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.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Shame

Have you ever had the experience of taking in a piece of art and then, once you have either finished watching, looking at or listening to it, you think to yourself "I have no idea what I just experienced?" I used to be ashamed of that feeling. I was under the impression that if I didn't get it or if I didn't understand what understated, metaphorical artistic meaning the creator of said piece of art was trying to communicate that that meant I was an idiot! Well, I had a wonderful experience a couple of days ago that finally got me to think a bit differently about these experiences.

But before I get to that I want to highlight a number of experiences I've had which resulted in the aforementioned feeling of shame. I consider myself a relatively intelligent individual. I comprehend a majority of the things I read, see and hear. I can have fairly intelligent conversations about politics, art, culture, food On occasion I am even able to give a wise piece of advice to someone who needs it. So, why is it that someone in Hollywood can produce a movie with a strong narrative, solid characters, thoughtfully shot sequences and clever dialogue that at the end leaves me scratching my head and wondering if I'd be better off sticking with Sponge Bob?

One of the first experiences I had this feeling with was a little movie starring Gary Oldman and Tim Roth called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. At the end of that film I felt as if someone had dumped a bucket of Shakespeare on me. I just didn't get it. Then there was Annie Hall. Next was Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream and the list goes on and on. I was scratching my head and wondering what in the world I had just been through. The interesting thing was there were elements in all of these films, parts of these stories, that really struck me. I had a very real, emotional response to all of these films. So, why was it that I didn't feel as if I fully understood these stories? Why did I feel like the entire world was looking at me going "don't you get it?" Then came Vanilla Sky.

Vanilla Sky stars Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz and Jason Lee; with wonderful supporting turns by Kurt Russell, Noah Taylor, Timothy Spall and Tilda Swinton. The films' Director, Cameron Crowe, directed one of my favorite movies: Almost Famous. Almost Famous is a movie I connected with from the first frame. It's a story that I dove into head-first and was immersed in the entire time. So, why is it that I couldn't connect with Vanilla Sky? To answer that question I turn the amazing Roger Ebert. Those of you who are familiar with film critics know that Roger Ebert is to film criticism what B.B. King is to Blues. He's the godfather of film critique and he said something that absolutely amazed me. He said:

"This is the kind of movie you don't want to analyze until you've seen it two times.

I've seen it two times. I went to a second screening because after the first screening I thought I knew what had happened, but was nagged by the idea that certain things might not have happened the way I thought they had. Now that I've seen it twice, I think I understand it, or maybe not."

Roger Ebert had to see it twice?! The man they call the Movie Answerman had to see a movie twice and still might not have understood it? Admittedly, I was quite relieved. you see, when I see a movie and either don't understand it, don't like it, don't want to like it but kind of do, etc. I read Roger Ebert's review. I did the same with this movie and the above quoted text was part of what I was met with. It was kind of like a small revelation.

Certain pieces of art, and our appreciation for those pieces is sometimes more fully rewarded upon multiple views, listens, etc. I have a very close friend who used to use the phrase "it grew on me." I hated that phrase because I held that if a piece of art didn't fully affect you the first time it wasn't doing it's job. In my opinion it had it's chance and if it didn't want to give me everything it had the first time 'round I wasn't going to wait for it. I was wrong. A story generally gets better with each telling. I gain something in being able to bypass the larger more obvious points and allow myself to draw closer to the details. A well told story deserves the opportunity to reveal, little by little the beauty hidden deeper within it.

So, I'm not feeling shame now at the fact that I didn't get Vanilla Sky the first time out. I'm also not writing it off. In fact, before I return it to Blockbuster I'm going to watch it again; and I look forward to what I'll discover this time 'round.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Identity

Disclaimer: This is not a review of the movie whose story I'll be discussing. These are merely observations about the story itself. Thank you.

A story, much like a human being, has numerous stages of development. There is the idea; the point of conception. In the development of some stories there is the 'notes' process. This process consists of writing blurbs about the idea in a notebook or perhaps on your PC or laptop. (Imagine that during this paragraph there is 1950's instructional-video music playing and everything you're reading is being narrated in the same style.) The notes period could be considered gestation. Then, of course there is the actual writing of the story. This I suppose is akin to the birthing process. Now, after these various stages of development you have a rough draft. A rough draft is very much like a baby. It is the story but it hasn't matured. Thus, the rough draft needs to be workshopped. It is this workshopping or maturing that, hopefully, produces a story with a fully formed IDENTITY.

Stories need to know who they are. A story that knows who it is and what it's trying to communicate is like a mature human being. It has purpose. It has a good grip on what it's strengths and weaknesses are. It knows what it's trying to say. A story with a weak or partially formed identity has trouble effectively communicating who it is. Let's face it, if the story doesn't know who it is we aren't going to know who it is.

Okay, you've been metaphorized (yeah, I know it's not a word) to death. Now we'll get to the point. I recently saw the movie 'Kick-Ass'. The concept is clever. A teenage kid fed up with injustice and bewildered at the fact that nobody has tried being a superhero decides to try it for himself. This is the basic premise for the story. Had the story built it's entire arc on this foundation I think it would've genuinely discovered who it is. However, what it chose to do instead was follow the previously mentioned story line and follow 2 other pretty major story lines. Not only that, it started out being a story about what would actually happen should someone with no training attempt to be a comic book superhero and devolved into a story about...well...pick pretty much any other action/superhero story where at least one of the main-characters' actions are motivated by revenge. The primary problem with the 'Kick-Ass' story is that it seems to lack a fully formed identity. It couldn't decide wether to be a story about the reality of vigilante justice or the relationship between a father and daughter where the father has suffered some pretty severe mental trauma due to the loss of his wife. It couldn't decide wether to be a parody of superhero movies or the re-imagined form of the superhero genre. In short it was still going through puberty.

