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Excerpts from
The Path of the Artist, Part 1

I teach film at Boston University. My students have access to dozens of books that tell them how to budget, shoot, or edit their movies. But there are precious few that grapple with what I feel are the really important questions: What makes one movie better than another? What can movies do that a sitcom can't? Why make films at all? Those are the questions we end up talking about most of the time–in classes, in my office, and over coffee. I've kept notes from many of our conversations, and at various students' requests, I recently gathered some of them together into a packet which I distributed in my American Independent Film class. Tim Rhys saw it and invited me to share it with the readers of MovieMaker.

These notes represent a series of random and not-so-random thoughts about the meaning of art and life. They are not really intended to be read at one sitting from start to finish, but rather to be dipped into at odd moments–for inspiration, for encouragement, or for something to argue with and rail against.

They will run in three consecutive issues of MovieMaker. But before I present the initial installment, I want to mention that none of the observations that follow come out of books I have read or classes I took as a student. Without exception, they come from artists' letters and diaries or from the works they created. Everything I know about art and much of what I know about life, I owe to the artists. They are the real teachers–much more than the professors and critics I have known. I dedicate this piece to them and to my students–to the artists of the past, present, and future.

Never forget that to be an artist is, above everything else, to be a truth-teller, one of the few left in a culture seized in a death-grip by media-induced fictions and journalistic clichés. You speak secrets no one else dares to whisper. You exist to share your most private feelings and personal observations with others. They are where truth lies. Don't be afraid of being too personal, too private. Your most secret fears, your private doubts and uncertainties are everyone's.

* * *

It's hard to see the truth because emotional clichés are everywhere, waiting to trap us. Most movie emotions are as unreal as the ones in pop songs. But fake emotions are not confined to the movies. They fill up the radio, television, magazines, and newspapers: All the things we pretend to care about but really don't. All the things our culture tells us matter but really don't. Make a movie about what you really feel, not what you think you are supposed to feel.

* * *

Leave the plastic feelings to the after-school specials. Leave the recycling to Hollywood. Our films have so many imitation emotions that if a real one ever intruded, it would shock us or make us laugh. Mike Leigh tells the story of the time a table collapsed on stage and, as the actors scurried to keep the dishes from tumbling, the sudden honesty of their performance revealed the falsity of the entire preceding play.

* * *

Cinematic clichés are everywhere. Any hack can create loneliness with a long shot and a little music. Danger with a hand-held, point-of-view shot. Fear with key-lighting. Surprise with an editorial jump. Leave the tricks to magicians. They are not life. If you are about to use a snappy, jazzy, exciting way to get something on film, it means you're not really in touch with what is going on in a scene. You're falling back on a routine, a formula, a shortcut for understanding.

* * *

My teachers told me that filmmaking was about telling gripping stories. It took me years to realize that that's not an ambitious enough goal. You can do much more than that. You can give viewers new eyes and ears. You can change their states of awareness so that they see, hear, care, and feel differently. Your work exists to express things too delicate, too fluttering, too multivalent to be said in any other way. You're doing something much more radical than telling a story. You're rewiring people's nervous systems. You're doing brain surgery. Art gives us more than new facts and ideas; it gives us new powers of perception.

* * *

You speak the most subtle language ever created–the language of art–a form of expression more nuanced than verbal language, more complex than a theorem in physics, truer than anything in the newspaper. The idea of photographing people and things does not go deep enough to capture the profound complexity of art-speech.

* * *

A work of art is not a mirror but a house of mirrors. It is not a tape recording but an echo-chamber of connected, compared, contrasted feelings and points of view.

* * *

To build your film around your main character's decisions and choices, plans and goals (as virtually every Hollywood movie does), is to skim the surface of life. Go deeper.

* * *

Our intentions don't ultimately matter. They are not the deepest part of us. We know this about other people, but forget it about ourselves. Our conscious thoughts, our plans and purposes, are probably the least important aspect of what we are. Capture the emotional and intellectual structures that make us what we are, even if we don't know it. What we really are is almost always the opposite of what we think we are or what we intend to be.

* * *

The solution most movies urge is a continuation of the sickness they depict. They give characters problems to solve and then show them going about solving them. Their narratives are an extension of the business ethos that causes most of the problems in our culture in the first place. These movies never question the belief that we are what we do, what we control, what we own. We live in a capitalist culture addicted to the virtues of doing. But life is less about doing anything, than being something. If your film hinges on a figure's doing or accomplishing something, you are part of the sickness. You are making feature-length commercials for IBM.

