Groundhog Buddhism

Every now and then somebody writes an article or gives a talk about Groundhog Day and its relationship with Buddhism.  These are fun for me because I usually learn a lot, and of course get to be amazed (over and over) at the reach of this little movie.  One of these articles came to my attention last week, this one in the Times of India.

The author of this article, Shobhan Saxena, is reporting on a meeting of minds between a group of priests (including the Dalai Lama) and scientists to chew on mind/body connections.   (I would love to have been a cow on the wall in that room!)   How amazing that they would use this extraordinary forum to talk about my movie.

The article is titled “Groundhog Buddhism” and uses Groundhog Day references throughout; however, a careful reading shows that, no, the Dalai Lama and the others never actually talked about Groundhog Day or even mentioned it – that part was all Mr. Saxena’s clever way to suck in the reader.  But wouldn’t it have been cool if they did?  I think that conversation would have gone a little something like this:

Just kidding.  I have no idea what they would have said.

But Mr Saxena did make a lot of interesting statements in the article and I thought I’d address a couple of them.

“Bill Murray’s wisecracking and cynical character in ‘Groundhog Day’ finally sees the light when he detaches himself from his self-centered existence.”

Hm.  I’d say he sees A light, not THE light. 

Phil does eventually become conscious of a world beyond his self-centered existence and he responds to it, no longer singularly driven by his own needs and desires as he was before February 2nd. 

Giving up your limited and illusory sense of self may indeed be the true answer to enlightenment, but I don’t think it’s necessarily proven by this movie.   However, there is no doubt in my mind that Phil’s perception of the world expanded.  The boundaries between himself and the world around him broke down considerably.  His life was filled with many more possibilities than he had before imagined.  Did he see “the light”?  I just know that his soul became lighter.

“Living beings undergo repeated birth, death and rebirth based on their innate misconception of reality.”

That one seems to be true, or at least seems like a reasonable way to think about things.  Any conception of reality that doesn’t include what another person might be conceiving seems to me to be limited at least by that much.  So unless you’ve thought of everything your conception of reality is a misconception, right? 

Phil goes through lots of cycles of death and rebirth – and not just starting with the toaster in the tub.  His various cycles of self-understanding include thinking that he is a victim of the universe; thinking that he is the one who writes the rules for everyone else; thinking that life is pointless; thinking that death is escape from suffering; believing that he is a god; believing that his unique vantage point should be used to help others; believing that his vantage point is not unique; believing that infinity lies in a single day; believing that love is everywhere.   As each phase comes to an end, one definition of “Phil” is left behind and new one emerges. 

I’d say all of this goes to support the idea – whether actual or just metaphoric – that cycles of birth and death churn through ever shrinking misconceptions of reality.

“Many a monk has argued that the ‘self ’ is ‘an illusion caused by ignorance’. “

Maybe so.  I mean, it can be a useful illusion, as distinguishing yourself from other people doesn’t seem like a necessarily bad idea.  It may not help you reach enlightenment, but if your self is the one that’s lactose intolerant you’re going to want to know who gets the soy latte at Peets.

Phil does come face to face with his ignorance about himself many times.  When you think about it, every time you learn something new you are discovering an area in yourself that was once ignorant.  Phil expands his vision of what is possible for him as the movie progresses, and his growing empathy for other people (and perhaps animals and plants, too) is all evidence of Phil’s expanding concept of self.   That makes sense to me.

 “Can the self guide itself out of its self-created misery?”

But I thought that “self” was just an illusion.  Can an illusion guide itself out of the illusion that it exists and is miserable?  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say “Yes” because as a movie writer I understand how movies, which are just the illusion of reality, can actually change how a person feels about things.  And because I’m a positive person and inclined to say “yes” to most things.

“ How did he do it? Did his brain guide him? Or did he guide the brain?”

I suppose there are a variety of ways that people can become less ignorant about themselves and the world around them, and all would involve paying attention.  In Groundhog Day the tool used to force Phil to pay attention was repetition – with the added stipulation that there was no escape: he HAD to face his life.

The world provided Phil with a repeating day.  When you experience something enough times, over and over again, you might actually begin to see its multitude of pieces and perspectives.  A fresh repetition can reinforce an idea, can call attention to itself.  (Interestingly, the drone of repetition can also make things disappear, fade into the background, lose our attention.  More on this another day).  

