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When looking at the cultural and media landscape of the United States it strikes me that there is little or no discussion of the cultural Zeitgeists – more specifically, the viewpoints and mindsets that continually compete for our attention, usually in order to convince us that a particular viewpoint is superior to another, and that a particular worldview should prevail.

These Zeitgeists show up in our films, our media, our social discourse, on Facebook posts, in television shows, in the News, and in discussions over dinner. Often considered cultural ‘givens’, some of these mindsets can lead us to conflict, even while others try to lead us toward peace and reconciliation. Yet other Zeitgeists imply that we should give up to the futility of the human condition which is, after all, tragic – that fatalism is the only realistic approach to life.

So what do I mean by Zeitgeist? The definition of Zeitgeist is ‘spirit of the time’ – and some philosophers would argue that one cannot determine the Zeitgeist of a time except through a historical lens. A Zeitgeist is a mindset, a prevailing mood and way of seeing, an overarching frame through which we view the world.

I’ll argue that we can define cultural Zeitgeists as they exist today, and furthermore that we can actually find several Zeitgeists in contemporary culture that compete for our attention. In my mind, the top three are:

  • Humanistic
  • Mythic
  • Nihilistic

The Humanistic Zeitgeist sees human beings as of central concern – that human dignity, compassion, tolerance, reconciliation, common human values and social justice are of paramount importance. This Zeitgeist seeks to humanize the other side and to have empathy for their viewpoint.

The Mythic Zeitgeist views the world through the lens of the hero. Always requiring a villain and/or nemesis, the hero’s journey and path believes that wars are just and winnable, that evil is absolute, and that eye-for-an-eye justice should prevail. This mindset is the world of angels and devils, winners and losers, of spoils going to the righteous victorious. It is, in the end, hopeful and optimistic for a future when the final war is won and a golden age prevails.

A Nihilistic Zeitgeist tells us that the good guys do not always win, that evil may in fact prevail, and that the inevitability of death stalks all human beings. The reality of our mortality, and the uncertainty of anything beyond this life and world and our ability to survive in it alone, without trusting others to help, is what defines this worldview.

Since most of us are film fans, it might be useful to break down these Zeitgeists in terms of familiar movies. Please bear in mind that the categories are fluid, with many crossovers from one Zeitgeist to another, with some stories that pit one Zeitgeist against the other.  Below is a breakdown of each Zeitgeist by its sources (and example theater and films), themes and music corollaries:

Humanistic

Sources: Greek Theater, Shakespeare, Auteur films, Disney/Pixar, Literature, Romance

randi-lee2

Randi forgives Lee in ‘Manchester by the Sea’

Examples: Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Bicycle Thief, Dead Man Walking, 40 Days and 40 Nights, Manchester by the Sea, Toy Story, Out of Africa, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gandhi

Themes: human dignity, reconciliation, relative evil, compassion, social justice, humanizing the other, common values – trends toward more traditional drama, tragedy, comedy

Music Corollaries: Classical, melodic, poignant, sensitive, emotive, soft rock.

Mythic

Sources: Greek Epics, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, Marvel

Examples: The Odyssey, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Never Ending Story, Kill Bill, The Hunger Games, Iron Man

superman-ww

Superman and Wonder Woman duke it out with an enemy

Themes: hero’s journey, family/tribal and national bonds, eye for an eye justice, requires a villain/nemesis, wars are winnable, hopeful – trends toward melodrama and fantasy

Music Corollaries: Wagner, impressionistic, operatic, rock mashup.

Nihilistic

Sources: Horror, Crime, Action/Thriller

Examples: The Thing, The Strangers, American Psycho, Reservoir Dogs, The Accountant, Open Water, The French Connection

nihilist-frenchconnection

The bad guy gets away in ‘The French Connection’

Themes: survival, revenge justice, security, trust no one, you are alone, cynical of human intentions, fatalistic – trends toward the absurd and violent

Music Corollaries: Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, post-modern, atonal, dissonant, heavy metal.

It does not take much imagination to quickly surmise that these three Zeitgeists permeate culture on every level. They inform who we call an enemy and if we can forgive them, if we require a villain or nemesis to define who we are, whether or not we seek a cause to support, or whether we take guilty pleasure in looking at other people suffer (as long as we don’t).  These Zeitgeists define the nature of revenge, of fame, of misfortune, and of attempts at peace and reconciliation. They are such givens to most people that to consider them as cultural templates – realities that arise from conscious choices that we each make as individuals – is unthinkable. And yet they do inform our choices in everything from the films we see to how we react to the political ‘other’ (whether Republican or Democrat) on Facebook.

These Zeitgeists are, in fact, a grand landscape for manipulation to both beneficial and not-so beneficial outcomes.  They are the realm of politicians and marketers and advertisers who seek to convince us to move to vote this way or that, to buy this product or that one. Often, they have strong and prevailing economic agendas that buttress them. While there are arguably other Zeitgeists that should make the list (for example, rationalism) the three discussed here, in my mind, pervade culture more dominantly because they address the emotional as well as intellectual needs of people.

