Posts Tagged 'art'

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Tribute

I once read a critique of Atlas Shrugged that slammed Ayn Rand’s masterpiece for its unpolished prose.  That’s like reading Emily Dickinson and wondering when the explosions will manifest.  If you read Atlas Shrugged in search of flowery phrases, well you’re reading the wrong book there kemosabi.  The book’s appeal is in the heroic treatment it gives the builders and entrepreneurs of an otherwise corroding civilization.  

That’s right.  Atlas Shrugged is a critically acclaimed work of fiction that celebrates business people.  Shocking, right?  I mean, everyone knows that business types are evil, don’t they? It’s so obvious.

Just look at movies like Erin Brokavich, The Verdict, Michael Clayton, The RainmakerWall Street or the vast majority of pop culture that features business people.  Even Lost, one of the most innovative television shows ever made, features an evil industrialist.  Whoa, the industrialist is the bad guy?  No way! Didn’t see that one coming, guys!

Maybe I’m missing an obvious reference, but prior to Atlas Shrugged, I think we’d have to go all the way back to a book like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables to see a similarly heroic take on the entrepreneur.

As a quick reminder, Les Mis begins as Jean Valjean, a former convict, steals silverware from a kind bishop.   After the bishop discovers the crime, he graciously allows Jean Valjean to escape another prison term.  In exchange, the bishop asks Jean Valjean to promise that he will live an honest life from this point onward.

The narrative skips ahead a few years, revealing that Jean Valjean has indeed kept his promise.  He has become respectable and made his town wealthy thanks to a new manufacturing process he invented for his factory.

Back in Victor Hugo’s time, folks actually appreciated those who brought jobs and wealth to their towns. That’s probably why Hugo uses Jean Valjean’s business accomplishments to suggest that he’s become a model citizen.  In contrast, today we gather up our collective pitchforks  to hunt business people as if they were freakish monsters worthy of death or at least heavy regulation.  With attitudes like that, is it any wonder that the U.S. has the second-highest tax rate in the world?

That anti-business animosity is present even in Atlas Shrugged, and Hank Rearden, one of the heroic entrepreneurs in the novel, struggles to overcome it.  He’s a businessman who has figured out a way to make a metal that is stronger than steel, and he puts all of his energies into building a great company that manufactures his new material.  His competitors cannot deliver anything of comparable quality, so instead they pay off government bureaucrats and give lots of speeches.

Since we’re on the subject, I do admire great orators as much as the next guy, but I’m more impressed when speakers prove themselves to be people of action.

Speech-minded reader, you could do worse than following Teddy Roosevelt’s example.  He too gave speeches, but his speeches were not the sum total of his efforts. They were merely the structural supports.  It’s why he could boldly admonish his listeners to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Anyway, many people in Rearden’s society have come to feel entitled to the profits of his business, even though they have done nothing to help it grow.  Ayn Rand calls them the looters, a ravenous mob not unlike a zombie horde.   Seeing an opportunity to expand power, the government satiates the looters by raising taxes and placing more onerous restraints on Rearden and industrialists like him.

Rearden’s competitors use their government contacts to negotiate loopholes for themselves.  That’s Ayn Rand’s way of acknowledging that businesses are not immune to corruption, but that big government tends to enable rather than curtail it.

Cruelty in Perfection – William Hogarth, 1751

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As the novel progresses the government bureaucracy becomes more intrusive and many entrepreneurs decide that it is no longer beneficial to stay in business.  Rearden tries to stay afloat, but as the government takes over more industries it becomes increasingly more difficult to do so.

From the beginning, the novel’s speechmongers had clamored for more government control, but contrary to their utopian claims, society does not improve.  Since no one has an incentive to work hard, the workers opt to do the bare minimum or to drop out of the system altogether.   Gone is the potential to profit from manufacturing parts or excellent service, so machinery deteriorates and accidents increase.  

As the general population becomes more apathetic, the government realizes that it must use force upon its own people to compel them to work.  The doom of civilization lingers, but a few resourceful entrepreneurs like Rearden mount the resistance.

Atlas Shrugged was published back in 1957, but it feels so contemporary: In our world, entire nations and politically connected corporations ask others to finance their profligacy insisting that they’re too big to fail.  Our American government comes down hard on businesses, except those who have contributed heavily to certain political campaigns.  For example, one of Obama’s biggest campaign contributors was Goldman Sachs, a company that did quite well in the subprime-mortgage dustup.

Let’s not forget that the S&P recently downgraded the U.S. credit rating.  That didn’t even happen in the Great Depression ladies and gentlemen, and the very politicians who spend our money at unprecedented rates look us in the eyes and tell us that the government is not the problem.

Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat – William Hogarth, 1746

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The problem, as they see it, stems from the people who protest the government’s encroaching appetite.  Indeed Ayn Rand has become a prophet of our times.

Now please don’t misunderstand.  My goal in writing is not to suggest that businesses can do no wrong.  On the contrary, businesses are run by people, and people come in all sorts of varieties, some good some bad.  If we agree that proper governance helps sustain society, then it follows that some limited government oversight in business can also be useful.

