Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Voiceless

     As storytellers, what we often think is that we are giving voice to our own experiences. On the surface this is true. The inspirations which we strive (painfully) to bring to life are often expressions of our own emotional, intellectual or spiritual responses to things. However, if we dig a bit deeper into the 'why' of it all something entirely different reveals itself.

     No one becomes a storyteller. You either are or you aren't. People may not discover it for a long time—or in some instances may never discover it—but it's there if it's there. And because we didn't create this within ourselves, because it is somehow intrinsic—a gift if you will—it means it has a purpose beyond simply expressing what we think or feel. This became clearer to me while reflecting on the lyrics to the Leonard Cohen song 'Hallelujah' (incidentally I believe it to be one of the greatest songs ever written—just thought I'd throw that out there. Here's a link to a performance of the below verse by Matthew Schuler). The last verse of the song says:

"I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah"

In so many ways this sums up the human experience. And while this may have originally been meant to express Mr. Cohen's own experiences, it has become for many a voice for which they had no voice.

     As storytellers we are tasked with wrestling with the truth and then finding a way to express it. In many cases this begins as our own search for understanding. But the gift we have been given, the ability to clarify what remains murky to others, to poetically, visually, musically or lyrically communicate—to mediate between God and man as it were—is, in the end, not for us. Why do we see the world differently than many people? Why do we often find ourselves on the fringes as opposed to the center? Why is it that we seem compelled to stand out with how we dress, how we talk or with what we do for a living? I mean who professes a calling to get up on stage in front of people and have them watch you do something for 2 hours and then has the audacity to say it's not for themselves, it's for those watching? We do. Why? Because we have been given the Great Sorrow of calling bullshit on the world's elaborate facades.

     Giving a voice to the voiceless, providing a way for people to come to understand those things which they somehow already know to be true but don't know how to express, looking in a mirror ourselves in order to be able to facilitate that honesty for others, that is what we are meant for.

     A final thought on the subject: there is no way to be effective in this vocation without the brutal honesty it requires. If we allow ourselves to stop where it's comfortable, to bask and glory in how apparently clear the mirror is becoming, we fail. To quote a great Jewish writer, "At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known." A time will come when we will know fully. Until then, make a gift of yourself to others and, inevitably, you'll also find yourself.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Children

Sometimes as grown-ups we need to be reminded that the stories we tell are often the first points of creative contact children have. With that in mind it behooves us to carefully consider what stories we're choosing to tell. While as adults we understand that life is not fair nor does it consistently reward the deserving, children do not. The very precious, much too short-lived innocence of children pre-disposes them to a blind optimism; an optimism we have the responsibility to help them cultivate throughout their lives.

I was inspired to write this post after seeing the documentary Waiting For Superman. As the film was ending and I was wiping the tears from my eyes I couldn't help but feel a sense of utter injustice. I think perhaps I felt what a child must feel when that blind optimism is assaulted. My rage steadily grew as I watched a grid-locked, bureaucratic, lobbyist, educational system destroy the futures of the children they (and we) have been given the privilege of ushering into living. The thing that most angered me was how selfish the adults were. Children don't have the ability to fight for themselves and the adults are actually taking advantage of that. One of the most appalling things in the film is the story of former Washington, D.C. Chancellor of Public Schools, Michelle Rhee's attempt to end the disease of tenure. She gave teachers the opportunity to vote on ending tenure. In exchange a new system of merit raises would be employed making it possible for teachers to earn nearly double what they were currently earning. The teacher's unions were so threatened by this that on the day of the vote an auditorium full of teachers sat silent, hands folded, refusing to vote.

Documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, who directed and co-wrote the film, has chosen well. He has chosen to defend those who are defenseless. He has chosen to tell a story that fully takes into account who we really tell these stories for. We tell stories because it makes the legacy of a generation richer. It hopefully encourages future generations to invest in the things that make the human race great - and work to abolish those things that are a part of our lesser selves.

I implore you to see this film. It will move you. And while it deeply affected me with regard to education, the lasting impression with which I was left was what my own responsibility to posterity was. It was to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. To teach children to realistically embrace the unfairness with which life deals out it's crowns and corpses. But to hope against all hope that indeed there is hope.

To learn more or to help:
Text 'possible' to 77177

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Role

Sometimes I go for long stretches without posting anything to the blog. It has been, on some occasions, due to laziness. Sometimes it's simply because I don't feel the inspiration. But, every once in a while I'm struck by something that seems to demand a response. Just a few moments ago I had such an experience.

