I have a recurring dream
about a world where the museums have been bought up by the superstores
and are run the way they are. Decisions on acquiring paintings are no
longer made by art curators and specialists, but are governed by the marketplace.
Artists buy their way in by purchasing "wall space" for ten
thousand dollars a square foot, just like Coca Cola or Dockers does to
get into your local Wal-Mart. But since there is always more demand than
space available, simply getting a painting into the store is not sufficient;
a work has to bring people in to justify its existence, to keep the shelf
space from being reassigned to something else.
The museum of the future
keeps track of how many people look at each painting each day. The figures
are published and studied by the heads of other museums to see which paintings
attract the most viewers. Bidding wars ensue to get the hottest paintings.
Paintings whose drawing power falls off after a few days or weeks are
removed and replaced by others. Work that doesnt seem certain to
attract viewers is not put up in the first place, even if it can pay the
wall fee. Corporate entities grow up to evaluate the potential popularity
of each painting and to invest in it (or withhold investment) according
to the predictions. In order to attract viewers and boost attendance figures,
the artists of the future work in concert with vast armies of publicists
and press flacks, whose job is to attract an audience to their work.
artists themselves do everything they can to stoke up interest, giving
magazine and newspaper interviews, making the rounds of television talk
shows, making outrageous claims for the importance of their work. Of course,
there are no more landscapes and still lives. And no more portraits. In
the museum of the future, paintings that require time and experience to
understand were long ago shoved aside by works with flashy, dazzling effects.
Individual works vie for attention with every gimmick imaginablefree
baseball caps, t-shirts, light shows, neon-lighted frames, holographic
posters, multimillion dollar television, radio, and newspaper ad campaigns.
The hushed subtlety of classic art gives way to coarse obviousness; the
quiet beckoning of the old fashioned museum is replaced by blatant hucksterism.
The paintings of the future are full of violence and nudity and sensational
allusions to contemporary issues. It is the end of art as we know it.
The reason the dream scares
me is that when I wake up I realize that it is not a vision of some hellish
nightmare future, but the world we actually live in. Its only that
what the dream symbolically represents as museums and paintings is our
present movie theaters and the films that play in them.
This is the concluding installment
in a three-part series of reflections on art. Though all three parts deal
with all aspects of filmmaking, in general the first part focused more
on the planning, writing, and preparation stages of filmmaking, and the
second on directing and acting. This one will concentrate slightly more
on the editing, distribution, and exhibition side of the process (hence
the nightmare beginning).
Spielberg bragged that Holocaust
survivors were proud of Schindlers List and World War II
veterans loved Saving Private Ryan. Thats not a virtue but
a vice. All it means is that he let them wallow in their own clichéd
views of themselves. The idea of asking an audience what it likes is totally
wrong. If your audience loves a scene, it is guaranteed to be terrible.
Dont trust what viewers say they like. Give them what they need,
which is almost always the opposite of what they want.
Hollywood movies boil down
to making the viewer feel good by flattering him, reassuring him, plugging
into his or her unfulfilled adolescent fantasies. Its really no
different from the way an ad campaign works. If you want to sell your
SUV to middle-aged men with big bellies and boring jobs, convince
them that it will bring adventure back into their lives. If you want
to sell it to soccer moms, convince them that it will keep their children
safe. If you want a blockbuster film, you just have to plug into the
fantasies of a big enough demographic.
Titanic exists to allow
every girl in the audience to see her life as being as heroic and glamorous
as Kate Winslets, and to imagine the boys around her as Leonardo
DiCaprios. The appeal is obvious. Who wouldnt want to think of her
unconsummated crushes as being this tragic? Who wouldnt want to
imagine her life as being this glamorous and herself this capable of love,
self-sacrifice, and suffering?
The only problem is that its
a pack of lies. Our emotions are not this pure. Were much more mixed-up,
troubled, and uncertain of ourselves. Were never as heroic or clever
as Tom Hanks. Were never as victimized and innocent as victims of
the Holocaust. Love isnt as self-sacrificing and unconditioned as
the oceanliner version.
Real love is mixed with unloving
feelings like selfishness and pettiness and the desire for appreciation.
Real suffering, sacrifice, and loss is laced with anger and resentment
and self-justification. Real virtue is usually critical and intolerant
of others deficiencies.
We arent noble and long-suffering.