Not every Ayn Rand enthusiast would agree with those presuppositions, so allow me to defend them by quoting from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, an influential pamphlet during the American Revolution.

Paine writes,”For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver.”  In other words, if we were all perfect we wouldn’t need government; We would naturally live in harmony with each other.

Since that is not the case, we need a system of laws to preserve the social fabric that allows for civilization.  Businesses too need some regulation to ensure fair play, to prevent unethical business types from doing anything to make a quick buck.

Besides, without even the most limited amount of regulation, porn shops and drug dealers would be everywhere.  Do you really want to live in that kind of society? I don’t.

With that said, we need to get rid of this harmful notion that every societal problem is due to the nefarious machinations of conniving, greedy businessmen.  By and large, successful businesses make things better, not just for the stockholders and their employees but also for their customers and their communities at large. 

If they didn’t, why would people continue to work and buy from them?  Remember, businesses don’t have standing armies to coerce participation. Governments do.

Then there’s the whole notion of being able to advance based on merit.  We take that for granted, but it wasn’t always a given.

Imagine what it would be like if your status was almost entirely dependent upon the family to whom you were born or to which you joined in marriage.

Not so keen on the medieval way?  You could always live la vida loca like the Soviets did, by bribing government officials just to increase your odds of survival.     I’d say the oft-maligned businessman is starting to look downright friendly in comparison.

You wouldn’t know it from popular culture, but a lot of folks actually have strong affectionate feelings toward businesses.  I’m one of them.

Working for Canon has expanded my technical abilities, increased my confidence, and brought more stability to my life.  No charitable outreach has done the same for me.

Plus, Canon equipment is among the best in the market.  All my recent freelance projects have been shot with Canon gear, and I wouldn’t go that route if I didn’t have the highest respect for Canon engineering.

Don’t just take my word for it though.  Visit Canon USA’s Facebook page, and you’ll notice that the vast majority of comments are positive, effusive ones.  But why stop at Canon?  You’ll find similar things if you check out the feedback for companies like Apple, amazon.com, IKEA, Chick-fil-A, Volkswagen, Target, Whole Foods, Starbucks, Zappos, Walt Disney, and the list could go on and on.

These are all businesses that have made life better for millions of people,  and you don’t make life better for millions of people by merely focusing on profit.  That is a foolish anti-business fallacy.  You get there, first and foremost, by being useful, even delightful, to others in an excellent way.

In Atlas Shrugged, it is the bureaucrats who compromise and sell out to advance themselves.  Rearden, in contrast,  sacrifices prestige and short-term wealth so that he might produce something truly exceptional.  To aim for anything less even when the entire world encourages you to do so is not to be fully alive, Ayn Rand suggests.

Like Hank Rearden, the entrepreneurs who produce excellent, profitable businesses are heroes of our modern world, but when was the last time a movie, a music album, or a novel conveyed as much?  Atlas Shrugged is one example, but we need more.

In the book Microtrends, author and researcher Mark Penn tells of a recent survey he ran where an alarming number of kids expressed interest in becoming snipers when they grow up.  He speculates that data spike is due to the attention snipers get in news coverage, movies, and video games.

Now you tell me, would you rather have a society full of aspiring snipers or entrepreneurs? Do you want your next creative project to inspire the next Columbine shooter or the next Steve Jobs?

The Delivery of the Keys – Pietro Perugino 1481–1482

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If you chose the latter options, then maybe it is time for you do something about it.  Reading Atlas Shrugged is a good place to start (you can listen to it as an audiobook if you prefer), but if you don’t have time for that, would you at least stop suggesting that every business person is evil?  Can you stop relying on the government to solve all your problems?

While you’re at it, don’t be content just to consume. Produce. Give back.  Building a great and virtuous business is as good of a way as any to do that.

 

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.

Please consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  If I did, I wouldn’t have the time to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write.
I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog. 
As always, thanks for reading and God bless.

Renewing our Cities by Renewing Each Other

I recently did a series of videos about how people in Hampton Roads, Virginia renew their cities.  The videos were initially done to help promote the Renewal Art Show that is produced each April by Symphonic, the church I attended while in Virginia.

I wrote a few articles about the Renewal videos for altdaily.com, a fine local source of news and culture, but the piece I wrote for the last video was by far the most personal, and so it was the hardest to write.

Manuel Osorio de Zuniga – Goya, 1784-1792 

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I thought about deleting it several times during and after the writing process.  Repeatedly I’d ask myself, is it really all that wise to be deliberately vulnerable in public, and do I really believe all those fancy-sounding things I am writing?

I’d say yes to both, but only when I’m at my best, when I’m under the influence of good friends.  My default sensibility is to be wary of others and go it alone, so it’s a battle to get past that.

Overall the edits that AltDaily did to my last piece made it more coherent, for which I am grateful, but the nuances of a small, but important, point I made got lost in translation.

Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters – Goya, 1797

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I initially wrote that two discouraging incidents I faced were probably the results of past abuse or supernatural manifestations of evil.  The edit did away with the possibility of abuse, making it sound like I am prone to see demons at work in many of the challenging circumstances I face.

Actually, I am more inclined to see problems as the consequences of human selfishness, poor design, or prior trauma, but I do believe that spirits, good and bad, exert influence in our world.  After considering the AltDaily article as it currently stands, I realized that it is still true to how I see things, but the demons I’m thinking of are not necessarily scary spirits.

There are scary ones too, I’m sure, but most of the ones we encounter on a daily basis are more like lingering relics from the past that prevent us from becoming whole, sort of like how the brilliant cartoonist Lynda Barry portrays them in her book One Hundred Demons.  (As it happens, that book is available for free on Google Books. Pretty neat, but the book has such a tactile aspect that you might want to consider the printed version.)

Little Hobgoblins – Goya, 1799

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Put differently, demons are often like irrational bits of code that cause us to self-destruct, to doubt ourselves and others, to go against the very things that we claim to value, to override our inherent programming if you will.  (Yeah, that’s the Matrix creeping into the discussion.)

It’s only fair to mention that I too struggle with my own personal demons.  When I’m on my own, they win more than I care to admit, and I don’t like the person I can become when that happens.  I am more likely to prevail when providence brings me people who help me stay the course.

La famille de l’infant Don Louis – Goya, 1783

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With that said, here is the AltDaily article:

http://www.altdaily.com/features/arts/video-how-we-renew-our-city-part-iv.html

Below I’ve included all the Renewal videos.  They are longer than many YouTube videos,  but most people who’ve seen the videos have found them worthy of the time commitment.  I hope they will inspire you, just as they inspired me when I made them.

Part I:

 

Part II:

 

Part III:

 

Part IV:

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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.

Please consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  If I did, I wouldn’t have the time to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write.
I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog. 
As always, thanks for reading and God bless.

(Mostly) Modest Thoughts on Modern Art

Normally, I don’t do this sort of thing.  I plan ahead, so that I can deliver a quality post for you guys, but this time it’s going to be a little different.  Here’s what happened: When visiting San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, I came across a piece that so astonished me that I felt compelled not just to write about it, but to bump up this story to the front of the line.

That means you’ll have to wait a little longer to read my take on the Flaming Lips, George Stevens’s films, or other such topics. I know waiting is hard, but I think it’ll be worth it, and if there is anything that I’ve learned from my audience surveys, it’s that you all are a resilient bunch.

Well OK, technically I haven’t done any audience surveys, but that’s what I imagine you all are like when I’m conducting management meetings about this blog … with myself.  It’s a very effective way of doing a meeting, actually. There’s lots of common ground for one thing, so you know, give it a try.

By now you may be wondering what artwork was it that made me veer off course. Or, maybe you’re wondering if I’ll ever get to the point.  Both worthy things to wonder.

We’re almost there.  I just wanted to get you ready for the experience by properly setting the stage.  I will make some rather abstract points, but stick with me, and I’ll tie it all together at the end.  So with that said, here it is:

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The piece is called “Blue Smudge,” and it is created by Mel Bochner.  Right away with the title, the artist is hitting us with a powerful juxtaposition.  Blue is a very distinct color, while a smudge is by its nature amorphous, lacking a concrete form.

In a sense then, Mr. Bochner is giving us definitive ambiguity.  What a scrumptious paradox!  Note too how the smudge in question actually bears a striking resemblance to a key element of the cultural icon colloquially known as the frowny face.

Mr. Bochner could have chosen any color, but it’s significant that he chose blue.  In the parlance of times, feeling blue conveys sadness, a world-weary ethos, depression. Is it too much of a stretch to say that feeling blue is in fact a smudged state of being? I think not.

Let’s take a closer look:

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This enlarged view really lets you see the subtle gradations of texture that the artist uses to make his point.  (Thanks Photoshop!) When does one hue of blue end and another begin?

It is not unlike the philosophical endeavor to determine where the domain of one soul ends and where another begins. The granular nature of chalk is the perfect medium to call attention to this inherently human quest for boundaries.

The colors also remind us of the Greek flag, hinting at the gift of democracy that ancient Greece gave us, but let’s take a moment to look at the world today.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or a rockin political scientist for that matter, to conclude that we sometimes squander this gift on frivolous pursuits, and in that sense Mr. Bochner’s smudge cries for that wasted potential.  Look at the piece long enough and you really start to feel the pathos of the … OK, I can’t go any further.

Everything I said about the painting, except for the title and the name of the “artist” is complete rubbish.  Speaking of rubbish I would encourage the SFMOMA to do the right thing and recycle that puppy.

I know. It’s supposed to be conceptual art, and it’s about the idea, about provoking a reaction.  Etc.  In my humble opinion though, this is merely a way of justifying half-hearted effort and incompetence. It’s the art equivalent of the signs held by panhandlers on Fishermans’ Wharf that say, “Why lie, I need a beer.”  I’m not going to high-five those guys for being lazy. Nor am I going to  give  Mr. Bochner respect for his “artistic achievement.”