Why talk about Zeitgeists? In my mind, awareness that cultural Zeitgeists are in the realm of human choice is paramount if we have any hope of moving to a more peaceful, tolerant and accepting world.  If we actually believe, for example, that the world is made up of good and evil people, then that will color our personal interactions, our votes, our choice of entertainment, and the news that we watch. If we believe, on the other hand, that evil is relative, that empathy and dialog are possible, that each war plants the seed for the next conflict in a never-ending cycle—then we are free to choose a different path. On the other hand, if we believe human nature is unredeemable, any attempt to change it tantamount to arrogant folly, and to accept the inevitability of mankind’s destructive path is the only truly mature and realistic frame, then we nudge humanity toward yet a different outcome.

The point is that we all make choices – and by our choices we influence the power of the Zeitgeists described here.  While we may believe our individual choices are trivial and unimportant, when combined they make for powerful social forces that literally can determine the fate of mankind.  This is, in fact, the reality of the individual. We each, in our own way, define the world. It is up to each one of us to define it wisely.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

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I work with a lot of story tellers, and constantly receive requests for me to help people tell their story. This begs the question: what makes for a good story? How can you, as an individual, tell your story most effectively, whether that be to a client, an audience, a constituency, or a group of friends?

Story telling is very primal to the human experience. Human beings, being social animals, want to gather around the proverbial fire and hear the story shaman spin their magic. The campfiremagic they spin are the myths that explain the values within which we live.

The modern story shaman does something similar, but uses different mediums: sometimes the written word, sometime a moving image, sometimes the spoken word. He or she wants to draw an audience into an experience, to make them forget about themselves for a moment, to transcend themselves and connect with something meaningful.

A common thread among most stories is that they involve conflict. Conflict creates tension and tension creates interest. Conflict often requires a villain. And villains need to be overcome through a process often called ‘the hero’s journey’.

What I’d like to discuss here are methods that can complement and perhaps, in some cases, even move beyond conflict as the focal story telling device. These methods include humor, insight, and empathy. I’ll finish up with a note about being cliché.

Humor is probably the best way to open people up to you as a communicator. Most every good speaker we know of has used humor effectively. You probably remember Johnny Carson of the Tonight Show. Well if you think Johnny Carson was funny you should have heard his sidekick Ed McMahon ‘warm an audience up’ prior to Johnny – all occurring before Johnny’s famous monologue. Once Johnny was on stage, then Ed took a back seat. But Ed himself was an absolutely hilarious speaker. Humor can be key to getting an audience on your side so that you can deliver your message effectively.

Insight is also key. What is insight? Insight is the ability to cut to the core of a problem or insightquestion and distill the fundamental message that invokes the proverbial ‘ah hah’ moment. We all know what those moments are. The best story tellers provide insight and give an audience something to take home. Something to learn, you might say – but that isn’t always just a practical tip or idea. It could be an insight that actually changes an audience’s perspective on things, opens their mind up to see life in a different way. Insight can be transformative.

Empathy is perhaps the most important trait of a good story teller. Empathy allows the story teller to paint a meaningful picture and connect to their audience on a personal, often emotional level.

One documentary filmmaker we worked with told the bitter story of how indigenous people in Colombia were caught between the communist rebel guerrillas and the existing government. The women of the towns began to rise up non-violently and protest the situation. One indigenous woman had trumped up charges brought against her and was taken away from her child and to prison, and all of this after the guerrillas had assassinated her husband.

Her little boy was filmed with a beautiful, missing baby teeth smile on his face because he was, at heart, a happy child with a beautiful mother. During the interview, the child broke into tears at the fact he could not see his mother while she was in prison.

The empathy and compassion the audience feels for the child is palpable, and delivers the message of the story completely and without ambiguity. Such moments of empathy, as long as they avoid the sentimental, can be powerful methods to connect with an audience and tell a story.

Today, most people are somewhat cynical about the story telling tropes rolled out via re-tread story lines. On that note I would provide one last bit of advice that was given to me by a colleague who has worked with hundreds of writers and helps them hone their pitches to agents and publishers.

Avoid the cliché like the plague. Before you’re ready to tell your story, line up your clichés in a sort of firing squad and mow them down like a gun-slinging final tête–à–tête in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Do not be empathetic with clichés. Seek and destroy with relish. Your story will be better as a result.

These few brief tips are my take on what makes a good story. On analysis, you’ll find many of these traits exist not only in good stories, but in great speakers and classic films you enjoy. In other words, they are funny in some way (at least providing comic relief), they give some insight into the state of humanity, and they are empathetic toward their subject and/or characters. While not all modern stories, speakers and films could be said to adhere to these suggestions, the ones that last, are remembered, and loved most often do.

And it seems to me that’s good company to be in.

Don Thompson is a producer and playwright.

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