There is this movie that I suspect you never heard of and did no box office. But it had a profound affect on me in so many ways and oddly enough it’s not a particularly “good” movie.
When I was a kid, I would say maybe 16 or 17, I was a big fan of comedy. Still am. But back in those days you have to understand that comedy was pretty much the new rock & roll. I had convinced my mom when I was way too young to be staying up to let me watch the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1975 and was hooked.
I was a subscriber to the National Lampoon and loved that subversive, irreverent, no respect for anyone, style of humor. I had as many comedy ms in my huge record collectioalbun as I did punk rock records. And I had a LOT of punk rock records.
One night, I happened upon a movie, on HBO, that had Martin Mull in it. I was, and am to this day, a huge fan of Martin Mull so I made time to be tubeside for the airing. Kids, this was in the day PRIOR to on demand viewing and DVRs. VCRs (google it) were a luxury item even. To watch something airing at a specific time, you pretty much had to be in front of the TV at air time. (Yeah. I know….olden days)
The movie was Serial, a cynical, smirky, sitcom-ish film released in 1980 and directed by Bill Persky. Starring Martin Mull, Tuesday Weld, Sally Kellerman, Christopher Lee, the great Tommy Smothers and a bunch of folks you have seen in a bunch of sitcoms back in the 70’s. A send up on California’s Marin county lifestyle of the 70’s and 80’s. These people are the 60’s hippies, gone establishment and some are still trying to grasp back some threads of the idealism of that era through consciousness raising, psychotherapy, recreational drugs, alternate takes on religion and spirituality, pre-AIDS era sexual freedom and other activities which would be considered “new-age” in the following decade, which gave rise to the “mindfulness” movement of the current moment.
The film is funny, there are some brief parts which would be considered slightly homophobic these days, but as a document of a lifestyle and an era, you could do worse than see this film It was based on a novel by Cyra McFadden called The Serial – A Year In The Life of Marin County
Martin Mull plays the protagonist, Harvey, an uptight banker in a three-piece suit who actively resists the whole granola eating, eco-friendly, whale saving, vegetarian cooking, neo-hippie with money lifestyle that has gotten ahold of his neighbors. He thinks something is going on with his friends and neighbors which is craziness. A kindred spirit, 9 year old Stokely sums it all up for Harvey with a line which may or may not be from Star Trek; “In an insane society the sane man must appear insane
These people attend orgies. Rather than get “married” they have “pair bonding ceremonies” officiated by the spacey Rev Spike played with sublime hilarity by Tommy Smothers. They gather for consciousness raising sessions and other such gatherings now considered cliché. But the motivation is not greed or even pleasure, not really. It’s a search for meaning. A search for peace. Even in the misguided context of a faddish culture, that motivation comes from a good place. That’s what I got out of it anyway, even then.
What puzzled me then, as it does now, is how does the establishment banker, with the daily commute into the city every day get to be the “sane man” Just who is crazy here? From my seat, it isn’t the guy the film makers want you to think it is. These people on a journey for some kind of meaning to living, some kind of blueprint toward approaching life that the established line of thinking wasn’t answering for them. These characters were silly, exaggerated, and in some cases selfish and stupid, like we all can be, but their ultimate goal was peace and kindness. I got your insane society right here Harvey. The filmmakers got the whole thing wrong.
I understand that the vision of new-age thinking here in this film is deliberately stereotypical and the characters are prone to excess, but when juxtaposed with the button down Mull character I remember thinking, they might be on to something and that thought never left me as I went down my own path to adulthood through various stumbles, curveballs and bouts of poor judgement. like we all do.
I used to be so angry. So bound up. So desperately impatient. I was a real fucking grouch a lot of the time. When I look back at my teens I see a kid who was frequently mean(as we all can be), maybe not of word or of deed so much, although I am sure there were times, but more of spirt. Somehow I had allowed my heart to be cynical and my manor to be cliquish and exclusionary. I suspect a fair deal of this was due to insecurities. Insecurities are not limited to teenagers either.
Flash forward to 2016 and as I find myself embracing a similar school of thinking as do the characters in Serial, certainly not with the Quaaludes(although if you happen to have some…just kidding…I think), excessive psychoanalysis and orgies that our Marin county folks explored, but definitely in the thinking that the experience of life can be looked at quite differently then I was used to approaching it. That the traditional construct of how we see ourselves and the world around us, for some of us, needs a look from a different perspective.
I came to a conclusion that I simply couldn’t stand being so hardened and cut off all the time. I was tired of my own cynicism and negativity.
Some background, right around the time my son was born I was taking Kripalu Yoga classes three times a week. I have since gotten away from that gained weight and gotten lazy, but I am working on that, that discussion is for another time. But while I was deep in those sessions, which I loved, I started a conversation with the instructor about things such as wellness and mindfulness. The opposites of those words are instructive: sickness and mindlessness. Yoga was more than calisthenics, it was a self discovery, staring with kindness toward self. Every session ended with mediation and even as I left yoga back then I kept up with meditation. I have been doing it twice daily for going on nine years. Yoga changed my thinking, it was the nerve center of my life. I ate better, I was in better shape, more importantly, I had better control over my mind I wish I had never left those classes, but if you happen to see me exercising and buying veggies rather than processed junk, know that I am in training to return.
Mindfulness is a big thing now in the culture. Eckhart Tolle’s books on the subject are best sellers. I recommend them actually. ABC news guy Dan Harris wrote a book called 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story Which I found to be excellent, however as I get older my approach to meditation and mindfulness is a bit different. I WANTED to lose my “edge” I have had too much “edge” in my psyche. Time to be less edge and more focused on kindness, love and gratitude.
Nobody ever said on their deathbed, “if only I hadn’t been so kind and loving to people”
The folks in the movie are the same as me, and probably the same as you in some respects. They are just looking for answers, or a path to answers that the current traditional world wasn’t giving them. And look where we are, meditation and yoga being taught in some elementary schools, and now even some of our more responsible corporations having mindfulness breaks.
If you see those silly people from Marin county in your travels, tell them it turns out that they weren’t wrong after all. Not entirely. Just a few wrong turns like everyone else and the answers they have been seeking are practices that are thousands of years old. Whodathunkit?
I was talking to a meditation/yoga instructor this year, discussing with him ways I could take this whole mindful centered life to the next level. I described this silly little movie and how it got me on a path to this place and how it stuck with me over 30 plus years. He sat back in his chair, incredulous, and looked at me and said: “you are so ready for this”
I am so ready for this.
Turns out I have been my whole life. Who knew?