Category Archives: Art
Creating it and enjoying it.
I went to an incredibly entertaining show last night at the North Carolina Museum of Art. And yes, it was technically a puppet show. But this was no ordinary puppet show. This troupe presented a mastery of techniques in a presentation that made children coo and adults gasp in awe. They’re going at it again tonight, so if you can, you should go see them (or if they come to your town).
They employed a mix of delightful costumes, giant cutouts operated with long sticks, lights and sound, flowing silk banners and a giant face hoisted up on a flagpole whilst a being of light danced into the audience. Words cannot describe how wonderful this show was. But I have to warn you in advance, the hardcore conservatives seemed a bit uncomfortable (a few families even got up and walked out). There was a thread weaved throughout the performance about the magnificent diversity of life on the planets, how it had adapted and evolved to survive, and how we need to work together to preserve the earth (now there’s a really subversive message if ever I heard one).
The MC was a person dressed in a tuxedo and wearing an oversized head resembling Charles Darwin. Various cutout puppets were paraded onto the stage from single cell organisms to various forms of sea life and then (gasp) a fish walked. And then dinosaurs and finally plethora of people dressed as cats, goats, pigs, monkeys and chickens came on stage to sing and play musical instruments (this had everyone on their feet). Since words really can’t do it justice, but I really wanted to encourage people to catch this act if you get a chance wither here in Raleigh or when they go on tour. See the brief excerpt from the finale I caught on my iPhone below:
As for the the musical accompaniment, the local musical ensemble Lost in the Trees composed original music just for this show and the music was tight and just beautiful. Ensemble leader Ari Picker (himself a veritable musical genius) has put together a group of extremely talented and well-trained musicians whose performances evoke feelings and images of amazing intensity (these guys should be scoring films). The musical vocalizations of Emma Nadeau were ethereal.
As for the Chang Scale rating: I give this one a solid 5. See it if you can. Drive an hour if you have to.
BC September 14, 2013
Art of course is in the eye of the beholder. Two people gazing at the same painting in a gallery will take away different experiences from it. One might love it, while the other might not so much. A violin screeching might move one person to tears and another person to want to leave the auditorium. There have been countless studies exploring the impact of various types, forms, genres and so forth on differing cultural groups, but they often seem to leave holes in their findings.
I remember quite a number of years ago, the first time I went to an opera, I had this thought bubble up from the depths of my mind that this would be a mainly white experience. But then the star soprano as well as several other singers, and a significant percentage (I guess, since I’m no statistician) of the audience were black. I kind of chided myself a little for having thought that only wealthy older white people would like opera. That was the image that Hollywood portrayed at least. I realized it wan’t so much the “liking” part that was the issue—it was the priciness of it. Things have changed now in that virtually any major live event requires you to hock a piece of your grandmother’s sterling silver set in order to purchase tickets.
I had a similar revelation years later, when a friend scored some free passes to a rap extravaganza. Those same neurons fired up a thought that we might be the only white people there. I was so wrong again. In fact I’ve had similar types of preconceptions at one time or other about jazz, blues, country, reggae, metal, the ballet, Shakespeare… And I learned the same about film as well. There are plenty of great foreign films that cut across cultural boundaries and have every bit as much visceral impact on me as anything Hollywood churns out.
We all might at one point in our lives believe that there are distinct cultural lines in art appreciation, but we learn as we get older and wiser that culture really has no absolute boundaries. It has only the boundaries we consciously (or perhaps unconsciously) place on it ourselves.
It is clear that we all have differing tastes in music, literature, film, food, and so forth. And it is also clear that those tastes are shaped by a mix of both innate and cultural factors. I personally have little doubt that our experiences in life shape not only our tastes and proclivities, but our perceptions as well. But my pondering here is about whether there are things an artist often consciously (or perhaps subconsciously) thinks about while working, with respect to how to reach (and appeal to) an audience.
Do you ever notice thoughts entering your head as you’re working on something to the effect of “how would this be appreciated by potential readers/viewers/listeners?” If you respond that that sort of thought never crosses your mind, I’m going to venture a guess that you may be deluding yourself.
When you compose a song, write a short story, make a film, take a photograph, paint or sculpt: who are you trying to please? Only yourself? Take some time to think about that. And let’s set aside the inherent imperatives and pressures of the commercial artist, for whom we already know the answer to that question.
