Archive for the 'storytelling' Category

What’s the *#@#*$! big deal about $%*@#*! swearing?

When are you most likely to swear? The answer, more than likely, is whenever you’re awake, at least if you’re David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino.   In that case, another valid answer might be something like, when searching for just the right word to describe an ineffable aspect of the human condition.   Yeah, I like to start off with a crowd pleaser right away.  (Send your hate mail to nsavides@worldsBiggestTarantinoFan.com.  Thanks.)

Before – William Hogarth, 1730

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Kidding aside, those guys do have their merits, but I’d be a bigger fan if they used language in a more nuanced way.  It is revealing though, to consider when different people are inclined to swear.  Last time I remember swearing was a few days ago.  I was talking to a friend, trying to be nonchalant about an audition I had just attended.

In that interaction I had the choice of acknowledging my insecurities  or of telling a lie.  I chose to lie, pretending that it doesn’t sting every time others tell me in, so many words, that they don’t care about what I have to offer.  For whatever reason I chose to swear to help sell the lie. What about you? When do you tend to swear?

Before going further, let me mention that I usually have my blog topics planned out months in advance, and that’s also true for this one.  It gives me the chance to massage my thoughts over time.  In other words, I’m not writing about anyone I know in particular.  I usually don’t do that unless you pay me.

Speaking of which, now is as good of a time as any to mention that you too can be featured on this illustrious blog.  For just 47 moderately easy payments of $149.99, you too can be part of the revolution!

Photo credit: flickr.com/71804756@N00

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Act now and I’ll throw in this incredible cheese grater at absolutely no additional cost. In today’s hectic world, who couldn’t benefit from a proverbial better mouse trap, or in this case a better cheese grater, one that actually smiles back you?  Comfortable convenience now comes in a friendly package, so order now! Operators are standing by.

OK, well … um … that cheese grater, although incredible, is not mine to give away. If you own it, and would like to partner with me on this, send me an email at nsavides@worldsBiggestTarantinoFan.com.  And, when I say that operators are standing by, I mean me … all by myself, that is at least until this thing takes off and I can afford to outsource my call center.  Until then, I’ll have my phone out, staring at it with affection and anticipation, patiently waiting for it to ring.

Just a few jokes, people. Take them or leave them. Please send your detailed concerns about my jokes to nsavides@worldsBiggestTarantinoFan.com.  To the general populace though, I strongly advise you not to click on the email link. In fact the safest thing to do would be to avoid clicking on it all costs, for the consequences of doing otherwise might perturb your delicate sensibilities.)

Anyway, back to the task at hand.  My intention is not to get everyone to stop swearing in any context but merely to swear a little less. Please consider.

Berlin Street Scene – Ernest Ludwig Kirchner, 1913

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What a revelation it was to read that even Enimem doesn’t allow swearing at home.  This is a guy who has made a career out of being profane in lyrically innovative ways, not some clean-cut moral crusader.  Even he believes that there is something about swearing that is not quite right for his most cherished ones. (In a sense, he’s trying to protect his own family from the corrosive content he sells the world to get rich.)

In his book The Mentor Leader, coach Tony Dungy talks about how he encouraged his teams to avoid swearing in the locker rooms.  He frames this as another strategy to keep the team professional and focused on winning, and the guy’s won a Superbowl, so maybe there is some merit to his thoughts.

Odd how a few words, mostly 4-letter ones in English, have become taboo, as if they have an inherently more corrosive quality.  And yet they do.  I spoke with a friend of mine and he agreed that adding swear words to an insult or emotional outburst intensifies the negative impact.  Do your own experiments, and see if you reach similar conclussions.

The swear words in question usually debase their intended recipients, often in a sexual way.  Some words like the f-word are considered swear words in any context, but others like “damn” and “hell” depend on context.

A metaphysical discussion about heaven and hell is acceptable in Sunday school, but saying “what the hell?” is considered slightly rude in certain settings. With that said, it is worth mentioning that even that phrase might carry a kernel of truth in the most unexpected moments.   Perhaps there is something hellish about the event in question, like say your neighbor’s ghastly, exceedingly garish dinner party.

The Radical Reformer – George Cruikshank, 1819

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Let’s talk semantics for a moment. To damn means to curse, as in to wish ill upon another. Old Testament prophets would ask God to damn the wicked. When we say “damn it” we are doing something similar, invoking a curse on the source of our frustration.  Be careful about that: Our words have power, often more than what we intend.

When I was in college I witnessed an angry man swear at a college pay phone for a very long time. He wasn’t swearing at the person on the other end but at the phone itself, and it felt like minutes, not seconds, of swearing.  Still, others used the phone without issue that day, so it didn’t seem to be broken, but when I tried to use it later in the week, it didn’t sound right.

It wasn’t so much that it sounded broken, but possessed. Puzzled, I recalled the man’s curses. It appeared that his curses had come true. How strange.

I can think of a few instances in my own life where I was so angry at perceived injustices done to me that I swore about the guilty ones throughout the day, sending out a near incessant stream of curses into the universe.  I didn’t swear at anyone in person.  Those were just my thoughts, my prayers of outrage.

Days later when my rage had been subdued, I was dismayed to discover that ill fates had indeed befallen my targets. Maybe those things were just coincidences. Maybe they weren’t, but they didn’t feel like coincidences.

That’s why I do what I can to wish blessings upon others in my life, even the ones who make my life difficult.  Still, I have some room for improvement in this arena.

