Posts Tagged 'film'

Cameron Crowe: Our Rock and Roll Warrior for Optimism

“There is a good bet that I will erase all of this from my laptop, and you will never read it.  But if you are reading it, and you’re reading it right now, it is only because I was unable to stop.” Those aren’t my words; they’re from the mission statement in Jerry Maguire—you’ll need the special edition to read it—but I can relate.  Cameron Crowe wasn’t the guy who got me interested in filmmaking, but his movies have been a big reason why I’ve kept at it in spite of the heartaches that have come along the way.

It’s hard enough to write about someone whose abilities I greatly admire,  but it’s a whole other ballgame when his work has impacted my life in a deep, sometimes searing way.

Photo credit: flickr.com/michelleu-c

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I figured I could either do a polished, impersonal pass at it, or I could tell the truth. It’s an obvious choice if I want to honor the things Cameron Crowe values: the power of telling the truth even when it hurts is a recurring theme in his work.

Some examples to prove my case: “Let us be honest,” are the first words we see Jerry Maguire write in the mission statement I mentioned at the beginning. Writing it changes his life.

In Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise’s character gets a chance at true love only when he can honestly confront the ugly parts of himself.  William, the Cameron Crowe alter ego in Almost Famous, has to choose between looking cool and being honest.  Like almost every other Cameron Crowe hero, William chooses honesty and takes a beating for it, but he emerges stronger by the end.

Photo credit: flickr.com/yewenyi

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Don’t forget, the first movie Crowe directed was titled Say Anything.   The name comes from an understanding between a father and a daughter that they can say anything to each other as long as it is honest.  When the dad gets caught lying, it destroys their relationship.

OK so we’ll be honest, but let’s get some context before we dive too deep.  “Rhythm,” “dissonance,” and “rebellion” are words you might expect to find in a rock & roll discussion.  But optimism? The word seems a little out of place.  That is, it seems out of place until you throw Cameron Crowe into the mix.

Photo credit: flickr.com/bluepisces

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An accomplished filmmaker, Crowe has earned rock & roll cred by writing for Rolling Stone, where he got to interview and tour with some of the biggest rock bands of the 70s.  Plus, he’s penned liner notes for bands like Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd and  done music videos, and he’s currently finishing up a documentary on Pearl Jam.

Then, of course, there are his movies. Singles and Almost Famous are both grounded in specific music scenes, Seattle grunge for Singles and 1970s rock in Almost Famous.  Along with Nancy Wilson, he  created a fictional band for Almost Famous and then recorded a few of their songs.  His other films have compelling soundtracks that he’s helped to arrange.  He plays music on set to get his actors in the right mood and talks about his movies in musical terms.

With just a line or two of dialogue like the quote that follows, he gives us insightful music commentary but makes it feel like it’s the most casual observation in the world: “So this is what’s become of rock and roll, a smashed guitar behind a glass case displayed in some rich guy’s wall.”  Oh yeah, and he was married to Nancy Wilson, the guitarist from Heart.

Photo credit: flickr.com/edberman

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So where does optimism fit in? To hear Crowe tell it, it’s as if optimism and rock & roll were made for each other. In this interview with beliefnet.com, Crowe states, “I think if you have an open mind and you aren’t too strict about where the greatest messages in life can come from, and honor the message itself, you’ve got to say rock & roll is a powerful, powerful messenger for goodness-as well as subversive elements that are there in all elements of the world. But I love great music and the transcendent place that it takes you to.”

It was Cameron Crowe who described himself as a “warrior for optimism” in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, and he’s earned the title with his body of work. His movies remind us of why we’ve grown cynical but then conquer that cynicism with sincerity and decency.

Before she meets her true love, played by Campbell Scott, Krya Sedgwick’s character in Singles gets conned by someone who only wants her body.  That makes her a little more guarded.  Steve has his own setbacks to overcome.  He has committed all of his efforts at work to building a monorail.  In most movies he would succeed at his goal, and win the girl in the process.  In this one, his project fails entirely.  Still they make it work by sharing their frustrations with each other.

Pearl Jam, “The Fixer” directed by Cameron Crowe

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If you haven’t seen Singles yet, give it a shot.  There are lots of fun cameo appearances.  Some of the guys from Pearl Jam are in it, playing in a band called Citizen Dick. They’re as cheesy as you’d expect with a name like that.  Then there’s Tim Burton who we learn is going to be the “next Martin Scor-ceese.” He makes ridiculously awful dating videos for his clients.

And let’s not forget our friend Paul Giamatti of Lady in the Water fame.  He plays “Kissing Man,” but he does so much with his few moments on screen.  There is passion but vulnerability.  Ferocious intensity, but also a longing desire to get past the superficial aspect of it all.  It’s like he’s channeling James Cagney and Earnest Borgnine at the same time. OK, I’m just kidding … about the James Cagney bit.  Still it was a good moment for the Giamaiester, and I’m guessing the casting director for Sideways liked his work in Singles enough to give him the keys to kingdom. Anyway…

In Almost Famous, the band does sell out.  They listen to Jimmy Fallon’s promoter and opt to go the route that will get them more money and publicity.  In the process they leave young William high and dry, and they do away with their beloved band bus, nicknamed Doris, to get a jet.   Symbolic of their decision to sell out, the jet literally almost kills them. Eventually, the band members confront their flaws, and Russell Hammond does right by William. Only when the band rediscovers its soul does Doris the bus return.

Photo credit: flickr.com/jerryjohn

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Jerry Maguire is inspired to write his mission statement because he notices that “in the quest for the big dollars a lot of the little things were going wrong.”  People at his agency were willing to do anything to make more money, even if that meant lying or putting the health of their players at risk.

Everyone remembers the phrase “show me the money” from that film, but Jerry’s mission statement actually emphasizes putting personal relationships above profit. He wants to be in the business of caring about his clients, of doing the right thing.  That’s why he gets fired.

Oh yes, I do remember when I first saw Jerry Maguire.  I was in London, studying abroad. It was a new city for me to explore, full of history, of drama, of possibility. We were sort of a family, me and all the American kids in my program, but slowly the all-too-familiar feeling of being out of place returned.

How awful to feel that way even in a seemingly magical metropolis. I had to numb myself.  It was the only way I knew to deal with the pain. Doing that sort of thing only hurts when the numbness wears off, but when it does, it is so very hard to get up and fight again.

