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The Burden of Dreams: A Reality Check From My Hero Jane Campion

 **I’ve moved my blogging to Medium! Check out new writing and the rest of this essay at this link: **


There’s no place like New York for a good old-fashioned cry. But sometimes, it makes you work for it. Recently, a chance radio broadcast took me three trains cross-borough to meet my hero, into a night that left me sobbing in my best shoes at the center of Manhattan’s cultural mecca.

Earlier that afternoon, an interview on Leonard Lopate brought my attention to Jane Campion’s upcoming career retrospective at Lincoln Center. I emailed my editor for a ticket immediately. If you’re not familiar with Campion, she’s essentially a filmmaking rock star. More notable than her glass ceiling-shattering awards record, is Campion’s lifetime of proudly wearing the scarlet letter W, for Woman. She has lifted up other women and loved them, examined them, and told their stories — not sexy, abridged, male-appeasing facsimiles — but true, fiercely honest stories. It’s understandable, though frustrating, that many other female directors have not done the same; and rather felt forced to abandon femininity in the pursuit of assimilating to a male-dominated industry. To an aspiring “female filmmaker” like myself (because the term filmmaker alone still denotes masculinity), she is a lighthouse in a very bleak ocean... [click to read more]

 **I’ve moved my blogging to Medium! Check out new writing and the rest of this essay at this link: **

Rejection: It’s a Good Thing | TEDxTheCountrySchool

Last month, I had the honor of speaking at my middle school alma mater’s TEDxYouth Art’s Conference. Given the audience, I chose to discuss some of the battles I faced at that age, and continue to face. I am terrified of public speaking and was sick for weeks over the prospect of getting up on this stage, but in the end, it was worth it. People laughed and some people even cried. Most touching of all was speaking with the children afterwards. Several kids approached me, thanked me for saying what I said and told me about their own middle school struggles. That alone made the whole experience exactly as special as it was. 

I said it then and I’ll say it now, #middleschoolsucks.

New Website!

In an attempt to consolidate my growing body of work, I’ve re-focused this space to be solely for writing. For exploring thoughts and ranting. For talking about things I really like. I’ve moved all the showing off to a new place called Take a look if you’re interested in bright colors, fun, movies, art, really big pictures, and an attempt at medium sized and maybe some day really big ideas.

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Interview with Indie Rocker Emily Danger

It’s one of the first truly miserable nights of fall. Rain washes the streets with the swamp-like odor of Manhattan’s Chinatown, pedestrians assert their umbrellas and tighten their peacoats, and the only happy people in sight are those in line for The Slipper Room. Eager CMJ concertgoers pour, wet and shivering, into the modest venue entrance on Orchard Street. Upstairs awaits a lush burlesque hall with floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtains and gold-painted mahogany woodwork. We huddle together and clutch our drinks as the lights go down. A drum-beat kicks, a synthesizer swells, and a woman stands center stage wearing an animal-print muumuu of pink silk and a necklace made of bones; into the microphone she shouts, “We’re Emily Danger and it’s my goddamn birthday!”


The band dives into a raucous performance of “Going Down,” a defiant song off of their latest album, Peace Arch, that bemoans the idiocy of homophobia in the South. Front-woman Emily Nicholas’ powerful vocals roar while Cameron Orr shreds on the violin and brand-new drummer Ricky Watts beats time in a goosebump-inspiring, country-infused political rock anthem. They’ve gripped the room with energy and they won’t let go until the very end of their set. Their sound is singular and rebellious, complex and haunting. Emily Danger’s self-proclaimed “dark cabaret rock” is like nothing I’ve heard before, incorporating hints of Radiohead and Björk, to name some of many influences. As they gear up for one of their slower songs, “Easy (Remix),” Nicholas asks the audience if we’re ready “to go to sexytown.” We are. Orr raises his bow but suddenly the violin cuts out. While technical difficulties are common, they are nonetheless nerve-racking for any performer. But a word from longtime producer and bassist, Devon C. Johnson, and something magical happens. Nicholas abandons the microphone and stands alone in the spotlight. The words come from somewhere deep within her and the room shrinks to her a cappella. She lingers on each word of the wrenching opening. “I fell before I think you did, and now disaster has taken place.” An already emotional song comes into stark relief, given depth by this raw voice that can fill an entire venue on its own.