Of course, we think we are: We tell ourselves self-justifying stories
about how much harder we work, how much more we deserve success than others
do. But its a lie.
Then there are the movies
for boys, like The Matrix, which plugs into boy fantasies of
discovering secrets about the adult world and enacting a cosmic destiny.
in the adolescent male psyche is pushedfrom the fascination with
gadgets (computers and cell phones), to the feeling that no one understands
you, to a sense of nostalgia for a lost youth (milk and cookies in the
oracles kitchen). As Neo, every boy-in-a-baseball-cap
can revel in his fantasy of rebelling against authority and saving the
world, obtaining the love of an older and wiser woman (so there will
no messy sexual complications, like having actually to talk to her),
and being a ninja-samurai warrior-zen master (spouting Yoda-like
profundities) at the same time. Twenty-somethings undergoing a
crisis about becoming middle-class wage slaves can indulge their
fantasy of being closet-rebels with deep philosophies.
Hollywood isnt about
truth telling; its about pandering. If women love movies about intimate
female friendships or romance, then thats what Hollywood will give
them. If boys like "decoder-ring" movies that tell them the
world is a vast conspiracy, with a code that must be broken, then thats
what Hollywood will give them. Thats what American Beauty
and Magnolia do, and its why the appeal of a movie like
The Matrix is indistinguishable from that of the Ku Klux Klan or the
Far from showing us anything
new, these movies flatter our selfish, self-serving fantasies of who we
think we are. They are part of the problem, not the solution. They are
the equivalent of the Harlequin romances girls read, and the Playboy
magazines boys look at.
Hollywood movies are idealizations
at every level. Not merely in presenting idealized versions of us, but
in turning experience into ideas. They present our ideas of ourselves.
They are fantasies, not in the obvious sense of presenting unreal situations
and events, but in the sense of presenting us as we think we aresmooth,
cool, poised, sexy, concerned, loving, kind. Were all Boy Scouts
in our own minds. But then theres the non-mental reality that others
see. It is not so smooth and pleasing. We glimpse it when we hear our
voices on our answering machines or see a candid photo of ourselves waving
our arms in the air. The more its really us, the less its
our idea of ourselves. Bring the reality back to the representation. Make
a movie about what you really are.
"My quarrel with this
generation is that they copy their teachers.... They dont want freedom.
They want to be told what to do.... The younger generation is too anxious
to please, too eager to be accepted. For art, this is death. To young
dancers, I want to say: Do what you feel you are, not what you think
you ought to be. " –Anna Sokolov
Our ideas of ourselves are
the problem. The entire post-Platonic tradition is devoted to disembodiment.
Identity becomes mental. Hitchcocks characters might as well be
brains in vats communicating by mental telepathy. The heroines of Hollywood
romances are their feelings. They are as vaporous as clouds. Put flesh
back in the spirit.
Lower the center of gravity.
Move it out of the head and into the rest of the identity. We are not
our thoughts and ideas, but all the things that show themselves as thoughts.
The very appeal of Hollywood
film is proof of our emotional imperfection. The only reason viewers crave
these movies is because they are addicted to glamorizing their emotional
states, to telling themselves comforting stories about themselves. Their
purity is evidence of our impurity. These films repressions are
evidence of our own need to run away from reality.
There are many different ways
to flatter viewers. Woody Allen, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Joel
Coen, John Dahl, and Curtis Hanson allow viewers to feel smart because
they get the in-jokes, the hip allusions, the ironic winks and nods.
Hip-hop and boys-in-the-hood
movies flatter the kids who watch them the same way rap music does:
who grew up in the suburbs and were driven to school in Volvos can feel
they are part of the street scene. They can feel that their lives are
a raw, rough, edgy, and dangerous. They live vicariously through the
gangsters. "Ah, yes, this is what it is to be a real man."
Hitchcock flatters viewers
by giving them the satisfaction of solving a puzzle. They can match wits
with him and feel clever. The critics who revel in these sorts of movies
are just little boys who never got past a decoder ring understanding of
life. A work of art is not a jig-saw puzzle.
Flattery is a terrible basis
for a work of artor a human relationship. How do you feel about
someone who flatters you in life? Isnt it a sign that they think
you are stupid? That they have contempt for you? Why would you want to
do it to someone watching your movie?
All genuine love is tough love.
