“Biology and Giddyup.”
As I embark on this review, I’m surprised by two things: that Matthew McConnaughey didn’t begin his autobiographical Greenlights with “Alright, alright, alright,” his fatefully improvised exclamation as local cool dude Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused – and that I’m not beginning this review of something McConnaughey-related with “Alright, alright, alright”. One could safely say that the actor and that memorable, quotable catchphrase are synonymous. But he didn’t, and I won’t.
While I can’t say why he resisted that expectable opener, I can say that I did because there’s a much worthier one in regard to Greenlights and its illustrious author: “biology and giddyup.” Out of all the book’s numerous witty/memorable phrases, “biology and giddyup” (italicized, emboldened) essentializes McConnaughey’s essence, advent and ascent. Born to be a Southern boy knockout (despite horrible acne as a kid), he has biology on fleek. “Good looks don’t cook the dinner,” he writes, “but they’ll get you a seat at the table.” Beyond that, his moxie, his adventuresomeness, his risk-taking – his giddyup – were and are the rocket boosters for that original genetic good luck. The “hey!” in McConnaughey, so to speak.
(With all due respect and to avoid syllabic fatigue, from now on I’ll refer to Matthew McConnaughey as MMC.)
Quite often, I become a fan of an artist more than her/his main art, but, in this case, I’m a fan of both artist and art, even more now that I’ve gotten a bigger peek into his psyche and soul. Truly, if the cliché “infectious” could ever be redeemed as a positive adjective in the Year of Our COVID 2020, it’d be by MMC’s caliber of uplifting, inspiring candor and fundamental zest. Anyone who’s familiar with any of his movie roles can attest to the crackling energy of his smile and the almost Santa Clausy glint in his eyes. I swear it’s him radiating in the finer aspects of his characters in movies such as A Time to Kill, Contact, Mud, Dallas Buyers Club and Interstellar, so he’s either a Faustian thespian, or he poaches from his own personality to edify his roles. Whatever the case, MMC’s biology provided those “movie-star looks,” but his giddyup gravitized and galvanized his acting talent and turned it into a craft.
In Greenlights MMC tells the story of both his professional and personal – even spiritual – development, from before Wooderson’s “Alright, alright, alright” to the coalescence of his greenlights concept, which, obviously, serves as the book’s generative metaphor. Just about anyone who drives knows the crushing torture of being stuck at a red light, the unnerving uncertainty of whether to slow down or speed up at yellow lights, and the gust of freedom while streaming under a green light. It’s all a matter of motion, both in traffic and in life. Our hearts provide beats to which we walk, run, dance and make love. Stop moving for too long, and the moss overgrows; stop moving altogether, and death comes.
Aside from suicide, we don’t have the power to choose that final stop, but, for the most part, we can decide the moves we make and call as many shots as we can until then. In this spirit, MMC manages to make meaningful lemonade from mortality’s lemon in this book, which he classifies as “a story about getting relative with the inevitable.” “The arrival is inevitable: Death,” he says. “The approach is relative: Life.” His “Soul Objective” is to “begin with the end in mind,” and his impartation of accumulated wisdom is to learn which traffic lights should be obeyed and disobeyed – and, basically, how to live as a greenlight rather than a self-defeating red one: “Persist, pivot, or concede. It’s up to us, our choice every time.” MMC persisted and pivoted, but refused to concede, leveraging both his genetics and creative energy. Here’s how he expresses pro-persistence “biology and giddyup”:
DNA and work.
Genetics and willpower.
Life’s a combination.
Some get the genes but never the work ethic or resilience.
Others work their ass off but never had the innate ability.
Others have both and never rely on the first.
Speaking of making pivotal moves – and biology, while Dazed and Confused was in its first week of shooting, MMC’s dad, Jim, died while having sex with his mom, Kay:
He was my dad. Nobody and no thing could kill him. Except Mom.
He’d always told me and my brothers, ‘Boys, when I go, I’m gonna be makin love to your mother.’
And that’s what happened.
When he woke up that morning at 6:30, feeling frisky, he made love to the woman he had divorced twice, and married three times. His wife, Kay, my mom.
He had a heart attack when he climaxed.
Yes, he called his shot all right.
I think that scenario explains a lot about the inborn and nurtured sensuality, vigor and boldness of MMC, especially when juxtaposed to another memorable heated parental interaction back in his childhood. A violent altercation between Jim and Kay erupted in the kitchen, and the aftermath involved some bloodshed, all of which young MMC witnessed. “Second later they moved toward each other and met in an animal embrace,” he recalls. “They dropped to their knees, then to the bloody, ketchup-covered linoleum kitchen floor…and made love. A red light turned green…This is how my mom and dad loved each other.”
