Michel Gondry and the Bravery of Youth

So Michel Gondry and I spent some time recently hanging out and talking about our masturbation habits.

Well, more specifically we were talking about drawing our own porn. When we were both pubescent, we’d make sketches of naked girls having sex in elaborate configurations and then get off to those same sketches, like we were wiring our own imaginations into a feedback loop.

We differed, however, in how we would deal with these drawings after the fact. I was raised conservative Christian and he was apparently raised in a sort of cult, just like the kid in his movie. So I would immediately stuff my drawings in the big trash-can out front, where nobody would ever find them. Michel, however, said he was “arrogant” about it and thought the drawings were “really good” — so he wanted to keep them.

This led, predictably, to them getting discovered by a family member. That happened to me too, but most of my drawings escaped scrutiny via the city dump. Our other difference was that I occasionally included furry porn amongst my artistic explorations. Shut up, I was a weird kid.

The whole conversation was fascinating in the way Michel delineated public and private. He seemed totally comfortable talking about this kind of stuff — and about other deep, embarrassing foibles of youth and male development — because this is what the film was about.

But at one point, we called on questions from the audience, and a young woman asked Michel about his daily routine. This he was much more bashful about. He joked, asked to hear HER routine, said “this is a very private thing…” …and chuckled.

He was, of course, messing with her a bit, but that moment was a very singular window into the power of art. Art is a safe way to open up very dangerous and real parts of ourselves.

Gondry explained to us that he had made this film almost as an act of revisionist memory. When he was a kid, you see, he and a friend made a plan to build a car too. They were going to escape from everything — from the bullshit the adults in their lives put on them, from the bullies at school. They were going to drive away from all of it, just like the kids in the movie.

The difference is that the real Michel never actually built the car.

We all have those moments from when we were developing — moments where we were called toward some crazy adventure, or where we got a glimpse of an incredible mystery. Some of us have taken those invitations, and we remember the result — the opening of something totally new within ourselves. Moments we’ll never forget, that seemed to illuminate our whole lives with meaning.

Michel saw that moment, saw the endless vista open before his eyes when he was that age — but he didn’t do the thing. It was probably totally impractical to do the thing, after all. I mean, what these two boys did in the film was unlikely to work and kind of insane.

But Michel saw the vision, and wanted to do….SOMETHING, anything, bold enough to answer that vision. Sometimes we get bolder as we get older. Sometimes we understand better what matters.

It was really interesting getting his perspective on love. He regarded love as a very obvious and difficult thing, it seemed — in the film, Daniel (who represents Michel’s young self, he explained to us) begs Theo to tell him if he has a chance with his crush. Theo is very clear — “she’ll start caring about you when you stop caring about her”.

This is a really painful, truthful echo of the way a lot of people feel about modern dating. Everybody is competing to see how closely we can guard our feelings, how little we can care. There are articles and memes about this, and I thought Michel might be critical of this narrative; might expound on the virtues of vulnerability.

But when asked about the ending of the film, during which we hear Laura’s inner monologue as Daniel walks away, Michel basically said: that’s exactly what happened. Daniel went on this adventure, and found this incredible friendship, and now he’s a different person, and he doesn’t want her the same way anymore. So now she wants him.

Michel just sees love as something that happens, and is real, and is governed by rules we don’t have much control over. Which feels very French, but also very reassuring, in a weird way.

Michel backed this up with another story from his own life. Apparently something very similar happened to him — years after he became a famous director, a youthful crush contacted him to confess her love. Needless to say, his feelings had shifted somewhat.

It’s interesting, because we’re often searching for a sort of fairy-tale truth or ending. We think that’s where we find our optimism; in that ending. But that’s not where optimism is located, or how it works — Michel adventured into the future, made his work, and is an incredibly accomplished artist. This requires vast optimism. Optimism is an orientation. And just the same, in the movie, Daniel’s reward wasn’t some objectified girl-as-trophy or some sort of shallow crown of social approval, but the person that he became. He changed. This was his reward for undertaking the journey.

I write a lot about maleness, and I feel like a lot of men would do well to internalize that idea. It’s less about owning things (or people) and more about becoming something. Your personal journey is what matters, and being judged, by yourself or others, based on how much sex you’re having or how much of a “man” you are is a great way to trap and stunt yourself. Michel didn’t seem at all embarrassed by his experiences. He talked frankly, with the confidence of an artist who has systematically and effectively turned his wounds and humiliations into his successes.

So many of these personal changes have to do with putting the past in its proper place. In the movie, so many people, but especially the adults, are trying to put their bullshit, their narratives, on to the kids, who have this incredible rebellious energy. Just like Miley does, the kids have an irrepressible inner desire to destroy the story they’re being handed and make their own.

That’s the fuel our collective future runs on. That inner rebellion, and that imagination. So when we see that Michel marched toward the future in his own art, and left certain romantic dreams behind him, forsook certain shallow validations, what we’re seeing is that rebellious spirit consummated.

I think often we get it wrong. We think that adults have things figured out because they’ve lived longer, but that’s not the marker we should be examining. It’s not age, and it’s not about having things figured out. Some adults sink further and further into their own fears and obsessions, becoming convinced, in various ways, that security is more important than freedom. And that’s the death of the creative impulse, right there.

I know other adults that are still bright and curious well into their 60s and beyond. That still take risks. That are still looking for exciting new ways to live and make things. Michel played drums on a Kanye West song. He wants to understand how the digital can actually depart from mimicking the physical in filmmaking, and is disappointed at how few digitally animated films explore that. And he took a hard turn away from his signature quirky visual style and filmed this movie in a totally straightforward way, because he wanted to excavate his own creative spirit, wanted to get closer to himself. He’s still disrupting his own mind, challenging his own limits.

We can never stop, really, if we want to avoid shriveling and becoming shadows of our former selves. The film argues that, in a specific way, kids can be smarter than adults. Michel’s life argues this too. You don’t “figure out the lesson”, you don’t “solve the problem”. You keep rebelling forever, for as long as you have strength. Because that’s the only way forward.

The road trip never ends.

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