Phil did not set out to become a better person, and so did not think and strategize his way toward greater understanding.  That growth was his natural reaction to the world presented to him.  That is not to say that a real person couldn’t study and meditate and pray himself into greater consciousness.  I’m just saying that Phil didn’t really do that.  But I do believe that the repetitious nature of our naturally passing days similarly serves to present a repeating world to us, one that changes us by staying the same, and by changing us that repeating world changes.

“He kept repeating himself till he realized his true self.”

That’s a nice thought and sounds true. 

I think that Phil arrived at a place where he was at ease with the outside world and with himself, at a place of peace and balance.  Is that a true self?  What happens when the outside world suddenly changes?   Phil’s true self was never tested so we didn’t get to see that part.  

– – – – –

There you have it, my friends.  Like Mr. Saxina I used the draw of Groundhog Day to talk about things I know nothing about.   Hey – it’s fun being Buddhist for a day.

Fooled me once…

I have never been a big fan of April Fools Day.   That is a good day to be tricked, humiliated, made the butt of jokes, and labeled as a “fool.”  What’s the attraction?  I suppose it’s a great day for the sadist jokesters, the hoax-makers, the people who will create a big laugh for themselves by turning other people into victims.   “It’s so EASY!” they think.  

And someone has created this day just for them.  And we let them.  What fools we are! 

We are all measured by this process of foolery.  Can the victim take the joke?  Is his ego strong enough to accept being deflated and flattened as he’s revealed to be the stupid gullible idiot that he is?  On the other side:  is the sadist’s joke too mean-spirited?  Is he merely hiding behind the legitimacy of the holiday to give himself permission to be aggressive and hostile?   

Likely answer: yes.  On April 1st, fool-hunting season is officially open! 

And it is like shooting fish in a barrel.  Fools are everywhere.  In fact, from a certain perspective, foolish behavior is just another way to say “human behavior.”  We are all fools, all the more so when we pretend that we are not.   Consider these two things: 

1)   who but a fool would bother making plans in the face of inevitable death? 

2)   Who but a fool would dwell on death to the exclusion of life?  

I think that covers everybody. 

We foolishly believe in our own goodness and power in the face of evidence to the contrary.  We think we understand how the world works.  We think we know ourselves and understand others.   In each case we are convinced that we do – until we are convinced that we don’t.  Sometimes we believe ourselves to be wise.  Sometimes we think we do understand.  For a time we believe we will survive whatever experience we commit to.   All this is true until we realize we are idiots and we don’t understand and we become aware that we’re all going to die.  

I know all of this because I watch the movie Groundhog Day.  

Phil Connors reveals himself to be a fool, over and over again.   He’s a guy who thinks he understands himself and the world with all certainty.  Then doubt.  Then certainty.  Then doubt…. 

Every time he thinks he has come to understand the world he is living in, he proves himself wrong.   When he has a big epiphany and realizes that he is in control of his world and the people in it (“I’m not going to live by their rules anymore!”) he thinks he understands how the world works.   What a fool.  He eventually finds this unfulfilling and boring and tedious and clearly not the point.    Each stage of his life carries with it a new understanding, only to be followed by another stage, disproving the previous one. 

The saying (which I learned from Gomer Pyle) goes, “Fooled me once, shame on you.  Fooled me twice, shame on me.”   But so frequently it does not even stop at twice!  There is a lot of shame associated with being a fool. 

If life is the jolly prankster, then all of us are fools.  The story of Groundhog Day is that we repeatedly fall for the same trick, over and over, until we don’t anymore – at which point we proceed to fall for a different trick. 

The end of the movie suggests a certain certainty for Phil, but if I were to get inside Phil’s brain I’d guess that he is only certain of his foolish nature – and he’s okay with that.  I don’t think he believes he knows anything for certain, and he holds in his quiver a lifetime of memories of being certain only to be subsequently proved to be wrong.    The biggest difference between the old Phil and the new Phil is that, even though he is still a fool, now he is a fool with humility. 

I suppose people need to be reminded of our common humanity from time to time, and being reminded of this by exposing our foolish nature is one way to go.   Your basic good comedy movie accomplishes this as a matter of course.  

If I ever liked anything about April Fools Day it was the proliferation of clever satires and similar comedy entertainment – in a way celebrating our common foolery by being self-deprecating about humanity itself.    

So, fine.  Happy April 1st.  Go have your fun.  Your fool-hunting license expires on April 2nd, although without government regulators in this area don’t be surprised if the privilege is exercised year-round.