As most of us are aware everyone these days wants to make a movie. With the advent of more and more affordable digital imaging technology we are shooting images of pristine quality on devices that are smaller and cost less than filmmakers of yesterday could ever even have imagined. We can edit our films on the same device with which we check our email and post updates to social networking websites - and do it from the 2nd bedroom we converted into an office. Everything is smaller. Everything costs less. Everything is by comparison more accessible to the general public.

But to those who see filmmaking as a passion they want to pursue, I will pose this question: what is your role? In St. Louis, MO where I live we have an enthusiastic independent film community. I have had the privilege of working with a number of independent filmmakers here in various capacities. One thing I feel our town lacks however is the sense of what it means to be a professional independent filmmaker. When audition notices are posted and read like a volunteer day for the local church it doesn't communicate professionalism or inspire those whose skills would be utilized in the project to much hope. 'Volunteering' is something you might do for a passion project. But as a professional you don't intend to give your skills away on a daily basis just because so-and-so wants to make his dream film and isn't organized enough to do the leg work to raise the necessary funds.

Which leads me to why I'm writing. In a post I just read by a local producer, she asks if "anyone's got a dollar?" She along with a small collective of filmmakers (who've all graduated from a local filmmaking program) are doing it right. They are organizing a project, pre-production to post-production, and raising the money for the various production costs through a legitimate, online fundraising tool called Kickstarter. They need to raise $5K by December 17th in order to be funded. Kickstarter uses a rewards based incentive model to help generate the funds needed to complete the project. You can donate as little as $1 or as much as $1000. The point is to get a community of people involved in bringing this artistic vision to fruition.

So, why did I ask 'what is your role?' Because, even though some of us may have dreams of being the next big-screen star or headline-stealing director, films are brought to life through collaboration. Perhaps your passion is also combined with the ability to fund a project. Maybe your strength is as a distribution channel through what you can invest. The point is, storytelling in filmmaking is the art of many people coming together to complete a single vision. For some that's character development and performance, for others it's signing that check.

To all the cinephiles out there (and especially to those of us in St. Louis) let's get to the heart of making the stories we want to tell a reality by, as a community of passionate filmmakers, filling those roles we know are ours to fill.

To donate to the aforementioned project click here.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Tech

I read an interesting blog post recently about the ability of technology to enhance the performance of an performer. It started me on a line of thinking about wether or not we really take the time to consider if the technology most of us now take for granted is actually doing anything to improve the story in which we are participating. You can read Larry Jordan's post here.

I pondered two examples of technology being used to tell a story. The first is 3D. I have seen a few movies in 3D now and personally it just doesn't do anything for me. The glasses are distracting, my brain is constantly telling me that what I'm seeing is synthesized, blah blah blah. Yes, it's personal opinion but that's how I feel when I'm watching it. Anyway, it seems to me that perhaps 3D is doing something more than just trying to visually stun us. It seems that perhaps it is trying to make up for something that is missing. What do magicians do in order to pull off slight-of-hand? They use a distraction at just the right moment to pull our attention away from the fact that they're not actually making something disappear. They're confusing you to make it appear that it has magically vanished. Is it possible (I think it's not only possible but just 'is') that things like 3D are simply just digital slight-of-hand? "Don't pay attention to the fact that we didn't take the time to develop these characters." "Just look past the acting. The eye-candy makes up for it!" "We don't need authentic relationships. Give'em more digital adrenaline." This is how I felt about a movie like Avatar for example.

Example number two comes from a movie that I've only seen previews for but am very interested in actually seeing when it comes out. The movie is Like Crazy. It's a stripped-down indie film about a boy and a girl who fall in love... I know, some of you are sighing right now going, "Hasn't that been done a thousand times already?" The answer is yes. However, aside from the fact that it's being extremely well reviewed, this feature film was shot on an $1,700 digital camera. The camera is called the Canon 7D. It's actually a still camera that shoots HD video. Now, this advance in technology is something I feel much more like I can get behind. The reason? Because an ambitious group of individuals with no money said, "I want to tell a good story." So, they invested about 1/100th the cost of a motion picture camera and with their little investment are managing to tell a story that will stick with us far longer and have a much, much greater personal and emotional impact on us than Avatar or Fast5 or any number of other generic, digitally overblown films ever will. This is not to belittle what digital artists do. The men and women who've developed the ability to give us the creatures and events that we now see in the average movie are,without a doubt, artists. It's not their fault if what they're given to create doesn't say much.

