I Think I Know Where Its 'Soul' Came From

BD 2.0

Pixar's 'Soul' has a lot of ambition. Unfortunately, it's been bet by a bit of controversy.


(Image credit to Pixar/ Disney)

A lot of people love 'Soul.' Others called it racist. Tina Fey's portrayal of Joe Gardner (voiced mostly by Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx) has been described as black face.

But I'm more fascinated by the fact that Soul has received mixed positive and negative reviews for Pete Docter's (Director) portrayal of the human soul.

Unfortunately, no one's noticed that 'Soul' borrowed it's soul from a dead writer, David Foster Wallace's "This Is Water."

The War Of Art

First of all, let's agree that in general the art of screenwriting isn't easy. (Try it sometime if you don't believe me.)

Writing an entire three act movie script takes a lot of time and mental horsepower. Writing a script that's actually good? Well, that's another level entirely

And to clarify what I mean by "another level," I mean like how in Dante's 'Inferno' hell had levels that kept going down!

Steven Pressfield elaborates on this idea in his book, 'The War Of Art':

“The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.”

Thus to summarize, writing is hard. But writing can also be easier than you think! That's because writing is also very formulaic. Especially movie scripts.

The Three Act Structure To Stories

Perhaps you've noticed over time that nearly every movie script follows a certain meta-script.

The meta-script is essentially the three act structure. You know it when you see it.

The standard three act structure are simple to grasp (beginning, middle, and end)-- but difficult to master.

Indeed, on one hand, critics will pan a film that follows the standard structure too closely as "formulaic."

On the other hand, a film that doesn't follow the formula will also get panned! Where's my "dark night of the soul at the end of Act 2?"

If it's bizarre to think the human pysche rejects stories that skrimp on the formula. (Looking at you, YouTubers.)

Have you ever watched a YouTube influencer and wondered, "What's the point of this?!"

What Is The Point Of All This?

It seems that's the broader observation here in general. We want there to be a point to it all.

Humans yearn for meaning.

Before Dante and Pressfield were writing about hell, our ancestors told stories around a campfire.

Stories both then and now were meant to inspire, warn, entertain, titilate, frighten, and inform.

In other words, stories are a tool. Stories are like a hammer that drives home what's important.

'Soul' tries to do that. And in a big way. Soul takes a swing at the meaning of life.

Pete Docter's last Pixar film, 'Inside Out,' also tried to do that. Albeit to a slightly lesser degree.

'Inside Out' (which won an Oscar for best animated feature) was an investigation into the eternal interplay of human emotions.


It's worth pointing out that Docter said in interview with Insider.com that Soul actually evolved from the existential questions he had about life after the success of Inside Out.

"I thought all of my personal issues would be fixed. I don't know what I thought, but it was kind of a wake up for me of going, 'OK. Where does this fit properly in life?' That's really at the heart of it (Soul) ... It really grew out of that experience of making the first film."

In other words, you could argue that the audience sees Docter's existential crisis culiminate on screen in Soul.

"What I Want Is The Ocean!"

The third act of movies is traditionally where the story will reach it's peak crisis, before snowballing towards resolution.

The peak crisis in Soul occurs right after Joe achieved his dream of playing Jazz with Dorthea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett)

Joe reached what he thought was a peak, but now he's experiencing the "come down." That's when Dorthea turns to him and says,

“I heard this story about a fish, he swims up to an older fish and says: ‘I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.’ ‘The ocean?’ the older fish says, ‘that’s what you’re in right now.’ ‘This’, says the young fish, ‘this is water. What I want is the ocean!’”

Joe spends the rest of movie (spoiler!) resolving to appreciate the water. It's a good metaphor, and it's a good message about life.

That said, there's more to the story!

This Is Water

David Foster Wallace is a famous author. He's been described as one of the most talented writers of his generation. He too struggled on the existential level.

One of Wallace's most famous pieces talks about it. It was actually a commencement speech that he gave to the graduating class of 2005 at Kenyon College. That speech is now simply called, "This Is Water."

"There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Over the course of the speech, Wallace elaborates on what he meant by water.

In short, Wallace called "water" the day-to-day battle to remain aware of what holds meaning, and what doesn’t. "This Is Water" finishes thus;

"The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
This is water... This is water.”

Powerful stuff!

And it appears that, at least when it comes the the metaphor of water, Soul's Pete Docter and David Foster Wallace share some headspace.

But this isn't the first time they've shared the stage.

Inside Out, and The End Of The Tour

It's interesting to note that 'Inside Out' and 'The End Of The Tour' both debuted in April of 2015.

'The End Of The Tour' stars Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky.

In other words, if Docter wasn't familiar with Wallace prior to Inside Out, he couldn't have avoided DFW after.

In conclusion, there's a relationship here between two writers, Docter and Wallace. Beyond that, it's human to ask and think about life. Often, we go the best and brightest artists for answers.

But at the end of the day, 'Soul' and 'This Is Water' both turn the mirror back on ourselves. Some questions only we can answer for ourselves. And if we follow the metaphor, it's the everyday journey that might matter most.

So in short, enjoy the swim! Even when the waters are choppy.

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What's The Narrative?

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