A few days later, I sit in Nicholas’ living room in South Slope, Brooklyn. Light streams in from the window and the room is small and filled with vibrance. The space we are in doubles as a studio and paintings compete for room with books and records (Pavoratti to Portishead) and all the other materials of her constantly churning life. I can’t help but notice that Nicholas’ eyes are always huge. She habitually sweeps bangs aside and looks at you expectantly, optimistically.


We are discussing the a cappella moment from earlier in the week. It’s fun, she says, to remember that she can do that. She explains the feeling as something more personal, vulnerable, and freeing. “It comes from the place where you would hold a child, so it feels very womanly.” Of course, what she’s talking about is singing from the diaphragm, something Nicholas was trained for at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, where she acquired her master’s degree in opera. But she describes this schooling as more of an obligation than a passion. In fact, she hated opera. (She looks at me intensely and enunciates “hat-ed”). And no sooner did she finish her degree, did she leave it behind forever.

Nicholas describes a night in school, waiting backstage, where she was paralyzed with stage fright. “People were like, ‘it’s your time now, you have to go on. Other people are waiting for you to sing your line.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think today I’m gonna do it.’” She laughs so easily at the story that it’s hard to imagine this woman ever being afraid of anything. Soon after that night came her graduation recital where, after a full lineup of classical pieces, Nicholas closed the performance with James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World.”
“Everybody was on their feet and afterwards they said it was the best part…and even though it was still somebody else’s song, I had more fun doing it and I feel like I revealed more artistry because it’s the style of music that I love. So to hear that [support] from my peers, and people I respect, and then to feel so emotionally attached, that’s when I was like, enough’s enough. So I just stopped.” Stopped opera, that is. That was three years ago and Nicholas has been writing and performing her own rock music ever since. And it’s moments like those, when the violin cuts out, that make room for the artistic spontaneity that Nicholas loves. There is no perfection in rock and roll, she reflects to me, you are allowed to mess up. It seems as if that realization, that diffusion of pressure, is what started Nicholas down the path to her present, arm-waving, muumuu-wearing self.

She is instantly warm. As soon as I walked in the door to her apartment, Nicholas met me with a large hug and a cup of coffee, wearing yet another memorable get-up; this time a hand-painted, neon yellow and white XXXXL t-shirt with black and white striped leggings. She introduced me to her husband and collaborator, John Patrick Wells, and joked about how she has to write herself reminders to Instagram and finish her coffee.

And there are indeed notes everywhere. Wells sits by their shared desk; it is littered with paints and notebooks and half-finished mugs of coffee. Above the desk is a bookcase with more notes tacked on. (Nicholas’ to-do list has no coffee reminder, but it is indeed extremely detailed.)

It’s difficult to reconcile these stories of the stage-frightened opera student with the larger-than-life, wild rocker on stage or the easy-going person in front of me. But it’s exactly that discrepancy that’s so interesting. Emily Nicholas the singer/songwriter and Emily Danger the band (formally together for less than two years), have matured at a rapid pace, as if Nicholas had spent her whole life preparing for the moment that she would excite an audience of stiff-collared professors with a little soul.

The show at The Slipper Room marked Nicholas’ 30th birthday and she brought down the house in just the same way. They closed the show with two songs: their new single, “War Torn,” and a blood-pumping cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” that ended with Nicholas giving a riled-up audience the finger while belting, “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” into the microphone. No stage-fright remained.

“Is this you?” I ask. “Absolutely,” she nods vigorously, setting her coffee down on a Ziggy Stardust coaster. “It used to feel like a persona because of the fear I had when I first started out.” She speaks freely of the pressures of living up to the likes of classical singers, and the expectations of professors and peers, and the immense anxiety that that can bring to a performance. “This new album has grown me up, and working with a band and collaborating and feeling like my voice is heard in the room– that show in particular, being on my birthday, was just like a big ol’ “F— it,” let’s go. It’s me, it’s totally me. I can’t really be as large in my daily life but that’s how I feel inside.”