In the end I believe all of us have the capacity to enjoy a summer blockbuster for the thrills and spectacle that it is. But let us also consider what it would look like if the storytelling landscape was only covered with towering skyscrapers and there were no homes. Life happens for us where we live, not where we'd like to live. Technology gives us the ability to tell stories on a grander scale, but when it comes to storytelling the technology should always serve the story being told. If the technology exists for it's own sake then we won't care if a story's being told or not. That eventually leads us to the place of leaving the story altogether and simply ingesting the magicians slight-of-hand. Because in that world the object he was going to make disappear wasn't even there in the first place.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Few

In a previous post entitled, The Shame, I addressed what I feel is a common occurrence while watching certain films or participating in certain pieces of art. You're sitting there, the film is unfolding (or the painting is staring you in the face or the music is moving through your ears) and you're thinking to yourself, "I'm just not getting this." However, after you've gone back to it once or twice you begin to see the way in which the story is being told. That once abstract blurb of noise, picture, prose or whatever it may be begins to make sense and you finally feel that it's revealing itself to you. This is, I believe, fairly common. There are those instances however, in which a piece of art is created at such a level (where exactly this place is I don't know; I hope someday to visit and perhaps stay a while) that the average, above average, and even those slightly above the above average, leave the experience scratching their heads and wondering if what they've just witnessed is in fact art or, something their 5 year-old could've just as easily come up with accidentally.

I remember seeing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey a couple of years ago and having this reaction. Mr. Kubrick is seen by most in the film industry as a genius. I don't believe I'm intellectually qualified to speak to that. I've seen a number of his films and while I feel that all of them are powerful pieces of visual art, the jury's still out on how I feel about his ability as a storyteller. The reason I mention Kubrick is because I recently saw the movie The Tree of Life. This is a film written and directed by Terrence Malick. As I was watching The Tree of Life I thought to myself, "This reminds me of a Kubrick film." (After seeing the film I read Roger Ebert's review on it and interestingly enough he also mentions Kubrick) Ok, big setup. So, what am I getting at? After having seen The Tree of Life and leaving the theater feeling as if I'd just been completely overloaded with every stimuli I could possibly imagine, I had to concede that it didn't matter how many times I saw this film, it would remain absolutely out of my realm of interpretation. Did I have some strong emotional reactions to it? Certainly. Will I every fully understand the intention of the writer/director? I highly doubt it.

This leads me to believe that there are those few individuals -- those few -- artistically, intellectually, emotionally, sensitive people, who will always be able to appreciate the Kubrick's, Malick's, Lynch's, von Trier's, etc. and actually be able to (at least according to them) connect with the story that's being told while the rest of us think our niece's and nephew's could probably have come up with something at least as good if not better. How do I come to this conclusion? Because as of the time of this writing The Tree of Life is getting an 85% on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. The critics are eating this film up. They love it! Now, some people might just chalk that up to the stigma that film critics are pretentious and only enjoy movies with subtitles. However, they see more movies in a year than the average person probably sees in their lifetime. These are the large majority of 'the few'. These are professional movie watchers.

This post has largely been a rambling of thoughts as they spill out of my head. I think that if I were to boil it down it comes to this: I can have my opinion about wether or not a story that's told is effective. I will form this opinion based on wether that story affected ME in a certain way. However, I can't say that a story is ineffective to someone who was moved by it. I may never fully understand all of the storytelling devices thrown at me in The Tree of Life and therefore will probably not have it stick with me as an impacting story. But there are a lot of people out there who will and I can't tell them that their experience isn't valid because I didn't get it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Challenge

When I started this blog it was with the intention of focusing on storytelling as it pertained to works of art. So far my entries have consisted of observations about storytelling that were inspired by movies, music, or a combination of media. And yet, as I reflect on the very first entry into this blog, I again realize, the most powerful stories are born out of the human experience.

On May 22, 2011 an EF-5 tornado leveled ten percent of Joplin, MO. Over 150 people were killed and it is estimated that the clean-up alone will cost over 3 billion dollars. It will take years to rebuild Joplin.

I can only imagine the number of stories there are to tell from such an event. In fact, that's what they call the category of the tornado, an EF-5 "event." It is the norm for an event like this to garner national attention. The story was being told from coast to coast and around the world within a matter of hours. The news media brought it to our attention through pictures of devastation, stories of personal loss, and statistics telling us how, why, when, and where. But then, it happened. Less than a week had gone by and this devastating "event" was now nothing more than an update during the late local news.