Throughout the book, every instance of the word “greenlights” appears in green print. I’m usually turned off by gimmicks such as this, but this case deserves a rare exception. The routine of the civilized road has programmed us to the point of an instant kinetic reaction when we see green: an OK to go, a prompt to sprint ahead. Without such inspiring momentum, MMC wouldn’t have gotten as far as he has. Of course, such momentum is generated beyond our figurative speeding cars or marathoning legs. “Sometimes catching greenlights is about fate,” says MMC, seeming to implicitly add a third life-affirmative element to biology and giddyup. I’d say that more than sometimes fate comes like a flood. The title of the sixth part of Greenlights is “The Arrow Doesn’t Seek the Target, the Target Draws the Arrow,” which, aside from partly referring to the serendipitous advent of his and his eventual wife’s love, can sum up fate’s role amidst the vicissitudes of our supposed free will.
Making sure to maintain the traffic-light metaphor, MMC calls COVID-19 “a red-light drama,” and in regard to being in the midst of some general turmoil, which included the infamous drunk-and-naked-while-playing-bongos incident, he admits that he “needed some yellow lights.” Momentum and direction are fine, yet there are times when we need to at least push down on the brakes, reduce speed, give ourselves time to measure situations and make sense of shit. We need to learn “how to catch more yeses in a world of nos and how to recognize when a no might actually be a yes.” On the long path after Dazed and Confused, MMC became more alert and focused, but he made missteps, stumbled and froze in mid-stride. It happens.
This is why MMC suggests that we all could use “a walkabout,” a period in which we “put ourselves in places of decreased sensory input so we can hear the background signals of our psychological processes” and come face to face “with the one person we can never be rid of: ourselves.” A pilgrimage to New Mexico’s Monastery of Christ (once attended by Thomas Merton) was a central part of his own reacquaintance with himself. Seeking “a spiritual realignment,” MMC entrusted a Brother Christian with almost four hours of confession, to which the cleric remained silent the entire time. Later on, after what was probably a well-timed therapeutic lull, Brother Christian replied softly: “Me, too.”
When MMC was in need of a psyche-reset another time, he retreated to an open-ended adventure on the Amazon River:
Still wrestling with my identity, I was guilt-ridden over the sins of my past, lonely, and disgusted with the company I was keeping, my own…Who was I? Not only on this trip but in this life. Now naked and stripped down to nothing, I was only a child of God and nothing more.
As is obvious by now, Christian undertones and spiritual overtones abound in MMC’s shared thoughts. Sometimes the undertones seem undertoned with agnosticism or, at least, something less defined than the Christian God. For instance, recounting a lot of lifechanging experiences, he writes that he “didn’t as much cease believing in God as much as [he] doubled down on self-reliance and the responsibility of [his] free will.” Then again, sometimes his regard for Protestantism seems fairly clear: “Ever been to a Baptist church in/the Deep South?/They pray real/prayers…/Blue Collar Prayers.” And here’s a telling little note he wrote:
Just because it
doesn’t mean it
has no author.
The Amazon excursion cleansed and fructified him, and it also set the metaphysical stage for his stepping onto the cinematic stage as theologian Porter Joss in Robert Zemekis’s movie adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact. The character’s Christian sensibility and “the truth of where [he] was in [his] own life” were serendipitously similar, and this correlation both informed and intensified the credibility of his portrayal. I think MMC’s splendid (and splendidly acted) role as Joss may aptly represent his overall attitude toward life (and its knowns and unknowns). Consider these lines from the movie:
So I was lying there, just looking at the sky… and then I felt something…[All I know is that I wasn’t alone, and for the first time in my life… I wasn’t scared of nothin’… I mean, not even dying. It was God!
I’m one who believes that “it takes one to know one (or One),” and, thanks to my Berdyaevan/Lockean/Randean personalism, I’m careful not to be careless about the primacy and cruciality of individual identity. So, I usually balk at notions of ego-negation or nebulization in favor of some pantheism, monism or oyster-is-equal-to-human Humeism – except when the like comes so stylishly and humorously from inimitable Alan Watts, of course. In Greenlights MMC prescribes walkabouts of sorts for those of us who need to shake off days-to-day’s dust and to return to a point at which “our souls become anonymous again,” which seems to contradict his assertions of relying on one’s own free will in the navigation of individual existence. As a container of multitudes of contradictions and a doxologist of paradox, I can dig such contradiction, especially from a dude who dares to admit that he’s “been naïve, evil, and a cynic” amidst his natural propensity for positivity and extroversion. And I appreciate when he says that “we must all earn belief in ourselves first, then for each other” and urges us to “engage with yourself then engage with the world.”