I didn’t want to get up and fight again. Things did not change for me, no matter what I did or where I went.  I was about to go to sleep, but something told me to turn on the TV.  I did and saw that Jerry Maguire was playing.  I thought, “no way do I want to watch an egotistical jerk shout about getting more money.” Still, the voice insisted. Curious, I started to watch.   Soon the movie got to the part where Tom Cruise’s character realizes that he’s good at business but horrible at intimacy. That got my attention.   It did more than that, in fact.

Photo credit: flickr.com/thomashawk

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On one level, Jerry Maguire is about a man who carves out a new and noble sports business for himself, but on a deeper level it is about a man who learns to love by remembering the notable example of his now-absent father. As he tells us in voice over, Jerry becomes his father’s son again when he writes the mission statement. Then, he bonds with Dorothy’s boy because they both miss their fathers, and the boy wants Jerry Maguire to be his new dad. That brings Jerry closer to Dorothy, which forces him to break through his fears of intimacy and finally arrive at love.

Seeing Jerry Maguire find love made me a little more hopeful that I could someday make things work. My reaction was like that of the kid in Say Anything who hears about how Lloyd Dobler, a financially challenged jock, is daring to make things work with a more affluent girl who happens to be the school’s valedictorian: “This is great. This gives me hope. Thanks.”

Photo credit: flickr.com/thomashawk

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It was Jerry Maguire and the hug of one girl in London that made it possible for me to write my first script. The girl was the first one who ever hugged me in a way that felt like it meant, “I am so very glad that you are here.” I didn’t know hugs could do that.

Back to our director’s films.  It’s not just in Jerry Maguire that Cameron Crowe makes dramatic use of an absent, noble father.  There’s no father in Almost Famous, a dead one in Elizabethtown, an incarcerated one in Say Anything, one who abandons a boy in Singles, and a distant, corporate one in Vanilla Sky.

The absence of a caring father is so devastating to Tom Cruise’s character in Vanilla Sky that he imagines a surrogate father into his life.  Add to that what Tom Cruise the person has shared about his own abusive father, and Vanilla Sky becomes, more than any other film that comes to mind, a sort of cautionary tale about how the absence of a noble father can sour the development of a young man. (There is also a bit of that in the TV show Lost, but you’re in a different category when you have lots more hours to tell your story.)

Photo credit: flickr.com/alan-light, 1989

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Vanilla Sky is actually a retelling of the Spanish film Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes).  Both are excellent films, but Vanilla Sky has an added layer that examines celebrity culture.  It comes with the territory of having Tom Cruise in your movie, and his performance consists partly of playing up to our expectations of him as a celebrity.  That’s why it has more of an impact when he also plays against those expectations in the film.

Taking into account Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, and Vanilla Sky, I don’t think it’s a stretch to conclude that Cameron Crowe has a bit of a love-hate relationship with celebrities. On the one hand, the famous ones are often capable of awe-inspiring greatness, but on the other hand they can be thoughtless in how they treat others. They’re also sometimes enabled to damage the world by those who protect them from the consequences of their actions.

In Almost Famous, the band trades Penny Lane to another band for a case of beer.  When Penny finds out she tries to kill herself.  At first, even Jerry Maguire protects the sports stars he represents from sexual allegations until he gets a change of heart.  Tom Cruise’s character in Vanilla Sky is oblivious to how his actions are hurting others, until it is too late.

Photo credit: flickr.com/brandoncwarren

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Still, one of the big ideas in Vanilla Sky, as Crowe himself tells us, is the value of being able to take the sweet and the sour that life has to offer. That’s also not a bad way to think about celebrities.

Sure, a band might abuse drugs and women, but that doesn’t negate the joy they spread when performing.  Celebrities like Joan Crawford or Tom Cruise might have their dark sides, but that doesn’t detract from their dedication to their craft or their capacities for emotional honesty.  It is possible and quite healthy to admire others without overlooking their flaws.

That kind of approach has been enormously helpful to me.  It allows me to confront bad behavior even when it comes from people I admire, and for almost everyone there is the sour that goes with the sweet, even for Cameron Crowe.

Photo credit: flickr.com/margolove

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He is one of my favorite filmmakers, but I still wince at some of his tendencies.  He does fight for optimism, but his movies also encourage a more casual attitude toward swearing.  It’s not that swear words offend me or that I don’t ever swear myself, but there is something to be said for civil discourse in public.  It bothers me a little more when it’s the young kids in the scene who say the swear words, as happens in Say Anything and Jerry Maguire.

And then there is Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  That’s the one he wrote but didn’t direct.  Prior to listening to that commentary track, I thought his commentaries always added depth and texture to his films. I mean, how can you not admire a guy who includes the perspectives of his mom and his wife in his discussions?

Well, the Fast Times commentary is the only one I’ve ever heard that has made me like a film less.  In it, Crowe explains how he was so excited to hear Sean Penn say “dick” that he would plead for him to say it every time he saw him.  When I heard that, I imagined Cameron Crowe as the kind of  kid who would punch the piñata he carried in celebration every time someone described a girl’s breasts.  Classy.

Photo credit: flickr.com/brandoncwarren

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Also, he and Amy Heckerling bemoan the mean ol’ ratings board that would not allow them to show erect penises along with the two naked chicks that they already featured, one of them almost showing full-frontal nudity. Crowe laughs off concerns from the critics that they were exploiting teenage girls for their film.  The characters might have been underage he tells us, but the actresses were at least 18, and the girls wanted to go even further with the sex scenes.  If anything, the filmmakers were showing tasteful restraint, Crowe suggests.  What a jerk, I thought.

I enjoy seeing beautiful women as much as the next guy, but it is such a challenge not to get caught up in treating women like sex objects, and movies like that don’t help. Sex is such a big part of our lives, but it can be devastating when we get it wrong, so why make things tougher on the audience by showing them such explicit images?

Photo credit: flickr.com/seeminglee

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On top of that, one of the girls in the movie spends more time deliberating about what dress to wear than about whether she should get an abortion.  In this movie, picking the right dress requires consultation, but getting an abortion doesn’t.  It’s just a matter of finding the right person to drive you to the clinic.

I know that abortion is a tough subject, and I don’t expect every filmmaker to share my point of view, but how disappointing to see that getting an abortion was played as such an obvious choice.

