There’s been a feeling lately of things coming full circle for me.
There’s been a period in which the links between the scenario work I do today and the art of moviemaking, which obsessed me as a kid, became very evident – you can see some of this in my recent writing on Decision to Leave, Burden of Dreams, and The Limey.
And I found myself training as a group facilitator at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, a specialist mental health organization in the UK.
This is a journey I probably should have seen coming ever since a colleague, Steffen Krüger, sat down with me after a scenario planning workshop which had left Post-It notes strewn across a number of whiteboards, and showed me the strangely resonant cover of the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion’s book Experiences in Groups.
Training in the psychodynamics of group facilitation – what goes on within and between us, consciously and unconsciously, when we come together in organizations and groups – also returned me to a very specific piece of reading from a long time ago, Elizabeth Salzberger-Wittenberg’s The Emotional Experience of Teaching and Learning.
This was a book I read as part of my training twenty years ago to work as a mentor with Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children. That work in turn had been a stepping stone which took me from a PhD in Modern Intellectual History to kindergarten teaching and, indirectly, work with community and cultural institutions.
The PhD had represented a tangle of interests and preoccupations: a study of exile, émigré, and migrant scholars who had fled the rise of the Nazis in Germany and Austria, its roots lay in a European Studies course on psychoanalysis I’d taken in my last year of undergraduate study.
Exploring that course’s secondary reading, I’d come across Carl Schorske’s Pulitzer-winning history Fin-de-siècle Vienna, which had made me think that maybe what was interesting about Freud was not so much the man as his context: that late-imperial Habsburg swirl, ripe bordering on rotten, where so many currents that would shape 20th century life were in motion. That curiosity had led me, first to a Master’s degree, and then a PhD.
It was fun, as well as demanding, to map some aspects and dynamics of that dizzying city, a hundred years gone, on the basis of whatever partial and contradictory clues or evidence you could gather, directly or via the work of other historians.
It’s a reminder that ideas, even if they seem to be born in a single brain, are the product of roles, relationships, many forces and factors, a wider context still.
I experienced my own real-life Viennese swirl a couple of weeks ago, sharp and sour and sweet and savoury all at once, by attending a Group Relations Conference on “Rupture, Repetition, and Repair” organised by the University of Essex.
These conferences have an unusual, experiential format. Attendees gather in groups to reflect on the processes and behaviours which arise. You may find yourself with a hundred people sitting in a room with the seats in a snail-shell spiral. A smaller group numbering in the single figures, assigned by the event organisers. Other groups, self-selected, which will, in turn, interact with other parts of the wider conference community.
Whether you talk about the immediate experience of the here-and-now, share life stories and case studies from your own career, or reflect on what is going on across the conference community in part or in whole, there’s an enormous amount of learning to be gained as you explore how we behave when we gather, and how these behaviours affect ourselves and others.
And a theme like “Rupture, Repetition, and Repair” invites reflection on everything from the “post-pandemic” world we find ourselves in, to the childhood events which shaped who we are, to forms of intergenerational memory and trauma which continue to affect our behaviour and our perceptions today.
Swimming in such seas can’t help but affect the way you take in movies and books, as well as inviting contemplation of your own relationships. A film like 12 Angry Men provides a clear example of how groups function for good or for ill, with Henry Fonda’s stubbornly thoughtful juror refusing to go along with eleven of his peers who are willing to condemn a man to death without the barest pause to consider their judgment or check their prejudice.
The drama of that movie lies in the slow turning of the jury away from an all-but-unanimous guilty verdict, with souls laid bare as their decisions and self-justification are scrutinised. It can be a little mechanistic at times, and the characters are a bit broad, but there’s still a truth to it which gives it power and resonance almost sixty years on.
And of course, a jury trial is a very particularly structured process, with some clearly assigned roles, tasks, times, and territories. Oftentimes in life, we find ourselves caught in messier whirls, wider organizations, spaces where the lines are blurry or ill-defined.
And as the wheel turned, I found myself revisiting a movie from my teens – Richard Linklater’s 1993 picture Dazed and Confused.
Set on the last day of school in and around an Austin, Texas high school in 1976, the film follows the seniors and freshmen as they mark transitions: term time ending and the summer arriving, the release of insitutional bonds, the prospect of taking on new roles and identities.
There are hazing rituals to enact or avoid; a chance to chase the first kiss or the next kiss, the first lay or the next lay; opportunities to make choices and, through those choices, find out who you are.
The movie lets us follow geeks, jocks, freshmen, stoners, and others as they move together and apart in classrooms, parking lots, suburban bedrooms, keg parties, pool halls, drive thrus, and the cars and pick-up trucks in which they aimlessly drive around, sometimes connecting with the occupants of other vehicles as they call window to window, at rest or in motion.
We see how each group and its members affect, and are affected by, the others: a petty slight turns into a brawl; a charming predator’s pick-up line is taken as flattery; a well-meaning attempt to protect a younger sibling from the worst of the hazing marks him as a target.
The roles and rules are looser, perhaps, than they would be in a more formal setting like the courtroom of 12 Angry Men – but if so, there’s not much in it. An overenthusiastic hazer gets his comeuppance, showing that even the wildest rituals are in fact being policed; freshmen get their first beer or their first kiss; a fast-talking nerd who drunkenly decides to pick a fight is reminded that brawling might not be the greatest gift he has to offer.