Sleeping Girl – Oskar Kokoschka, 1907

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If swearing is really less than ideal though, why does it show up almost everywhere? Swear words have stampeded their way onto book titles, presidential speeches, and sermons, all respectable platforms once thought to be too dignified for such words. Sadly, even the three-year olds are swearing.

Since it is so prominent could it be that there is something beneficial about swearing? In the movie, the King’s Speech, swearing is used to help the King get past his stuttering problem.  On a similar note, there are some scientific studies on swearing that suggest it helps us tolerate pain.

There’s also our contemporary inclination to show the truth in all its grittiness instead of making false pretenses about unearned decency.  True that, but let’s not throw out the @#$@! baby with the @#$%@#@! bathwater.

Just because something is true does not mean it is wise to showcase. Terrorists have beheaded victims in shocking ways, but if we were to give their videos unedited air time, then we would be helping to spread the shock they intended to create.  It’s sort of like that with swearing.  Hence the @#%@#! and not the actual words.  It allows us to discuss swearing, without the shock factor.

If you don’t agree that swearing has shock value, then go back and give another listen to the “Christian Bale rant” on YouTube. I had the link on here, but I took it out. Just listening to it again upset me, even though the swearing wasn’t directed at me.  Sad that such abrasive language from affluent and powerful people has become esssentially routine in our modern-day existence.

Self-Portrait in a Striped T-shirt – Henri Matisse, 1906

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To put it in perspective, Christian Bale, the superstar, the Batman, the celebrity is swearing at the Director of Photography Shane Hurlbut, the guy who gets a small fraction of a celebrity’s paycheck and shows up early on set to make sure that the high-priced actors look good on film.  Mr. Hurlbut also maintains a helpful blog at http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/ where he gives free, invaluable advice to aspiring cinematographers.  But hey, the guy probably had it coming, right?

Since we’re on the subject, I wonder if anyone has done a scientific study about the benefits of being sworn at by Christian Bale.

I know, he was having a bad day, and yes he’s a talented actor. Etc. I will even grant that he gave a masterful performance in The Fighter, a compelling sports film with anti-drug elements, but I could not bring myself to praise that film outside of this context.

It’s not the swearing in the movie that I mind so much, although there was a bit more than necessary to get the point across.  It’s that both Christian Bale and director David O. Russell have a history of swearing abusively at people on set.

The Death Dance – Otto Wirshing, 1915

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There are lots of movies and shows out there, and I’d rather talk about excellent work from people who treat others with consideration. But who knows?  Maybe the swearing duo has been reformed.  If they haven’t though, maybe we can, as a nice gesture, take up a collection for them.

Here’s the thing: Being a celebrity often involves frantic, stressful work, and with that kind of lifestyle, many of them don’t have time to learn about simple things like manners or common courtesy.  Be that as it may, I’d like to believe that if we were to pay for people like Christian Bale and David O. Russell to go to charm school for a year, they would be touched by our generosity and change for the better.

OK, maybe that idea is a little out there, but think of how much better the world might be if more of the powerful and the popular ones had manners. You may say I’m dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

Rising Sun – Paul Klee, 1919

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Anyway, so far I’ve only been a part of one show where the swearing had escalated to a toxic level, but it was enough to make me question why I was there.  Not only that, but it made me wonder if it was time to rethink my career path.  Do you really want your language to have that effect on others?

In our efforts to demolish the false pretenses of our parents’ generations, to be cool, we’ve forgotten that language isn’t there just to make us feel better about ourselves. It was once used to treat others with respect, with consideration. According to the historical record even George Washington swore, but only in his darkest moments.  Most of the time, he was civil and restrained, the consummate statesman.

As Washington himself said, “It should be the highest ambition of every American to extend his views beyond himself, and to bear in mind that his conduct will not only affect himself, his country, and his immediate posterity; but that its influence may be co-extensive with the world”;  It’s not the hippest idea out there to consider how our words and actions will affect others, but like a good Frank Sinatra song it has old-world appeal.

Strangers in the Night album cover, 1966

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I’m sure you could do a cover of “Strangers in the Night” or “The Way You Look Tonight” with swearing, but the songs wouldn’t have that same classic feel. Clearly, Sinatra swore in private, but for his audience he brought only his best.   Sinatra had class, at least when performing.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be swear words in art.  Through art we can explore both the good and the bad in our world.   Instead of going cold turkey on the swearing, why not just try to do more with less?  William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Victor Hugo rarely resorted to profanity. Kevin Smith uses it all the time. To whom would you prefer to be compared?

On a similar note, the film Rebel Without a Cause says so much more about the struggles of teenagers than most of today’s swear-powered teenage flicks combined. Sometimes swearing is the easy way out.

Girl in sunny garden with dog – August Macke, 1911

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Next time you’re caught up in swear storm, ask yourself if that language makes it easier for others to be sincere, to treat other with respect.  Again, can you convey more with less?  Why not try to figure out what it is that makes you so angry, so prone to shock others, in the first place?  I struggle too, but I value civil discourse enough to keep striving for improvement.  Join me and together we can make our world a little more decent, one unspoken swear word at at time.

If you appreciate my writing, why not write a comment or share the post with a friend? It would encourage me to keep writing and sharing bits of my heart with you.
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Giving Thanks for Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water

In this post, I will strive to convince you that M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, a film that got nominated for a Razzie, is in fact a masterpiece worthy of esteem.  As you may know, Razzies are awards that acknowledge (or shame) the worst film achievements of the year.