Nicholas grew up in Bakersfield, California, a town to which she attributes the band’s occasional honky-tonk twang. She and her parents differ on religion and politics, she explains; “My mom directs the church choir, that kind of thing.” But contrary to what one might imagine, Nicholas was always encouraged to continue banging on pots and pans. And that encouragement carried through to grad school. Nicholas is mid-sip when I open my line of familial questioning with, “Are they mad—” she nearly spits her coffee all over the couch and Wells laughs from across the room. “Don’t continue, stop there, that’s perfect,” he says.

“I think they saw it coming when I started picking up instruments…and staying out late…” she answers, gathering herself after the near-Marx Brothers incident. Nicholas paints an amusing picture of the time her father came to a show at Goodbye Blue Monday in Bushwick, which she describes as “not really a dad-in-his-sixties type of venue.”

“There was stuff hanging from the ceilings, there were people smoking outside, there was a guy doing coke outside.” Nicholas has a well of pride in her eyes when she tells me that he loved it. “All he said to me about it was, ‘this is what you should be doing.’”

It’s a rare experience talking to someone who has, essentially, stumbled upon her bliss—especially in New York City, a place where dreams often come to work tirelessly and shape shift or disintegrate. Nicholas describes the progression from the band’s first EP, Paintings, to Peace Arch, to the currently in-production War Torn, as all uphill, particularly given how how quickly it happened.

In between the two published albums, Emily Danger introduced synthesizers, much more drum, and many other sometimes-instruments, which allowed them to explore a soundscape that is as far-reaching as Nicholas’ four-octave vocal range and Orr’s violin virtuosity. In current shows they load as many instruments, keyboards and pedals on the stage as possible. And just as Nicholas always wears JoJo Americo clothing, Orr never wears shoes. “He adjusts knobs with his toes,” Emily whispers like he’s in the room.

Lyrics-wise, the band has grown up as well. As is the case with most new writers, Nicholas’ words on Paintings come mostly from a personal place. And although that still exists in the band’s current work, she describes Peace Arch as more progressive. It wrestles with personal issues, this time, through an esoteric, world-conscious lens, oftentimes tackling the political as well.

But as Emily Danger has come into focus, the band has triggered some upset, something Emily considers to be, in part, a result of her sex. “I’m going to be pretty frank,” she leans in, as if to tell me a dirty secret, “I think it pisses people off that a woman is saying these things. A lot.” I think back to her on stage at The Slipper Room, channeling all the strong, angry women who came before her as she stood, holding up the middle finger in firm alliance with her politics. Nicholas has a history of choosing unexpected covers. In fact, that’s how she got the nickname “Danger” in grad school. But apparently, “Killing in the Name” is not a hit with everyone. She says that when they unveiled their version of the song earlier this year, even her closest friends questioned it. “I think specifically because I’m a female, saying those words, being that pissed on stage, making such an obvious political solidarity statement—that scares people and when people are scared their initial reaction is ‘no.’ They just shut it off.”

It’s astonishing that in this day and age, with a history of performers including Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, and Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday before them, that this should still be an issue. How many angry women will have to flip the bird, literally or metaphorically, on stage before people start listening? Emily Danger uses their collective experience, and sometimes their collective anger, to add another voice to the protest. In some ways, however, the shock value attached to a woman donning some stereotypically masculine protest-pants may work in the band’s favor. They’re definitely booking gigs. And maybe that’s all that matters, as long as people keep hearing what they have to say.

And Nicholas has a lot to say, none of which she’s going to change to please an audience. “I would rather not cater to everybody than be fluffy, cotton-candy-likable. I would rather be a little aloof, a little left of center. And there’s a lot of sacrifice in that. I’m never going to be rich, I’m never gonna have my own plane, I’m never gonna be Beyoncé (and I love Beyoncé). But that’s just not who I am, I don’t think I could put on that kind of show anymore. I spent the majority of my life stifling who I am and I had a birthday last week and I’m ready to not do that anymore.”