Groundhog Resolutions

New Year’s Day has become, for many, the day to begin a new life – this time, without cigarettes.  This time without donuts.   This time with a positive attitude, and gratitude, and pushups.   

Today is, as they say, the first day of the rest of your life, although – and here’s the problem – so is tomorrow.    Every day, every moment, is just another now.  Just like a movie screenplay we are always in the present tense.  And just as a screenplay can begin anywhere, so can we.  We know this.  

If every day were our last chance to make a change rather than our first, maybe the uniqueness of that situation would be a great motivator.  But knowing that every day offers the same opportunity as the next is not only a great inspiration, it is also a recipe for procrastination. 

For many people Groundhog Day is inspirational specifically because, by Phil’s example, our world can change when we change ourselves.  So why not, suggested my friend Al, move the day of resolutions from January first to February second? 

Not a bad idea.   By February second I imagine that most New Year’s resolutions have already been cast aside or lost most of their momentum.   2/2 is a good time to reconsider those 1/1 resolutions, catch the backslide, and recommit, perhaps this time with new purpose and groundhog-like resolve. 

On the other hand, why take a perfectly inspirational holiday and muck it up with external expectations, and maybe years of broken promises, shattered dreams, guilt and recrimination.  Kind of takes all the fun out of a goofy day with a sciaphobic rodent. 

Phil went through a lot of changes in the movie, each motivated by the last.   If he had watched the movie Groundhog Day on his first day of confinement in Punxsutawney, do you really believe he would have suddenly seen the light and jumped to the end?    If he had, would it have lasted?  The soil needs to be prepared before the seed will grow.  I know this because I studied biology. 

I think that watching the movie (or reading a great poem or hearing a great song) is a fine way to help prepare the soil.  And it might be just the thing to tip a person’s intentions into action.  I certainly have received lots of mail from people whose lives have changed as a result of seeing the movie.

Still, if the person weren’t ready to change, no number of February seconds would be enough to do the trick.  Committing yourself to a resolution by calendar date is probably about as effective as the anti-drug campaign “Just say no.”   

If you’d like resolution-making to be part of your Groundhog Day celebration, I think that’s great.  Go for it, and good luck.  I’m rooting for you.  Just remember – all of those “nows” and “first days” are always there, every day of your life.  The difference for everyone is not the “now”: it’s always the “you.” 

Happy Groundhog Day, everybody.

What Time Is It?

In a blog entry I made almost a year ago (Nov 11: “It’s About Time”) I asserted that “time” to humans is about judgment; that Groundhog Day is about the theme of “Time” to the degree that it is about Phil’s changing judgments as to what to do at any given time, and that these choices defined who he was.   I asserted that Phil was time itself, and so am I, and so are you. 

The big thing going on in my life right now besides watching my net-worth tumble is, of course, I’m once again teaching screenwriting.  Students want to know the rules of structure and I get to explain it to them.  This is a tricky business since the biggest rule is that the rules may not be helpful.   I tell them, “Follow the structural paradigms – unless they feel wrong.”  Alternately I tell them, “Write whatever you want.  If the script isn’t working, however, try comparing what you’ve done to the structural paradigms.”  In other words, the rules are helpful, except when they’re not.   How does a writer decide when to follow the structural orthodoxy and when to abandon it? 

That’s up to the writer.  That is, in fact, what makes each writer unique: judgment.  Is it time to follow the rules or is it time to make up some new ones?  It is because of this judgment that screenwriting is an art and screenwriters are artists.  This is no paint by numbers situation.  You can’t assemble this bicycle from a kit.  Writing reflects that part of humanity that can somehow be learned, but cannot in fact be taught.   

As I watch the economic crisis unfolding and Reagan uber-conservative free-market capitalists crawling over each other to socialize the banks, I am once again drawn to this question of time and judgment.  The question: what time is it? 

The most doctrinaire of doctrinarians in the economic and political worlds see their neatly structured world crumbling.  The rules that seemed so clear to them for so long if applied at this moment of time would bring disaster, and so with utter bewilderment they abandon their most cherished beliefs, choosing to bend rather than break. 

I’ve heard it said that a conservative is just a liberal who has been mugged, and that there are no atheists in foxholes.  Our most hallowed structures fall when the right time and place challenge them beyond reason.   

A lesson I might give my students would be to take the truest, most sacrosanct unbendable truth they know, and then to write a story proving it wrong.   Could you do that?  Could you imagine a character and a set of conditions that would disprove your truth?  I bet you could.  I bet a lot of conservative economists who could not imagine such a scenario before could well imagine one now.

