The Path of the ArtistPart III
Thoughts on the Art of Film
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.
The 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 communal 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. Every button 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 be 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 neo-Nazi party.
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: Boys 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 on-screen 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 very far.
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 the experience.
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.
The 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 true.
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 different things.
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 doing.
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 of muddles.
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 alike.
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 and material.
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 care.
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 life.
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.
Force 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 ways.
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, and procrastination.
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 it.
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 nonsense.
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.
When 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 it.
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.
© Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.
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