All important relationships involve the meeting of different points of
view. All valuable interactions are challenging ones. They never leave
us the same; they change us.
Real knowledge must be paid
for by giving up old understandings. That always hurts, at least a little.
Our emotions are inertial; we always rest on the last understanding. No
pain no gain is even truer of emotions than of athletics.
Make a really dangerous movie.
One that makes the viewer uncomfortable. Have your characters threaten
something your viewer holds dear. Let them get under the viewers
skin. They can only do that if the viewer is not able to write them off
as villains or ogres.
Break down the distance between
the viewer and the film. When Hollywood creates a problem it is always
someone else, somewhere else, doing something else. It is always about
"them." We already have enough movies about evil stockbrokers,
corrupt cops, and narcissistic yuppies. "They" are too easy
to attack. The ones we need to understand are us. Make a movie in which
there is no them. Dont reserve your hell for others. Film where
you and your viewers live.
Hollywood movies do a clever
two-step where, at one and the same time, they present themselves as being
connected with our lives and yet disconnected. That way they can seem
daring yet be safe. Women can cheer Thelma and Louise for telling-off
men, yet treat it all as a game with no consequences. We can admire Patch
Adams courage and resourcefulness, even as we can also write it
off as just another wacky Robin Williams movie. Viewers can identify with
Schindler, yet feel that nothing is required of them since everything
took place a long time ago in a galaxy far away.
These movies have things both
ways: safe danger; uncontroversial controversy; happy sadness; easy hardness;
funny seriousness. They know how to seem to go far without ever going
The lessons in these movies
come too cheap. There is nothing at stake. Their emotional experiences
are weightless. Their game playing defies gravity.
These films are machines for
passivity. They change nothing, and ask us to do nothing. The beauty of
their images hypnotizes us. The thrill of their experiences lulls us into
sitting still and feeling deeply, instead of getting up and doing anything.
We leave Hollywood movies the
way we come out of a Vegas lounge actor the haunted house in a carnivalblinking
into the light, flushed and excited, chattering animatedly, but completely
untouched in any deep way. A week later weve entirely forgotten
How can you make a movie that
will stay with people after they leave the theater? That will trouble
their day-dreamsand not the way a horror movie does. That they will
have to continue to work though?
Aristotle was wrong. The greatest
art denies us the comfort of catharsis. Give your viewers an experience
that doesnt allow them to recline into the easychair of an emotional
release or clarification. Deny them easy answers. Force them to work out
the ending themselves. Force them to decide who was right and who was
wrongwhy tell them? Or give them an ending where the bad character
triumphs and the good one fails.
Weve gotten Keats
aphorism backwards. Beauty is not truth. Truth is beauty. Dont make
things beautiful; make them true. Script, shoot, and edit true, and that
will be all the beauty you ever need.
Art is not about making gorgeous
images, but about revealing things that matter. Dont confuse beauty
and prettiness. Real beauty is not pretty. It is scary or disorienting,
because it threatens everything we think we know.
Why would you want your film
to look like the ones that roll off the Hollywood assembly-line? It should
be personal, hand-crafted, individual, eccentric. Like any great work
of art, it should have your fingerprints all over it.
Only a corpse in its coffin
looks perfect. In life, our hair is out of place; our complexion is blotchy;
our feelings and relationships with others are unresolved.
John Milton said a great
poem could only be made from extraordinary characters undergoing unusual
experiences. Shakespeare, Leigh, and Cassavetes prove otherwise. They
show us how extraordinary the most ordinary life can be. They show us
that its not the complexity of events that makes for interest but
the complexity of a characters feelings.
turning points in life usually occur in the simplest settings and situations.
Not racing somewhere in a car, but sitting in a room and suddenly realizing
something. Not yelling and screaming, but reading a magazine and feeling
bored or discouraged. If you feel your character has to have something
extraordinary happen to her to make her interesting, ask yourself why
ordinary life does not matter enough to hold your interest.
People arent anything
by extremes, but by subtleties. Nothing in life is merely comic or tragic.
Everything is mixed up with everything else. Chekhov shows that we are
buffoons at the very moment we are also heroes.
At any one instant, life coruscates
with different moods. Watch the spaghetti breakfast in A Woman Under
the Influence. Is it funny or pathetic? Watch Caveh Zahedis
A Little Stiff. Are the scenes touching or ridiculous? Get your
film to a place beyond comedy or seriousness, a place where both can be
Then there is the fake complexity
of art films. The calculated ambiguity. The crafted duplicity. Its
all worked out in advance. These films specialize in intellectual emotions
and pretend uncertainties. These filmmakers hide their sermons under stones
and then act surprised when they find them there.