The challenge we face when telling stories is telling the whole story. A story like Joplin's is an ongoing story. It's people don't have the comfort or convenience of only paying attention when it suits them. They aren't living this story because they choose to, they're living it because they have to. Which begs the question: If the whole story is to be told, what part is mine to tell? You and I may not live in Joplin or even have a personal tie to it's people but what we do share is the human experience. We know what it is to suffer devastating loss. We know what it is to see beauty turned to a shadow of what it once was. If, as the famous movie actor Edward G. Robinson once said, "Nothing that is human is foreign to us", then we have the obligation to choose to be a part of their story.

I have had the privilege of being a part of Joplin's story, albeit in a very small way, by participating with a charity organization called Songs for #Joplin. Songs for #Joplin has compiled a list of 18 songs, donated by 18 artists, to create a benefit album of the same name. The website is and you can follow them on Twitter at @SongsForJoplin and on facebook. This is a story you can help tell and I encourage you to donate.

Storytelling isn't limited to those who hold the guitar, write the novel, look through the lens, pick up the brush, or mold the clay. Stories are being told, and we are the ones telling them -- even if we don't realize it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Discussion

I hated that movie!

Every time I hear that song I cry.

That painting makes me fall in love.

In a society where the majority of the art we experience is constantly being critiqued by people who are paid to critique art, it's nice to hear people say things simply just because they mean it. Unlike previous generations, being proficient in an artistic discipline is not the norm for most college-age and adult Americans. Sure, many of us took piano lessons as kids or dance classes, we may even have carried some of that through to high school. We might have been in a play or 2 and may even have entertained the idea of being a musician or an actor. But the truth is, in regard to art, we have become a nation of observers.

Because the role of critic has become so prominent in our public consciousness it follows that all of us would then become amateur critics. I love sitting in a coffee shop or restaurant and hearing people critique the latest movie they've seen. Movies seem to be the easy targets. You don't often hear someone discussing the composition of a photograph or the use of a descending chromatic in a song. Not many people will offer up their take on the choreographer's work in a ballet or dissect the color scheme of a painting. But when it comes to movies we're all experts. Perhaps that is because we are so inundated with with how movies are made. DVD commentaries and 'making of' special features give us a glimpse into a world that we otherwise wouldn't know that much about. On top of all that there is also the fact that America has had very long love affair with the movies.

But let's, just for a moment, change our focus from the all-to-common realm of critique and look instead at the much less delved-into realm of discussion. Discussion is so much different than critique. Discussion is not a sport for observers. To be a critic you do not have to admit a connection to the material you are critiquing. It is, in many cases, an observation about the elements that make up a given story and wether or not (according to the particular critic) those elements came together in a manner that achieved it's goal. To discuss something however, is to say that it had a specific impact on your emotionally and/or intellectually. Do you think a director or an actor or a cinematographer or a writer purposes to create a story simply to see if all of the elements work? No! An artist sets out to create something because the particular story affects them in some way and they want to share that with an audience. They are storytellers and they want to tell you a story. Once you have been exposed to that story you then have the responsibility to think about and discuss how it affected YOU. Did it cause you to ask questions? Did it give you the answer to a question? Did it make you laugh and put you in a place where you forgot about your troubles for a time? Did you walk out disgusted? Where you grieved by a character's plight? Did you leave feeling absolutely indifferent? I would encourage everyone who experiences a piece of art to experience it at this level before trying to articulate everything it did right or wrong.

I saw the movie The Red Shoes recently. It is a wonderful British film from 1948. As I watched it I began experiencing all of these different emotions. When the 2 main characters are given the their big break I thought about what that would feel like. When the antagonist goes to every length to keep his employees on a very short leash, even to the extent of threatening their relationships, I felt the injustice and meanness and I disliked him for it. When the 2 lovers triumph and break away from his influence I rooted for them and when tragedy strikes I cried for them. I experienced it first as a story. Later that same week I was with a friend and he and I (he had also seen it) began discussing it. I found that even several days away from the experience I was still having trouble articulating everything. So, I just told him how it made me feel. Yes, I discussed technical aspects of the film. But my greatest joy in seeing this film was what I experienced going on this journey with these characters.

After you have had the initial experience of going on a journey with the characters in a story it's important to reflect on what you felt and think about why it made you feel the way it did. But at the beginning, just allow yourself to experience what the characters are experiencing and tell somebody else how it made you feel and what it made you think about. You will find yourself with a much greater appreciation for the stories you participate in. And, while you're at it, sit down at that piano again or pick up that camera or paintbrush. You may not know it yet, but I'll bet you've got your own story to tell.