I was actually depressed for a few hours after watching the movie and hearing the commentary.  Why was I admiring the guy largely responsible for such a shallow film?  Clearly he was just like everyone else, and I was so wrong about him, and if Cameron Crowe is like that then why not settle for a shallow existence?  Then I got a nice text message from a friend, and that sent away my sour thoughts.

To be fair, the book version of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I read shortly after re-watching the movie, was more enjoyable.  That’s the one Cameron Crowe wrote before he turned it into a screenplay, and it has more nuanced character moments in it.  For example, Spicoli the pothead isn’t just there for comic relief.  He’s trying to cope with his dysfunctional family and his struggles in school.   As to the abortion scene, we actually read about the girl’s feelings of dread and isolation at the clinic.  She asks the doctor, “Does it hurt more to have a baby?”  He responds, “Yes. But you mind it less.” That does change the context a bit, don’t you think?

Photo credit: flickr.com/brandoncwarren

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It’s encouraging that Crowe’s depictions of sex have matured in his later films. There’s nudity in Vanilla Sky, but it is handled in a more tasteful way.  In his comments about that film, he talks about the merits of not having sex right away and about how casual sex is never as casual as people pretend.  Then there’s the line from Cameron Diaz:  “When you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not.” In Elizabethtown, Kirsten Dunst’s modesty is protected by a few foaming bubbles, and so the scene becomes flirty but not lascivious.

A few days went past before I realized why Fast Times affected me the way that it did.  I had been idolizing Cameron Crowe, and doing that can lead to trouble.  No man is God, regardless of how talented or famous.  Cameron Crowe is a big inspiration, but he’s human just like the rest of us.  He has his virtues and his vices.  I just wasn’t willing to acknowledge that before I started preparing for this post.

That’s why I defended Elizabethtown as a great movie when it first came out.  It isn’t.  It’s a well intentioned film with terrific music and moments of greatness, but it has its flaws.

Instead of allowing the ensuing action to develop from the inciting incident, Crowe tries to expand the story by resorting to attention-grabbing set pieces like an over-the-top wedding party unrelated to the main characters, a TV show about exploding houses, and Susan Surandon doing a comedy routine about boners.  Her routine actually causes a plane-like bird to crash and start a fire.  Subtle realism that scene is not.

He didn’t have to resort to those kinds of tricks on movies like Jerry Maguire or Vanilla Sky.  I’m guessing the problem was that certain aspects of his own father’s death were still too painful for him to explore in a creative project.  Still, the movie made enough of an impression that it inspired me to take a road trip and to seek out some of the cities that the movie mentioned.

Photo credit: Me, road trip 1: Beale St., Memphis.  (Photos from Road Trip 2 are here.)

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Anyway, my reaction to Fast Times got me thinking about how people might see me if they only  saw certain moments of my life in isolation.   Some moments might suggest that I’m a monster, others that I’m a saint, but I’d like to think I’m just a guy trying to do the best I can with what I’ve been dealt. I’m still waiting for God to fix the parts in me I can’t resolve.  Someday.

I’ve definitely done things I’m not proud of doing.  I’ve tried to move on, to do better, but sometimes I still stumble.  Meaning well doesn’t change the fact that there are still consequences to the things we do, no matter how much we try to avoid them.

Remember the girl in London I mentioned earlier? Things never work out. At that point in my life I wasn’t ready to meet her.  I was too busy trying to numb the pain, and so I lacked the character I needed to really connect with her. Sad when that happens.

Photo credit: flickr.com/c-reel

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It’s like Jason Lee explains to Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, “You can do whatever you want with your life, but one day you’ll know what love truly is, it’s the sour and the sweet.”  You can’t have one without the other.

The holidays can be a time of celebration, but they can also be a reminder of all the things in our lives that aren’t working.  If you’re hurting, don’t give up.  Actions do have consequences, but to quote Vanilla Sky once again, “Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.” What’s done can’t be undone, but it’s not too late to fix the future.

Photo credit: flickr.com/bea-258

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In Say Anything Ione Skye begs a banker to “be a little decent,” but why be just a little decent? Be boldly, outrageously decent and take that leap of faith. All kinds of interesting things might happen if you do that, but you’ll never know if you never jump off that building.  Good is out there. It’s just a little harder to see in our cynical world.

In a featurette for Jerry Maguire Tom Cruise tells us, “Optimism in many ways is a revolutionary act today. People who are optimistic tend to get battered a little bit in this world at times.”   That’s true even for Cameron Crowe. Elizabethtown, the last movie he made, took a beating from the critics, and his divorce to Nancy Wilson just got finalized this month.

Photo credit: flickr.com/bea-258

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So, this Christmas lets send our prayers of gratitude and hope to Cameron Crowe: May you stand up once again, like the noble warrior that you are, and lead us bravely into battle once more.  For what it is worth, I’m still fighting, and you’re a big reason why.

Let’s end with a story.  My mom is the kind of person who always seems to walk in on a movie at the most inopportune moments.  One year when I was watching Jerry Maguire at home, she came in during the sex scene at the beginning.  “Why are you watching this trash?” she asked.  I tried to explain that it wasn’t as graphic as it could have been, and that the movie actually had a positive message.  She walked away unconvinced.

Later she came back during the climactic football scene at Christmas.  She studied the screen for a moment then spoke.

Photo credit: flickr.com/pagedooley

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She mentioned John 3:16, as if she had just won an argument.  “What do you mean?” I asked. She pointed it out.   Sure enough there is a poster prominently positioned in the stadium that says “John 3:16.” I had never noticed that before.  At least the movie has something that is right, her words and gestures conveyed.  Yeah. Rock and Roll, Cameron Crowe.

Merry Christmas everyone, and God bless.

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To learn more about Cameron Crowe or to read some of the articles he wrote for Rolling Stone, check out his site at cameroncrowe.com.

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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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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.

Director Frank Capra: My Great American Hero

It’s not just that  Frank Capra is a great director or that his movies are a big part of why I want to make movies. Both points are true, but it goes beyond that.  Ever since I saw his films as kid, there was a part of me that wanted to somehow find my way into the Capra world. I didn’t realize this until a few months ago, at least not consciously.  Until then that wish was hiding somewhere in the back of my mind,  subtly influencing my choices throughout the years.

Time Magazine cover: Aug. 8, 1938.  (Cinema: Columbia’s Gem, written as You Can’t Take It With You was coming to theaters.)


