Some Further Thoughts on Instructions

Yesterday, I wrote about The Lego Movie and instructions. Last night, as my Munchkin game group taught the game to a newbie, I gave instructions a further think.

When was the last time you read The Instructions? Let’s back up a second–what are The Instructions?

Perhaps I’m a little biased in a particular direction, but my answer to that question lies in myth. I take that very broad Campbellian definition of myth that myths are the stories and guides that define people as a culture or as individuals. But I don’t consider these stories as just “stories.” A story can be, literally, a story. It can be a novel, a film, a comic, a play, etc etc etc. But a story could also be a football game, a business journal, a textbook. It could be a dance party, a furniture store, or a 3-course dinner. In other words, anything can be storied if we ascribe any special meaning to it.

There is no universal rule to what can become storied. Each of us find our myths in different things. Jung’s now-legendary story is that he once asked what his myth was, then remembered how much he enjoyed building with blocks as a child–so he built himself Bollengen tower.

As it happens, I’m attracted to the literary form of stories, so I have the tendency to talk about myth from the perspective of an armchair-Lit major. So for that reason, books, films, and media are, for me, The Instructions.

So, when was the last time you read The Instructions? For most of you, my dear readers, you probably read some form of Instructions recently. Perhaps you read a religious text, or a scholarly text. Perhaps you read a Cookbook, or a comic book. But did you actually read them? Absorb them? Take them to heart? Allow yourself to be changed by them? Or did you read The Instructions with the sole intent of not following them?

What do The Instructions mean to you?

Lego Instructions Are Useful

My research frequently takes me down a rabbit hole in pursuit of “the American identity.” I frequently find laudatory analyses of American individualism, the symbolism of the rugged cowboy, and many, many questions about the faults of American iconography and imagery since World War II. American myth and media is filled with savior-type heroes who are either saving the worlds by themselves or are rallying the people to save themselves, or are rallying with other superheroes to save the world together.

Enter into this discussion, The Lego Movie (2014).

*Spoilers may follow.*

We can poke fun at the fact that the Wise Old Man figure is a Master Builder/architect named Vitruvius:

Or that the secret hide-out of the Master Builders is a sky-city named Cloudcukooland (reference: Aristophanes, The Birds):

Or even that there is a Kragle gun:

This movie is filled with all of the expected cliches: Lots of jokes, an unexpected hero, father atonement, so on. For our purposes, I want to consider a very, specific turning point in the film.

Emmett, the construction worker who is marked as “The Special,” finds himself stranded in the ocean with a bunch of Master Builders. The Master Builders have tried to vanquish Mr. Business through rebellion, lawlessness, and their original constructions. Emmett, in an inspired moment, encourages these self-righteous Masters to follow the instructions, because that’s exactly what the bad guys aren’t expected.

All Lego sets come with an instruction book. Piece by piece, page by page, one can successfully build the model on the outside of the box as long as one follows the directions. These instructions become the tools of mass control in this film. Everyone is expected to follow the rules and deviating from the rules is severely punished. As such, Emmett has never actually had any of his own building ideas (except for a double-decker couch with coolers in the seats), and has a “prodigiously empty” imagination. The Master Builders, on the other hand, can see useful pieces anywhere, and can turn seemingly random blocks into vehicles or other useful tools. Haven’t we all found ourselves in similar dualities? Having that one friend who wants to follow the instructions versus that other friend who would rather dump all the pieces on the floor and see where the imagination takes them?

As someone who always follows the instructions, I personally find it frustrating that I can’t build an awesome spaceship out of random pieces, but I find it even more frustrating when people buy Lego sets then mix all the pieces in with their other pieces and have a giant bucket of random Lego pieces. My Lego sets, when not put together on display, are in Ziploc bags, sorted by set for easy reconstruction (no, I don’t sort my pieces beyond the overall set. I like the fun of the dig for that 1-pip, clear blue piece needed in step 150).

The instructions are the means of mass control in this Lego land. The God-like Father (Will Farrell) treats his Legos as models and collector items, not as the toys his son sees them to be (overtly, this is the point of the movie–to bring Father around to enjoying his Legos are the toys they are). But they also provide the secret to infiltrating the Infinity Tower and were almost successful in stopping Tako Tuesday.

In the American identity, we favor the rebellious Master Builder mentality–that the only way to overcome something that makes us unhappy is to break the rules. But what if the secret to change comes from rebuilding the system from within instead of without? This is a constant conflict in our society. Americans want community, but they don’t want to be herded into sameness. They want change, but not necessarily at the hand of revolution. (As always, I’m speaking to a generalized middle.) So what The Lego Movie seems to be telling us is that the first point of rebellion is to follow the instructions. And then, everything can be awesome.