Sunday, April 09, 2006
Insufferable Pretension, Part 1

I think I'm going to spend all this week writing about art and the creative process. (Hey, it's my blog, and I can do what I want.) Permit me, Greensmile, to use part of your comment as a launching pad for some continued navel-gazing.

If you already have the occasional idea boiling up inside you, its time to DO rather than time to expose yourself to yet more of the world.

I agree, with this statement and with your subsequent qualifier. But the issue with film -- not only with film, certainly, but maybe to an especially large degree with film -- is that the distance between inspiration and realization is fucking enormous and frought with obstacles. Even on the simplest level, it still requires that the artist work by way of a machine and complex chemical/electronic and physiological reactions. I know lots of other media can use similar processes, but film is utterly, completely reliant upon them. In fact, early objections to film being recognized as an artform had nothing to do with commerce or the compound nature of medium, but were instead based on this interaction between artist and machine: if the artist is reliant upon an artificial mechanism, then is film more a product of the artist or of the machine? Obviously there's no serious dispute over the question anymore -- film is art, as is photography -- but I mention it to underline the inherent compromise that's already involved in making a film.

The creative process for a filmmaker, then, is based on compromise from the first moment, and compromise makes up a huge part of the process throughout. On top of all the usual problems that crop up in any artist's creative life -- inspiration (and its lack), self-doubt, the tension between artist and viewer, exhaustion, and the rest of it -- filmmakers also have to contend with the huge gap between the moment when they have an idea and the moment when they can see the product of that idea in front of them. (And as if that wasn't discouraging enough, no matter how good you are you'll never be able to communicate your original vision to anyone else, ever. The best you can do is to interpret it faithfully. Every film starts as a perfect idea running in your head that nobody else will ever, ever see -- the frustration can be intense, but it also forces you to be a bit zen about your art. Maybe I'll write more about that another day.)

My usual process goes like this: 1) idea; 2) irrational enthusiasm for idea; 3) good night's sleep; 4) sudden profound doubt about the idea and embarrassment over previous irrational enthusiasm (few projects make it past this stage); 5) note-taking, background reading, research, idea development; 6) initial structural planning, maybe a little early plotting and plot-dissection; 7) writing; 8) repeat steps 6 & 7 until you've got a reasonable first draft; 9) another bout of intense self-doubt; 10) second draft, throwing half of the first draft away; 11) repeat step 10 until you're done; 12) shred completed screenplay to (metaphorical) pieces and begin figuring out how to actually make a film out of it.

And that's just the work I do before I actually set about doing the work. Even simple films can easily take years to get from their conception to their first public screening, and maintaining the required level of passion over years has got to be one of the most difficult tasks anyone could undertake. The point is, it's not like I can just whip out a canvas and some paints and get to work whenever inspiration strikes, and then enjoy the gratification of having made something. It is possible to just pick up a camera and go shoot a lot of whatever happens in front of you -- I have a number of friends who work that way, and I've done a fair bit of it myself -- but I personally find it too limited a form to keep me satisfied. (Although I've learned a lot of valuable lessons from doing it, and I think it's a necessary thing for anyone to try. But it's like the difference, perhaps, between playing improvisational jazz and composing an opera. They're two completely different things.)

By the time I get through the whole process -- conception, development, planning, production, post-production -- I can't see the film anymore, I can't remember what it was like to feel inspired by the idea from which it grew, I can barely bring myself to watch it, and having other people watch it is an exercise in emotional detachment. In fact, getting people's responses to a film is something I feel more obligated to do than anything else -- my ego is interested (mostly in having them say it's good), but my creative self is completely absent from the proceedings. I have enormous envy for those who create in an artform where they get to interact in real time with their audiences, where the doing and the feedback happen simultaneously. (I know it doesn't always work out that way in real life, but at least it's viable possibility.)

Writing it out this way really makes me wonder why I bother with film at all. It's a fucking hell of a lot of work for a severely slim pay-off. (The answer, obviously, is that I love it and feel deeply compelled and can't not do it. Sometimes art is strictly about self-flagellation. Especially for me.) I can't say I feel much either way about the idea of "retreat" -- except that maybe, since I do tend basically towards introversion and self-reference, that my version of "retreat" means going out to be with other people.

It's funny, when I was a kid I went through a phase where I wanted to be a film director (sandwiched between wanting to be a horse vet/breeder and wanting to be a writer), but rejected the idea because it meant I'd have to work with other people. And it definitely does mean that. But the thing that surprised me (once I decided to try anyway and loved it, and convinced myself that it was something I could really pursue) was that I discovered that I'm absolutely driven by collaboration -- the only thing that gets me through all of the above is the time I spend working with others. Not other filmmakers primarily -- them too, yes, but not first and foremost -- but rather people who do everything else. Actors. Visual artists. Writers. Musicians. (The musicians are the best of all -- I've associated with several since I started out, and I've always learned the most from them. There's a natural symbiosis, I think, between film and music, and it goes deeper than the obvious stuff.) When I work alone, I tend to drift, and forward movement is slow and difficult; when I work with others, I'm better able to focus and progress. And when I work with certain people, the act of artistic creation is like a nuclear reaction -- I've only met half a dozen or so about whom I can say this, but all I have to do is hang around them and my creativity spikes. I would swim across an ocean of bullshit to get to those people -- being around them is a privilege and the best thing in the world.

Anyway, more tomorrow.
8:01 PM ::
Amy :: permalink