To those of you who are already starting to fidget in your seats, I see you! Well, I don’t, but I’m imagining that I can, and it looks like you might spill your coffee if you keep it up, you impatient cinema enthusiasts, you.

Not to worry, I am going to talk about Frank Capra’s movies.  I went back and watched as many of them as I could find, including the documentaries.  I read his interviews and his autobiography. I even read his critics.  But, I’m also going to talk about how his movies affected me.

Art is meant to have an impact on its audience, after all, so why try to sterilize the subjective experience out of the discussion?  If you prefer straight analysis, I suppose you could read Cahiers du Cinéma or something equally pretentious, I mean prestigious.

Poster for It Happened One Night, 1934

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With that said, what are some of the qualities that make Capra’s films so special?  There’s  playfulness for starters.  Mr. Capra began his career writing gags for the silent-era comedians, and he’s carried that comedic training into the films he directed.   Some comedy-oriented performers and directors dismiss the value of what they do.  Not Frank Capra.

“Comedy is fulfillment, accomplishment, overcoming.  It is victory over odds, a triumph of good over evil,” he explains.  He saw great merit in making people laugh, and so he worked diligently at his craft.  Maybe that’s why his screwball comedy It Happened One Night was the first film ever to win an Academy Award for both Best Picture and Best Director.

Photo credit: flickr.com/uw_digital_images, 1909

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In the Why We Fight series of documentaries that Capra directed during World War II, prominent Nazis and Japanese adversaries are described as being “humorless men.” Them’s fighting words, at least to Capra; To be humorless is to be villainous in Capra’s movies.

Consider: Mean ole Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life doesn’t bother with jokes. He’s too busy with financial concerns.

In Hole in the Head,  Frank Sinatra plays a fun-loving gambler who struggles to take care of his son.  He makes mistakes, but we’re meant to root for him. Sinatra’s more responsible, but sullen brother, played by Edward G. Robinson, is the antagonist.  About his reckless brother whom he has spent most of the movie condemning, Robinsson finally concludes, “he’s broke, but he’s not poor. We’re poor.”  The ending leaves some hope that even the uptight brother will learn to love and play.

Indeed, rediscovering playfulness is essential for any Capra heel who wants to turn good. In Riding High, the dad is the humorless business tycoon who stands in the way of the young lovers getting married, but he eventually grows tired of being the stuffed shirt.  With previously unseen jubilation, he tells his guests that he’ll be running away with the young couple. Then he dances triumphantly to their car.

An even better example is found in You Can’t Take it With You.  This time Edward Arnold plays the baddie who happens to be—wait for it ladies and gentlemen—another heartless, money-minded man.  He puts the squeeze on a hard-working family, but in the process he gets to know the father of the house.

Arnold eventually reveals that he used to once play the harmonica, Capra’s way of telling us that he wasn’t always such a bad guy.  When he’s moved by the strength of character that he sees in the family,  Arnold renounces his selfish ways.  That happens shortly after he receives a harmonica as a gift.  By the end, Arnold is all smiles, playing music with the rest of the family.

Photo credit: flickr.com/uaarchives, 1917

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To prepare for this post, I even forced myself to watch Frank Capra’s made-for-TV science documentaries. I remember the awfully boring science videos I was shown in school, and I was not keen on re-experiencing them.    I looked for something potentially more exciting to do … like flossing.  If I skipped the videos I could do quite a bit of flossing, after all, and that way, for the first time in my life, I could go to the dentist without being embarrassed when the flossing questions come up.

“Tell me, Mr. Savides, when was the last time you flossed?”  “Just yesterday.” “I see. And how long did you floss?”  “Two and a half hours.”  That would shut him up, don’t you think?  It could have been a glorious triumph for me, but it was not meant to be.  I watched the Capra documentaries, and consequently I am still embarrassed by flossing questions.

My flossing sacrifice was not in vain, however.  While my dentist might disagree, I think I made the right choice.  The science videos were not just informative but personable, imaginative and even amusing.  The one I enjoyed most was “The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays.”  It features puppet versions of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens,  and my favorite, the intoxicated Dostoevsky presiding over a mystery-writing contest.

Debonair scientists make a case that their scientific inquiries about cosmic rays should be up for consideration.  They show cartoon sequences to explain their research, while my boy Dostoevsky pours himself more vodka and struggles to stay awake.  I learned more science from those videos than from several humorless, strictly academic lectures that I’ve endured throughout the years.

Photo credit: flickr.com/library_of_congress

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Another aspect of Frank Capra’s work that I admire is his love of America.  He was born in Sicily, and he came to America as an immigrant.  His family was poor, and I imagine even discriminated against, but Capra never lost sight of how good we have it here.   His affection for America is sometimes revealed by a subtle reference to a national pastime like baseball.    In some of his best work, though,  (films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, Why We Fight, and It’s a Wonderful Life come to mind) defending what’s right about America is a central preoccupation.

I still get chills whenever I hear some of the speeches from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Here’s one of them: “Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that stands for liberty, take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something, and you won’t just see scenery—you’ll see the whole parade of what man’s carved out for himself after centuries of fighting and fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet—free and decent, like he was created—no matter what his race, color or creed.  That’s what you’ll see. There’s no place out there for graft or greed or lies or compromise with human liberties.  And if that’s what the grown-ups have done to this world that was given to them we’d better get those boy’s camps started fast and see what the kids can do, and it is not too late because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you or me, or anything else.  Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light.  They’re right here.  You just have to see them.”

Photo credit: flickr.com/cornelluniversitylibrary, 1888

Some of Capra’s critics accuse him of creating a sugar-coated view of the country.  They sneeringly describe it as Capracorn, but their critiques are unfair.  Capra shows the bad along with the good.  In State of the Union, one politician in power spots one of the good guys and asks his friend, “”How did he get in here?  He’s honest.”   Sure, Mr Smith Goes to Washington showcases idealism, but that idealism is put through the fire and mocked by the film’s gaggle of world-weary cynics. It prevails only after battling to survive.

In fact, that film was met with outrage and protest when it was first screened in DC.  The politicians and press representatives were displeased that it portrayed their professions as being susceptible to corruption. Capra didn’t turn a blind-eye to America’s flaws, but he still believed in and celebrated its potential. As proof of that, he named his production company Liberty Films, and used the Liberty Bell as the logo.