Avoid all intellectual meanings.
Life is not "ambiguous." It is not "mysterious" or
"suspenseful." It is complex and flowing and unfathomableentirely
Forget about saying something
big. Forget Kane, 2001, and Blade Runner, and bloated,
puffed-up metaphors about solitude, technology, or angst. Big ideas are
trite and obvious. Say something small and particular. Thats hard.
Tell the truth about a boy and a girl breaking up. Thats plenty
of truth for one movie. All the truth we really need.
Its easy to weave clever
metaphors into movies. Notice all the references to faces, appearances,
and true and false identities in hack work like Face/Off or Suture.
Look at the references to heights in North by Northwest, to dizziness
in Vertigo, or loneliness in Citizen Kane. These movies
are cartoons. They are kitsch. Fake art. When youve seen them, youve
learned a lot about camera angles and lighting effects, but nothing about
experience. The metaphors and structural ingenuities are a mile wide;
the knowledge of life is skin deep.
The only reason filmmakers
like Stone or Lee or Kubrick are interested in cultural generalities is
because they are not really interested in people.
These are film-school movies.
You can have great class discussions about them, because every student
can "get" the intricacy. But the profundity is shallow, the
complexity is fake. Its all ideas. Teachers love them, because they
translate back into ideas so easily.
These meanings are thought
rather than felt, and thought always misleads. Abstractions take you away
from the complexity of actual experience. Thats why planning is
the enemy of discovery. Truth is always discovered only in the act of
Symbols and visual metaphors
are always too simple, obvious, and heavy-handed to capture lifes
spiderweb streamingness. As on the evening news, screaming headline truth
is no longer truth. All the delicate subtlety of experience disappears.
Kane is LONELY. Susan Alexander is ESTRANGED and ALIENATED. Thats
not life. Its a billboard or a TV commercial. How much more interesting
are shades of gray than these noisy, brassy, clanging cymbals. All truth
is inbetweenness. We live and die not by extremes, but in the middles
We all know the peripheral
vision phenomenon, where you can see better if you look to one side rather
than straight on. Work to capture the flickers that coruscate on the edges
of events. Henry James called it catching the tail of the feeling as it
zips by you. If you are making a "point" or offering a "meaning"
that can be seen and talked about straight-on, that can be taken in with
a glance, forget it. None of the important meanings in life are like that.
The symbolic methods of art
films elevate the truth of ideas over the truth of experiences. If you
can say what your movie is "about," it is not worth making.
If you are aware of laying in particular symbols or metaphors, its
hopeless. Youll never say anything interesting or complex. Our meaning-making
minds are the shallowest, most superficial parts of us. The soul is not
a repository of meanings, but of moods and tones. Tone is everything.
Not just the tone of a characters voice, but the tone of your presentation.
Babies understand tones long before they can understand meanings. That
part of the brain is far smarter and in touch with much deeper truths
than the intellectual part.
The subconscious always speaks
truer than consciousness. Ideas are from our consciousness; real insights
and understandings from our subconscious.
You (and your viewers) must
learn to think without thoughts. Your viewer should be experiencing too
much to reduce it to an idea. Make a movie in which more is happening
at any one moment than can be understood. It is a wonderful feeling when
there is more going on than can be taken in. The Rules of the Game
and Bicycle Thief constantly give us glimpses of other lives, other
storiesin the background, on the edges of the frame, around the
corner from where the main character is standing, through a window behind
him. The main character's drama is only one of many. These films
show us that there is more going on than can fit into them.
The point is not to tighten
and clean things up, not to organize, not to filter out the multiplicity
of life. To narrow your relation to experience to any one thought, feeling,
or tone is to tell a lie about it. There are as many different understandings
of experience in Mike Leighs Bleak Moments and Meantime
as there are characters.
Plato set us out on the wrong
path. He convinced philosophers that the goal of art is to move the spectator
to a state of intellectual contemplation. The great artists show us the
opposite. The artistic event begins at the point where dispassionate spectatorship
gives way to confused, pained involvementfor filmmakers and viewers
What will save you from the
flat-mindedness and rigidity of your own ideas is simply looking
and listening. Watch, listen, and allow yourself to learn from your actors
Forget theories and theses.