More art on display at SFMOMA.

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Can you imagine a baseball player who builds a career by blinking his eyes and signing “peace” in American Sign Language instead of, you know, actually swinging at the  ball? What about a plumber who addresses a leaky pipe by painting it with earth tones and calling it Yellowstone?

We wouldn’t put up with such posers because we still value the pursuit of excellence in most fields, but in the art world we’ve allowed a few pompous hipsters to hijack the standards we use to determine accomplishment.  As Jon Bon Jovi might say, you give art a bad name, Mr. Bochner. Shame!

As it happens the most compelling art I saw in San Francisco was not at the museum but in the city’s exceptional art galleries.  We’ve been conditioned to expect that museums, being non-profit organizations, are superior in quality to for-profit galleries, but just like in the world at large that’s not always the case.

It makes sense.  San Francisco is one of the biggest art markets in the world, so apparently it is not unusual to see original Picassos, Miros, and Chagalls on display at the high-end dealers.

At the Weinstein and the Martin Lawrence Galleries on Geary Street, the dealers spent a bit of time chatting with me about the art on display, even though I made it clear from the beginning that I was not looking to buy anything.  They were still eager to share their passion for art, and they didn’t treat me in a condescending way, which sometimes happens when the proprietors conclude that you’re not a paying customer.

I’m grateful to them for that, so if you are looking for art, and you’re in the San Francisco area, look those galleries up.  They’ll treat you right.

The Martin Lawrence Galleries had a particularly strong collection of Marc Chagall paintings.  Mike, one of the associates there, talked to me about the painter.  When he realized my admiration of Chagall’s work, he took me upstairs to show off the paintings valued at over a million dollars.  One of those paintings was the one below:

Bouquet Jaune sur Fond Bleu – Marc Chagall, 1981-1982

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Mike didn’t just show me the painting.  He unmounted it from the wall and showed me Chagall’s signature on the back that demonstrates authenticity.  Then, he did something I’ve never seen before. He took that million dollar painting and casually tossed it in the air and caught it upside down.

He wanted to demonstrate that Chagall’s paintings are still enjoyable to view even if the orientation changes. Stunned, I complimented Mike on his bravery.  Playing million-dollar catch is a little bit out of my price range, you know, but Mike made his point.

Chagall wasn’t painting to impress stuffy critics and art intellectuals.  He was painting with love, and that’s where the vitality of his work comes. Mike compared Chagall to Picasso, noting that Picasso has a very analytic approach and painted women in a way that suggests an underlying misogyny.  Chagall’s work is more tender, celebrating the joyful harmony of togetherness.

I’m not a hundred percent sure about this, but I think Jon Bon Jovi might react to Chagall’s style by saying something like, ” We’ve got each other and that’s a lot. For love – we’ll give it a shot.” (Hey, I told you guys I’d try to tie it all together in the end!)

Lovers and Flowers, Marc Chagall

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Anyway, even when the relationships in my life aren’t working so well, it makes me feel a little better to know that out there somewhere is love like that.  Whenever possible, try to be more like Chagall and less like Bochner with the things you do, whether you’re an artist or an accountant.  The world will thank you for it.

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.

Please consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  If I did, I wouldn’t have the time to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write.
I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog.  As always, thanks for reading and God bless.

Music Videos and Other Miscellaneous Matters

I wrote an article for altdaily.com about music videos. In that article, I gave 15 videos that influenced my perception of what a music video could be. That article is here: http://www.altdaily.com/features/music/a-directors-favorite-music-videos.html

The article came about because of a conversation I had with the editors about whether they could mention the screening we were doing for our music video.  The music video was one I directed for an instrumental rock band in Virginia called Long Division.  Initially we were going to do a private screening with just the band, the people who helped make it, and a handful of the most loyal fans.

On the day of our screening, we got snowed out.  What a disappointment that was. It rarely snows in Virginia, at least in our neck of the woods, so it felt like an unfortunate turn of fate. Some of the band members were leaving for an extended trip to China, and it looked like we might not get to do the screening for a while, if at all.

The concept art I did for the music video.

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It might seem like a small thing that we had to cancel our screening, but it felt like one more setback in a series of unfortunate events. On the shoot itself, just to give one example, one of our model rockets ended up torpedoing into a nearby roof, even though we were, from what I remember, at least 200 yards away from the closest house.

I had to pay to fix the family’s roof myself.  It was my shoot, so I take responsibility for any damage that’s done.  Fair enough, but still discouraging, and I was frustrated about other things as well, so the cancelled screening had a compounding effect on me.

As it turned out, the guys weren’t gone as long as I expected.  Andrew Lane, one of the band members who went to China and a key creative partner on the video, talked about the possibility of turning the screening into a show.  Together we put on an event where we screened the video, had artists share their work, and heard a few bands play.

We got such interest in the event that it became clear a week before it happened that we would have to turn people away.  Altdaily hadn’t confirmed that they would run my article, but I asked them to delay it until after the screening if they were still planning on printing it.  I didn’t want too many people to get sent home in disappointment.  A good problem to have, right?