I wish more of today’s hipsters would show gratitude for the freedoms their country provides, even as they address some of the problems they see in America.  Unfortunately, these days it’s basically uncool to talk about love of country, especially if you’re an aspiring creative type.  Be that as it may, Frank Capra offers a reassuring example that you can be both an engaged patriot and a successful artist.

What’s more, Capra didn’t support his country with just empty words.  At the height of his success as a director, right when the US began fighting in World War II, he contacted the Army to help with the war effort.

He committed to making several films to show his countrymen why they had to fight the German and Japanese oppressors.  That meant giving up a significant amount of time that could have been spent doing more profitable or prestigious projects.  When was the last time you heard of a contemporary celebrity doing something like that?

Photo credit: flickr.com/library_of_congress, ca. 1905-1910

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If my imagination is right, then you’re starting to look a little too serious, diligent blog reader. Well, I guess it is serious stuff, and you’ve been reading for a while without encountering  any more attempts at humor.  (Depending on your perspective, that might be a blessing.)

However you may feel about the matter, I want to do something about it. That’s why I hired a few mimes to help me with the jokes.  But you know, it’s not working out so well; they’re not saying anything.  Maybe next time.

In my defense, I guess I could mention that my dog ate my jokes, at least the funny ones.  I don’t have a dog, but if I did, I’m sure he would have eaten pages of jokes by now. Assuming that these jokes in question involved some thought, which is admittedly a big assumption, then the theoretical dog would be in the unusual position of having thought for food.  I’m not sure what that means, but presumably there are philosophers out there trying to find out.  For now, let’s just keep on marching.

Poster for It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946

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Think back to the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where a desperate George Bailey goes to Potter to borrow some money.  Uncle Billy had misplaced $8,000 dollars, but when Potter interrogates, George takes full responsibility for the mistake. I recall thinking something like, “Oh, so that’s what it looks like when a good man is facing a crisis.” I don’t often get to see intimate displays of integrity in the real world, so I’m captivated whenever Capra gives me the opportunity to do so in his films.

Essentially, a Capra hero is a man of character who faces the temptation of giving up his ideals, of selling out in the name of convenience. George takes a cigar from Potter before deciding not to yield.  In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jefferson Smith’s mentor Senator Paine pleads with him to compromise for the sake of advancing his career. When Longfellow Deeds is betrayed by the city gal he tried to help in Mr. Deeds Comes to Town, he questions his small-town values and considers giving in to the vultures who want his money.

Promotional material for The Strong Man, 1926

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The absence of just one man of principle is enough to turn a charming Capra town into a vice-ridden slum. That’s what Bedford Falls would be without George Bailey.  We see hints of that even in Capra’s silent film The Strong Man, which stars the wonderful, vastly underrated Harry Langdon.  In that film, the town hall becomes a decadent vaudevillian house when the local authorities accept bribes.  A title card explains: “Justice and decency had fled before the new law — money.”  Only the minister refuses to sell out; he leads the town in opposing the gangsters.  Eventually order is restored and the town hall becomes a place of justice once again.

It’s not an accident that the minister is the restorative force.  There is an undercurrent of faith throughout Capra’s work. Jefferson Smith is encouraged to look to a higher power when he despairs.  In both It’s a Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe, the hero is rescued from tragedy on Christmas day.  As if that weren’t symbolic enough, the dialogue in Meet John Doe goes so far as to associate the hero with Christ.

Photo credit: flickr.com/library_of_congress, 1942

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The Why We Fight documentaries set up two opposing worlds, the free world vs. the slave world,  similar to how St. Augustine sets up two opposing cities in his theological masterpiece City of God.   In the free world,  leisure-minded men and women care about each other, order their own lives, and worship God as they please.   In comparison, the slave world deprives its citizens of choice and aims to “take children from the faith of their fathers and teach them that the state is the only church and the head of the state is the voice of God.” (What is a modern-day example of a political leader who gets the messianic treatment from his followers, whose image is plastered everywhere as if it were a religious icon?  It does sound familiar…)

In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title,  Frank Capra talks about how being director means that he has the opportunity to talk to millions of people in the dark for hours at a time.  Dictators kill for that kind of access, and so he feels a strong responsibility to make it count for good.  “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, and that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they learn to love each,” he writes.   Wow, thanks for that Mr. Capra.

Photo credit: flickr.com/kevharb

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Maybe that’s why I’ve never been demoralized by watching a single Capra film. I can’t say the same about many of today’s contemporary artists, but they probably don’t share Capra’s esteem and affection for his audience.

To be fair, this is an issue I struggle with as well. Looking back, I’ve acted in one or two shows where my character had  more swearing than I’d prefer.  I didn’t think about it at the time, reasoning that the story had some merit and that I needed to get  experience,  but maybe I influenced some of the audience to be less civil with their speech.   This is not to say that artists should avoid any questionable material, but there is something to be said about considering how your work will affect others.

The tricky thing with drama is  that it deals with vice and human frailty.  If you don’t show it at all, then you aren’t telling the truth.  But if you show it in such a way as to glamorize it, then you risk corrupting the audience.  Somehow Capra found a way to deal with corruption, violence, sex, despair, deceit and greed without losing a sense of innocence, but it’s not an easy thing to do.

Harry Langdon and Joan Crawford in Tramp Tramp Tramp (directed by Harry Edwards), 1926

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What if you’ve already lost your sense of innocence, though? You’re not alone.  At the beginning of this post, I mentioned how I secretly wanted to inhabit Frank Capra’s cinematic realm.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a world where most characters radiate folksy charm and goodness, the mothers and fathers love each other, the kids are rambunctious but cheerful, and everyone knows each other by name, even the maids and taxi drivers.   The only problem is that I knew even as a youngster that Capra would not have cast me in his films.  I was too tangled up inside.

My family did the best they could, but there was a bit of screaming when no one else was around, and I didn’t handle it well.  In school,  I was the chubby kid who didn’t know how to defend himself, so people picked on  me to the point where I’d come home crying and count the number of days left in the school year.  (I’m better at defending myself now.  If possible I’d prefer not to fight, but I don’t fear conflict.)

Photo credit: flickr.com/library_of_congress, 1941

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Anyway, I chose to let those sour ingredients ferment inside my heart, and slowly I grew up a little crooked.   I tried to hide the things in my soul that weren’t as they should be by being a good student and striving to get the outward appearances right.  Sometimes, I even tried to be earnest like Capra’s actors,  but I came across as muddled and disingenuous. When you can’t even be honest with yourself about who you are, then it’s much harder to convince others of your sincerity.