As subjective as art may be, there are elements that appeal to the collective consciousness of large numbers of people. We know that ultimately what you create comes from your own heart and therefore is a reflection of your subjective sense of art and aesthetic. But most of us want so much to get our works seen and heard by more than just ourselves and our inner circle of family and friends—and this means we might just be flavoring our work just a bit to make it more appealing to others. We want not just to be artists, but to be famous (at least a little bit).
I believe there is a distinction however in the motive behind the endeavor. If the intent of a line of prose, or a piece of music, or a photograph, or a video clip is primarily to make a living, either through its direct sale or via its use in advertising to sell an article of apparel or a cosmetic product, or whatever, then clearly that work could be categorized as commercial art.
But how do you explain why certain pieces of music, certain visual images (both still and moving), and certain combinations of written words that were created without commercial intent, at some point find their way into advertising?
The answer is in my opinion quite simple: some works of art evoke a mood or emotion that Madison Avenue types believe they can take advantage of to encourage people to be receptive to buying their product or service. An exciting bit of rock music might be used to help sell a flashy new sport coupe. A piece of sombre music might be used to help sell life insurance. Or a photograph of an older couple strolling on the beach might be used to sell an investment service.
We see and hear this sort of use of well-known images and sounds virtually every day (Pachabel’s “Canon in D” comes to my immediate mind). It saturates our collective consciousness. We know that not all of these familiar images and sounds were created by artists with the immediate intent of profit. We might even curse these ad men for “sullying” the pureness of these lovely works of art—long after the artists have created them. But we also revel at the sheer power of these works that they would be so utilized.
So to my original point about the subjectivity of art, I contend that a work of art is no less magnificent for having been created with the tastes of the masses in mind, than had it been created by a recluse, truly without any thought as to how anyone else might perceive and/or judge it.
In fact, nature has created some of the most wondrous and magnificent works of art without a thought toward it. What makes art great or not so great is completely intangible and immeasurable. Its greatness is independent of the eye of the beholder or of the profit it generates. Art existed long before human beings started creating their own variants, and it will exist long after they’ve stopped.
Storytelling is at the core of all art forms. No matter how abstract that form is, there is still at least a basic theme behind it. It doesn’t matter if you’re making a film, writing a novel, composing a song, making carvings from tree stumps, painting a watercolor, or photographing orangoutangs in their native environment. If you are creating art, you are telling a story. And the better you are at the craft of storytelling, the better of an artist you will be.
Of course good storytelling is in the eye of the beholder. I have my own opinions about what elements of storytelling I consider invaluable to various artistic disciplines and I will talk a little about that here. However, I won’t go into too much detail regarding the classical methods and elements of storytelling. I am after all, a self-described jack of all trades and master of but a few, so while I consider myself a writer as well as a connoisseur of good writing, I absolutely will not be so sententious as to pose as a writing expert. It is my humble opinion that all artists should read a book or two on writing in order to gain a basic understanding of story construction.
Books on writing talk about various ways to categorize and classify stories. There are genres (e.g. comedy, action-adventure, horror, thriller, science fiction, etc.). And there are recognized archetypical themes (e.g. the hero’s journey, the coming of age, fall and redemption, etc.) And then there are also the aspects related to the length of the story and how that affects how the story is unveiled (short stories and short films have to tell the story more quickly, and therefore may gloss over or even skip entirely, certain elements that would be considered more important in a full-length feature film or a novel. But all storytelling has a few central tenets.
The primordial component of a good story is the theme. The theme is that central concern of the work of art that resonates with the audience. Writers know that every work of fiction has a theme and that theme should be clear in your mind before you start the process of writing. But other artists also should think (albeit sometimes unconsciously) about a theme when they pick up a brush or chisel or guitar or still camera.
A theme could be as simple as a feeling or emotion (pain, elation, anger, bliss, etc.) or it could be a more complex concept such as man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, or a warning about the oppression of the common man by the machinations of life, or it could be a moral adage such as do unto others what you would have them do unto you. But it is always there, even if only at the subconscious level. It is useful to pull it up into conscious thought when trying to create something meaningful.
Beyond a theme, stories have a plot, characters and settings. The plot (in a very small nutshell) is essentially the sequence of events in various settings, that shapes the characters as they encounter conflicts and work toward resolving them, from the beginning to the end of the story. Plots can be rather complex: there could be several subplots twisting and turning and intertwining in the story.
In literature and film, these three elements are complex and carefully developed: the story is laced with dialogue and narrative descriptions that help define the settings and the characters. In more static works of art, these are usually more subtle. A painting with people posed in a particular setting, going about their lives can evoke an idea about what’s going on, but to a lesser extent than explicit prose can. Much of the story must be inferred by the viewer, and clearly each viewer will come away with a slightly different take on it. Again, that is part of the pleasure of art: that part of what you take away from it is highly personal.
Of course, as art becomes more abstract, the story becomes more difficult to perceive. The more abstract the art, the more its interpretation is left to the imagination. But this too is part of the satisfaction and pleasure of viewing art. We cultivate our imaginations by attempting to see beneath the wavy lines, the rough textures, the vivid colors and the sharp borders.
A friend of mine was working on an oil painting a while back, and she asked what I saw in my mind when I looked at it. So I sat in a comfortable chair just looking at it for a while and thinking about it. And in a way, I sort of translated it into a little story in my head. Although a painting, by its nature is static (there is neither action nor dialog in a painting) and this one was a bit abstract, I saw distinct imagery and felt a certain feeling. I saw a savage city looming over the people who resided there, oppressive with its size and complexity. The city didn’t do this intentionally—it was just being itself. Yet the people seemed to be coping with it, and even thriving, as most life can thrive almost anywhere if it has the will to. So I saw a triumph of the will over oppression and angst. When I told my artist friend what I gleaned from her painting, she looked at me with amazement. She told me that lots of people saw the buildings and the people beneath them. But not many saw a story with a powerful theme (replete with conflict and resolution) in it. And then she told me that this was exactly how she had felt on her first visit to New York: that the tall buildings and bustling streets had seemed intimidating and even threatening—until she walked inside a few and found a friendly neighborhood bar, or a nightclub with a jazz band playing, or a market with shelves full of colorful and tasty things for sale. The feeling that she had was about how even the cold intimidation of the city could be overcome by digging beneath its veneer. I felt good for her (and a little for myself) that I had seen the same little story behind that painting that she had been thinking of when she conceived it.
And then there’s a great body of classical music from which you can glean stories without hearing any words or seeing any actions. There are stories of bloody wars, disaster and triumph, love shattered, and redemption from a fall. It’s all there in the sad violin solo, the cascade of horns, the crescendo of the timpani drums, the crash of the cymbals—if you but listen for it. You can hear the story build from movement to movement. And you can be driven to tears by the climactic ending.
With literature and film, the storyteller has more means to express the story through spoken words and actions and narrative descriptions than in other forms of art. And therefore, the pressure is on the writer or filmmaker to tell a good story to an audience that is expecting more than just mundane dialogue, funny jokes, exciting action, and stunning scenery. But every brushstroke, every bit of stone chiseled away and every musical note has a meaning too.
I’ve heard it said by a famous sculptor, when asked how he knew what to chisel away: “I see in my mind what it is I’m trying to say, and anything that doesn’t contribute to saying it gets removed, and then what I’m left with is pure meaning.” That was a bit of an epiphany to me, since sculpting is subtractive in nature—you start with all the material and remove that which shouldn’t be there, as opposed to building up a work piece by piece as happens in painting. By comparison, writers and filmmakers do both: they put together a rough work and then edit out what they then feel doesn’t add anything.
No matter what form of art a person is into, the common goal is to tell a story, no matter how short and sweet it is. All artists should think about this before getting started on something. What is it you’re trying to say? Your audience is expecting a good story when they sit down to read your novel or to watch your film, or listen to your song, or view your photographs, paintings or sculptures. When you fall short on your implicit promise to tell a good story, you let your audience down.
You’ve undoubtedly seen posts of the following nature all over the internet forums aimed at writers, filmmakers, musicians, etc. (Facebook is the worst offender):
“Hey everyone, I’m a new writer/filmmaker/musician and I just finished a short story/short film/song: could you all visit my page and read/view/listen to it, and hit like? It will help me with my career”.
Newsflash for all the fledging Stephen King’s / Marty Scorcese’s / Dave Mathews’s out there: posting links to your so-so stuff in Facebook groups and begging people in that group to click the like button isn’t going to help launch your career. It will only tend to evoke a bit of empathetic pity from other misguided artist wannabes—if anything. Personally, I’d be more inclined to view your stuff if you asked me to take a look and give you my honest feedback, instead of just “like me, like me…”. The reality is, these people probably don’t even care if you watch or listen to their stuff—they just want their view count and like percentage as high as possible. They subscribe the specious notion that if they get their numbers high enough that important people who can help them with their careers will magically call them to set up a meeting.