Bison performing at our “alone in space” show. Photo credit: Parthena Savides

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What seemed like a setback was actually a blessing in disguise. The “alone in space” show and the press that came with it were the best possible outcomes for us, and neither would have happened if we got our initial screening.

I’m writing this at a time shortly after facing another seemingly devastating setback, so it is encouraging to remember the way things unfolded with the music video.  That’s not to say that every setback will inevitably lead to something better.

After all, free will couldn’t exist without the freedom to fail. (Interesting that so many contemporary governments make it a priority to isolate their citizens from failure. That can get expensive, but it’s not a bad price to pay for a little more control, at least if you are a control-minded government. Maybe not such a hot deal for the actual citizens though, at least for those who value freedom over comfort.)

A video promo I made the “alone in space” show.

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There are so many tragedies and horrors in our world, and I don’t know why things happen the way they do.  Nor do I know the scope of the tragedies you’ve faced, noble readers.  I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not a perfect person, but I do believe that things happen for a reason.  There is good out there, bigger than us. Some people, myself included, call that God.

I know that music videos are mostly disposable commodities, but still maybe you can find some small encouragement in the way things unfolded with ours.  At the very least, writing this has helped me to get back to a sense of dignity and grace. What a marked contrast to my state of mind just a day or two ago.  I couldn’t do that on my own, folks.

Here’s the video in case you haven’t seen it yet. We got more views on vimeo, but YouTube compression has gotten better, and I figured I’d give it another chance:

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Only a few weeks after I made the video did I realize one of the reasons I made it. It relates to a play I wrote a while ago.

I didn’t write it just for recognition or for something to add to my portfolio. There’s nothing wrong with getting recognized for something of merit that benefits others, but sometimes recognition is easier to chase than the driving force behind a personal creative project. (I don’t promote my work all that much compared to others, but some people still take issue with any attempts at self promotion.  To those people I say this, “It’s called trying to make a living. Try it for yourself someday.”)

I couldn’t really articulate this at the time, but I wrote the play primarily in the hope of reconciling things with my dad.  I had a sense that I should share it with him, but I didn’t.  I thought he would hate the story.  A few weeks later he died, and our relationship was never fully restored.

Somehow it felt like the story had found a way to undermine my very reason for writing it, and so I lost my inclination to write stories after that.  It was the last full-length story I finished.  I’ve attempted to write others since then, but they’ve all withered in development.

Props and art from the “alone in space” show.  Photo credit: Parthena Savides

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The play was my helmet.  One of these days I’ll pull it out of the closet  and breathe new life into it. But not yet. Not quite yet.

Once again the unexplainable thing, the tragedy gives way to meaning. It just took time to see. It always does.

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.

Please consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  If I did, I wouldn’t have the time to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write.
I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog.  As always, thanks for reading and God bless.

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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I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you, whether that’s next week or a month from now.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog.  As always, thank you for reading.

Support Local Art … Sometimes

Supporting local art is important, and I’m not just saying that as an aspiring artist.  The right kind of art offers significant benefits to society, but the impact is hard to measure. That’s why tangible displays of support matter.

Think about it:  An entrepreneur can evaluate the success of his business by the amount of profit it earns. An inventor might consider the number of man-hours her device saves.  And it’s like they say, “if the water will flow, the plumber’s skin will glow.  It glows with pride, I will confide!”

Photo credit: flickr.com/slugicide

Actually no one ever said that as far as I know.  It was just a shameless way for me to work a rhyme into the beginning of this post.  Full disclosure: I am not currently getting any sponsorship from the American Association of Rhyming People (AARP), but if one of their members were to read the prior paragraph and so thoroughly enjoy it that he or she felt compelled to write me a check, then I would not refuse said check.  Also, it is entirely possible that AARP stands for something else and that there is no organization in place which promotes the usage of rhymes in American composition. Hard to believe but if true, very tragic.

Now then, let’s return, in seriousness, to our subject.   How do artists measure success? If it’s just by the money their work earns, then we’re going to have a lot of discouraged artists out there.  From the beginning of recorded history artists have been dependent upon the patronage of others.

Even today,  most operas, plays, films, novels, or paintings that are created do not entirely pay for themselves.  Yes I know, Avatar was a big smash, but for every Avatar, there are thousands of films that don’t even earn back the money they cost to make.

Photo credit: flickr.com/bright

As to books,  the publishers depend on a few breakout hits like the Harry Potter series or the Dan Brown books to pay for the rest of the lineup.  And why do you think theater playhouses and opera companies ask for sponsors at the beginning of every show?  If they had to depend on just ticket prices, they would all be out of business.