Some of the winners of this coveted prize include cinematic gems like Battlefield Earth, Freddy Got Fingered, and Gigli.  But, let’s be fair here; Lady in the Water didn’t win the award.  It merely got nominated.  Still, I have my work cut out for me.  That’s all right. I enjoy a challenge.

Stars – Maxfield Parrish, 1926

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Since this movie has gotten such a negative reception, I’m going to discuss it in more depth than usual.  I understand this might not be of interest to everyone, so feel free to jump around, either on the page or, you know, literally jump around while reading this. If nothing else you’ll get a good workout.

Alternatively, you could just go and watch the new Kanye West video and then pretend afterwards that you actually read my thoughts.  Still, maybe you’ll find something of interest if you’re patient enough.  In case what I have to say matters  to you though, please do what you can to read all the way through before reacting.  I mean well, but sometimes things get lost in translation. Pray with me that something positive comes through.  With that said, onward we go!

I’ll admit it: Lady in the Water is no Citizen Kane.  Citizen Kane is, after all, lavishly praised by cineastes across the globe.  Even as you’re reading this, there’s quite likely a spectacled professor in northern Latvia who is explaining to his sleepy students that the film is one of the finest ever made.  I’m fairly certain that no film intellectual is speaking of Lady in the Water in similar terms.

I say fairly certain because the fine film critics in the Polynesian island of Tuvalu failed to complete my survey on the matter.  Come to think of it, no one returned my survey. Next time, I’m going to put a little more thought in the stationary I use for such things. I’ve learned the hard way that not everyone shares my passion for embroidered dragons. Alas.

Seriously though, critical acclaim or the lack there of shouldn’t be the sole determining factor of a film’s merit.  Sometimes the critics get it wrong.  I wish I could claim that the story I’m about to tell you is another element of my imagination, but this one’s true:

When I was in college, a philosophical group on campus was hosting a get-to-know-you social.  The event involved coming to the library to eat cookies and to watch a supposedly important film.  (It doesn’t get much better than that, right?)

I don’t remember the name of the film, but it featured the main character in an extensive rape sequence.  It wasn’t a sequence that was designed to show the horror or tragedy of rape. On the contrary, it emphasized the will to power of the “hero.”  The creepy intellectual in charge of the event acknowledged as much in the discussion afterwards.   Some icebreaker huh?

Hansel and Gretel illustration – Gustaf Tenggren, 1942

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Believing that the “experts” knew something I didn’t, I stuck it out to the end trying to understand what I was missing. I placed more value on the judgement of others than on my own intuitive sense about things, and so I got led astray. Now I know better.

I never returned to that group, but I might have actually gotten to know the people in it had they shown a film like Lady in the Water.  I’m no scientist, but I have this hypothesis that movies with warmth and heart tend to get people to open up more so than intellectualized rape films.  Maybe that’s just me, though.

Prior to making Lady in the Water, Mr. Shyamalan had made smart thrillers with a twist at the end. Lady in the Water was a bit of a departure from that.  In the special features for the disc, Mr. Shyamalan talks about how the story originated as a fairy tale that he would tell his kids. He also mentions being inspired by how Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel had a positive impact on the world.

(The book he’s referencing is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one that many historians credit for helping to end slavery in America. It is worth reading not merely for its historical significance but also for its compelling story that showcases the Christian ethic prevailing against cruelty.)

Listening to Mr. Shyamalan talk about the movie, I get the sense that he cherishes it very much and wants to see it find a receptive home in the hearts of his audience.

Goblin Market illustration – Arthur Rackham, 1933

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Well that’s all well and good, but we all know what they say about good intentions.   The road to hell is supposedly paved with them.  As a side note, how is it that the people who say such things actually know what the road to hell is like?  Have they actually been there, or were they just part the construction crew that helped to smooth the path? Times are tough, so people take whatever jobs they can, I guess. But anyway, does the film actually deliver?

I think it does.  On the surface level the movie is about a nymph in the pool of an apartment complex who is trying to return to her people.  Spend some time with the movie though, and you’ll discover a beautiful story about the source of inspiration, about finding one’s purpose in the world.

Paul Giamatti plays Cleveland Heap, a man who has lost a sense of connection to the world after facing tragedy.  He trudges through his days doing mundane work until he meets a Narf, a nymph-like creature.  The Narf he meets is called Story, played by the captivating Bryce Dallas Howard who returns to work with Mr. Shyamalan after collaborating with him on The Village.

We learn that Story, like other Narfs before her, leaves the blue world below and risks grave danger so that she may be seen by the vessel, someone who needs her inspiration to do important work.

It is no accident that the Narf is named Story, since this is a fairytale about the power of stories.  Stories come into our lives for just a moment, but the special ones change our lives in ways that we can’t quite articulate, Mr. Shyamalan suggests with that naming choice.

The Frog Prince illustration  – Warwick Goble

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When we meet most of the characters, we see them living muddled lives.  Either they’ve isolated themselves from others, or they’re doing unusual things in the hope of becoming unique enough to validate their existence.  Story comes into this world and only then do the characters find their purpose and come together in community.

In the beginning of the movie, characters have conversations with each other, but the camera only shows us one face.  The other person is seen from behind or kept out of focus. Establishing shots or reaction shots are conspicuously absent.

By going against the conventions we’ve come to expect in film, Mr. Shyamalan makes us sense that something is not quite right,  that we are somehow not connecting with the characters.  This is an appropriate way to introduce us to Cleveland’s world, since it reflects the way he feels.  Contrast this with the more accessible group shots at the end of the movie, and you’ll get some sense of the journey that the movie offers.