Some people cling to structure regardless of the situation, showing no judgment at all.  I had a high school biology teacher who liked to proclaim that there is more than one way to skin a cat, that there are, in fact two ways: a right way and a wrong way.   I think he really believed it.  And it may be true – until someone comes up with a better “right” way.  A new tool.  A different kind of cat.  Maybe certain time constraints would change the cat-skinning priorities (a new best way for when you’re in a hurry), or maybe a specific new need for cat-skin would necessitate different skinning techniques.  It is unlikely that my teacher would have discovered any of these alternatives as long as he was certain of how right he was.

I have always been drawn to respect people with personal codes, people who stand up for their beliefs come what may.  I’m attracted to their integrity and strength. People who stand for nothing would, as the song goes, fall for anything.   But of course, those other people, the ones who do rigidly stand for something, they can also fall for anything.   People who believe strongly in following our leaders no matter what they say and do, no matter how conditions may have changed, well, who’s crying now?

You can’t follow the rules into a great screenplay.  You need to react to realities in the screenplay itself as well as those in the marketplace and in the greater viewing society.  You need to apply your intelligence, sensibility, experiences and creativity.  No rules can measure those things and tell you what choices to make.  That’s a human choice, a judgment call. 

And right now, at this time, when I’m looking for leadership in the economic and political arenas, the qualities of a leader that I’m looking for have nothing to do with labels and structures and doctrines.  I’d just like to see someone up there who knows the time of day.

Writing from the trough

First, a brief note to everybody:  I’m baaaaaack.This may be in fits and starts, as my new life in Boston is excellent but demanding.  Also for the past month I have been writing little essays about Groundhog Day to accompany my publication of the original screenplay.  This has been fun, but it keeps sucking energy away from the blog.   Hopefully I’ll at least have that to show you one of these days.As usual it’s easy to get me talking by asking a question, and this one comes from Tim in Los Angeles:

Being that you chose a creative career that is extremely difficult to even have a modicum of success in, how did you persevere and stay motivated during those lean years? You know the days when top ramen filled your shelves, and you shared a place with 14 roommates and roaches?

Tim JulianoLos Angeles, CA


By the time I moved to L.A. I had already completed the roommates and roaches portion of the program – although I still like ramen.    I spent my lean years in Chicago, which is a better place to starve than L.A.  The housing was affordable, public transit was good, there were lots of cheap but excellent ethnic restaurants, and a person could go see the finest blues musicians in the world for a two dollar cover at a local bar.  

Every day, however, teetered on the ledge between hope and despair.  One moment there were good friends, positive feedback and big plans.  The next there were rejection letters, quiet telephones, and bitter cold.   It went on like this for years, and frankly it culminated in my getting ridiculously sick for a while.

How did I deal? 

1. Keep writing.  There is always hope in a new project. It’s like babies.  There’s no evidence that they’re going to turn out any better than anybody else, but somehow there is always hope in babies.  Besides, supposedly you are writing because you like to, not because it will make you rich.  Doing things you like is helpful. 

2. Be with other people.  Writers necessarily spend a great deal of time alone.  You need to counterbalance that.  Besides, other people even at their worst can give you good ideas to write about.  In general you need to have experiences in the world, so be sure to do that – otherwise you’re just writing what you know, which is about being alone and lonely and desperate and depressed.  Who’s going to buy that movie? 

3. I spent some time in the community of other writers.  They are the only ones who know exactly what you are going through.  Even in your alonest alone periods, you’re not alone in this. 

4. If you can, make money as a writer.  You may not be able to sell your screenplay just yet, but I always figured that any kind of writing would be better than flipping pizzas.  I wrote industrial videos and I typed resumes.  I worked for peanuts on a local TV show, wrote brochures, wrote sketch comedy for corporate shows – whatever I could wiggle my way into.

5. Watch movies.  Watch good movies and tell yourself that there are good movies being bought and shot.  Watch bad movies and tell yourself that you could write better than that, you do write better than that, and if that piece of crap can get made, yours can too!  

How did I cope?  My answer is really the same as everybody else’s: I just muddled through.   I muddled through until I got lucky.  But I was always preparing the soil for luck to land.  It didn’t come out of the blue, but arrived after years of trying and pushing and practicing and connecting.  