By the time he’d starred in the splendid productions True Detective and Interstellar, the mature, astute artistry of MMC was more than evident, most importantly to himself. His adeptness at portraying roles helped to inspire him to stop living a portrayal beyond the screen and to “be me” instead. (An anonymized soul can’t and doesn’t do this, by the way.) “In each place I looked myself in the eye,” he writes. And, though life’s walkabout took him here and there, far and wide, he learned that one can return home without lifting a foot: “I found myself right where I left me.” This reminds me of something I say in my review of Jennifer Ulrich’s The Timothy Leary Project:
…I think that self-doubters either ignore or overlook the selves that are right under their noses, and, besides establishing acute reference points and trying their damnedest to account for and fill humanity’s common spiritual void (a task impossible for unaided humanity to achieve), they tend to build, fortify and flex their real, quantifiable selves nonetheless.
Building, flexing and fortifying our real, quantifiable selves involves a sort of existential tuning, which is why I dig the title of Part Two of Greenlights: “Find Your Frequency.” To Gore Vidal’s “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn” MMC says “Isn’t that the fuckin’ truth.” Life and style can be considered synonymous: living, styling – lifestyling, the pursuit of substantial swagger and surefootedness requires harmony, attunement, finding frequency. (In my review of Questlove’s Creative Quest, I liken it to building steam.) Or, to gladly quote an early Madonna song, an individual must “get into the groove.”
This, of course, doesn’t happen easily or quickly, and, usually, we realize that our grooves or frequencies lie in the opposite direction or far away from where we’re looking for them. High on out-the-wazoo greenlights, and faced with so many roads leading to roam, in 1988 MMC graduated from high school and dove straight into an excusrion to Australia, which was provided via a student exchange program. Things didn’t go as planned. Though he expected to live in famous, booming Sydney, he ended up in remote Nervale, a dinky town with 305 residents and the Dooleys, a “Twilight Zone” host family. The book chronicles this weird episode, so I’ll say no more about it here, but I think the point is that promising opportunities aren’t necessarily harvested from foreign or exotic locations. Also, the lesson MMC seems to have learned from the Australian snafu is that sometimes running toward the Outback leads one to get the hell out and go the fuck back. Such wrong roads aren’t wastes of time, however, for, as MMC writes, “we have to be thrown off balance to find our footing.” Finding footing is the same as finding frequency. “Get up on your feet,” sings Madonna, “step to the beat.”
After studying law at University of Texas Austin and while waiting tables at a restaurant called Catfish Station, MMC resolved to get on his beat-stepping feet and attend film school. How he recalls the day he revealed his autonomous detour to his father is priceless:
“Is that what you want to do?” he asked.
“Yes, sir, Dad, it is.”
Silence. Another five seconds.
“Well…Don’t half-ass it.”
Well, MMC full-assed it. Fatefully, he was offered a script for Dazed and Confused, and two now-famous lines spoken by a character named Wooderson hooked him: “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.” Modelled after his brother Pat, MMC’s portrayal of Wooderson popularized what had originated as a small role and, instead, established a cool-cat icon in a nostalgic American Graffiti-for-the-1990s that has since become iconic itself. And, of course, he ad-libbed the alliterative “Alright, alright, alright” line that could sum up the smooth charisma of both character and actor. The worth of those three words is far from lost on MMC, who embraces them to this day:
Now, twenty-eight years later, those words follow me everywhere. People say them. People steal them. People wear them on their hats and T-shirts. People have them tattooed on their arms and inner thighs. And I love it. It’s an honor.
The Dazed and Confused portal into a long and excellent cinematic career also conceptualized and verbalized high esteem for the interactive gift of life itself. While chilling out with director Richard Linkletter, MMC boiled the essence of all essences down to its essence: “It’s all about livin, man.” (Note the lack of a g at the end of “livin.”) This utterance was destined for the script, and it shows up at the movie’s end, when Wooderson imparts sagely wisdom to Randall: “You just gotta keep livin, man, l-i-v-i-n.”
In Greenlight’s postscript, MMC shares “10 Goals in Life” that he jotted in 1992, revealing his fundamental faith in the profundity and power of persistence in procuring the products we predict and promise ourselves. Proactivity is crucial, since humans find their frequencies so infrequently. By now, MMC has achieved those goals, including four biggies: “become a father,” “keep my relationship with God,” “win an Oscar for best actor” and “just keep livin.” It’s no wonder that he doesn’t consider the book to be a memoir, but “a playbook” and “a love letter…To life.”
Something that I thought over and over again after finishing Greenlights was this: Life shouldn’t be about the pursuit of happiness; life should be about the pursuit of life. And in that pursuit biology and even giddyup aren’t sufficient to making things all right (all right, all right), but are essential partners of each individual’s spirit and metaphysical self-esteem. Then again, whether MMC pursued happiness throughout his exploits, he admits that happiness seems to have pursued him: “I have a lot of proof that the world is conspiring to make me happy.” (Spoken like a true target-drawn arrow.)
Way to rub it in, Matthew McConnaughey, you gargantuan-gumptioned, gregarious, giddyupping, greenlit guy, you!
by David Herrle