Peace Arch is definitely far from cotton candy. It is raw in its approach to topics personal as well as political. Nicholas’ husband has been sitting with us while we talk, and at some point we get to the topic of their relationship. She admits, “we fight all the time, and I write about it.” Wells nods from his desk. “I have a no-holds-barred thing with my lyrics. If it’s obviously about him it’s going on record, sorry, that’s just what it’s gonna be. And the same thing with his visual art, he can use me and has used me.” She gestures to several large paintings that adorn the apartment walls, one of which is a canvas dripping with the same pink wax used in Emily Danger’s “Shed My Skin” music video. She sees their interactions, positive or difficult, as “fuel for our artistic fire.”

They are each other’s muses and collaborators and, like most artists in New York City, they live and work together in tight quarters, all the time. Fighting is inevitable. But it is clear that Wells is a constant support to Nicholas and her work (he has also directed all of the band’s excellent music videos). Next to her to-do list on their bookshelf is his list, which is made up of penciled-in social media figures: “Shed” 1204 1132 1507, “Peace” 1567 1344, and so on. These are daily hits for the band’s music videos. He explains to me how important it is to have as much knowledge as possible about whatever you’re doing in order to have creative autonomy. So together they work and together they play.

Part of the ingenuity of Emily Danger is that they see the intrinsic relationships between the personal and the universal. This understanding is something that has lifted many great artists from the fray. When I ask Nicholas about her dream-line up, her headliner does not come as a surprise. David Bowie is an artist known for, among other things, reinventing himself almost as frequently as Madonna. It’s never clear whether this kind of persona-hopping is due to malcontent or a keen business sense, or both. But what is clear is that the self-awareness and openness to keep pushing, keep exploring, is what made Bowie a superstar. And throughout each stage of his career, he had the emotional intelligence to write songs that transcended the gap between his intimacies and our desires. This kind of forging-ahead is evident in Emily Danger’s path so far, and although they may not be glam-rocking any time soon, I am sure we can expect the many incarnations of Emily to remain on the scene for quite a while.

Emily Nicholas’ Dream Line-Up (in order of appearance):

Emily Danger
David Byrne
LCD Soundsystem
Antony and the Johnstons
Headliner: David Bowie

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Review: Inside the Mind of Leonardo 3D

Leonardo-600-x-338Have you ever wondered what it’s like inside the mind of a genius? Filmmaker Julian Jones certainly has. His latest work, Inside the Mind of Leonardo attempts to answer that question. The film is a dramatized documentary, starring and narrated by Oscar-winner Peter Capaldi, with words directly transposed from the journals of Da Vinci himself.

As you might imagine, the inside of Leonardo Da Vinci’s mind (or rather, Jones’ interpretation of it) is frenetic, fascinating, and visually stunning. Capaldi, who plays an otherworldly Da Vinci, paces about in the apparent chambers of his own mind, questioning, ranting, sketching, calculating, solving, agonizing, upping and downing. Capaldi’s shattering, Shakespearean performance of Da Vinci’s private musings, set against various dark and theatrical backdrops, only begins to make the framework for the film’s incredible visceral experience.

And it is first and foremost an experience. The film’s thesis comes up again and again in Da Vinci’s jottings, “begin with the experience, and by means of it, investigate the cause.” Following this rule alone does Jones begin to investigate the core of the man and his brilliance. “Leonardo” is a riddle wrapped in an enigma of style. It uses dramatization, gorgeous modern footage of nature and cities, hand drawn and CGI animation, extremely theatrical score, and, most jarring but thrilling of all, it is entirely in 3D. While 3D is abnormal in documentary, the visual choice serves to emotionally locate you at the helm of Da Vinci’s consciousness. The 3D glasses also have an isolating effect; they make the experience feel as if it were yours and yours alone, as if Da Vinci were attempting to impart his wisdom, one Vitruvian sketch at a time, to only you.


But despite the breath-taking visuals, it is truly the thoughts, straight from the pages of Da Vinci’s journals, that astound. While there is a loose chronology and context given, the main focus is on those concepts which most fascinated Da Vinci and occupied his every waking thought. He is obsessed with birds and knows that if only man can build the right machine, he too can fly. He is enthralled by nature, “nothing is superfluous, nothing is lacking, nature is perfect.” He spends years devising new ways to make art that has never been made before. But he is also human. Some of the film’s most delightful moments are when Capaldi practices speeches nervously in front of the mirror, or recites shopping lists or Da Vinci’s own recipe for brown hair dye made with “boiled nuts.”