* * *

We're only so used to this kind of film because most Hollywood directors are closer to being businessmen than artists. Schindler's List has more in common with Donald Trump's Art of the Deal than with Martin Buber's I and Thou. A producer's cinema reflects a producer's values. We need an artist's cinema that reflects an artist's values. Look at General della Rovere, To Sleep with Anger, or Wanda to see the alternative–the kind of film that hustlers like Spielberg, Stone, and Lee could never imagine making. The only reality that matters in Rossellini's, Burnett's, and Loden's work is spiritual.

* * *

Most movie characters have goals and follow a set of steps to achieve them. Life is not like that. It's not logical. People outside the movies don't have purposes and goals. We are not rational beings. Our moods swing wildly and unpredictably. Our lives are not logical. We don't follow game plans, certainly not consciously. We keep changing our minds. We almost never know what we are doing or where we are going from one moment to the next. The only times we do know are unimportant moments, like driving to the dentist. All of the rest of the time, we just get by–one step after another. Make a film that shows how irrelevant our plans are, how they are a way of avoiding living. As John Lennon said, life is what happens when we're making other plans.

* * *

The only reason these problem-solving, goal-driven, jigsaw-puzzle pictures are so popular is because they are so infantile. It takes no knowledge of life, no sensitivity to emotions, to understand them.

* * *

Film teachers love films like The Godfather, 2001, Blade Runner, or Pulp Fiction because they can be explained to a Freshman film class with ten catchphrases in fifty minutes. They require no understanding of people, no cultural awareness or historical knowledge. Make a film which you have to know something about life–about the difference between men and women, about what it is to be a parent or a child, about our states of emotional confusion–to appreciate. Make a film that you couldn't have understood when you were in high school or college. Make a film a professor can't reduce to metaphors and symbols.

* * *

Life is mysterious, but its mysteries are entirely different from the mystifications in L.A. Confidential, Blood Simple, Blue Velvet, or Psycho. Their mysteries are shallow. They can be cleared up with a few words of explanation. Their puzzlements are trivial–matters of fact and event, of who did what to whom. Make a film about real mysteries, mysteries that don't involve facts but feelings–like the mystery of who we are, the mystery of why we do hurtful things to ourselves and others, the mystery of why the effects of our actions can be so different from our intentions, the mystery of why we can never see ourselves as others see us.

* * *

This other kind of film is not clever. It doesn't have a zippy denouement. Its mysteries won't be resolved by the final scene. If your film is puzzling, make sure there is no solution. Make a movie the viewer has to see a few times to understand or where understanding shifts from screening to screening–just as our understanding of our friends and our experiences changes over time. If we can't figure it out, if we can change our minds about it, at least that will be a little like life.

* * *

Why are there no sex scenes where a woman is embarrassed about her body? Why none where a man is uncertain about his ability to satisfy her? Why none where strangers feel a sense of emptiness, shame, or regret after making love?

* * *

Why this emphasis on sex anyway? Most of life takes place outside the bedroom. The focus on sex and romance in most films is a confession of the director's inability to imagine individuals. We pursue romance to run away from ourselves. We favor sex scenes where two people melt into each other because we are afraid we're nothing when we're alone.

* * *

America admires brassy certainty. The main characters in most films are as cool, controlled, knowing, and cynical as the host of an MTV talk show. The toughness, swagger, and smart-ass witticisms of the characters in most movies represent emotional problems to be explored, not qualities to be celebrated. Allow your characters to have doubts and uncertainties, to be shy or embarrassed, to reflect on their lives. In this triumph of cockiness, the shyness and pudency of soul is snuffed out.

* * *

Why deny your own experience of life with a happy-face ending? Go against the insipid optimism–the bows, ribbons, and rewards–of the American mythos. Why this insane need for happy-ever-afters? Life is disappointing in many ways. It is frustrating. It is sad. It is not fair. It ends with death. Why do we deny that? What are we afraid of? Make a film about failure, frustration, and loss–about what we can't do or be. Read Othello. Look at Ozu's Tokyo Story, Dreyer's Day or Wrath, or Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career. How much shallower they would be with happy endings. Dreyer and Ozu show us that only when we give up the world can we gain our souls.