Well, the reality is this is not a game whereby the person with the most likes wins the prize of a lucrative contract with a big publishing house or film studio or record label. Social media may be good for contacting others just like you to talk and to bitch about stuff, but it isn’t some wondrous new invention that can instantly make stars out of you if you post enough drivel often enough. The only one thing that is going to propel you in a successful career as a writer, filmmaker, musician or artist of any stripe is to be both good and lucky. Nobody can help you with those—you have to study your craft and practice incessantly for that to happen. But regarding who can really help you, you have to make connections with the right people (not just other struggling artists in the same boat). You have to meet the people who can help you polish and distribute and sell your art (we’ll talk about who these people are in a future blog).
I commented in an earlier post about how technology has made it easier to self-publish. Whether you’re trying to sell a novel or collection of short stores on Kindle, or distribute a short film on Vimeo or YouTube, or sell your songs on Reverb Nation, it has unquestionably gotten much easier to get your stuff “out there”. But the flip side of that is that there is so much stuff “out there” that it is getting harder and harder to get noticed. It has really become a landfill on which you are tossing your little nugget of gold and hoping and praying for the best, if you only post enough “watch me/like me” messages.
So to start with, you need to learn your craft and practice until you really have come up with a gem. A work of art that is appealing, is what’s going to sell. Slapping together a poorly-edited novel with a weak plot, or a film with no character arc and trite dialog, or a song that just doesn’t hook you and get your blood pumping and then uploading it to one of those mass distribution channels and then begging people to look at it and like it, just isn’t enough. I went to yet another local “premiere” held by a local “filmmaker” recently, and saw a film that was not a story, just a recounting of some awful things that happened to the writer as a child, and then while I was waiting for some entertaining and/or enlightening climactic ending, the credits started rolling. I was expecting either redemption or poetic justice, but saw only the ending credits instead. It was yet another WTF moment.
If only your family and friends and cast and crew members’ support alone could propel you into stardom, you wouldn’t need to worry about little things like telling a good story. You could just string together a collection of scenes or beats or riffs, and use some pretty camera work and some catchy music, and you’d be all set. But don’t complain about the injustice of the “system” when you’re still making latte’s for your day job instead of moving to a new home in Bel Air. There’s so much of that kind of fluff out there that it has jaded the average person. And those people who can and might be trying to discover new artists and their works aren’t going to dig through that landfill looking for your nugget. Those agents, publishers, film distributors, and art dealers might or might not have assistants searching the depths and crevices of the net for potential new talent, but all the noise out there makes it all the harder for them to find you! As I said in a previous blog: the signal-to-noise ratio on the internet is near zero. And if they did by some chance come across one of your nuggets, you may only get that one golden opportunity to have it looked at with a critical eye/ear, so don’t blow it by putting incessant substandard junk out there.
What do you have to do to rise above the noise floor? In whatever art form you work in, you have to tell captivating stories. You have to both entertain people and move them emotionally with some message. And you must never confuse the medium for the message (read Marshall McLuhan). If you don’t know how to tell stories, then you are not there yet as an artist. Have confidence in yourself, but don’t act like a best-selling author when all you’ve written is a handful of unpublished short stories. Nobody likes a poser!
There are filmmakers who believe that great lighting and camera moves are the most important factors in creating a good film. I see these folks in pre-production meetings obsessing not over the story, but over lenses and lights and dollies and cranes. Most of these types of filmmakers came up through the ranks of cinematographer (camera guy). They possess all that lovely and expensive equipment and they so want to use all of it in every film they make to justify their expenditures. This use of technology sleight of hand to try to sell a film that is otherwise devoid of good storytelling isn’t just a small-time indie malady—it happens on medium-to-large budget films as well. It’s a hallmark of the so-called “B” movie. When a filmmaker has a weak story, he or she too often thinks that just lacing the finished footage with complicated effects, impressive stunts, cool sound effects, and other “wow factor” ingredients is all that it takes to bring the quality level right up there. Some people might buy that, but I personally do not think a whole lot of people do.
And while dedicated writers know a little more about the importance of story structure, they still come up short quite often. How many times have you writers had an inspiration for a really great story, but didn’t know how to end it (or even to start it)? Perhaps at some critical turning point you weren’t sure wether to go down one path or another, so you just slapped together something just to finish it? It probably would have been better to just set your script aside and worked on something else until that epiphany hit you (and it hits all good writers who have the patience to wait for it). But we all so want to have more immediate gratification and get more stuff out there faster. Art is not a competition or a race. It might be controlled too often by business interests. But at its core, it is an expression of the mind, heart and spirit.