At times, one wants more of these personal moments, moments when Da Vinci is seen as the man he was, not the man he is now fabled to be. It is hard to believe that a person can be so academically minded all the time, especially given the context of his myriad failures and defeats. If we are to be inside his mind, we want to see a glimpse of his soul. But that is a minor quibble in the face of such a thrilling multimedia accomplishment. Inside the Mind of Leonardo is as visually vast as it is intellectually in-depth, and it is a truly gripping experience, a must see for the historically, mentally, and visually curious.


Originally published on

“It’s not heavy, it’s life”: An Interview with Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond

As some of you may know, I recently came aboard as a Film & TV staff writer for

I won’t often do this but here but I was particularly proud of this interview and excited at the opportunity to speak with such exciting young filmmakers. Here is an excerpt from my interview with Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, directors of “The Little Bedroom.”


Stépanie Chuat, left, and Véronique Reymond, right, at the Locarno Film Festival in 2010

I’m not so familiar with the atmosphere in Switzerland but I’m wondering if you faced any challenges as female filmmakers and if so can you talk a little about that?

Stéphanie Chuat: The first challenge we had actually was not connected to being women, it was the subject of the movie. The producers at the beginning said “nobody will go to the movies to see this,” but the film was a huge success in Switzerland so the producers were completely wrong. 

Véronique Reymond: They said it was too heavy and we always said “no, no, no, it’s not heavy, it’s life.” and this was the most difficult thing. But afterwards, yes. It’s difficult to be a woman because you have to deal with how to direct, how to be the boss, it’s an every day kind of readjustment. We very much like working with men though. 

Stéphanie Chuat: Sometimes men need to tell you how you should do things, you know, they have this patronizing thing which, I don’t know makes them feel secure, but sometimes it’s difficult when the producer comes to set and he speaks to the editor who is a man and he doesn’t speak to you and little things like that — I remember on “The Little Bedroom” one of the producers came and was speaking to the sound guy about some stuff which concerned us. But you know in Switzerland, the Quartz (the Swiss Film Award), which is like the Oscars, since 2009 there were nearly only women who were winning the best fiction film, 4 to 2, I think, so it’s not so difficult. 

To read the full interview, click here. And to see my review of the film, click here

Interrupting the General Programming: Go To Hell

Hello all, I’m interrupting the usual stream of blog posts about movies that have been made and are in theaters to talk about a movie that has yet to be made but is going to be great. My friend Jacob Bittens is in the funding process of his film Go To Hell, a short film about a man named David who gets sent to hell for being too boring. It’s going to be really rad and it’s Jacob’s thesis film and it’s really important to him and everyone working on the project. Please check it out and, if you like the concept, maybe donate a few bucks! Every dollar helps (and there are sweet perks)!

You can check out their awesome website here

And follow their Twitter (what’s that?) @GoToHellFilm

COPS: Reality TV, the War on Drugs and Michel Foucault

The opening montage to the show COPS is a series of obscured shots depicting heroic law enforcement officials, rowdy crack heads, an abandoned baby crying, even a fire. The montage then fades into the now iconic “COPS” title, pulsating to the beat of their theme song which poses the question, “Bad boys, bad boys, whachya gonna do? Whachya gonna do when they come for you?” Up next comes an omniscient voice with the ever reassuring, “all suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” Reality television at its best.


Now in its twenty-fifth season, COPS is a show based around the pursuit and arrest of “criminals.” The most recent episode was composed of three vignettes featuring an alleged African American prostitute, a car full of Hispanic parolees, and a Latino kid on the run from a stolen vehicle. Anyone can see that these shows are contrived, but a more critical eye will discover a meticulously constructed endorsement of racial profiling. COPS, and shows like it, plays off of a societally perpetuated dynamic of the “All American” hero type protecting the community from “dangerous” black and Hispanic criminals. In order to make these shows compelling, teams of producers work together to create the most sensationalized versions of the “reality” they are portraying, thus catering to the audience’s imagination far more than their sense of true justice.

