As a kid, I think I experienced a lot of displaced passion disorder. I just invented that affliction to describe my childhood tendency to get so excited about an idea that I’d immediately have to put that idea into practice without ever questioning what inspired it. Every week, I’d find something new to dive into and embed myself so deep that everything else became background noise. Schoolwork went unfinished, chores were rushed through or not done at all, and as for my friends, they had to get on board with the new idea or else be left behind. I’m sure it must have looked exhausting from my parents’ point of view, but I loved the feeling of immersing myself in the passion du jour.
When I was 13 years old I saw the film Breaking Away, and it blew my mind. It was a studio film, but had such an independent spirit to it that you never would have known. And in 1979 studio films might as well have been independent films – it was set and filmed in Bloomington, IN on the campus of Indiana University, and pitted the townies (or cutters, nicknamed for the stone cutting and quarries nearby) against the preppy college students. At the center of the film are Dave Stoller, a bicycle racing enthusiast who wishes he were Italian, and his cutter friends, who both despise and envy the college students. The film beautifully blends small-town values with coming-of-age angst, wanderlust, and desire, all culminating in the Little 500, a famous annual bike race.
I fell head over heels for Breaking Away, and am happy to say it really holds up; it was nominated for five Academy Awards, won best original screenplay, and scores a 94 on Rotten Tomatoes. I saw it a half dozen times in the theater, and each time I was filled with this burning desire to live Dave Stoller’s life. I immediately bought a ten speed with my meager savings (a junky used Centurion with a fair bit of rust) and began riding it everywhere. I decided I would become a bike racer, and one day ride the Tour de France. I entered a local bike race that started and finished at City Hall in downtown Los Angeles and nearly passed out trying to keep up with the older and significantly more athletic racers. Unfortunately the Centurion proved even less reliable than I, and I DNF’d due to mechanical failure when my derailleur broke. Thank god, because there was no way I was going to make the distance, anyway. But I kept doggedly on. I saved more money and bought a real race bike—an Eddie Merckx with Campagnolo parts. My dad put some hooks in the rafters of our garage so I could keep it safe, and I’d stare at it at night, as though that feeling from Breaking Away was somehow extractable from this beautiful machine.
Here’s where the disorder comes in: As a kid I thought that it was bike racing that inspired me, but what actually happened in the movie theater is that I was mesmerized by the story. Every twist and turn of the film was doing its intended job, making me take on the feelings of its protagonist, making me want more than anything to have his life experiences: the joy, the heartbreak, the challenges, the romance, and the risk. I was being turned on by independent film, and mistakenly buying ten speeds.
It’s amazing how a movie can stick to your bones more permanently than an actual life experience. I don’t know if you ever feel this way, but when I come out of a great movie, I actually see the world differently. My favorite time to see a movie is 4:00 p.m. That way, I enter the theater from a bright, sunny environment, but emerge to a world that has physically changed to night, which intensifies and sustains my feeling of altered reality.
I think what I want – and if you’ll allow the projection, what all humans want – is the chance to see life from someone else’s eyes; not to find out how we are different, but to find out how we are the same. When Dave Stoller gets his heart broken by the Cinzano bike team, I want to take those evil Italians down! I feel the hurt, the betrayal, and the shattering of childhood innocence. I mourned the passing of my own childhood in that film, even though at age 13, I was still in the thick of it. I just wish I were smart enough back then to understand that I wasn’t watching a guy named Dave Stoller who lived in Indiana, but rather being manipulated by a masterful story.
It turned out the movie was popular enough to be made into a TV series. My parents had a long-standing ban on summertime television viewing, but they decided to lift it, knowing how excited I was for a weekly version of Breaking Away. They made me go next door to my aunt and uncle’s house and watch it on the little TV in their garage so my siblings wouldn’t find out I was getting this special privilege. I remember sitting on a stool in the darkened garage, waiting for the opening credits of the pilot. And then Shaun Cassidy rides out on a Schwinn! Of all the injustices and indignities! A Schwinn? Shaun Cassidy? I tried so hard not let it bother me, but like most TV in 1980, it sucked. The acting was terrible and the weekly plots contrived; worse, there was no magic at all in the story. I lost interest, even if it meant giving up my surreptitious television hour in the garage. I guess ABC felt the same way, because it was cancelled after seven episodes.
To this day I question inspiration – what my gut is telling me to do, what gets me excited, and whether or not I’m following the right impulse. But my conversation with this issue’s guest, Tatiana Maslany, reminded me of something important: No impulse is right, nor more importantly, is it wrong. What it is, is completely yours to experience and follow if you choose. Who knows where it might take you or what you might learn? So before you judge or stifle any impulse, revel in it for a moment or two. That elusive feeling is part of a bigger, inevitable confusion, simply because the road of any creative endeavor is naturally full of twists and turns. I guess that’s the beauty of life itself. No one knows how it turns out, but the story is almost always mesmerizing.