I’ve dabbled in songwriting, and found similar urges to take short cuts to hurry up the process. I used to mock the old Beatle’s songs for the simplistic lyrics that mostly were variations of “she loves you” or “I love her”. Of course the Beatles franchise made billions of dollars with their “silly love songs”, so what’s wrong with that? Artistically-speakingm nothing really. But the Beatles went through several distinct definitive phases. They began with the commercial art phase where everything from their costumes and hair to their publicity releases, to their lyrics, was about creating fan buzz and satisfying the record label execs. I don’t think many folks would try to argue that their first couple of albums were beautiful works of art. And that’s okay in my book, because they did evolve over time, and then the art started shining through. The storytelling became more obvious by the time they got into their Magical Mystery Tour/Abbey Road phases. And since they were pioneers, people were much more patient with their evolution. Musicians today who try to make a lucrative career out of mere flashy appearance, ear-numbing waves of sound pressure and shocking lyrics, are more likely to be left in a perpetual state of wondering when someone is going to recognize their art and their careers are going to take off. Again (and I cannot stress this enough) whatever your medium is: you have to be good at telling stories. I’ve gone through this again and again. You need to know how to do this. And though the technique differs from art form to art form, you have to introduce and develop, create conflict and resolution, excite and deflate at the right times, have rising arcs of understanding and expectation, and an exciting climax. Your audience has to come away having really felt your work, not just glanced at it.
Truth be told, there is no absolute solution to creating great art that can also make money for you. There is no self-help book nor class that can teach you how to bare your soul and channel what comes out of your heart into beautiful works of art that other people so very much want to own and to look at and listen to and to touch (and to pay handsomely for the pleasure). Creating art is something no one can teach you. You can be taught about the tools and materials of the trade, the importance of good work habits, how to get started, basic technique and structure, and maybe you can even acquire some hints on how to unblock your creative juices. But no one can tell you how to create art. It flows out of you or it doesn’t. That is the intrinsic nature of art.
As for making a living as an artist: we all know it is very tough. With the exception of the most gifted (and lucky and also well-promoted) artists at the very top, it just doesn’t pay that much. At the lower levels, we do it for self-growth. There a lot of competition out there and therefore it is a huge challenge just to get noticed by the right people. I have a niece who is studying ballet. It is the love of her life right now, but she is fully aware that unless she lands a spot with one of the top ballet companies in the country, she will probably be fortunate just to make slightly less money than a secretary. Whatever career she might have in ballet will be brief, grueling, at times painful, and inevitably it will end before she would like it to. She would then try to find a job teaching dance and maybe eventually opening her own studio. It’s sort of a parallel to being a minor-league athlete.
You will inevitably face a decision point somewhere along the way regarding “selling out”. By this I mean becoming involved in commercial art. This is the world where economic and financial considerations weigh on the creation of the “art”. For filmmakers, it might mean literally making commercials. For musicians it might mean composing advertising jingles or it might mean working at a music store and teaching music to kids. For writers, it might mean writing (or re-writing or copywriting or editing) for a newspaper or magazine. It will almost always mean there is some business person looking over your shoulder telling what to do and what not to do.
But don’t feel like you’ve sold your soul to the devil if you follow this path. Everyone needs to make a living somehow. Some of the more interesting up-and-coming local filmmakers and actors I know have unrelated real-world jobs like teaching kids, writing computer software, managing networks, and waiting on tables. That doesn’t take anything away from them either as human beings or as artists. Just because you create your best pure art during your off-hours from your day job, that doesn’t invalidate it or dirty it up in any way. You just have to learn to separate the two worlds in your head. Don’t be thinking, as you’re putting the finishing touches on a watercolor painting you hope to have displayed in a gallery, something to the effect of “Hmm, this nice titanium white is rather expensive, so I can save maybe a few bucks by using that cheaper stuff they sell at Target.” Keep your two worlds separate and distinct in your head and you’ll be okay.
I’m pretty certain of one thing though: you cannot beg people to either look at nor to like your art. Your friends and colleagues will do that for you out of loyalty. I don’t believe that those view and like counts on your short film or novel or song mean very much (unless you get into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of hits, and then YouTube (or whatever) is willing to attach advertisements for cars or deodorants or baby food or whatever on top of your stuff. And generally those “high view” videos tend to be of talking dogs or boxing cats. The notion that all you need to do to be a success is to have your video go viral and that your Facebook buddies can make that happen, is a specious assumption. There are other, more effective means of promoting your work (more on that in a future blog). But you really should first focus on honing your skills before your start seeking out those people who really can help you.