By the coming of the dawn, the school year is effectively closed and the community are ready for the new one to arrive on the far side of summer. It’s an ending, but it’s also a chapter, a cycle, another turn of the wheel.
Linklater’s movie is a deceptively smart slice of life, partly autobiographical, almost anthropological: neatly pitched somewhere between a more realistic American Graffiti and a less mythic Nashville. As high schoolers watching it on VHS cassette in the 90s, there was something specially enticing about this movie and its refusal to be as glib as the other “teen movies” that were marketed to us.
It felt real, a little lost, a little loose and out of control: it felt like teenageness. With its moments of awkwardness and embarrassment and things just petering out into not much at all, it felt less Hollywood, less like it was trying to be aspirational and therefore strangely more like a world you actually could imagine yourself climbing into through the screen. When we dressed in clothes from charity shops, we were likely to resemble the movie’s characters, too; the fashion of the Seventies recycled into the Nineties.
It was a movie you could imprint on, like a duckling coming into the world and learning who to follow; but it was also a movie that slightly pushed you away, precisely because it was being honest about adolescence. It couldn’t offer you the wish fulfilment of more conventional fare, because it was willing to show you teenage trajectories that were boring, or broken in mundane ways, or merely satisfactory when one was still wishing for impossible glory.
Given this refusal to be too Hollywood about things, it’s no surprise that there aren’t really heroes per se in Linklater’s freewheeling movie, nor protagonists as such. However, events coalesce around Jason London’s senior, Pink, and Wiley Wiggins’ freshman, Mitch. They’re hardly Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men but, with him, they share the capacity to keep thinking and not get absorbed in the gang mentality of the group-for-its-own-sake; notably, they’re both characters who prove able to move between the different cliques and year groups and make friendships that cross the high school boundaries.
Pink, who manages to be on cordial good terms with almost everyone, refuses on principle to sign an empty anti-drugs pledge which all his teammates are planning to sign but ignore. It’s hardly the stuff of melodrama, as it’s pretty obvious he isn’t going to sign it from the outset of the movie, but nonetheless, after stalling and sidestepping, he does eventually make a stand, showing what he values and literally throwing the football coach’s empty promise back in his face.
And Mitch finds himself to be more than capable of taking up the identity of a high schooler, enduring a harsh hazing, drinking and toking for the first time, leaving his old junior high friends for mature company without alienating his old buddies; going out of his comfort zone without ever losing his composure. (He even manages to end the night on good terms with his mother, as she gives him “one free pass” as he stumbles drunkenly to bed after dawn).
Meanwhile, the nearest things to villains that the movie has are characters who are trapped in unquestioning roles and repetitions: Ben Affleck’s sadistic senior who manically pursues the hazing rituals and is suspected of having deliberately flunked so that he can repeat senior year, and enjoy the ritual twice; Affleck’s double among the girls, played by Parker Posey, who is addicted to her temporary power over the incoming freshmen and who, when one refuses a humiliating order, threatens to extend her bullying throughout the year to come; and Matthew McConaughey’s twentysomething who continues to socialise with, and sexually pursue, high schoolers.
Linklater himself has said that the movie was intended to be “anti-nostalgic”; as he explains in a 2019 interview, “teenage life is more like you’re looking for the party, looking for something cool, the endless pursuit of something you never find, and even if you do, you never quite appreciate it.”
As we grow older and life’s pace changes, maybe the sense of endless pursuit and dissatisfaction reduces, but I think there’s something to what Linklater says which never fully leaves us. Life isn’t a race to a finish line, or a chase for a final prize. Treating it as such risks living like a dog chasing cars: when you finally catch it and clamp down with your teeth, what are you actually going to get?
Instead, perhaps there are circles and cycles: communities which rise and fall to sustain us or constrain us for a period of time; roles and identities that we take up and put down; moments when the memory of the past or the prospect of the future are alive in our present, shaping us just as much as the pressures of the here and now, acting on us like the moon on the tides.
As a high schooler and undergraduate, I wore shirts that made me look like an extra from the 33-year-old Linklater’s movie evoking his own teenage years – making what I saw part, somehow, of my own adolescent dream of becoming. And now, as I try to tell you of that time, I speak from a place where I’m older than Linklater was as he shot the movie, seeing everything through my own series of refracting prisms.
As a student of organizational psychology, I still feel stories of Vienna, displaced persons, my own German heritage, alive in me today. And some of the ways I think and feel, some of the twists of the knife, are not so much mine as ones I’ve inherited.
We never stop experiencing the push and pull of emotions, consciously or unconsciously; we can only hope and strive, alone and together, to keep thinking clearly – or at least, with curiosity – about what is going on within and between us.
Perfect clarity, like perfect reason, might be impossible – or at least undesirable. Sometimes real insight comes from a moment of reverie, from thinking with the heart as much as the head. The same feeling you get when you lose yourself in a movie that seems so real, seems so true, even though it’s just a dream on the screen. Or when you look out across a teenage party and see your entire social world before you, all the players and their ploys, and you just take it all in.
But whatever you’re on – at whatever stage of your life – and however hard forces try to push you to conform without thinking – there are still compassionate, thoughtful, questioning ways to be “dazed and confused”.