What about using popularity as a measure of artistic merit?  Well, let us assume that all the songs on the 40 lists are each fantastic pinnacles of artistic achievement (that’s a very big assumption if your musical sensibilities are similar to mine), but then there is still one small detail worth mentioning. Namely, there are far too many artists like Vincent van Gogh who were unpopular while living but who are now canonized by the artistic community.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet - Vincent van Gogh, 1890

At this point, if you’re wondering why anyone should consider supporting something that isn’t, statistically speaking, likely to be immediately profitable or popular, well you could always just invest in porn.  After all, porn is generally very popular and profitable, but as I explained in The Art/Porn Dilemma, that doesn’t mean it is something that society should wholeheartedly embrace.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely read books, heard music, and seen paintings, plays and films that had an inspiring effect on me.  Seeing excellence  in an artist’s work challenges me to aim for excellence in my own way. Along that line, being around masterful architecture makes me want to earn the privilege of its proximity.

Sometimes, art reveals how beautiful honesty, imagination, and affection can be.   Or, it might illuminate problems that cause dissonance both in the world and in my heart.  Even an artistic endeavor that exists merely to distract me from my troubles by serving humor, wonder, or elegance has merit.  Speaking of which,

Isn’t it about that time,

to return now to the rhyme?

No, no.  Must not use unnecessary rhymes … must not unnecessary rhymes. OK, that was embarrassing.

Photo credit: flickr.com/rbrwr

My apologies about that, ladies and gentlemen.  I’ll do what I can to maintain decorum from now on.

Anyway, on more than one occasion, I’ve taken action to fix a sinking relationship after seeing just the right film or play that put things into better perspective.  Usually the story doesn’t even relate exactly to my situation, but it broadcasts a reverberating moral universe into my heart, and I respond to its frequencies.

I don’t know how that works exactly.  It is sort of like magic.  Just like Alice in Tim Burton’s take on Wonderland, I emerge from a strange, imaginative realm with new clarity about what needs to be done.

But it’s not all sunshine in the art world.  As any student at Hogwarts knows, the dark arts are very real and potent. Because I’m sensitive to these kinds of things, I can sometimes trace a moral lapse to the influence of something rotten masquerading as art.

Ultimately, I believe I am responsible for the choices I make, but you have to be a little naive if you don’t think that the things we see and hear influence our decisions.  The billions of dollars spent on advertising are not spent by fools, my friends.

Leo Tolstoy, considered by some to be one of the world’s finest novelists,  wrote a nonfiction book called What is Art. In the book, Tolstoy argues that art often involves a great deal of time, effort, and money to produce, so it should provide society with some kind of benefit.  Otherwise it is just a waste of resources.  I agree.  I encourage you to support art, but not any old rag-tag trinket that claims the title.  Be discerning.

Specifically, I want you to champion worthy art in your community. That’s where your support is most needed. Rest assured, you’re not going to bankrupt Paramount by seeing Iron Man 2 a mere six times in the theater instead of the 18 visits you were planning, but your presence at a local play might make all the difference to your discouraged friend on stage.

I know a few exceptional artists and performers who stopped offering their creative contributions to the world simply because not enough people showed interest.  They wanted to give their city something unique and heartfelt, but everyone was too busy consuming bland, homogenized products to notice.

Photo credit: flickr.com/bright

It’s challenging to keep working hard at something when you don’t see any tangible results. That’s why we all look for ways to measure our progress. We ask, what are the sales figures like this month, how many pounds did I lose, how many new member joined the church, and so on.

Bad things happen when people focus more on getting the measurements right than on the values behind those measurements, but the stats have their place.  They provide a confirmation that we are not wasting time, money, and effort on fruitless endeavors.

By their abstract nature, the benefits of art are hard to track.  Still, they exist, and just like everyone else, artists want to get a sense that their efforts are not in vain.  Trust me on this, it is already difficult enough for most artists to convince family and friends about the merit of what they do. When you have to also convince yourself of that merit, it becomes almost impossible to keep pressing onward.

I’m not sure if my writing will ever lead to any sustained financial compensation, but I’ll still keep doing it.  You see, I’ve come to believe that writing in an honest and personal way is one of the things I’m supposed to do while on this earth.  Enough people have thanked me for my efforts to sustain that belief. (At least that’s how I feel some days.  I don’t always believe in purpose, but for now let’s just generalize.)

I haven’t always felt that way.  A while ago, I got rather discouraged about the indifferent or callous reception that one of my stories received, and so I told myself I would never discuss that story again.  Nor would I write about things close to heart any more.

The next day, Beth, a teacher of mine, gave my writing a compliment after class.  In so doing, she forced me to break the promise I had made just a day ago.

Here’s the thing, reading the story wasn’t part of her job description.  She read my story because she had taken interest in my work, for whatever reason, not because it was a class assignment.

I didn’t even say anything to her about my frustrations. As I was preparing to leave, she approached me and offered a few nice words.  In those few seconds, she gave me the encouragement to keep fighting.

I persevered and my writing has gotten better as a result, but that wouldn’t have happened if Beth had told herself that instead of reading a script of questionable merit she could read or watch something more widely esteemed  like Tom Wolfe’s latest novel or the new episode of Gray’s Anatomy.

What Beth did for me is what I try to do for others.  I support as many local, worthwhile endeavors as I can, not just the paintings and the plays, but even the small businesses and locally-owned restaurants that do their own thing and do it exceptionally well.