It is narcissistic and fallacious thinking to believe you can cajole and plead your way into a career as a writer or filmmaker or musician or photographer or whatever, without having anything of quality to show. When you are really producing the good stuff, then and only then, focus on developing those valuable contacts who can help you. And after all that, if the fame and notoriety doesn’t follow right away, and if you have to wait on tables or give music lessons to kids, or make wedding videos for a living for the time being, you are definitely in good company. Most of us “artists” have to struggle to survive. In my humble opinion, that only makes us better.
This topic came up as a result of a question from a friend at a local pub with a bunch of other friends, after a reasonable yet significant level of inebriation had been achieved. My friends are well aware that I’ve started a blog that does quite a bit of analysis under the guise of being a “critic”. So the question posed was, “Boris, you’ve done production sound, hell you even worked in a real recording studio, you’ve written and directed a short film that’s still in post, written several novels and screenplays that are just sitting on a shelf (albeit several of the screenplays have been registered with the WGA-West—for what it’s worth), you’ve cooked for your friends a few times, shared some interesting photos you took whilst galavanting around the far east, you play a little guitar, ride a Ducati… Yada yada blah blah blah—so how does that qualify you to be a critic of people who have been producing art, music, food, film or whatever for years? What gives you the %#$@ing right to write about other peoples’ blood sweat and tears, in areas you’ve only dabbled in?
In a sense, I can see the logic in that. How could I possibly know what goes into making a feature film, or putting on an exhibit of paintings or photographs, or a piano recital (when I can barely play chopsticks on the ivories), a dance performance (when the best I’ve ever danced is to wave my arms around like a chimpanzee, whilst my wife pulls her hair down over her face to hide her identity). But then I remembered that there are very good art, film, music and food critics out there who never mastered what it is they critique. There’s even that old saw that if you can’t do it, you teach it, and if you can’t teach it, you criticize it (actually critics critique stuff, and only occasionally when it is really bad stuff do they criticize it—there is a bit of a difference you know).
So to be honest, I think that you can never know what goes into an artistic effort of the magnitude of making a full-length feature film, or publishing a four-hundred page novel for real (on real paper, and sold in real bookstores), or performing in a musical or dance recital, if you haven’t done it. But if you are a serious artist, you wouldn’t be critiquing it. And if you had mastered the art, but then had to retire early for some reason (such as a career-ending injury or old age for a dancer) you’d probably be teaching. Only the lowest of the bottom feeders attempt to make any sort of career (paid or unpaid) of critiquing other peoples’ work.
But someone has to do it. If you hear the friends, family and close colleagues talk about someone’s artistic products, they will gush with praise (and hit that “like” button” in a heartbeat) even for something that is absolute and obvious rubbish. So it falls on the likes of those of us who operate at the periphery of the art world and hang out in the shadows of artists both great and mediocre, to take on the sometimes not-so-well-received task of telling it like it is.
So does that make me qualified? My short answer is yes. My long answer is hell yes. And if you don’t like that I referred to a home movie a friend of yours shot with a $100 camcorder, out of focus, and that sounded like the on-screen characters were in a tunnel, and like the lighting was done using a flashlight—that’s just too darn bad. That’s just what I do. And if you put some tune you created out on Reverb Nation that I feel sounds like a two-year-old vomited her strained peas onto a $100 Casio digital keyboard—again, too bad. That’s what I do. And if like a certain English professor at a certain local major university, you run a writing Meetup group and boast about your self-published novels on Kindle that had all the plot and character development of a child’s finger painting and I said that here (I have not!)—you quite possibly deserved it (but I’ve heard plenty of other people say similar things about your work in the Kindle review section sir).
I call em as I see em. If you don’t like what I have to say, and you really want to beat the crap out of me, I’m the guy at the exhibit/show/concert/recital who looks like an English Bulldog. But conversely, I will give kudos to someone who has worked hard to improve with each new work they put out there. After all, we should all strive to be better at whatever we do every day. And I recognize good entertainment value, even if as an art form, the work has come up a bit short (like if you posted a YouTube video with two cats boxing). Stand-up comedy is in fact a high art form and a difficult one to do well. And done well, it is highly entertaining—so much so you might accidentally tear a muscle in your side from laughing.