Lamentably, there are still things I do on occasion that don’t mesh with the Capra ideal.  I’m doing the best I can to live better, but it still stings to admit that.  Now and then when I’m confused about how to handle a challenge in my life, I’ll ask myself, “What would Capra do?”  To admire someone but to know that you probably don’t live up to all of his standards is a conflicting experience, to say the least.  Still, I have reason to think that I wouldn’t be entirely scorned by Capra.

Meet John Doe and State of the Union both feature men who sold out but who are struggling to redeem themselves.  Lest you think I’m reading too much into the films, consider Spencer Tracy’s quote from State of the Union, “I sold out to them, but get this straight, I am no lamb led to the slaughter.  I ran to it.”  Still, just like Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe, Tracy gets to set things right after he acknowledges his errors.  Capra believes in second chances.

The last movie Capra made was Pocketful of Miracles, which is a remake of his earlier Lady for a Day.  The story involves a gangster who is given the chance to help a beggar lady by getting his goons to act like high class people.

Getting lowlifes to appear cultured can be part of a director’s job as well, and maybe that’s why Capra liked the story enough to revisit it. (If you don’t know what I mean, try spending a little more time around actors!  I’m saying that as someone who has, on a few rare occasions, gotten paid to act.)  It’s possible, though, that Capra connected with the story because it offers even a gangster the chance to become a decent person.

Photo credit: flickr.com/uw_digital_images, ca. 1929-1932

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The decisions Capra characters make in the past aren’t nearly as dramatically significant as the choices they make in the present. I’d like to think that is Capra’s way of offering hope to those of us who have already lost our sense of innocence but are trying to rediscover it.

In the course of preparing for this post, I ran into another instance where I found myself wondering what Capra would do.  It came after watching Glenn Beck’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial.  After seeing it and hearing about the criticism he received, something inside my heart told me I should defend him.  I did not wish to do so.  Every time I speak out politically I threaten my ability to work in the film industry, since a strong majority of filmmakers think differently than I do.

I’ve spoken out before, but this time it felt like there was more at stake.  This time I had a sense that I was close to attaining something very dear to my heart, something I’ve pursued for months and even years of my life, and that I might ruin things by speaking up.  Maybe it was just my imagination.  I don’t know, but the things I sense tend to have some connection to reality.

Angrily, I pushed the idea of defending Glenn Beck away, but a voice in my head kept asking me what Capra would do.  The only way to avoid that question was to give up on this post.  I tried that too, but I kept coming back to the same question.  Avoiding the question in the name convenience is not the Capra way, after all.

Finally, I answered: Capra would do the right thing because it was the right thing to do, regardless of the cost. But I still had a way out: I wasn’t entirely sure that defending Glenn Beck was the right thing to do.  I asked God to make it clear if I should speak up, and God made it clear (at least as clear as anything can be that involves divine revelation, which is to say that there is still room for doubt and that pressing forward still involves faith, but I got more than what was statistically probable).

I did defend Glenn Beck, and I don’t know what will happen because of that, but I might not have made that decision if it weren’t for the influence of Frank Capra, a man I’ve never met. As Clarence Oddbody the Angel might say, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives.”

Photo credit: flickr.com/george_eastman_house, 1945

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I’m still praying that things will work out.  If you’re up there reading this Mr. Capra, then I could use your help.  I’m not Catholic, but I’ll campaign to get you sainted, if the secret wishes in my heart come true in part because of you.

Since Frank Capra preferred the popular over the pretentious and liked to end his films with a stirring bit of music,  I think these lyrics from Lee Ann Womack’s song are a fitting way to end this Capra tribute:

“I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance

Never settle for the path of least resistance

Living might mean taking chances

But they’re worth taking

Lovin’ might be a mistake

But it’s  worth making

Don’t let some hell bent heart

Leave you bitter

When you come close to selling out

Reconsider

Give the heavens above

More than just a passing glance

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, 1943

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Thanks for reading, and God bless.

(If you’ve enjoyed reading this post or some of the others I’ve written, consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  I only write when I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time considering my subject and 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.)

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!

An Ode to the Super Genius of Pixar

In case you’re wondering, the title was inspired by a comment that Andrew Stanton made on the DVD extras for Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. He was explaining that their movie involved so many technological marvels that it should be released as the super-genius edition.  I hope Mr. Stanton won’t mind too much that I borrowed his phrase to celebrate his company.

If the title did not already make this point abundantly clear, I have no intention whatsoever of writing an unbiased, scientific-sounding piece on Pixar. You see,  I am very much biased in favor of the company. Pixar was one big reason why I dedicated a few years of my life to the study of computer animation.  (There was also a fairytale and a girl, but that’s a whole other story.)   I don’t have a successful career in that field as of yet, and even if I never do, I’m certain that when it ends for me here on this earth,  Pixar will be one of very few companies that had a defining impact on my life.  That’s worth writing about, don’t you think?

Photo credit: flickr.com/thomashawk


You know what else is worth writing about?  Going 10 for 10 in box office hits. Every single movie that Pixar has made achieved enormous financial success.  Name another company, whether film or otherwise, with that kind of track record.   I can’t think of any.

If a company can produce one hit after another in a competitive industry where failure is, according to the statistics, the expected outcome, then there must be some magic in the web of it, as our friend Shakespeare might say.  I wanted to learn about that magic, and so I began to study the company.

I’ll mention a few references at the end that go over the history of Pixar and some of their interesting business practices, but I’m not going to rehash all that here.  I’m more interested in trying to get to the soul of Pixar by looking at the work they’ve produced.  After all, you can know the history of a person without really knowing who he or she is.  Companies are no different.

To prepare for this admittedly daunting task, I re-watched every single Pixar DVD, including the shorts, commentaries, documentaries and all the extra features.  I have also read and listened to books about the company as well as technical discussions that Pixar employees have given at places like Siggraph, Computer Graphics World, fxguide, and so on.

The movies, though, are the essence of what Pixar does, and that’s where I’ll concentrate.   With that said, let’s dive in!

It’s Not (Just) About the Benjamins

“If we had approached this only from the standpoint of marketing, maybe this movie would not have been made. But that’s not what interests anybody at Pixar. What interests us is, Does this sound like a great story?”  That’s Brad Bird, the director of Ratatouille, talking about his movie with Entertainment Weekly.  Now that he mentions it, I guess rats handling human food is not the most obvious concept for a blockbuster.

