Imitation Game

Art imitates life, but life imitates art, too. Yet art and life aren’t the only players in the imitation game—the rest of us, caught inside, can’t be hopelessly stuck. There must be some way we can break out.

KIRK: My phone died, I need your help. Carly texted me.

LAWRENCE, laughing: You’re joking, right?

KIRK: What’s so funny? She actually texted me.

LAWRENCE: A girl texted you haha.

KIRK, with wounded pride: You’re one to talk!

–“The Script,” 2013

Sometime in my sophomore year of high school, a couple of friends and I began to write a rom-com. The idea was to take “Superbad,” but make it badder. We were the main characters, of course, and we wrote ourselves into the three most charmingly awkward, witty, and resourceful 16-year-olds on the planet. We got the girls we’d never talked to. We caricatured the hell out of people we didn’t like. We always said the perfect things.

Its codename was “The Script,” and it started out as an exercise in teenage passion. But it soon became a little more than that. At one point, we were talking about things that had transpired in our story—car chases in a neighboring town, extra-dramatic band practices, intoxicating romances after midnight—as if they had actually happened. (None of us had our licenses, band was our most boring class, and we were all painfully single.)

As we grew a little older, these elements began to shift, and “The Script” became the obvious point of comparison, the North Star to which growing up pointed. And more often than not, after nights of reckless driving, friend group drama, and talking to girls who actually knew who we were, I would walk home under the moonlight, disquieted by the sense that I’d seen all of this happen somewhere before.

The best analogy I can give you for this pseudo déjà vu is the experience of riding in a car with the windows down. Imagine the radio music dancing at you, smudged by the wind and the roadscapes that skip by. Your sunglasses are on, and you’re smiling. With friends. The sun is out, and the opposite of anxiety saturates the air.

The reason you’d notice a moment like this—the riding-in-a-car moment—is because it feels like it’s right out of a road movie. Something about noticing that you’re riding in a car has a cinematic quality that makes it interesting and memorable in a way it otherwise couldn’t be. Which makes sense: It’s exciting to feel like you’re living in a movie moment.

But where did that movie moment come from? You could say that someone wrote it down and decided to film it long ago, before it entered the cultural consciousness. But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to imagine what made the first riding-in-a-car moment special.

It might help to look at the first movie moment ever. In Jan. 1896, Auguste and Louis Lumière showed “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station” at a theatre in Paris. “Arrival of a Train” is a 50-second short film of a train pulling into a station, as you might guess from the name. It’s not impressive by today’s standards, but the story goes that audience members sitting in the front rows ducked when the train pulled in towards the screen, setting a precedent for the sort of reality-bending work movies have done since.

That the Lumière brothers were inspired by the experience of watching a train needs no explanation, but it’s important to note that the moment that stuck to our cultural memory was the movie version. Once you’ve seen “Arrival of a Train,” every train afterwards, from the Hogwarts Express to the trains that pull daily into Grand Central Station, follows in its echo. It’s not for no reason that IMAX’s first full-length animated 3D feature was “The Polar Express.” And after you’ve watched the riding-in-a-car moment in “Bonnie and Clyde,” or even “The Hangover,” every riding-in-a-car moment you experience becomes derivative of that template.

There’s something about the process of moviefying that transmutes ordinary experiences—like riding in a car or watching a train—into experiences that define other experiences. Which, if you think about it, has really disturbing implications. It means that every awful breakup is a shadow of “500 Days of Summer.” Every struggle to start up a company parrots “The Social Network.” Every cruise you go on is a ghost of “Titanic.” The glittering idea that there are new possibilities in the world grows exceedingly bleak when you realize that most of the important moments you’ve gone through and will go through have already been shown in a movie.

Art imitates life, but life imitates art, too. Yet art and life aren’t the only players in the imitation game—the rest of us, caught inside, can’t be hopelessly stuck. There must be some way we can break out.

One option, if you don’t want to feel like an echo, is to avoid watching movies. But I imagine that’s impractical. Pop music, books, and all the other materials of popular culture do the same definitional work that movies do, if to different degrees.

Another option is to play the game. Last winter, I went back to my hometown and saw my high school friends for the first time in a while. It had been four years since we started and ended “The Script,” yet funnily enough, the essential arcs of our lives bent surprisingly close towards what it augured: “Kirk” became the type who went to parties; “Zachariah” went through a few relationships, or at least the motions; and I wrote.

Before I started this piece, I often wondered about the forces that engineered these uncanny evolutions. I suspect now that it was us all along. We wrote a script for a world we liked better. Life simply followed it.

—Magazine writer Luke W. Xu can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @duke_of_luke_.