But fair warning: the thing I will most tear into is posers acting like accomplished artists. At least I’ll be the first to admit that my guitar playing qualifies me for playing in a garage band with four other significantly inebriated grown-up adolescents. I have a good friend who plays a little better than I do and is waiting for Eddie Van Halen to return his calls (you know who you are). Go figure. And then there’s my cooking. While my wife says it is very good, a professional chef would probably mistake a plate I had prepared for one needing to go into the dishwasher. And then there’s the photography. I get laughed at for having one of the nicest DSLR’s available (a 5D3) and not knowing what 90% of its capabilities are. But I’m learning. And then again, I never pretended to be the heir apparent to Ansel Adams, as a few photographer acquaintances of mine seem to think they are.
So what I do think really about the necessary qualifications to critique some form or other of art? In my humble opinion (hopefully that word humble will make you back down a bit on your anger level) to be a critic, you need to have had some basic exposure, and a little education (even just reading a few books I think counts), maybe have an aptitude of an advanced amateur, and definitely a sincere interest in and respect for the art form. You can’t be a good critic of country music for example, if you think that every country music song is about a guy’s wife taking the dog and the pickup truck. So I will recuse myself from critiquing that particular “art form”. I love to recognize artists who really produce fine work and put on a great show. And I will recognize a great effort that falls short in some area. But I will just as quickly come down hard on the posers who think because they are a little more talented than Joe The Plumber, that their work should be on exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Seriously, I will always accept an invitation to get a personal demonstration and education as to what is involved in creating a form of art (as long as it doesn’t take place in a secluded alley late at night). I want to learn more and to understand more about what you professional artists really do in your studios and on your stages in your professional artistic endeavors. I definitely make every effort to improve myself every day by practicing a little guitar, shooting some pictures or video footage and editing it, and writing novels, screenplays and of course this blog. Hell, I’ve even helped a neighbor with his home brewing. It is all both fun and very educational. Life is a mega adventure to me and like a shark, I need to keep swimming in order to breathe. But please don’t take it too hard if I didn’t gush with praise over something you spent all of a week working on during breaks from watching South Park reruns. It’s all part of the game of life.
I am reminded of Rod Stewart’s old song “Every Picture Tells a Story”, every time I read a screenplay (or listen to a song a friend is composing, or gaze at a collection of photographs in an exhibit at a gallery). It is true—to an extent for every artistic endeavor, that there is a story behind the work of art. Sometimes you might have to squint hard to find it, but that’s part of the joy of art appreciation. Every movie, every stage play, every painting, sculpture and photograph, every novel, short story and poem, and every song and dance should tell some story. That’s what art is all about after all (save for purely and intentionally abstract art). Sadly though, it seems of late that story telling, if not dead, to paraphrase something Frank Zappa once said about jazz, smells funny.
There are a lot of business-minded folks (as well as skilled technologists) out there, in places like Hollywood and New York, as well as in cities and small towns the world over, who seem to think that storytelling is secondary to having exciting action sequences, dynamite special effects, gratuitous violence, and frankly, as much as we try to believe it ain’t so: lots of T&A. And the problem isn’t just an issue of quantity over quality, or ultra-tight schedules and budgets. I truly believe the fine art of storytelling has been lost to many people—especially in filmmaking, where sophisticated computer-generated imagery, dazzling visual effects and sensational high-dollar action sequences have supplanted good old storytelling. As long as the film does well at the box office, it doesn’t matter to producers how artistic a film is. Getting back to Frank Zappa, I remember at one of his concerts way back at the dawn of heavy metal, he wheeled an air raid siren onto the stage, donned ear plugs, and then activated the siren. While he was making a not-so-subtle statement that rock fans were becoming more interested in loudness than in the quality of the music, the fans in attendance cheered wildly, in essence validating his statement.
While Hollywood is often thought of as a soul-crushing machine where nothing but the almighty dollar matters, I’m seeing a lot of locally-produced micro-budget independent films (both shorts and features) — where you would think good storytelling would be used to make up for lack of budget, but in fact where it seems storytelling has taken a backseat to getting something (anything) out there on Vimeo or YouTube as fast as humanly possible, and then begging anyone and everyone across the blogosphere and Facebook and MySpace, who will listen to their incessant rants to watch and like it. The signal to noise ratio in my humble opinion has dropped to near zero in the indie filmmaking world. (At this point my colleagues would remind me to breathe).
But the truth is, cheap camcorders and cheap editing software along with free and easy distribution models like YouTube, has made moviemaking into a much more democratic process where the studios don’t control everything. But this has brought with it the dramatic lowering of quality of the average independent production, as everyone and their kid brother records some trivial stuff on the family camcorder or DSLR and then posts it. Facebook groups dedicated to local filmmaking endeavors have turned into bulletin boards where the mediocre hawk their stuff, and beg people to view and like. If it’s goofy enough, it might end up getting more hits than an entire season’s worth of NHL action.