That’s not the only time that Pixar avoided the obvious route.  Wall Street analysts predicted that Up would hurt Disney’s profits because it did not have any compelling characters that make for good action figures.

Not enough people would pay money to go see an action-adventure cartoon about an old man in a house, they snidely insinuated.  Pixar won the argument by creating a crowd-pleasing, Academy-Award-winning film that made us care about a type of character who is normally ignored in  cinema.

Even though kids make up a significant part of Pixar’s audience, the filmmakers behind Up resisted the temptation to over-explain.  Instead, they tell the story of Elie’s death almost entirely in montage, and it’s one of the best montages in recent film history.

Sure, that took longer  to do and cost more money, and you don’t have to work that hard to keep most kids engaged.  Still, Pixar goes the extra mile.  They budget trips for their production people in the name of inspiration:  For Cars it was a roadtrip across the country.  For Finding Nemo it was scuba-diving in the ocean.   On Up, they flew in their artists to a remote location in Venezuela by helicopter.

Every Pixar movie comes with at least one short and a few documentaries.  When the company is feeling particularly generous, you also get games, short-stories, Easter eggs, and fun character-gag reels.

These extras take months of time to produce, and yet most people would still buy the Pixar movies without them.  With all the added value that they offer in their productions, you would think that Pixar would charge more for their movies, but they don‘t.

Photo credit: flickr.com/adrianhon

As it turns out, 4 of the 10 Pixar films have plots that question the pursuit of profit for merely the sake of profit. In Cars, the driving motivation for Lightning McQueen is getting the Dineco sponsorship.  He literally drives across the country to get it, but when he learns to care about others he realizes there are more important things in life than getting the right sponsor.

In WALL-E, the humans have devolved into consumer blobs in part because the company Buy N Large encourages them to buy lots of things as often as possible.  If you’ve ever had to work with just-make-the-bar-graph-go-up types, check out the Buy N Large featurette on the WALL-E disc.  It might make you laugh or cry, depending on how close it is to your experience.

Remember Monsters Inc? That’s about a company struggling to make bank by scaring kids.   The owner Mr. Waternoose complains that it’s getting harder and harder to scare kids, so he partners with the bad guy to make a more sinister scare extractor.

When Sully and Mike Wazowski realize that laughter is more powerful, more profitable, than screams, they transform the entire company’s business practices.  The workplace appears drab and lifeless  when scaring is the goal; when laughter reigns, the environment becomes one of celebration.

A company that makes money by scaring people: what might that represent? I don’t know.  Hmm.  Could that be … Hollywood?  There are definitely  movie companies who are ready to do anything to make a quick buck, even if that means debasing human dignity and pandering to people’s basest instincts.

Pixar, though, has had enormous financial success without resorting to the use of strippers, gruesome mutilations, and f-bombs.  They’re such capable storytellers that they don’t need those things to keep an audience engaged.  Do you know who isn’t that versatile?  David Mamet!

(Yeah I said it.  Mr. Mamet does write interesting plays, but it would be nice to see him expand his vocabulary beyond the f-word, the beloved colloquial variations of a man’s reproductive organ, the thesaurus entries for  ‘scheme,’ and the cosmopolitan variations of ‘money.’ Hey, Shakespeare didn’t have resort to swear words every 12 seconds to sustain dramatic tension, so it is theoretically possible to do even when writing a play.)

There is value in exploring the darker sides of human life, but dramatically that’s sometimes the easy way out. Besides, what if that exploration encourages corruption in others and makes society worse as a result?  Is it worth it? I don’t know.  I wrestle with that question as a writer, as a moviegoer, and as an imperfect person who aims, but doesn’t always succeed, at living a good life.  But just because a question is difficult to answer, doesn’t mean it is not worth asking.

Anyway, back to Pixar.  One of my favorite scenes in Monsters Inc comes when Sulley sees the devastation that his scare tactics have caused his now cherished little Boo.  He tries to explain that he is just doing his job,  but Boo doesn’t understand that.  All she knows is that someone she once trusted caused her pain.

In that moment, you can tell that Sulley is starting to question the things he does just to turn a profit.  If only more people in this world would do that.

Photo credit: flickr.com/sutekidane

Let’s go back to Ratatouille.  One of the bad guys in that movie is Skinner.  He’s taken over Gusteau’s once great restaurant and is trying to squeeze every dollar out of the brand by coming up with derivative products like frozen, microwavable burritos.  Yeah, that’s kind  of like … what was it again?  Oh yeah: Disney, when they were looting their own classic film library and cranking out direct-to-video sequels that suffered in quality.

Supposedly that’s what Disney tried to do to Pixar when profiteer-in-chief Michael Eisner was running the Mouse House, and if my history is correct, the Pixar-Disney dispute was happening around the time that Ratatouille was being developed.  Coincidence?

A Family that Plays Together

Another thing about Pixar that’s hard to avoid noticing is how comfortable the employees are around each other.  In one DVD after another, the directors are seen joking around with the writers, producers, and animators.

Think that’s no big deal?  When was the last time you shared a laugh with Jim in accounting?  If you are Jim from accounting, when was the last time you had a bonding moment with Steve from IT?

Most of the time, big companies are broken up into separate departments and those departments rarely interact with each other, at least not in any meaningful way.  “Did you get the memo?” does not count.

Photo credit: flickr.com/oldpatterns


Not so at Pixar. For one thing, their building was specifically designed by Steve Jobs to encourage random interactions as people walk to their desks.  Also, let’s consider Pixar’s operating principles.  Two out of three  involve collaboration.  Here they are:

1. Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone.

2. It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas.

3. We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community.

Isn’t it interesting  that a company so dependent on bleeding-edge technology doesn’t list technology first?  That’s because Pixar puts more emphasis on finding the right people than on finding the right ideas, as Ed Catmull re-iterates in one interview after another.   (Of the original Pixar founders, Mr. Catmull is the technical genius.  Steve Jobs is the business wizard, and John Lasseter is the chief creative.)

It’s not just about finding the right people. It’s also about making sure that they work well together as Pixar’s HR executive Randy Nelson explains.  Adding the right person to the team should be like adding 1 + 1 to get 10.

If all this talk about the value of people was just standard HR corporatespeak, then there’s no way that you would see the casual spontaneity between the artists in the documentaries.