Simply report what you see and hear. If you can simply describe what people
are really likewithout letting a haze of ideas, a filter of clichés
block your view, you will have made a great work.
Paul Taylor once said that
he was only a reporter. Cassavetes said the same thing. Thats enough.
Dont try to judge; just notice and present what you actually see.
What are people like? What do they do? How do they interact?
What you do making the film
is what the viewer should re-enact in grappling with it. A Shakespeare
play or Paul Taylor dance piece forces us to become incredibly activewatching,
wondering, speculatingcontinuously revising our hypotheses, changing
our minds as we go along. Thats what great art always does.
What its all really about
is not manipulating the audience, but asking them to notice, to care.
Every shot, every scene should be devoted to increasing the viewers
Hollywood characters are genericthe
generalized man and woman, rich person and poor one, child and adult.
Create characters who are unique.
Create characters at least
as complex as an average viewer, characters who can be embarrassed by
their own behavior, characters who can have second thoughts about their
actions or regret what they just said.
It is far more important to
depict the fantasy that is life than the fantasy that takes us away from
Most movies complicate in the
wrong wayby locating the complexity outside the character. The real
complexities are inside. Bad movies give good characters difficult problems
to solve or moral compromises to deal with. Its all outside. Theres
really no need to give a character a problem when the character is already
his own problem.
Think of how you learn things
in lifeslowly and tentatively. You understand a situation or a person
gradually, and you cant get to know them at all if they are busy
doing, doing, doing. It takes quiet moments with them. Make a film that
allows your viewer to understand people and events the same way. Quick
knowledge, anything you can take in at a glance, is trivial knowledge.
Hollywood has a simple way
of creating the appearance of complexity. Give a character a secret and
have him or her cover it up with a lie or an evasion. Thats shallow
complexity. Real complexity is not when a character conceals deep thoughts
and feelings, but is freed from them. Tom Noonans characters do
not have hidden mysteries or secrets. Its only when the mystery
is on the surface that it is really worth our attention.
My local newspaper has as its
advertising slogan: "We dig for the truth other people dont
get to." The fallacy is the belief in deep truth, concealed truth,
hidden truthRosebuds and Monoliths and secrets. All of the important
truth in life is on the surface. In shimmers of feeling. As Oscar Wilde
said, its only superficial people who do not judge by surfaces.
The mystery of the visible is far greater than the mystery of the invisible.
Any secrets that exist are not in the depths but on the surface.
your viewers to negotiate opaque, impenetrable surfaces the way they do
in life, where we dont imaginatively inhabit each other, see into
each others hearts and souls the way we do in Casablanca
and Psycho; but simply cope and manage and muddle through.
Why this quest for x-ray vision
anyway? Our insides are boring. Its our outsides that are interesting.
We all have the same basic motivations and intentions (who doesnt
want to be good, kind, fair?), but we express them in an infinity of different
The density, the opacity of
Rembrandts figures is what makes them so alluring. We cant
see into their hearts. We cant read their minds. They have the mystery
of life. The characters in L.A. Confidential and Pulp Fiction
are closer to Norman Rockwell or Gary Larson.
Steal secrets from the other
arts. Sargent shows how much meaning a little finger can express. Degas
shows the virtues of off-center framings and partial views. The French
horns in the first movement of Beethovens Fifth Symphony show how
important repetition can be as a formal devicehow different the
second or third time we encounter something can be from the first. Balanchines
dancers show how expressive body language can be.
On the other hand, Dali, Alma-Tadema,
Dewing, and Courbet prove that tricks, superficiality, and flashy mystification
are not limited to films or the twentieth-century.
With the greatest portraitsones
by Rembrandt or Sargentyou never really come to a final understanding.
You keep changing your mind about the sitters. They wont let us
resolve our relationship to them. Their meanings wont snap into
focus. Is Sargents Mrs. de Boit vulgar or charming, joyous or half-mad,
supercilious or welcoming? Is his Lady Agnew supremely confident or uncertain
and insecure? Is his Asher Wertheimer sweet or patronizing? Get your characters
and their interactions to the same place. The place of life.