This is not a new tactic. In his work, Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes a history of public torture in 18th century France that employs a similar “shock factor” to today’s media. Foucault claims “the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle,” exactly the kind of gruesome ritual he first describes, and explains that punishment becomes “hidden” in the 19th century, allowing the concept of punishment to enter the “domain of abstract consciousness; its effectiveness is seen as resulting from its inevitability, not from its visible intensity” (7-9).

It is interesting then, that COPS focuses on the very moment a suspect is caught. There is no investigation and no follow-up, just vignette after vignette of pulse-amping criminal catching. This creates an air of suspense in regards to the “justice” that will follow, i.e. the hidden penal system. But it does not do away with “spectacle” by any means. By focusing on this moment of arrest, by televising and sensationalizing this moment, a moment before any conviction has been made, the suspect is publicly criminalized. No matter what that person has done or not done, they are branded as a criminal through the construction of the show.

In Michel Meranze’s Laboratories of Virtue, he also discusses the move from public to private punishment. Hitting the nail on the head, he says, “distancing punishment from its display would displace the medium of terror from public visibility to private imagination” (132). The makers of COPS love our imagination; in fact, the popularity of their show depends on it. What will happen to these criminals? All we know is we’re glad they’re off the streets!

The concept of “focusing on crime” and the “hero dynamic” has been a platform from which to subtly promote racism for a long time. Michelle Alexander discusses the role of media in this promotion in her book, The New Jim Crow. Specifically, Alexander talks about The War on Drugs, citing George Bush Sr.’s infamous Willie Horton ad in which “a dark-skinned black man, a convicted murderer who escaped while on a work furlough and then raped and murdered a white woman in her home.” The ad was used to undermine Bush’s opponent for approving of the furlough program and it was highly effective. Why? Because it was sensationalized. Instead of focusing on the horrors of what happens in prison to keep people scared, the media magnified the horrors of the crime committed to get people to rally for more imprisonment. It’s really about brilliant advertising.

Through storytelling in the guise of reality, COPS has managed to perpetuate this idea. The show focuses on penalizing minority groups in poor areas because of a stereotype that exists and will continue to exist as long as these shows are around. Using tactics such as fast cutting, hand held camera, and base-y music (filmmaking tactics generally reserved for horror flicks), the creators fabricate an exhilarating plotline – will the heroes catch the bad guys (or should I say bad boys)? It sells because of a predominantly white male audience that is scared of the unknown prison system, can identify with the buddy-buddy cops, is horrified by the alleged crimes, and more than anything, is glad it’s not them being targeted.

I Am Wondering How To Make Good Art

Let me begin by saying that I have nothing figured out. Really. Nothing. Someone threw a cigarette at me today, so let that serve as an example of how successful I am right now. But I am a person trying to be an artist, and when you’re trying to be an artist, your observations, thoughts and feelings are all you really have. So I’m going to explore some of those things here; primarily those thoughts about how to make good art and some about how to make a good life (note: I am aspiring towards both).

Film school is a very competitive environment, filled with lots of young, talented people intent on specializing and becoming the best at their chosen specialty. This is something that, perhaps because of my own personal flaws, always intimidated me. Many of my peers would set out to learn everything there is to know about a subject, refusing relationships and losing sleep in order to study the history of film, or cinematography, or to learn every name on IMDB. I never felt the best at anything. I felt like these were the students who were going to get ahead. How couldn’t they? They knew everything. Their movies were always the shiniest pictures in class.

An actor friend said to me the other day over coffee that, when asked if she would move to LA, she answered, “I couldn’t grow there, it’s impossible to draw inspiration when everyone is just like you.”


Michael and Marilyn in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely

There’s a lot of merit to that. I was always a believer in the idea that, where comes strife, grows art. If you know anything about the lives of some of the greatest artists of all time, it becomes a pretty evident pattern. I’m saying nothing new here; recently a sad and beautiful article from spoke about the correlation of depression in comedians.