Being in a stressful environment with a very talented, but very opinionated, group of artists is not a surefire way to attain happy-go-lucky bliss.  Just ask anyone who’s ever worked on a film or a play.  Yet somehow Pixar has woven a sense of camaraderie into their culture that overcomes the strain of production.

The culture of playfulness is key. At Pixar, there are games and dress-up days.   The animators elaborately decorate their cubicles in whimsical styles, and even the boss gets in on the action.  Although John Lasseter is one of the most powerful men at Pixar, he has no qualms about conducting interviews in his toy-covered office.   You can see pictures of the fabled office at imagineeringdisney.com and julesbianchi.com/blog.

I don’t remember when I first saw footage of John Lasseter’s office, but it made quite an impression.  It’s the reason why my cubicle looks like this:

I figured if it’s OK for Mr. Lasseter to surround himself with child-like things that inspire him and make him smile, why should I worry if people think my desk is a bit different from that of the typical employee at Canon?  Seeing little reminders of things that matter to me is sometimes enough to get me through a long day.  As an added bonus, management avoids my desk when giving bar-graph powered tours of the building.

Speaking of management, the Pixar guys bring their playfulness even to the meetings they have with their bosses.  In particular, I’m thinking about the Fleabie bit they did to show the Disney people what they were doing, at a time when a lot of the executives didn’t understand the computer animation process.

Instead of doing a PowerPoint presentation, they partnered a flea puppet with John Lasseter, who does an impression of a Japanese actor dubbed in broken English.  Oh that Lasseter, such a ham, but who wouldn’t want to have him for a boss?


Not Too Big to Fail

Failure is not an enjoyable topic to discuss.  Most folks  prefer to talk about how unconditionally awesome they are.  Pixar is 10 for 10, so if anyone has earned bragging rights, it’s Pixar.  Yet, that’s not what Pixar does.  They make it sound like catastrophic failure is just around the corner, and they have to do everything conceivable to avoid it.

“Every Pixar movie at one time was the worst motion picture ever made” John Lasseter explains to Entertainment Weekly.  What a humble thing to say for a company that repeatedly does 100 million dollar business.  Note too that fresh off of their triumphs with Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc, they brought in Brad Bird, a Pixar outsider, to direct The Incredibles. They explained that decision as a way of avoiding complacency.

When speaking with Variety, Mr. Lasseter even suggests that making it safe to fail is a critical reason why the company prevails.  Doing a speech at Stanford’s business school, Mr. Catmull reiterates that success hides potential problems that need to unearthed.   On the WALL-E extra features, Andrew Stanton explains that only if Pixar management doesn’t” see you fall off your bike, then they get nervous.”

Do you get it?  This is idea is so hard-wired into the company that it surfaces everywhere you look.

Photo credit: flickr.com/tim_norris

To give a sense of how far this kind of thinking goes, consider the Incredibles DVD.  They show you their hair and cloth tests that went badly, and they do it with a laugh track.  My computer animation capabilities are nowhere close to those of Pixar animators, but I can tell you that when you are up late for several nights in a row working on a shot that doesn’t come out right when rendered, laughing about the situation is not the default response.

Instead, violence against the treacherous machine starts to seem very appealing.  No, I’m not a domestic computer beater, but I have called it some vicious names, for which my computer might require long-term counseling.  (See, I did learn something from David Mamet’s plays!)

When Pixar can laugh while showing us mistakes that probably cost them weeks of time and thousands of dollars, we can conclude that failure is a familiar enough concept that the company is entirely comfortable with it.

If They Only Had a Heart

All of these things are incredible qualities, but if Pixar didn’t consistently use technology to touch our hearts, I wouldn’t care.  Yet I do end up caring, about toys, and monsters, and robots, and grumpy old men.

When you’re dealing with something so technical, you have to pour a lot of love into it, otherwise the sentiment gets lost in translation.  To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, if you show all kinds of marvels on screen, but have not love, your film is just clanging sounds and flickering celluloid.

I’m convinced that the core Pixar creatives are not just extremely talented artists but also people with extremely big hearts. You see it in the way Andrew Stanton discusses his film WALL-E, how it’s really about the way love conquers our rational programming, or when he explains that the idea for Finding Nemo came from a moment with his son:  Mr. Stanton was so busy trying to protect and educate his son that he missed the chance to just enjoy his company.

Photo credit: flickr.com/seandreilinger

Or consider John Lasseter.  As he was reaching the height of his career, he took a year off and spent the time traveling with his family.  He did that after his wife warned him that if he didn’t slow down, he might wake up and discover that his kids had grown up without him.  From that experience, he developed Cars.

If you want to make something that isn’t a soulless product, you have to put a bit of yourself into it, sometimes even the parts that hurt. That’s not easy to do, but the Pixar guys aren’t afraid of doing that very thing.

I work hard at what I do.  Sometimes it means I get very little sleep, but so far, I haven’t made the progress I’d liked to have made made.  That kind of thing can sting if you let it get to you.  That’s another reason why I’m grateful for the Pixar films.  They remind me that there is more to life than getting the stats or being the top toy, that being excellent at what you do is important, but it’s not nearly as important as caring about the people in your life, and that the seemingly mundane moments of life can be just as meaningful as the fantastic ones, if your heart is in the right place.

In the Toy Story 2 featurette, John Lasseter tells a story that almost brings him to tears.  He’s at the airport, and he sees a kid waiting for his dad.  The boy has a Woody figurine that he’s proudly holding, waiting with anticipation for the chance to share something special with a father that he hasn’t seen for a while.  To John Lasseter that’s proof that the characters don’t belong to him anymore, and that’s reason enough for him to keep making great Pixar films.  You don’t react like that if you don’t care about your audience.

It’s that kind of affection that makes me go and watch every single Pixar film that comes out.  I can’t say that about any other film studio.   Like the kid on the tricycle in The Incredibles, I’m waiting around for the next Pixar movie, because I want to see something amazing once again.  To infinity and beyond, Pixar!

Pixar resources:

How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity (a feature in Harvard Business Review written by Ed Catmull)

splinedoctors.com (animation tips and podcasts from Pixar animators)

To Infinity and Beyond (my favorite of the Pixar books)

The Pixar Touch (a more business-oriented take on the company’s history)

Upcoming Pixar (a fairly comprehensive blog about Pixar developments)

Feel free to add to the list.