Its not necessary to
re-invent the wheel. Study earlier films. Watch Dreyer to see how much
you can get by slowing things down, and Bresson to see how powerfully
small details can register when superfluities have been pared back. Watch
Ozu to see how a film can be an echo chamber of emotional comparisons
and contrasts. Watch Pinters early plays to explore the power of
the pause and the subtext. Watch Cassavetes to see how many different
views can co-exist in one sceneand how many different selves, moods,
and attitudes there are in each one of us.
Study the great works of the
pastin every art. Read novels, plays, short stories. Learn their
tricks. Master them. Then forget them. Go beyond them. Nothing can be
given to you. You must go every step of the way under your own power.
Accept no imitations. Knock-offs
are strictly for hacks. Film students see movies in class and think the
goal is to make a Hitchcock thriller, a Scorsese urban guttersnipe picture,
a Cassavetes shakeycam flick, but the moral is the oppositenot to
look like these movies, but to look like yourself. The reason Cassavetes
and Renoir matter now is that when they made their movies they werent
imitating anyone. They were trying to tell the truth in their own way.
As Picasso said, dont imitate anyone, even yourself.
Why should your movie look
like a movie? Why should it run two hours? Why should it have four to
six major characters? Why should it tell a story in an orderly way? As
Godard said, every film should have a beginning, a middle, and an end;
but not necessarily in that order.
What is the right length for
a poem? The proper size for a painting? The correct structure for a novels
plot? The right kind of music? Genres, conventions, norms, averages are
for hacks. Artists go their own way. Dont let anyone tell you how
to make your movie, what length to make it, how to shoot it.
Listen to no one. Heed no advice.
Including everything here. Ignore people who tell you to change your work
after they see a rough cut. Go your own way. All you have is your point
of view. You have nothing else to give anyone but what you are.
Dont be taken in by our
culture of stylistic superficiality. Filmmaking is not about a stunning
style or striking visual and acoustic effects. Its about showing
what you have learned about people and their interactions in the few years
we are given to live on this planet. Study people. Watch yourself. Intensely.
Youre only here for a
blink in the history of the universe. You make a few marks on the wall
of the cave and then youre gone. As an artist, all you can leave
behind is some indication of what life meant to you, and what you have
learned about it in that brief time. If the earth were destroyed tomorrow
and all that was left was a few films, would The Blair Witch Project,
Show Girls, and Fatal Attraction represent what it was to
be human? Our films give us the same few animalistic emotions over and
over again. Most of life has never made it into the movies.
Films come in cans and the
problem is that most of their experiences are canned. As with supermarket
food, that guarantees universal palatability. By the same virtue, the
taste is generic. Ninety-nine percent of the films in a given year recycle
the same feelings over and over again: canned, condensed, instant, generic
romance, anger, lust, fear, revenge. Well worn counterfeits passed from
generation to generation as promissory notes for the real thing. It shouldnt
take a Hamlet or Othello to show us that even revenge is more complex
than these films depict itmore troubled by second thoughts, self-doubts,
Create emotions that have never
been felt before. The old emotions cant help us. They are the problem,
not the solution. Leave the old emotional clichés behind. Free
us from the imaginative traps of the past.
Capture how strange, how arbitrary,
how artificial, how wonderful, how miraculous the world is. How mysterious
and unfathomable people are. The artists job is to reveal our magical
strangeness; not by exaggerating or distorting it, but by removing the
intellectual and emotional clichés that ordinarily veil the oddity
and extravagance of our feelings.
Confronted with artistic alternatives,
always choose the hardest, scariest one. The one you cant know in
advance where it will come out or how to solve it. Take the longest way
throughthe path of most resistance. Do everything, as Henry James
said, in the way that takes the most doing. All easy solutions are false
ones. All shortcuts lead off a cliff. Take the high, rugged uncertain
road. Then even if you never finish your film, or no one ever sees it,
you will have gotten something irreplaceable from the experience of making
The newspapers give us things
we already know, but art is always going to be out somewhere ahead of
us, some place we dont understand. You won't really be able to understand
even your own work.
You must work beyond your knowledge
in order to learn anything. You must leave your emotional and intellectual
places of comfort behind. You must get to the point where you dont
quite know what you are saying, where you dont quite know where
you are headed. Thats the place of discovery. Everything else is
fear, repetition, safety, complacency, death.