When Story the Narf appears we see more establishing and reaction shots.  As Story’s influence grows so too does the number of people in the frame and the color saturation.  The colors are no longer muffled and flat but vibrant and soothing.

Alice in Wonderland illustration – John Tenniel, 1865

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Also worth mentioning is the significant number of shots that involve something out of focus in the foreground.  Slowly the focus brings clarity, something the characters also discover by the end of the movie.

The idea that Story bring clarity is reenforced by Cleveland’s way of speaking.  He stutters until he meets her, and then his stutter goes away.  It’s sort of like what happens to George Bailey when he gets a visit from Clarence the angel in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.  (More of my thoughts on Capra are here.) It’s as if there is something divine about Story that improves all who approach her with receptive hearts.

As far as I know every ancient society had some kind of belief in divine inspiration. Hence the invocation of the muse.  Now days in our industrialized world we’ve moved away from that kind of thinking, but as writer Elizabeth Gilbert suggests in this TED video, maybe that is not for the best.    We have turned away from the mysterious and pursued  rigid structures and scientific methods; Sure, we have more technology, but also more violence and alienation.

What if it wasn’t meant to be that way, asks Lady in the Water?  What if we all have a bigger purpose?  What if we need each other and a rediscovered sense of child-like innocence to discover that purpose?

The Lady Gave her Purse – Warwick Goble

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Child-like innocence is an important part of any fairy tale, but in this movie Mr. Shyamalan calls our attention to it.

In order to learn more about Story, Cleveland approaches an Asian lady who has heard folktales about the Narfs.  To hear more of the story behind Story, Cleveland must act like a child to gain the woman’s trust.   Later, Cleveland and his recruits discover that their Interpreter, the one who can interpret all the signs in the story that they’ve experiencing, is actually the youngest boy in the group.  It’s a little Postmodern, but so is everything these days.

Perhaps a few critics were not kind to Lady in the Water due to its depiction of a film critic, played by Bob Balaban.  It’s definitely not a flattering depiction: He’s smug and self-absorbed, he gets everything wrong,  and meets a tragic demise.  Well, here’s the thing: many critics are smug and self absorbed. Too often it feels like they obsess about the wrapping paper of a film (or a book or any work of art really) and fail to open it up and acknowledge the gift inside.

The Tortoise and the Hare illustration – Arthur Rackham, 1912

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I do appreciate the thoughtful commentary that some critics bring to the table, but I’m less grateful for the one who go on and on about the genius of an arthouse rape film while heaping contempt upon the movies that bring joy and hope to others.  I truly believe that those kinds of critics are warped and frustrated creatures who seek, consciously or unconsciously, to spread their crookedness into others.

With that said, I don’t think Mr. Shyamalan was trying to critic proof his film.  I think he was trying to protect himself a bit from the critical beating he anticipated.  You see, he gave himself an important, but a very vulnerable, part in his movie.

He plays Vic Ran, the writer that Story has come to inspire.  When we first see Vic, his sister explains that he will do anything, even laundry, to avoid writing.  He’s working on something called the Cookbook, a title that Vic acknowledges is kind of dumb.  A glamorous character this is not.

Again, note the name.  Vic Ran is someone more inclined to run away than do something creative.  That’s actually a very humble role for Mr. Shyamalan to give himself, considering that he is responsible for writing, producing, and directing films that have grossed millions of dollars.  (Lady in the Water hater, when was the last time you produced something that others valued throughout the world?)

Considering his status in Hollywood, Mr. Shyamalan could have given himself  the part of a mighty king who gets all the girls and has ferocious, computer-enhanced abs of steel.  Instead, he chose to play an ordinary guy who becomes inspired to create something extraordinary.  Here’s what Mr. Shyamalan said about the part, “I play Vic who is genuinely an ordinary guy, which is what I feel every single day, but he is someone who is also capable of doing beautiful things, as everyone is capable of doing beautiful things.”

Alice in Wonderland illustration – John Tenniel, 1865

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Still, the critics wailed.  “Look at him, playing a writer who is meant to write something important! The vanity! The hubris!  Who does he think he is? Does his work appear in Pretentious Monthly?  Mine does. I write important things about collectivism, and imperialism, and all kinds of isms, and he writes drivel, sheer escapist nonsense for the dirty masses.” No, I didn’t find critics to go on record with those words, but that’s my best guess at their inner  monologues based on their  rather predicable comments about the film.

(OK, that’s a somewhat exaggerated inner monologue.  It’s what I like to call a heroic attempt at humor, so bear with me as I pause for the laughter to subside.  And … pause for the laughter to subside.  I know, I know. Don’t quit the day job, right?  Hmm … such unique tips you offer, my friends.)

To be fair, many critics did response favorably to Mr. Shyamalan’s earlier, more conventional thrillers.   To them, I’m guessing Lady in the Water was a little too different, a little too self aware, and maybe, just maybe, it hit a little too close to home.

Mr. Shyamalan is a pretty sharp guy, so I’m sure he had some sense of what the critics would say.  After all, it’s not all that hard to anticipate the reactions of the smug and the self important. Maybe that’s why he foreshadowed the death of his character.  “Is someone going to kill me because I write this?” he asks Story.  She confirms.

Lady in the Water is not the first film to suggest that the artist might have to die for his art.  In The Red Shoes, the cinematic masterpiece from British directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the performers sacrifice their love and their lives to serve a sinister theater impresario, a monstrous man who values artistic achievement above all else. In Lady in the Water, the aspiring artist approaches his work with an open heart and prepares to sacrifice himself so that others might benefit.  With which kind of artist would you prefer to collaborate?

