What Two Very Different Movies Taught Me About Obsession
Warning: Extremely spoiler-y spoilers below.
Early on, I thought seriously about using the word “passion” instead of “obsession” for this column. The former, though, appeals too blatantly, too on-the-nosedly to our fixation on, and tendency to, romanticize, and thus leaves comparatively scant wiggle room when it comes to a discussion about a tunnel-visioned life.
Yes, obsession is a scary word. It invokes a single-mindedness that borders on psychosis, or at the very least sociopathy, and runs the risk of being a rhetorical turnoff. Unless you’re fascinated by the works and minds of sociopaths, in which case I wish you the best of luck in your career as a politician or serial killer. You cannot, however, truly achieve excellence at something unless you tend to at least border on obsession with it.
In “Skyfall,” James Bond’s obsession with his work (killing, sex and killing) can, as it turns out, be explained by deeper, more painfully rooted fixations. He has spent his entire adult life, as well as most of his juvenile one, fleeing single-mindedly the trauma of his childhood, namely the death of his parents at age nine. It accounts for much about his attitude toward emotional connections — i.e., disdainful — and toward women (though, to be fair, it can’t help that the only two times Bond developed romantic feelings for a woman, in “In Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and the reboot of “Casino Royale,” she ended up betraying him, dying or both). His demeanor and temperament make him the perfect agent — a weapon the British government can generally fire at will — as it is that idea of “mission,” the completion of hard objectives, that keeps him in line. Only a somewhat enigmatic twinge of inherent good keeps him, indeed, from working for the other side. It’s an element of Bond’s back-story explored in hints and glimpses throughout the 23-and-counting films, especially in the Daniel Craig iterations, but only in this most recent film has it seemed to so evidently permeate and account for his character.
Jiro Ono’s obsession is, at least on the surface, far more innocuous. For it to maintain that non-threatening air, we do have to take it at face value, in its simplest form: the man just wants to make great sushi.
And it’s easy to leave it at that, especially throughout the first half of the film. Slow motion shots of Jiro and his staff firing seaweed wrappers, stirring rice and basting pristine cuts of tuna in vinegar and oil with the care of a master painter have the somewhat predictable, though no less potent even when combined with the knowledge of its intent, effect of laying bare the apparently effortless achievement of ideal. This, I think, is what separates passion from obsession: in casual conversation, we tend to, perhaps unconsciously, associate the notion of passion with the ready-made fulfillment of a pursuit. It is, in so many respects, romantic; it requires no effort. Work itself takes place on some other, less-than-astral plane, worlds away from where the artist himself lounges among wildflowers, eating grapes and strumming at a lute.
But Jiro’s obsession is darker than it initially seems. Not evil — there is no malice in his actions, his drive or his quietly stubborn pursuit of the transcendent. Jiro lives his life as a sort of clockwork artist; much is made of his enjoyment of, and preference for, routine. Essentially, he lives the same day over and over, each one a microcosm of his life’s aim. The potential for moral ambiguity rears when we take into consideration the lives that have been affected, perhaps adversely, by Jiro’s obsession, his curious combination of restless creation and numbing sameness: the eldest son, content now in his work and in his destiny of inheriting of Sukiyabashi Jiro, the family restaurant, but essentially strong-armed at age 19 into the business; the younger son, possessed by at least a portion of his father’s vision and propensity for sushi-making, culturally barred from inheriting the business, having to open up his own restaurant (owner of, for the record, two Michelin stars) across town. This is not to mention the hundreds of may-never-be patrons, marginalized by the prohibitive price tag — meals start at 30,000 yen or $370 per person — and the required, months-in-advance reservation period.
At one point in the documentary, Jiro actually says, “I have dreams of sushi.” How wonderful, we think, to live our dreams. What we never think, however, is what may be the truth: how awful to see your dreams overtaken by reality.
So often we speak of passions being riled, usually as it pertains to some moral code seemingly ingrained in us since the beginning of forever. We feel these things, and become outraged when their parameters or mores are apparently breached. This is easy; passion, remember, exists apart from effort.
Here is the barest definition, I think, the true essence of what it means to be obsessed: the perpetual straddling of the line between loving and hating a certain thing. It is what pushes athletes to both greatness and to career-ending injury; what fosters great writing, and also great drunkards; what stokes inquiry, and perpetuates madness.
Bond finally had the courage, after more than three decades, to face his past head-on in “Skyfall,” taking M back to his eponymous childhood estate in Scotland. Tragedy ensued, naturally, but it was the first time in his life that he was able to let go of an earthly connection healthily, and is probably what facilitated finally moving forward with his life. It remains to be seen whether the destruction of the focal point of Bond’s obsession — those key, early childhood deaths — make him a better or worse agent, a better or worse man.
Both Jiro and Bond illustrate that greatness is attained not through accident or the mere existence of talent, but in the seizing of those million moments that comprise a life, and compulsively sculpting that talent until you have nearly laid waste to yourself in pursuit of perfection.
Obsess, my friends. We should all be so lucky to be so unlucky. You Might Also Like: