in their symbolism—but more on that later.

Quite a few attributes of the films we like can be traced back to cleanness. We often prefer the first installment of a film over its sequels, because the former is cleaner: the film has one hero, the hero has one goal, and that goal is to defeat one enemy. In Iron Man II, when Tony Stark faces the danger of weapon proliferation, we aren’t quite sure what to feel: there are too many enemies; even Iron Man isn’t determined in his goal; and dragging in a father figure, an ex machina, to synthesize a new element out of thin air, doesn’t really help with cleanness. We’re not saying that Iron Man II is a bad movie, nor that we don’t like it—only that it is not clean. And honestly, Robert Downey Jr. is very attractive indeed in this one.

Should I give another example? The Harry Potter series. The first one is especially clean, much like a fairy tale—a Disney movie, even: Harry had no friends and no recognition growing up; he then gets to know two of his best friends for life, and together they defeat the most powerful dark wizard of their time. A story of friendship, love and personal identity, and a clean one. The sixth one, Half-Blood Prince, however, is probably the least clean of them all. Perhaps the chaotic nature of the film is supposed to reflect Harry’s angsty late teens, but the sexual awakening of the characters—Ron or Harry—runs almost completely isolated from the impending sense of doom, and becomes especially awkward when juxtaposed with Dumbledore’s death. Again, we the audiences don’t know what to feel. Sad, of course—but a teenage kind of sadness, a sadness whose own becoming is murky, a sadness in chaos.

I should repeat myself and emphasize that cleanness is distinct from good or bad, even though they might coincide quite often. Cleanness, I think, is our natural tendency to tie up all the loose bits. We want to make sense of a story, to impose a symbolic coherency, and when we fail we become understandably frustrated, and say that the story is not clean. But it is often the uncleanness that surprises us—Disney movies quickly become boring once you learn the drill, but Harry Potter staring longingly at a waitress in a subway cafe is almost memorable. It’s not as fun if everything is clean, if we’re always presented with a fairy tale. We like driving a Muggle car into the Whomping Willow. Alternatively, we’d reach a new stage of understanding, when we find new meanings in the loose ends, that inform or transform the symbolic coherency as a whole. We learn something new.

So next time when you walk out of the cinema, excited or baffled by what you saw, ask yourself: was the film clean? Chances are, things become cleaner when you ask that way.

I’ve been listening to CGP Grey’s podcast Hello Internet, and his light bulb metaphor in Episode 3, “Four Light Bulbs,” caught my attention. The topic is work-life balance, and the metaphor, roughly, works this way:

Say you are a human being who, like a power supply, has a measurable energy total of 100 watts. You have four categories of important things in your life, friendship, family, health and work. Each of them is a light bulb. You can distribute your limited wattage to power up the light bulbs however you like—for example, 70 watts for your work, and 10 watts each for friendship, family and health. In reality, the wattage can represent time, physical or mental energy, “head space,” etc. It is clear, in this metaphor, that those described as someone who has a poor work-life balance is favoring the work bulb at the sake of other light bulbs, and suffer from deteriorating health or relationships. The alternative solution, however, is not quite satisfactory, either. If one distribute their total energy evenly among light bulbs, giving 25 watts each, they risk becoming mediocre in all departments of life.

The problem of the light bulbs, then, almost becomes a dilemma between cold-hearted success and mediocrity. As Brady Haran points out, favoring the light bulb of work while ignoring the other ones may cause irreversible damage. Being a workaholic isn’t just about being selfish—it isn’t an issue of morality. If one chose to abandon personal health for, say, five years, they could foreseeably end up in dire medical conditions. The urge for success in one’s work, for self-preservation in the sense of financial independence and personal achievements, wound up in self-destruction. Mediocrity, similarly, is also not acceptable for many. It is hard to become exceptional in any aspect of life; it is, at the same time, agonizing to be unexceptional in all aspects of life. If one who devotes 100% energy into, say, becoming a full-time YouTuber, and still cannot claim to be successful, what kind of success might one expect if they only contribute 25%?

I find this metaphor really interesting, not only because it quite accurately captures our thought process when balancing work and life, but also because it exposes the premises, the logical “jumps” we make in our arguments. Of course, I’m not claiming that CGP Grey is wrong—a popular mindset is beyond right or wrong. What I really hope is that perhaps a discussion of these premises can help us resolve the dilemma of the various light bulbs in our lives. So—here are three possible premises for the light bulb metaphor:

  1. Every human being has a limited, or finite, total energy.
  2. The rate of success in one department is positively correlated to the amount of energy spent in that department.
  3. There are individual light bulbs.

And below are my rudimentary thoughts on each.

For (1), I must be pedantic and make a distinction between “limited” and “finite.” It might be true that our energy is finite—we are, after all, mortal, and our existence, our time on earth, obviously has an ending. It is, however, becoming less true that our energy is limited, constricted, or in a state of scarecity. We often talk about technology, saying that it extends our physical body: wheels let us run faster, telescopes let us see further, writings let us remember better, etc. If we believe that technology can liberate human beings from gruesome labor, and can propell us into a state of abundance, we should no longer feel limited by the finiteness of our energy.

For (2), I’ll point out that “success” is a wishy-washy term, whose definition fluctuates with historical and economic conditions. Maybe (2) is true for our current society, and I by no means want to dispute the value of work, and, for that matter, the value of working hard. But it is quite possible that if we define “success” in a different way, mediocrity might be more acceptable, even desirable for some. To put it even more simply, if we consider an even distribution of energy across light bulbs to be a perfectly fine way of life, then mediocrity itself is some kind of success, and (2) is no longer relevant for this new kind of value system.

It is not immediately clear what (3) means, so I should explain. I find it somewhat arbitrary that life is divided into different light bulbs, however many of them. I’ve always find different aspects of life reinforcing each other, bleeding into the borders, and sometimes even transcending boundaries altogether. I would, for example, “stop working” and go to see a movie. As CGP Grey mentions, the work light bulb is not fully off; but instead of seeing work as an impediment, I find it quite enjoyable that my personal life, or the time I spend with families and friends, informs my work in surprising and inspiring ways. What I want to object to is that I really don’t want to make a choice between work and personal life, because the distinction is often blurry anyways. It is I who work, it is I who live, and it is the same “I” across all my activities. (Hello, Kant!) If the light bulbs enter into a competition for my energy, I would be, in effect, competing against myself, and that would be quite a nasty situation indeed. I would much prefer to be nice to myself, to let all the light bulbs exist in harmony, in cooperation—which is to say that there aren’t individual light bulbs, and they all kind of mesh together to form one source of light. There is only one me.