I can only guess at how anguishing it must have been for Mr. Shyamalan to  see a story close  to his heart, one that grew out of a bedtime story for his kids, get such a brutal reception.  From my own experience and from listening to other creative people, I do know that rejection hurts more when the work is personal.

Little Red Riding Hood illustration – Gustaf Tenggren

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The movie Mr. Shyamalan made after Lady in the Water was the Happening, which is in my opinion the worst of his films.  It felt like he lost his way.  My guess is that the pain of Lady in the Water‘s reception made it harder for him to trust his instincts.  Instead he tried to tap into the environmental zeitgeist and make something that he thought others would want.  As far as I know, Mr. Shyamalan hasn’t gone on record about the Lady in the Water‘s unfavorable reception, so that’s just a guess.

Even so, I’m willing to bet that Mr. Shyamalan anticipated the heartache that would come from making the movie.  Yet, he chose to make it anyway, believing that some good might come out of it.  He wouldn’t have mentioned Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book if he didn’t believe that.  That’s heroic, ladies and gentlemen.    I’m grateful for that.

There’s a sense of harmony in the film that comforts me whenever I watch it.  It’s the movie I watch when I feel disconnected from the world or when I feel like my own creative endeavors don’t matter.

East of the Sun and West of the Moon illustration – Kay Nielsen, 1914

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The way Mr. Shyamalan put himself into his work in such a vulnerable way has stuck with me even more than the themes of the story. His openness encouraged me and made me want to do the same for others, even when it is uncomfortable for me to do.

I’ve definitely lost several hours of sleep in regards to some of the things I’ve written, but I take comfort from others who strive for a similar strand of difficult honesty, and so I try to pay it forward.  It’s my way of battling the suffocating, my-product-is-awesome! commentary that floods the web.

Is selling widgets or selling yourself so important that you are willing to demoralize others in the process?  Some critics would say yes.  Mr. Shyamalan wouldn’t, at least I’d like to think so.

Since we’re being honest, I will admit that I almost didn’t finish writing this post. Movies like Lady in the Water have prodded me to search for purpose in my own life, and that search can sting when you don’t get the answers quite right.  Mr. Shayamalan acknowledges as much in the movie.  When Cleveland gets purpose wrong, it causes suffering and almost leads to the death of someone he’s come to cherish.

Ballet – Kay Nielsen

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I can relate.  Recently, I had come to believe that there was something I was supposed to do in relation to the victories of the New York Giants. I won’t  explain it here, because it will take a while, and it will sound crazy.

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have more of an idea of what I’m talking about. (If you go all the way back to the beginning of my updates and check the dates, then maybe you will conclude that I’m not as crazy as you first thought. Doing that is more than I could stomach though, so I won’t recommend it for most of you.)

Anyway, there were enough moments that happened just so to convince me that I was going in the right direction.  Then, the Giants lost and to the Cowboys of all teams.

I felt so foolish and so wrong about everything.  My initial reaction was to numb that irksome inner voice into oblivion so that I would never again hear it to prod me toward a supposed higher purpose.  Either I was wrong about something that seemed so right at the time, or I did something along the way to change the outcome.

Neither possibility is very comforting. There is also the possibility that I was meant to do something that would fail and cause me more anguish.    That is the least comfortable possibility of the three.

It might have all been wishful thinking, and yet why did all the circumstances come together as they did?  What about my moments of defiance where I sensed that making certain choices might jeopardize the outcome I wanted, and yet I went ahead with those choices?

The ironic thing is that my moments of defiance  were my ways of dealing with the stress of doing something that felt, at the time, like something daunting that I was meant to do.  Why then would I be asked to do something beyond my capacities to handle gracefully?

Enchanted Prince – Maxfield Parrish

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If I’m never able to answer these questions with some sense of satisfaction, then I probably won’t trust my instincts to the same extent as before.  Still, if I really believed that searching for purpose is an entirely stupid endeavor, then I wouldn’t be able to publish a favorable piece about Lady in the Water, a movie that so strongly embraces the search for purpose.

I started writing this a week before the Giants lost, but I didn’t have time to finish it until now.  I don’t think I would have taken on the subject had I waited until this week to start it.

In spite of the additional lack of sleep that this post will probably bring me, I’m going to finish it because I still believe that things happen for a reason and that trying to make sense of purpose is a worthwhile pursuit.  The risk of getting things wrong isn’t unsubstantial, but the sense of fulfillment and harmony that can come from getting things right is worth the cost.

It hurts to say, but I’m still grateful to Lady in the Water for encouraging me to look for purpose.  Give the movie a chance, and maybe you too will be grateful for its existence.

In this season of Thanksgiving, let us of course remember the men and women who choose to risk their lives in combat so that we can live in freedom and security. Theirs is often the ultimate sacrifice.  But, let us also remember the entrepreneurs, the artists, and the dreamers, the people like M. Night Shyamalan who risk their careers, their creativity capacities, and their well being in the hopes of producing something special for us.

Good Luck Befriend Thee – Warwick Goble

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Lady in the Water is no Citizen Kane, but that’s a good thing.  A work of art should stand on its own, offering a unique gift to the world.  Whatever the movie may be, I still cherish it.  Thank you for making it, M. Night Shyamalan.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone and God bless.

