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 Cracked.com 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.
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.
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.