And the final hard truth is that there is no real arrival.  Every successful screenwriter I know has long periods of time without success.  The roaches and ramen may be gone, the roommates replaced by loving families, but the odds are always stacked against anybody in this business.  Dealing with the trough is a life-skill you will always need.  If you can figure out how to be happy and optimistic independently of your writing career – keeping all parts of your life in perspective – there is more chance you will stick it out long enough to get lucky, as I did.


The last time we moved – 16 years ago – we had a lot less stuff.  Even so, I remember vowing never ever to do this again.   If a new move were to become necessary, I promised, we were going to forego boxes and vans and go straight to the one match technique.  How much stuff do you really need, anyway?  

Starting with the idea of getting rid of everything, a simple logic began creeping into the conversation: when we get to our new stuff-free home we’re going to need something to sleep on.  We could sleep on the floor until we find a new bed to purchase, or you know what, we already have a perfectly good bed – why not just bring it with us?  

And so it begins.  A bed, a frying pan, a chest for clothes, a favored painting, a bookshelf, duct tape…  The decision to bring nothing with us was easy.  But once we realized that we were better off bringing SOME of the stuff with us, everything became fair game.  Each item needed a review – do we need this?  Do we want this?  Is this us, now?  Who are we?  How do we live?  What is our irreducible essence?

Coincidentally, I am in a similar place with my current screenplay.  I have spent months and months accumulating ideas, scenes, characters, and dialogue, and dumping them into the infinite space that is a document file.   There is a story – in fact, a complete beginning middle end screenplay – but it’s not ready to submit because it’s still carrying closets and basements full of unnecessary stuff. 

I have snippets of terrific dialogue that only barely fit the characters now inhabiting the screenplay.   I have some really kick-ass scenes that disrupt the flow of the story and set our expectations in the wrong direction.  I even have two or three perfectly good titles, but of course I can only use one of them.   

So about half of my time is spent poring over files, books, office equipment, collectibles, furniture, music – deciding with each item Is this still part of my life?  Will I ever need this again?  Who am I?  The other half of my time is spent on the screenplay, picking at scenes and sequences, threads and payoffs, deciding with each item Is this still part of my story?  Will I ever need this again?  What is this movie really about?  What is its essence?

Complicating this sanity-challenging discussion with myself are two competing knowledges: 

1 – With all of the junk lying around our drawers and closets, I haven’t had to go to the hardware store for years.  No matter what the home project is, I have been able to solve it using available materials.   Save enough stuff for a rainy day and when the rainy day comes you’ve got the stuff to deal with it.  Similarly, I have plenty of well written scenes not currently in use, but ready to either plug in as they are or to cannibalize their parts should the script once again require them.

2 – I could use the one match technique on both my stuff and my screenplay, and in either case I will do just fine.  I have the resources I need, with me, all the time, to rebuild my home or my screenplay, this time without any old baggage, using only what I need based on what I know NOW, who I am NOW, what I need NOW.   If that solution seems inefficient in terms of time or money, so does sorting through an overstuffed life and an overstuffed story.  Furniture storage costs money.   Winnowing through a script that’s full of old ideas takes time.

In both the moving and the screenplay, good decisions are based on awareness and honesty and a great deal of toil.  But the goals are the same – to arrive at (or at least close in on) the basic essential life at the chewy center.  Moving is hell, but perhaps helpfully cathartic.  Screenwriting is the same.

Character and Country

It was one of those parties where it is somehow decided that now we are all going to tell a personal story.  Like you, I try to avoid these kinds of parties.  Like you, I dread being manipulated and peer pressured into humiliating myself.  Like you, I tend to find these experiences – in retrospect – to have been more interesting and valuable than those parties where nothing in particular happens. 

In this evening’s parlor game we were all, one at a time, to admit our past acts of thievery: “Have you ever stolen anything?”

Actually, it wasn’t even, “Have you ever stolen anything,” but more like “What was the biggest thing you ever stole?”  There was an assumption of guilt!  There was an assumption that this specific character flaw was universal.  Even more despicable than that, there was a kind of gleeful braggadocio involved, the telling of thievery so bold and outrageous as to inspire awe.

It was fun in that way, but I still found it surprising.  Certainly somebody besides me actually has an ethical code of conduct and tries to follow it.  Don’t they?  They don’t?  How did I possibly become an adult and still believe this?  By the way, the only other person at the party who seemed taken aback by this den of thieves was my wife, Louise.  I guess chumps of a feather flock together.  But how strange: it was as if the host had brought out a platter of roast child and everyone else at the party had dug in with gusto.  