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Walt Disney, the Illusion of Life, & Being Less Corporate

Walt Disney films are largely responsible for my interest in making movies. I’m not afraid to admit that.  I couldn’t say that in college.  I was too preoccupied with what  my classmates and professors thought of me.  Back then I was more likely to talk about Citizen Kane and Stanley Kubrick films.  Those are masterfully crafted movies, sure, but they had practically zero influence on my aspirations. Not so with Walt Disney’s creations, but in my effort to matter to the world I had forgotten that.

It’s taken me a while, but I have slowly returned to the things that I loved for their own sake and not based on what other people said.  Reading The Illusion of Life, a marvellous book about the story of Disney animation lovingly told by two early Disney animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, helped me to restore my unashamed enthusiasm for many of the Disney animated films I grew up with as a kid.

book_the_illusion_of_life

The first film I remember seeing in the theater was Snow White.  Pinocchio was the first film that compelled me to stay up late and ponder its mysteries, in this case I was trying to figure out what it would feel like to get transformed into a jackass.  (A few years later, I would understand the jackass thing all too well, unfortunately. I’m working on getting things right these days, but it’s a process.)

During the holidays, going to a Walt Disney film became a tradition for my family.  It was a time when we’d stop fighting with each other and informally agree to be temporarily harmonious.  It was a nice time.  But moving on, my  interest in computer animation too was colored by my exposure to the Pixar films that Disney distributed.

Not everyone in my world had a similar admiration of Walt Disney. My college professors carefully avoided any reference to Disney’s influence on cinema history, although the man pioneered new techniques for working with sound and color and had won twenty-six Oscars before he died.  (For all you film kids doing the math at home, that’s a few more than the nine Oscars that Stanley Kubrick’s films won.)  It is also worth pointing out that while Hollywood was still years away from conceiving of the effects film, Walt Disney gave the world Snow White, the first movie in which every single frame featured a created effect.

One of the books I had to read in college was Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard.  He wrote several long and loveless paragraphs about how Disneyland was the ultimate example of our false and simulated existence.

Baudrillard’s book was a joyless thing, perfumed with important-sounding philosophical concepts. I don’t remember much from the book beyond an impression that Baudrillard wanted to convince me that he was smart and very well read, and that his work  anticipated the Matrix films (films that I enjoy much more than Baudrillard’s book).

For comparison, let’s look at how  The Illusion of Life discusses Disney’s accomplishments. In the book, Walt is quoted as saying “I am interested in entertaining people, in bringing pleasure, particularly laughter, to others, rather than being concerned with expressing myself with obscure creative impressions.” Did you notice the emphasis on serving others in that quote?

That’s a lesson that the book’s writers, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, absorbed well.  Consider their advice to aspiring entertainers: “The ancient counsel ‘Know thyself’ is full of wisdom, but, for the entertainer, it is possibly just as wise to suggest, ‘Know your audience.’

snow white

photo from flickr.com/expressmonorail

What a contrast with Baudrillard’s style that is.   Disney’s work has brought a sense of joy and wonder to millions of people around the world.  Jean Baudrillard has filled the minds of philosophy students with intellectual contempt and a sense of superiority over the uninformed.

I know that the Walt Disney Company is a very powerful multi-national corporation, and I don’t celebrate everything that the company does, but I’m talking about the man who started it all, the man who lived up to his well-known quote: “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.”  I tend to root for the philosophers, but in this case Baudrillard comes off as the more banal and  corporate one.

To delight in a thing for the sake of the thing itself and not for the potential profit it brings is an essential aspect of being less corporate. If you can’t tell that the writers of The Illusion of Life created the book out of a deep, delighted love  for animation and for Walt Disney, then you probably can’t recognize love when you see it.  There’s the cover that transitions gracefully from black and white to color, the textured yellow paper that greets you when you open the book, the full-page color stills that appear in the first few pages, and the playful, yet thorough, prose.

All of these things are clues that this is a book that cares very much about getting the details right.  The book has 489 colored prints, thousands of black-and-white drawings, and it was printed in Italy; that’s definitely not the way to produce a book if you care only about maximizing your profits and keeping costs low.

On top of that, there are several flip-book sequences on the top-right corners of the pages that beg for your attention.  I would have still bought the book without that feature, a feature that must have taken a bit of time to sync up, but how magnificent to discover one more extra that Frank and Ollie threw in for us.

teacups

photo from flickr.com/expressmonorail

The animator-writers of the book speak fondly of Walt most of the time, and they dedicated the book to him, so obviously they liked the guy.  But, they don’t give him the idealized  hero treatment that I’ve seen the Walt Disney Company do on occasion.  Instead, the writers give us examples of when Walt was abrasive, difficult to please, and even wounding.

Look at how they critique a bonus system that Walt tried at one point: “The bonus system did not produce better pictures or even good ones.  Few regulations do.  Efficiency is better built through dedication rather than speed for its sake.”  How refreshing that they were not afraid to discuss the strengths and the weaknesses of their boss and the man they admired.

Since Frank and Ollie are honest about Disney’s flaws, we are more likely to believe them when they sing Disney’s praises, and sing they do.  They talk about Walt’s incessant curiosity and his high standards.

Walt Disney didn’t fall into the corporate trap of  resisting change merely to do things like they’ve always been done, and his drive to innovate wasn’t limited to technology.  For example, he didn’t hesitate to hire women for his ink and paint department, even though it was accepted knowledge  at the time that only men could do the job effectively.

Nor was Disney afraid of failure. Apparently, he wanted to be a live-action director when he first came to California, but that didn’t work out so well.  Instead of giving up, Disney returned to animation and worked hard to produce Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons.

