What’s the Theme, Sherlock?

Ricardo and his son AlanDoes a film need to have a theme? I suppose it does, at least a documentary does. Some way of organizing the chaos we’ve caught on tape after tape. Otherwise, it is more of a home movie than a film. Can’t have that… Please read on, then vote!

Theme is tricky, though. If it is overt and preachy, most viewers (and critics and marketing executives) say “Yech!” As in tune out and turn off. Its the same thing that is wrong with many protest songs. At best, they conjure a bunch of naive middle-class kids singing Kumbaya around the campfire. So we need to be more subtle. It is perhaps another manifestation of “Show, don’t tell.”

But wait: what the heck is a theme, anyway?

I found this handy list of themes in literature from Dr. Janice E. Patten, a former San Jose State University faculty member. She has a cool art gallery, too. Janice: do you mean to imply that visual arts and literature are connected in some way?

Shouldn’t the theme of What’s Inside, Professor? be Alan Steinbach’s life? And times? It is a biography, right? The easy way out is to surf to the Biography Maker (by Jamie McKenzie, their author, and the Bellingham Public Schools), plug in the required details – and voilà, one biographical script. Just add DV tape… But Wikipedia says that biography has to go deeper, otherwise it is just “a profile or a curriculum vitae.” Dang!

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes DVDWait – maybe the biography channel has a formula! They crank out (or purchase) episode after episode. It is a totally professional outfit, part of A&E Television Networks. They must have developed some sort of standard approach. Oh, wait – one of the biographies they are selling (on DVD) is the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Um… Well, hopefully when they recruit a new VP for Non-Fiction & Alt. Programming, they’ll straighten this out. What is Alt. Programming, anyway? I went to med school in San Francisco, so I know quite a bit about things Alt. I guess it fits in, somehow – there are an awful lot of cable channels to fill, after all.

OK, seriously, here are the themes I have been pondering:

  1. What happens when hippie commune-dwellers rejoin the mainstream? This is probably the most appealing thread to follow. What is the legacy of the 60s? We see it in neo-hippies today (many sporting dreads, and many curiously not smoking pot). But where else do the ideas of the 60s show up? It is salient to the lives of baby-boomers everywhere.
  2. What does retirement mean? It was Alan’s retirement and 66th birthday party that prompted me to make a film about him. Will he actually be able to retire? It is hard to picture him in a rocking chair.
  3. How can a modern health care provider combine human kindness with scientific and technical mastery? By most accounts, Alan Steinbach has achieved this feat to an extraordinary degree. By most accounts, few doctors have (and not even that many PAs or Nurse Midwives). What is the secret? And, can we bottle it?
  4. How does a healer balance career and personal life? Or maybe the question is how to integrate career and personal life?
  5. How do friendships evolve over time? I have known Alan and Sala Steinbach for two decades. In our first days of shooting, I was able to meet Osha and Yeshi Neumann. These four have quite a history, of which I only have glimpses. They would make a fine movie – and probably with more drama than this more cerebral stuff. Jerry Springer, anyone?
  6. What is mentorship? Alan has been a mentor, or at least an inspiration, to many people – friends, students, and patients alike. How does mentorship work? Can we dissect it academically, or support it administratively?

Or do you have other ideas? If so, we’d love to hear them – if you contribute an idea, you’ll be given a credit in the film! In any case, please vote for your favorite theme (look in the sidebar). And we’ll keep you posted as we develop What’s Inside, Professor? in the coming months.

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