I’m not saying that anything local and independent is better than the established multi-national brands by definition.  I have a better chance of finding the book I want on amazon.com than at the local bookstore, and I doubt that the small-town inventor will produce a better camera than my Canon.

I do buy from the local bookstore, though, if I appreciate the atmosphere it offers. I might even take a chance and buy from that unproven inventor if he seems honest enough and develops something that is potentially useful to me.

Photo credit: flickr.com/tomask

Still, there are only so many hours in the day, and I don’t get to support nearly as much as I’d like.  That’s where you come in.  I know your time and your money are limited, but do what you can.  Someone’s commitment to the path less traveled might depend on  you.

The Art/Porn Dilemma

When I was in college, some of the guys in my film class made a short film about a guy who references prestigious filmmakers like Fellini and Godard when making porn.  There wasn’t any nudity in it.  That made it easy to focus on the humor  that comes from mixing highbrow cinema with lowbrow lust;  comedy does like to tango with contrast.

Lately I’ve thought about that short film.  There’s probably more truth in it than most aspiring artists, even most people, would care to admit.  I suspect that almost everyone has a voice in his head that says something like, “hey, you wouldn’t be struggling so much if you were making porn.”

Self-Portrait with Death as a Fiddler

Self-Portrait with Death as a Fiddler – Arnold Bocklin, 1870s

I’ll explain what I mean in a few paragraphs, but first lets consider why someone might consider doing porn.  For one thing, porn is relatively inexpensive: just persuade an attractive girl to strip while using some decent lights and camera equipment.  Also, the profit margins for porn are generally pretty high, but even if you don’t get paid, you’ll at least get props from horny friends or hipster organizations that are desperately trying to be relevant.

Wow, look at all those alluring attributes.  So why doesn’t our society celebrate the accomplishments of a pornographer in the same way that it embraces the work of a skilled architect, entrepreneur, or inventor?

Sure, some of the stigma comes from religious-minded people, but even the unabashed porn consumers I know are vehemently opposed to the idea of having their sisters or daughters involved.  Why is that?  If porn is just harmless fun, who wouldn’t want a loved one to gain more money and attention by working in the industry?

I don’t believe porn is harmless. It cheapens something beautiful, and it encourages people to think of girls (or boys) as mere sex objects who exist only to satisfy another person’s appetites.

Consider too the strain that porn puts on current or future relationships. If your boyfriend is always looking at porn, do you still trust him entirely when he says he’ll always be faithful to you? Or, suppose you meet a girl who seems perfect for you, and then you discover that she had done a few porn shoots several months ago.  Does that not alter, or at least threaten, your perception of her inner beauty?

I’ve looked at porn before.  Like a drug, it provides  temporary enjoyment while serving an easy “fix” to the frustrations of the moment, but over time it has left me feeling more empty and cynical.

Why get married, I am  tempted to think, if every girl will expose herself to anyone who gives her enough money or attention? Why invest in a relationship when I can enjoy a contorted derivative of its physical rewards without having to put in the effort, honesty, and affection necessary to make a relationship work?

Bacchus

Bacchus – Caravaggio, 1597

I’ve never had moral clarity when looking at porn, but I have made some bad decisions when under its influence.  Not standing up for what is right or treating others as lust objects does affect people by definition, so don’t believe anyone who tells you that porn is just a private vice that has no impact on society.

(In case you’re wondering I’m trying hard to stay away from porn these days, and yet there is a part of me that wants to hold on to it, just in case my life starts to hurt again or my ego needs a boost.  That’s the part I can’t get past unless God helps.  I pray that He will.  If I ever get married, I want to be able to honestly tell my wife that she is the only one I want in the whole world.  It’s why I’m still fighting to get this right.)

Now that you know how I feel about porn, perhaps you’ll understand why I consider it to be a definitive example of selling out creatively.  It is a way of peddling something inferior for a quick gain while being indifferent to the potential harm that it does to others. And yet, there is still the mocking voice in my mind that insinuates I would be better off if I were producing photos and videos that are more like porn and less like the projects that matter to me.

For others, that temptation might come in variations like this: “You won’t get his attention unless you wear that short skirt and low-cut blouse.” Or maybe something like this, “No one will pay attention to your art if the sex isn’t explicit.”

Maybe though, your porn doesn’t involve sex. Maybe the voice whispers to you that you won’t be able to get the results you need unless you treat people in a way that they don’t deserve.  Maybe the temptation is to gain attention by shock or graphic violence.  They don’t call it torture porn for nothing, folks.

Try to ignore that mocking voice and focus on that special thing that only you can do. Here’s where it gets complicated, though.  The history of humanity cannot be honestly conveyed without acknowledging that violence, sex, and vulgarity have been ever-present.  If art is meant to reflect truth in some way, then it has to deal with these things somehow but in a way that enriches, not debases, its audience.