You think you know a person.

In writing it’s axiomatic that to create a character who feels real and alive it is necessary to create for them a flaw of some kind.  Well, what constitutes a flaw?  A week ago I might have given the example of “dishonesty”, but apparently this is not a flaw at all – for 13 out of 15 partygoers this is standard operating procedure. 

I exaggerate, of course.  These stories wouldn’t even be stories unless they were the remarkable exception to the rule, “Don’t steal.”  Still, there was an equally remarkable lack of guilt or remorse.  Pretty much everybody saw in their experiences not a lesson learned but a happy ending to their tales of larceny most foul: “…and that’s how I paid for three months in Europe!”  Etcetera. 

What I noticed in the discussion that followed the stories was a universal sense of  personal exceptionalism.  All of these fine people saw themselves as moral and ethical stalwarts.  Not just living upstanding lives, but living particularly upstanding lives.  And nobody saw their illegal and immoral transgressions as anything but fine stories to tell, and an exception to their otherwise upright living.  This unshakable believe didn’t even waver when the admitted criminals added new stories – “Oh, yeah, and then there was the time when…”  That too was an exception.  They were all exceptions.

As an audience we look for clues to the nature of a particular character.  First we listen to what they say.  Then we watch what they do.   We also watch for how the people around them react – including how animals treat them.  If the dog doesn’t like somebody, there’s a good chance the character is not as trustworthy as they seem.   By the way, there were no pets at this party so there was nobody to warn me.

When looking for clues to a person’s character, we know that believing what they say is the least reliable method.  They could be lying to us or they could be deceiving themselves, or perhaps they use language for a different purpose than for passing along reliable information. 

Getting character clues by watching how others react is also potentially deceptive.   You can, after all, fool a lot of the people a lot of the time.  We all recognize the ostracized bad guy who lives in a drippy basement and sharpens knives and walks with a limp.  But we also recognize the bad guy who is the most beloved, unassailable do-gooder in the room – heck, we usually pick him out of a cop drama in the first five minutes.

Watching what somebody DOES, that is a better insight into character.  If I see somebody steal, I don’t care what they have to say about the incident – I still know them to be capable of thievery.  If they constantly make excuses and explanations for themselves, I know them to be capable of self-deception.   Now, self-deception – that’s a good character flaw.

There is yet another thing to look at when developing a character, and that has to do with what the audience is bringing to the party. What is their cultural bias, or their own personal relationship with a moral code?  Will a society of one-time crooks even recognize criminal behavior as a character flaw?   I mean, I watched these people divide thievery into acceptable (I stole from a big corporation, but they’ll never miss it, plus they screw us all the time) and unacceptable (He stole coins from blind begger’s cup?  I’d never do that!)  Plus we tend to make exceptions and excuses for ourselves and for people we like, because love is blind.

Here’s another question before I reveal the true meat of this meal:  Can the behavior and attitude of the 13 Thieves best be characterized as the behavior of a child or the behavior of an adult?   I ask because we may disagree on this point, and because the answer is not in fact obvious.

Who is it, child or adult, who believes in following the rules except where they themselves are concerned?  Who, child or adult, is most likely to make an exception for himself rather than to take personal responsibility?  Is it a child or an adult’s attitude that everybody cheats and anybody who doesn’t cheat is a fool, and that the rules only apply to you when you decide that they do?

All of this folds into one of the great and interesting public debates that this country keeps almost having: should there be American Exceptionalism, or, as a screenwriter might put it, Does the character of our country need a re-write?

While watching the Santa Fe 13 rationalize their way into sainthood, I was wondering if American Exceptionalism is so strong a feeling in our country simply because the American people feel the same way about themselves – that they want to be in control of which laws they get to break, and to feel justified in breaking them.   I have no idea whether people in other countries are more honest to the core, or whether everybody makes exceptions for themselves.

Personally speaking, I think I rationalize like hell.  Maybe not about stealing because I really try not to do that, but certainly, in general, I know that I try to construct a universe around myself in which I get to be the most upstanding citizen.   Still, I don’t necessarily assume that my own character ought to be the national model.

Anyhow, I don’t think it’s such a worthless exercise to think of America as a character.   Maybe seeing it through the screenwriter’s lens we can be more clearheaded about how we know what our national character is, and what we can do to reveal our best self to the rest of the world.