Mike Leigh has said that the
function of the director is to challenge everything about his material
and actors choices. Question everything. Move your scenes beyond
your own and your actors easy understandings. Find new things in
scenes you thought you already understood. Worry them. Correct them. Explore
them. Dont take yes for an answer.
If you get into a place, a
scene, an event, a moment where you are totally upset, confused, and uncertain
about how it should be played, what a character would truly do, how it
could ever be editedthere is some hope for your film. Plunge into
your places of doubt and confusion.
Shun critics. None of them
knows a thing about art. The only real teachers are the artists. Everything
I myself know about art, Ive learned from artists. Nothing ever
from a professor in a classroom.
If your work is even a little
original, it is doomed to be misunderstood. Reviewers criticisms
will generally cancel each other out anyway: what one loves, another will
hate. But read their reviews carefully. Read between the lines. Learn
from their objections. Study what they cant understand about your
work and go further in that direction. In particular, if several of them
agree about some particular problem with your work, cultivate that aspect.
It is probably its strongest and most original quality. Make it even more
central next time.
Bad reviews hurt, and its
tempting to look to reviewers only for praise, but dont block out
the negative parts, all the hurtful things they say. Do what the best
of life teaches us: Embrace all of experience, even the hurt. As Emerson
said, allow yourself to be the universes football. The kicks are
part of the kick. Dont be afraid of pain. Dont take a stance
above and beyond it. Learn from it. Take it in. Let everything affect
youfor better and for worse. That is the path of growth. Your sensitivity
to suffering will be deeper in the future.
Ignore Hollywood hype in all
of its manifestations. From the stupidity of the Academy Awards selections,
to Sharon Stones pretending to be an actress when she is interviewed
by the fawning James Lipton on Bravo, to Oliver Stones silliness
on Charlie Roseits all self-congratulatory, selfdeluding
Awards, festival prizes, laughs,
cheers, standing ovations from audiences are traps. Run the other way
as far as you can. You know both the strengths and weaknesses of your
work better than anyone on the planet.
God help you if your early
work is celebrated, cheered, praised. Do really you want to plug into
the zeitgeist so easily? Popularity is a curse. The big splashes are always
forgotten a year later. Alienation confers freedom. Obscurity will keep
you pure. Pray that you wont be discovered young, so that you wont
be tempted to sell out early, or wont be seduced by celebrity.
The Rules of the Game
and Gertrud were booed during their initial screenings, then pulled
from distribution. Thats worse than any treatment you will receive.
Whats wrong with being ridiculed? Its proof they were doing
something right. Even Jesus only had an audience of twelve on most nights.
And one of them sneaked out when he needed him.
Virtually without exception,
none of the major American independent filmmakers went to film school.
Accident? Hardly. The more professional training you have about how films
should be made, the more likely your work will be a pack of clichés.
Do the opposite of everything your production professor teaches you. At
least there will then be a chance that truth may sneak in the back door.
you are putting your crew together, remember what Saint-Exupery said of
seafaring: The way to get people to build a ship is not to teach them
carpentry, assign them tasks, and give them schedules to meet; but to
inspire them to long for the infinite immensity of the sea. That means
it doesnt really matter what skills you or you crew may or may not
have, what training, or what equipment. The only thing that counts is
what is in your hearts and souls.
Risk everything. Dare to fail.
If you cook from a recipe, youll never have a disaster, but youll
never make anything new either.
The only censorship you should
fear is your own timidity. The only daunting criticism, your own self-criticism.
The only limitations that matter are the ones you place on yourself.
You say these aphorisms conflict
and contradict each other. So what? Our mental states do too. Our attitudes
and emotions do. Show that. Dont homogenize the view. Diversify
And violate any of these aphorisms
if it means shading the truth, simplifying things, even a little.
Wallace Stevens said the imagination
is always at the end of an era. Translation: There are times when we all
feel like Hamlet. That its hopeless. That the odds are stacked against
us. That what we do cant possibly equal what has been done. Frank
Capra offered the only true reply: "The greatest movies have yet
to be made."
You are embarked on a dangerous,
uncharted journey. It is the hardest possible path. You could have picked
any number of other occupations that would guarantee a certain minimum
standard of living by incorporating you into the system of conventional
understandings. You have picked the least secure, the least known. There
are no limits on what you can do, but no guarantees either. You will have
to do it all. No one can help you or lift the burden. It will cost you
your life. Take it at your peril. Take it only if you see no other way
to save your soul.
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