Perseus Turning Phineus and his Followers to Stone

Perseus Turning Phineus and his Followers to Stone – Luca Giordano, 1680s

Remember Medusa?  She’s the Greek monster with snakes for hair who was so ugly that anyone who looked at her would turn to stone.   In college I read a book—I wish I could remember the name of it—that used the Medusa myth to discuss how ancient cultures believed certain kinds of evil should be kept out of sight.  Otherwise the evil might turn a person’s heart to stone, figuratively if not literally.  In other words, just because something is true does not mean that it merits public display.

There is truth in the particulars of making a nuclear bomb, but why show the details and make it easier for terrorists to build their own bombs?  Similarly, rape is an unfortunate reality for too many people, but if you recreate on film a rape exactly as it happened, then you might end up fueling the lust of society’s delinquents.  Evil spreads by infecting minds and poisoning imaginations, and sometimes, like the head of Medusa, it must be quarantined to avoid doing more damage.

With that said, Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus features a naked woman, but only a delirious fool would consider it porn.  It suggests unfolding harmony and renewal and the possibility of divine beauty that transcends the dirty routine of daily life.  To prevent others from experiencing this kind of work would seem terribly unjust to most of us.

Birth of Venus, Botticelli

Birth of Venus – Botticelli, 1484

Mary Zimmerman’s theatrical production of Metamorphoses featured full-frontal male nudity used in a vulnerable, nonsexual way.  Braveheart features both nudity and violence, while Pan’s Labyrinth involves some intense moments of torture.  Yet I have no problem endorsing them.  They are well-ordered in their construction and grounded in a resounding moral center, so they illuminate and inspire.

It’s sort of like how the 1930s director Rouben Mamoulian explains it, “I feel the judgement on a film is if a person who sees it leaves the theater a little better person than he was when he went in.”

Think he was the only director who thought like that?  Here’s what Frank Capra, the Oscar-winning director responsible for It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It Happened One Night, had to say about the subject (in an interview with Literature/Film Quarterly): “when you see explicit sex scenes on the screen, they are defiling one of the most wondrous things any human being can experience.”  That kind of perspective is not the most popular one these days, but popularity is such a capricious judge of merit.

Keep in mind, though, if we call any creative endeavor an obscenity simply because it contains sex or violence, then we would also have to condemn the Bible and probably the rest of the world’s sacred texts.

When then does art become porn?  It’s hard to define exactly.  To paraphrase what Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity, “you’ll know it when you see it.”  If your heart is in the right place, you’ll know eventually.

I’ll go even further.   I believe Christ will make the ambiguities clear if you’re willing to listen, even if you’re not yet willing to believe.  Still, I have a lot of rough edges in my life, so don’t take my word for it.  Just ask yourself, does anything I have to say ring true in your own heart?

These days the profane is so deeply embedded in even our culture’s most profound works of art that it is very hard to separate the profane from the profound.  If your character is strong, you can take away the good without being affected by the bad, but that’s tricky.  An alternative is to choose to support artists whose sensibilities are less corrupted than those of the more popular dark geniuses.  It’s your call as to when it’s appropriate to do one or the other, but if you are a good listener, God might help you make the right call.

Self Portrait - Gauguin

Self Portrait – Gauguin, 1889

Here’s one way I’ve handled that kind of thing: I used to feel that as a film student I had to see every “important” movie that came out, not because I enjoyed doing so but because I wanted to be taken seriously.

My friend helped me to see the foolishness of that kind of thinking when I asked him to go see a serial-killer movie.  He politely explained that he found those kinds of movies depressing.  But it’s critically acclaimed, I responded.   That had no affect on him, to my surprise.

I realized that serial-killer movies also depress me and that I consider many critics to be pompous, lifeless bores.  From then on, I decided to see movies based on how they connect with my sensibilities and not on what other people say that I should watch.  One man’s treasure really can be another man’s porn.

One more example and then I’m done.  A few months ago I read a heart-breaking interview with Maria Schneider, the lead actress in the 1972 film Last Tango in Paris.  She was talking about her experience doing the film’s notorious sex scene.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, the film has some beautiful cinematography and it tells a compelling story about the things that humans can do when faced with romantic loss, and yet there are a few explicit sex scenes that feel gratuitous and don’t add much to the story beyond shock and titillation.

The interview happened more than 20 years after the Last Tango in Paris was made, and yet Ms. Schneider explained that she was still traumatized by the experience.  She “felt raped and humiliated” by it and asserted that the movie  “ruined her life.”

Was it worth it?  For just a movie? For merely an experience that lasts about two hours and then fades from most people’s memories?  What kind of society have we become if we value the cinema so much that we can justify that cost?   The way I see it, Bertolucci sold out his actress so that he could gain acclaim.  Was that acclaim, paid by someone else’s anguish, all he hoped it would be, I wonder.

I don’t want to end up being that person, but I am well aware that it’s a possibility just one bad decision away.  May God help me avoid that fate.  If that means I won’t ever find the success I seek, then so be it. I just hope I can remember that when the next heartache will come; that is when my resolve tends to waver.  Pray for me, and I will do the same for you.  But anyway, for now here’s to not selling out and to making personal, meaningful, and excellent things!