When I was little, my social worker mother would use me as a guinea pig for the therapeutic board games she wanted to introduce to the children she worked with. These games were like other board games except that the players were supposed to work together instead of compete against each other. No one person would be attached to the same playing piece for more than one turn in a row, and the game wouldn’t end until all the pieces crossed the finish line (that is, when the game even had a finish line). It took me a few years to realize that these games were intended for therapy. My parents never explained that “normal” games were based on competition, so I didn’t think of these as unusual. If anything, I came to regard competition as one possible component for games, but by no means an essential one.
At CINE-FILE this week, Kyle Westphal quotes Laura Colella as saying she wanted to avoid a “traditional, conflict-based plot” in her comedy Breakfast With Curtis (which my wife and I introduced at the Nightingale on Saturday). Reading that made me think of my mom’s board games for the first time in years and wonder to what extent they influenced my present tastes in entertainment. I’ve never gravitated towards war movies and other forms of violent spectacle, I realized, and it’s never much bothered me if a film, play, or novel lacks a strong central character. Come to think of it, I tend to balk at forceful, individualistic heroes in the tradition of John Wayne and Sylvester Stallone, which might explain why I have little use for superhero movies. Those who think I’m full of shit with regards to this or that Marvel Studios release might well blame Max the Cat or Stop, Relax & Think.
As you might infer from its name, Stop, Relax & Think teaches kids that it can be fun to stop, relax, and think—when you do, you and your friends can land in the exciting position of being able to ideate your own fantasies instead of having someone else do it for you. I find it odd when readers tell me I could enjoy some unremarkable piece of entertainment if only I learned to “turn off my brain,” as though thinking were antithetical to fun. This distinction between intellectual pleasure and sensory pleasure seems to me as arbitrary as the expectation that movies revolve around interpersonal conflicts. One can cite plenty of entertaining movies where interpersonal conflict plays a minimal role in the storytelling or none at all—Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, and Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale are a few titles that come to mind. I’d also argue that the most entertaining parts of the current hit Guardians of the Galaxy are those that dispense with conflict to focus on the burgeoning friendships between the film’s oddball characters. Is it any coincidence that Guardians happens to be the most imaginative comic book movie of the summer?