Hardship forces a person to look at life differently. It forces those who suffer to become problem solvers, to lower or raise themselves to different levels than they otherwise might have. But I think it extends farther than that. I started noticing that the art I liked, from my peers, from my heroes, from my parents, was art that seemed to see through the contours of the human exterior into a deeper similarity that we all share. Diane Arbus is a perfect example of this. The subjects of her portraiture were almost always outcasts in some way, people who lived on the fringes of society. And she captured them as such, without judgement. In the image below, two “freaks” share a love that most might recognize in Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.

Sophia Harvey

Freaks in Love by Diane Arbus

It doesn’t take an enormous amount of life struggle to be understanding of others, just a willingness to experience. That understanding is what makes great art. When the unique is made relatable, that’s when something great has been achieved.

I was trained in observation from a young age. My mother and I would sit at cafés and invent backstories for those around us based on very little. Anyone who watches Criminal Minds knows that you can tell a lot about a person by how they choose to represent themselves. The habit has always stayed with me. The more I got to know people, the more I recognized patterns. Of course, this is how one becomes judgmental. But the key difference between observational judgments and malicious assumptions is what you do with the knowledge. The key is not, as Stephen Colbert jokes, to be color blind but rather to notice color, and move on. Make a judgement, be willing to change it, but don’t ignore it. I was always surprised by my friends who got themselves into relationships only to realize (often times much later) that they had nothing in common with the person. This phenomenon, it seems to me, has to do with priorities. If too much time is spent studying what you already understand rather than learning what makes an individual compatible, subtle differences are bound to be overlooked. What’s interesting is that these relationships were usually born out of similar motivations to those of my film school peers. Namely, what looks good rather than what feels good.


From Frederico Fellini’s 8 1/2

When your major or chosen career path is repeatedly listed as one of the riskiest, it makes sense to feel the intense need to rise to the top. Only the brightest will outshine the rest, right? I believe that this feeling is what propelled so many of my friends to live on fast food, cigarettes, and as little sleep as possible in order to do as much work as possible.

Those peers so dedicated to their history books seemed doomed to miss reality. How can you write a relationship for the screen if you haven’t had one in real life? In fact, how can you write a character that is in any way different from yourself if you don’t regularly open up to the thoughts and opinions of others? Where does the inspiration come from? A lot of my friends burned out, losing creativity because they weren’t taking care of their mental, physical and emotional health.

What film school teaches you is how to use your medium, not how to tell your story. And that’s where a lot of my peers stopped. So many of their films had professional sheen but lacked any real soul. What makes art interesting, for me, is the artist’s personal take on whatever it is (s)he is observing. Fellini never worried about being right, it was about being interesting. Making people feel by poking at universal emotions through the strange and wonderful. Craft is only a tool for expression. The point is moot if there’s nothing to express.

The best artists, of any genre, are ones who came by their craft because they could not live without it. They could not express what they needed to without writing it down or putting it on canvas. Keats’ love poems were the only way he could keep his ties with Fanny Brawn; Van Gogh didn’t start painting until he was 27 and changed his style to fit his whimsy. It’s because of these greats that I feel like somewhere along the line, a lot of us are missing the point.

Lars Von Trier, one of my favorite directors, does not aspire to perfect craft. He will use a technically imperfect shot over any other because of a good performance. A good example of this is Uma Thurman’s now notorious scene in Nymphomaniac. In fact, technical perfection seems increasingly pointless. In a talk by Werner Herzog, he laughed at the idea of film school in 2014. “You have an iPhone, right?” he said.

Sophia Harvey

Uma Thurman in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac

Many of us feel nostalgic for pasts we haven’t experienced. Hemingway’s barfights, Warhol’s late nights. The reason it’s even possible to make a Hendrix biopic without musical rights is because he had a life offstage. These people were curious. Max’s Kansas City was a place where artists would sit and inspire each other through conversation every night after working all day.

Those were different times, things were easier, people say. Yeah. And there was still a lot of bad art. But those people engaged in each other’s perspectives and learned about humanity so they could make things that appealed to the human spirit.

By contrast, there are many famous and successful artists who seem to live and create by one perspective, and there’s nothing wrong with that, if it’s a perspective people like. But what if it isn’t? Is that a risk to commit to before your 25th birthday? I’m still figuring it out.