When you've finished the next novel you're reading or movie you've seen take a moment and think about the identity of that story. Did it know who it was? Was the story given the chance to become what it was meant to be? Did the storyteller, like a good parent, give that story the time and attention it needed to develop it's true identity?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Silence

Until quite recently silent films were something I was completely unfamiliar with. But when you're considering the medium of film, visual storytelling is the foundation by which your story is told. Nowhere is that foundation more readily observed than in silent film. These are just a few of the things that struck me while watching my first 3 silent comedies. I’ve seen Buster Keaton’s The Navigator and The General and Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. The first thing I noticed in watching the Keaton films (I watched The General first) is how Buster Keaton doesn’t ever change his expression. You’d think in a film where you can’t hear what’s being said that as an actor you’d be going overboard with facial expression. But because Keaton’s comedy is physical he let’s the sight-gags and the physicality do the work. And the really weird thing is it’s funnier that he’s not making these over-the-top facial expressions. I laughed out loud more during that movie than almost all of the comedies I’ve ever seen. It’s just plain hilarious. Keaton is doing these entire films almost completely dead-pan.

The physical stuff Keaton’s doing is astounding. He’s like a rag doll. The interesting thing in watching the Keaton films is that the story is somewhat secondary to the physical comedy. Having also watched The Kid I was exposed to a different brand of comedy from the same era. Chaplin is more interested in the story. At least this is true in The Kid. Chaplin’s physical comedy is really great. But rather than use mainly sight-gags and prat-falls Chaplin chooses to use circumstance and scenario. There’s this great moment in The Kid when The Kid leaves the house in the morning and picks up a few stones as he goes. The next thing you see is him using the stones to break windows. He then runs away as fast as he can. The very next frame is Chaplin walking by the house that has the broken window with a window repair kit strapped to his back. I laughed out loud. The reason is they didn’t bother telegraphing the joke. The whole thing happens within 20 or 30 seconds. They don’t give you this huge set up. All throughout the film Chaplin is subtly developing this amazing love and loyalty with the character of The Kid so that by the last couple of scenes in the movie you’re almost balling. The other thing I find interesting about Chaplin is he chooses to use more facial expression. Still not crazy or unnecessary. And this is the thing I noticed with both Keaton and Chaplin: the eyes. There’s a great deal of discussion regarding the noticeable transition from “stage acting” to “film acting.” If you watch many of the early movies it’s obvious that the actors are stage actors and that the concept of how their facial expressions and physical movements are picked up by the camera is not something they yet understand. Much of the credit for this transition and the pioneering of “film acting” is given to Marlon Brando’s performance in On The Waterfront. And granted, Brando had the challenge of dealing with having dialogue as well as physicality. However, if you watch Keaton and Chaplin, specifically Chaplin, you will see a whole performance just taking place in the eyes. They intrinsically knew something about how to communicate what was going on inside their heads with the use of their eyes. If you watch the look in Chaplin’s eyes when he thinks he’s lost The Kid for good you will see years of loss. It is inspiring to watch. One last thing I must comment on in The Kid is the “Dreamland” sequence. It is amazing and brilliant and something that I absolutely didn’t expect to see. I feel that in some way it must have been an inspiration to people like Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson, P. T. Anderson, Martin Scorcese, etc. People who have great visual sensibility.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Story

I've been throwing around the idea of doing a blog for quite some time now. Not long ago I was able to narrow down exactly what I wanted the blog to be about: Story. Why story? Because story encompasses the whole of human experience. Our history is communicated through story. The greatness of love and the ugliness of evil is shown to us through story. Stories inspire us. They cause us to cheer for one person and pray for the demise of another. Story is the single most powerful medium for understanding something we have not or cannot experience first hand. Sometimes story even makes clearer or gives voice to those things we have experienced for ourselves.

I stumbled upon the realization a while back that as opposed to being an actor or a musician or a painter or photographer, we, as artists, are storytellers. This is a wonderful and terrifying reality. We are charged with interpreting the human experience and then birthing that interpretation for people to do with it what they will. That is a sobering and intimidating privilege. That privilege and that responsibility are what have inspired me to write this blog.

I realize that by it's very nature a blog like this has endless opportunities for pretense, and in truth I was going to fill my first post with innumerable observations about storytelling from a movie I'd recently seen. (Which would have no doubt been pretentious) But I had an experience today that helped me keep things in perspective. Today I attended my cousin's funeral.

Story was everywhere. There were pictures of him at the front of the room and some of his favorite songs played in between homilies. There were family members who stood up, eyes full with tears, to talk about what a generous man he'd been, and there was laughter at the things he'd done that reminded us so much of who he was. On each and every face in that room a story was worn; A remembrance of some time when he and they had interacted and the impression that encounter left on them. It won't be long before I forget what I wore today and already I can't tell you what music played during the service. But the memories, and the emotions those memories brought to the surface, I will not forget. Today we told Danny's story.

Hopefully, that's what a story will do. It moves you toward something. It forces you to come face to face with something. It doesn't leave you the same.