But, thanks to strong-arm negotiation tactics by Charles Mintz, a producer working for Universal, Disney was soon locked out of the very cartoon he helped to create.  On top of that, most of his workforce was signed away from him.  Disney had every reason to get bitter, but instead he stayed focused and created a character known as Mickey Mouse.

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photo from flickr.com/expressmonorail

Frank and Ollie also talk about the spirit of cooperation that Disney encouraged. Everyone was expected to share knowledge and to help those who were struggling on a concept.  They quote Disney as saying, “Everyone has to contribute or they become laborers,” and they give a few examples of Walt’s determination to find the right job that best suited the strengths of his people.  The assumptions that everyone matters and that everyone has distinct skills are seemingly obvious, but they are still ignored in more corporate environments.

Since Disney animators helped to define the craft of animation, Frank and Ollie could have thrown around corporate phrases like “proprietary information” and “intellectual property” when discussing their animation processes.  Instead, out of a desire to see their beloved field of animation advance, they broke down their technique into twelve distinct principles that are thoroughly illustrated with one example after another.  Those twelve principles are now the cornerstones of all the animation training programs that I’ve seen.

By giving information away and trying to be helpful, Frank and Ollie earned for Disney the loyalty of thousands of animation students who succeeded by studying their work.  Too bad more companies aren’t as generous with their resources these days, since their businesses could benefit greatly if they did. It’s the curse of the all too-powerful legal departments and of the frivolous lawsuits that make such departments necessary, I suspect.

While discussing the craft of animation Frank and Ollie write, “The animator should be as surprised as anyone at the way it comes out.”  Exactly right, but that should be true for any work that isn’t corporate in nature.

You can do all the planning in the world, but you’ll never know all the conditions and the particulars that might come up until you dive into the thing.  When you react to changes in the moment, your work has vitality.  Otherwise it is a representation of a preconceived idea that grown distant from reality.

Think of the last corporate event you attended.  Were you surprised at all when the wacky speaker made lame, self-aggrandizing jokes and then talked about how the numbers  for that quarter were great news for the company, regardless of what the numbers actually looked like? That kind of speech is bad because it stays the same regardless of what happens in the world or with the audience.

Anything with vitality, whether a service, product, or person, has to be surprising at least in some sense, by definition. Otherwise, let us call the thing in question dead or corporate.

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photo from flickr.com/expressmonorail

I will end with two more  quotes from the book.  “Our true personalities are best revealed by our reactions to change we did not expect.”  Not bad insight from men who make cartoons, don’t you think?

Toward the end of the book, Frank and Ollie throw in a quote from William Faulkner.  Faulker explains that it is a writer’s “privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” At that point, Frank and Ollie add that “even the cartoon can try for such ideals.”

If animators aim for such lofty ideals, maybe it’s not asking too much for you to reconsider the merit of animation in general and Walt Disney in particular.  Or, you could go back to reading Pretentious Quarterly and producing and endorsing things that bring more despair and decadence into the world, but don’t expect me to applaud you for that.  I’ll be too busy celebrating the things that make me smile and keep me hopeful.

How to Avoid Being a Corporate Artist

(Normally, I aim to do updates every Saturday, but this is a subject that means a lot to me, and it took me a little longer to get things right, or as close to right as I could manage.  Sorry about that. The length is also a little longer, so you can get the main ideas from the words in bold if you prefer.)

A corporate artist is not an oxymoron. It’s what a creative-minded person can become when he or she pursues fame, money, or passing fads instead of the deepest things in his or her heart. That’s a tragic thing, but sadly it’s not an uncommon occurrence.

At its best, art inspires and enlightens.  It helps us understand each other, and it reveals the problems in our societies and the evil in ourselves.  A great piece of art encourages us to do and dream great things that are worthy of its company.   That’s why it makes me sad to see creative types become corporate artists who screw up the world in uniquely monstrous ways.

Plumbers do important work that requires training and specialized knowledge, but I’ve never a met a plumber who  puts his soul on display when fixing the sink.  (Perhaps there is such a plumber out there, and if he exists, I’d love to watch him work.)  In contrast, artists I admire, whether musicians, actors, writers, or painters, captivate me by putting at least a sliver of their souls into their work. It’s hard enough to show that part of yourself to the world, but it’s even harder to do when faced with potential rejection, criticism, and exploitation that comes with the territory.   If you think this is easy stuff, try going to work completely naked, and do your job while everyone else stays fully clothed.

"Ballet Class" by Edgar Degas

Ballet Class by Edgar Degas

I’m not trying to be provocative.  There is a point to the nudity.  It is not gratuitous, and so it meets my criteria for use here.  (I apply the same criteria when considering the merit of nudity in art.  It’s like Madeleine L’engle writes in her book Walking on Water, “A painting of a nude body can glorify the wonder of incarnation, or it can titillate and degrade.”  With that said, dear Hollywood friends, you don’t tend to err on the side of wondrous incarnation very often, so be careful.)

Anyway, I believe we were meant to live in harmony, with our hearts naked and exposed to each other. They were once naked in the Garden of Eden, were they not?   There was nothing to hide from each other, so Adam and Eve could be themselves without hiding behind lifeless, corporate facades.

Good artists do what they can to slowly nudge us back toward the harmonious state of being that was once found in the Garden. But it is hard to live with an open heart, whether professionally or just in general.  Try sharing that light long enough, and some vultures and villains are sure to notice it, and they’ll try to stomp it out or consume it for their own selfish ends.  There’s a real risk that these dark forces, whether outside or inside a person, will turn an artist corporate.

