Thursday, February 02, 2006
Wanted: Ideas Man

One of the big steps, I think, in developing maturity as an artist is figuring out and coming to terms with one's creative style. Not artistic style -- not the shape and tone of one's expression -- but creative style: how you go about arriving at and achieving that expression. I have one friend here in Memphis whose modus operandi is all about improvisation -- he writes fast, revises only minimally, and makes up the rest as he goes. It seems to (mostly) work for him -- not that he hasn't done some less-successful pieces, but he's mostly avoided major failures. Another friend uses creative processes that I find almost impenetrable -- I don't know how he does what he does, but he gets some really interesting results. The former has the inherent originality of the moment on his side; the latter is just innately original -- or at least, not above doing things that most of us would be too embarrassed to do on screen. His self-effacement renders him original by dint of his willingness to go places we've all been but don't want to admit to.

I lack both of those strengths. In fact, when it comes to root ideas, I'm not very original at all -- I'm stuck with a very derivative creative style. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. It's not, y'know, the best thing ever... I wouldn't mind having the kind of (seemingly) easy creativity that I envy in others. And it's not that I don't occasionally bring forth an entirely new idea of my own; it's just that it happens only rarely for me. Even when it does, only a fraction of those ideas survive the years-long onslaught of self-doubt and hyper-criticism that I impose upon them once they're born.

But I'll you what I am good at: I can be a hell of a developer. I can't compose the melody, but once I've learned it I can write variations around it from dawn till dusk. I don't often devise a story, but I can take someone else's and slap on layer after layer of meaning. I can find angles and refine beats and add nuance till the whole thing is loaded -- even overloaded -- with narrative weight, then strip away everything but a chewy layer of subtext. I can cross your genres, turn your characters inside out, and flip a premise on its head. If you give me a solid story, I can give you back half a dozen variations on the theme, and all of them unrecognizeable (if I put my mind to it.)

Not that that's worth much in the real world.

You see, it leaves me a slave to pre-existing material. If I don't have original material upon which to work, then the work becomes difficult. And while I'm free to adapt short stories as much as I want, I can't really do much with them afterwards. It's not within my rights. The obvious solution would be to hook up with someone who's got a good head for ideas but no ability or desire to push them past the idea stage; but that's not easy, either. In my life thus far, I can count on one hand the number of potential collaborators with whom I've felt sufficiently in-sync to work on that level, and three of them I don't even know anymore. I pine more for a co-creator than I ever have for a lover; and collaborators are much harder to come by. Boyfriends come and go, but Really Good Art (someday, someday) is more personal than sex... especially during the creative process. It's not something to be treated lightly. I mean, at least during casual sex you have the benefit of protection. You can block out chlamydia, but they don't make condoms to stretch over your psyche.

Though maybe they should. Think of the problems we might have avoided.

Most of the people I know who've pursued any art form beyond their youth have eventually been surprised by the path they've ended up on. It's one of those funny truths you stumble across along the way: just because you love punk rock/magical realism/impressionism doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be any good at it yourself; or even if you can pull it off, you may find it doesn't serve you as well as you thought it would. I myself grew up with a fondness for huge set-pieces in film: I was about scope and scale and florid design. And I still love that stuff -- Jeunet remains one of the few directors who can successfully pull me in. But as much as I'd like to work that way myself -- even putting practical considerations aside -- I just don't. What I want as a viewer and what I do as a filmmaker are completely different things. When I'm writing, I don't write about grand settings and elaborate costumes, I write about single people and motivations. With, of course, a solid line in subtext. Since that's what I do and all. It's like a musician who fell in love with Shostakovich but ended up writing country songs; or a painter who went to Paris to learn to paint like Toulouse Lautrec but eventually became a children's book illustrator. You can choose art, and to some extent you can choose your medium, but your work has its own ideas about what it wants to be. And the really weird thing is that eventually your circuitous path will always tend to come back to where you started. But I'm not that far along yet.

(Y'know, thinking about it, this obsession with subtext might turn out to be a fatal flaw. Even among sophisticated viewers, how many people are actually patient and thoughtful enough to work out the subtext of a new film? Shit, I don't even understand my own subtext half the time. What good is it to add unspoken parallels to the Old Testament if nobody ever notices? And yet, what good is a subtext that's obvious?)

Anyway, my fervent hope is that one of these days I'll stumble across someone with more ideas than time, and from there the rest will work itself out.

Admittedly, it's not much of a business plan.

PS: Or maybe I should just give drugs a chance. Seems to work for lots of other folks.
6:59 PM ::
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