* * *

In any case, most speech is not about revealing, sharing, giving–but the opposite. We talk for every reason except the one we give. We talk to cover up, to hide, to evade scrutiny, to defend ourselves against imaginary attacks, to pretend we care, to dust our tracks, to deflect attention away from the real subject. Rent a copy of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming or Betrayal. Get those zip-zapping tonal laserbeams into your characters' relationships.

* * *

Why are we afraid of the dark? We've all heard the joke about the man who dropped his keys on one side of the street, but looked for them on the other because the light was better there. We make films like that. We make them about what we know, when the only reason to make them is to find out what we don't.

* * *

Why do we want things to be clear? Music, lighting, and framing are devoted to telling us what things mean. Characters keep us continuously informed about what they are doing and what their plans for the future are. They more or less constantly tell us what they are thinking, feeling, and intending. Why do we sit still for it? It's boring and it's false. Things don't have meanings like this in life. We can't see into other peoples' hearts and minds. People are opaque. We are held on the outside. Why in the world would we want our movies to be so different from life? Look at Harmony Korine's work for a vision of the sheer strangeness and opacity of experience.

* * *

Hollywood movies tell us what to think. But they forget that explanations kill involvement. When people and events are explained, a viewer ceases to care about them. In being brought into our minds, they leave our hearts. When you watch Tarkovsky's Stalker or Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, you feel things precisely because you can't quite understand them. Explanations makes us passive. Following directions is the opposite of thinking. Real thinking can take place only when we aren't told what to think.

* * *

Rouse the viewer to the same state of curiosity that he is in when he experiences things outside the movie theater. The work we do when we negotiate Henry James's syntax or puzzle out one of Jesus' parables is not something to get beyond; it is the value of the experience. Because we create it, the knowledge we arrive at is different from knowledge handed to us. Each viewer feels that Cassavetes' films speak to them alone, because they must exert themselves to master them. When you make things easy on your viewers, when you tell them what it means to you, you deny them ownership of their own experience.

* * *

Ever notice how much more interesting a movie is when you channel surf into it ten minutes after it has begun? Or how fascinating even a dumb movie is for at least a few minutes before the idiot plot kicks in? It gets boring the minute you figure it out, or as soon as the characters are given a road map to follow. How can you keep that openness in your movie, that state of uncertainty in the viewer (without, of course, relying on Hitchcockian tricks to stoke up fake dramatic interest)?

* * *

Why do we think film should be easier, purer, more idealized than life? Don't spoon-feed the viewer. Don't give him or her predigested bits of knowledge. The experience of a good film should be as demanding and raw and unassimilated as the experience of life.

* * *

Knowingness is the curse of our art. The director knows what his characters are; the characters know what they themselves are; and the viewer knows what everyone else knows. Watch your mind at moments when you don't know something: when you meet a new person; when you hear a loud sound at night but don't know what it is; when you're running out and looking for your wallet or keys. How does your mind function differently from when it is on autopilot? Most of the important parts of life are lived not in the state of knowing, but of not-knowing. Get that into your work. Let your characters experience it, let your viewer experience it. Look at the scene in Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice in which a loud sound is heard off-screen and a pitcher of milk spills. Why is it more powerful than if the cause of the sound were shown or explained? Don't explain more than life does.

* * *

We have a mistaken notion that you make a movie after you've decided what you want to say. It's actually the reverse. You learn what you want to say by making the movie–like conversation, which would not only be more boring, but stupider, if we tried to plan it out in advance. Use film to learn.

* * *

Consciousness cannot precede expression. If you can storyboard your film in advance, if you know what's going to happen, how your characters are going to react and feel at every moment, save yourself a lot of time and trouble, skip the shoot and publish the storyboard. As Robert Frost said: No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.

* * *

If you don't change your mind about your characters and their situations several times as you make your movie, you aren't holding yourself open enough. You aren't allowing yourself to learn. Cassavetes re-edited his films over and over again, as his understandings of the things he had filmed changed.

* * *

Thank your lucky stars if you decide part way through that you have been entirely wrong about what you wanted to say. Or if you decide that everything you have done is wrong. It means that you are learning something you didn't know when you started. If you don't learn anything, how can the viewer?

* * *

"Filmmaking is exploring. Why would I want to make a film about something I already understand?"–John Cassavetes

* * *

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see, and what it means."–Joan Didion

–Excerpted from "The Path of the Artist–I," MovieMaker, Vol. 7, issue 36, (Fall 1999).

Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's www.Cassavetes.com on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.