Take another look at the painting above.  Look at how lovely the ballerinas are, but the dark gentleman on the right isn’t very interested in their overall beauty.  He’s a little more preoccupied with a certain part of the ballerina’s body.  His compatriot in the picture doesn’t appear to be much more noble.  Note also the disturbing blotches of black that frame the dancers, trapping them in their confined space.  When these kinds of dark forces infect artists, they corrupt them and turn them into horrific variations of Britney Spears, who is perhaps the ultimate corporate artist.

Yes, Britney is a talented dancer, she looks hot, and she’s making a lot of people a lot of money, so what the hell is wrong with that, right?

I’ll tell you.  Instead of helping me better perceive truth and beauty, corporate artists like Britney Spears try to sell me on sex, popularity, and mass produced sounds and movements. I get a cheap thrill, but each time I indulge I’m trading against the possibility of future lasting happiness with a girl who has character, who doesn’t sell everything  to anyone who will make her famous.  You see, the more I listen to Britney Spears, the less convinced I am that there are still attractive girls with integrity out there.  That’s why I’ve stopped listening to Britney Spears.

It’s so easy for us in general and for artists in particular to do things just to validate our egos or to scratch a burning impulse or to overcompensate for insecurities. I’m just as guilty as anyone of that kind of thing.  When I treat a lady like she’s a mere source of physical gratification, I am taking away something from her that she could better enjoy with a man who truly loves her.  Maybe she’ll never get married, or maybe her future relationships won’t be as sweet because of the way I used her up.

Whatever the case may be, I’m ripping the social fabric, the unseen threads that keep our society cohesive, when I act only to satisfy myself.  With the wrong focus and the right circumstances, I too could become the ultimate corporate artist, but that’s not something I want to be.  Knowing that is half the battle.

I don’t want to come up with a list of dos and don’ts for art.  I’m just asking artists to stop making decisions just to make more money, build up street cred, or do anything for the sake of doing work.  Instead, dare to build a career by bringing the depths of your heart to light. I’m not arguing that every piece of art has to be full of eternal meaning.  There is a place for light romantic comedies, singable pop songs, well choreographed dance routines, scary films, and mystery books.  Still, all of these things can be presented using good taste within the context of a moral universe, or they can be built out of a narasistic, chaotic framework that is filled with pandering to the basest human instincts. William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Alfred Hitchcock could convey a moral universe even when exploring darkness.   Can you?

When you undertake whatever creative ventures you pursue, dare to stand for something.  Just because so many modern artists mistake vulgarity, cheap thrills, and chaos for artistic technique doesn’t mean you have to go along with that.

I don’t mind profanity when used with restraint to make a point, but if you use it in every other sentence, I start to suspect that you are compensating for a limited vocabulary.

Also, Grace Kelly never did a super-skank stripper movie for the sake of getting more exposure to new audiences, or for proving herself as an actress, or for whatever the preferred PR phrase is these days.  I think she still did OK for herself, don’t you?  She was attractive, but she maintained a sense of class, and that is much more alluring, much more sexy, than any of the shiny, transparent strings and sequins posing as clothes that the mass-produced Britney clones wear these days.

I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, but you can’t be everything to everyone. A writer may get acclaim for writing both family dramas and perverse sex books, but to me he is no longer someone with enough integrity to avoid writing a reprehensible book.  He’s just a corporate climber, doing anything for more money, power, and fame just like everyone else, and that will make me less likely to buy his next book.

Again, I don’t object to depictions of vice in art as long as the depiction is not the gratitious, glamourized selling point of the production.   There are prostitutes, thieves, and murderers even in the Bible, but they don’t get the glamour girl treatment, now do they? Context and purpose behind depicted vice can make all the difference.

The folks who come in to see your self-loathing play or art exhibit probably won’t know that you’ve been trying to get a break for months and months, or that you were going through a difficult divorce when you wrote that ultra-violent misogynistic film.  All they know is that they worked hard all week, faced their own difficulties, and gave you some of their money and/or time so that they could be entertained, inspired,  enlightened, or engaged by what you have to offer.  Do you really want to be the one who demoralizes them, with a reprehensible role in a reprehensible production just because you were desperate to get whatever work you could get? Is that really what you want your legacy in this world to be?

I can’t tell you what you should and shouldn’t do with your art.   You have to listen to your own conscience for that kind of thing.  But don’t be so selfish and so corporate as to not take into account how your “art” will affect other people. If a plumber’s shoddy work caused physical injuries to others, we would ask him to make amends, or we’d put him out of business.  And yet if an artist’s work strains the social fabric by encouraging infidelity and violence against the innocent, while driving people away from their God-given sense of dignity and faith , we smile and talk about the bold artistic choices involved.   That’s nonsensical corporate talk, worse than the stuff that comes out of the most corporate of meetings.

I used the word “Being” in the title instead of “Becoming” or something altogether different, because you can stop being one thing as soon as start being something else.   Just like anyone can choose to become a corporate arist by thinking only about themselves and their money and fame, anyone, even Britney Spears can choose to start being a true artist who creates from the heart and does so out of love for others.

America was once a land that inspired others with the noble sentiments found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Now we send the world works of hateful bloodlust, porn designed as story, and vulgarity masquerading as art.  Let’s fight to change that.  If you’re an artist, then make meaningful stuff.  If you talk about art, don’t celebrate reprehensible stuff just because it’s popular. Together, we can make the world a less corporate, and a more beatiful, more harmonious place.