A similar situation exists now for literature with the advent of self-publishing models such as Kindle. While it makes getting one’s novel out in the public eye far easier than it used to be (no dealing with agents, editors, and publishers who won’t give the time of day to anyone who isn’t already a well-known published author) it has lowered the bar to the point where the bar is practically underground. And while user ratings and reviews can sometimes help guide a reader through the morass of junk masquerading as literature, the ratings systems can and have been gamed. I heard recently that a writer who penned a scathing assessment of the Chinese penal system had found the fury of the motherland released when in a single day a huge number of negative reviews (some calling her an outright liar) appeared virtually overnight. And that’s why purveyors of low-quality movies on mediums such as YouTube go on a campaign of begging other filmmaker wannabe’s to give them a “like” to support their “career”.
I joined a couple of these local filmmaking Facebook groups to try to network with other serious filmmakers about techniques and maybe find people for cast and crew (or who were looking for cast and crew) but found they’re mostly of the “watch and like my home movie” variety of posts (with an occasional religious sermon thrown in by a fanatic). I rarely take a look at their news feeds anymore. I guess there’s a supposed implication that if enough people view and like someone’s hastily slapped together home movie on a site like YouTube, it will propel the filmmaker into a great filmmaking career. The fact is, all it does is pull the signal to noise ratio even lower than one would think possible (can it become a negative number?). The chuckles I hear from filmmaker acquaintances of mine who have actually won awards in local film festivals is that these pleas to “watch my video and like it”, as opposed to “give me your helpful feedback either way”, are a somewhat pathetic embarrassment. The really good local filmmakers seem to have abandoned mainstream communication channels like Facebook (other than private messaging), due to the high level of noise bombarding these groups on a daily basis. It has become like trying to hear the music above the air raid siren.
In all fairness, YouTube was never really intended to be a distribution mechanism for quality entertainment. Everyone knows it’s mainly where you can post your cell phone video clips of dogs gone wild, or babies vomiting up strained peas. It’s a video bulletin board. The fact that you can monetize your YouTube channel if you get enough views and likes, and actually make some money from it, doesn’t make the dog chasing his tail into an artistic work. The universal maxim that “you get what you pay for” has already moved the more talented and serious filmmakers into outlets like Netflix online and the festival circuit. Anyone willing to shell out $1,500 up front (or whatever it’s up to) to get an aggregator to screen your film to determine if it’s got any redeeming quality worthy of being potentially seen by millions of viewers on Netflix online is generally is a more serious filmmaker. It’s not that everything on Netflix is really good——on the contrary, much of it is rubbish. But it is far more likely a filmmaker will be discovered there or at festivals than on YouTube.
The small local film festivals usually charge a modest entry fee and at apply at least a little bit of pre-screening before they will show a film. Again, much of what you see on the local festival circuit is of dubious quality, but at least some of the absolute rubbish gets weeded out. I didn’t intend to get into too many details about film distribution in this particular blog. I have acquaintances who are far more knowledgeable about distribution than I am. And a man needs to know his limitations. But it bears mention that YouTube, while a good place to post and look for very short documentary-style clips of real world shenanigans, and the “peoples’ news”, it is not where people in general go to watch an entertaining movie. But I have digressed. Back to the almost lost art of storytelling.
The essentials of good storytelling: complex plot development, a central theme, character arcs, rising conflict and resolution, and maybe a moral delivered by the end, have all become afterthoughts (if thought of at all) to just cranking out footage as quickly and cheaply as possible, and maybe glamming it up a little with software tools like Aftereffects (or not). A good writer researches the subject area a little, maybe even interviews certain people to try to write with more authenticity. Coming up with an idea for a story is just the beginning of a long journey that can take months for a short and a year or more for a feature. Then comes the hard part of developing the story. Most good writers rely on trusted friends to read their scripts with an objective outside (read: critical) eye. They can take (or not) that feedback and use it to strengthen weak areas of the story. Sometimes, a friendly table read with local actors can let a writer know if dialog is working or not. The writer needs to let go of his or her ego as much as possible throughout the process.
I recently read a script that was sent to me by a local beginning writer I had worked on set with before, for an action-adventure short film that started off with a boring office conversation and then went downhill from there. The person who sent me the script seemed offended when I asked if anyone else had read and commented on the script before me. This aspiring writer told me a local director and a few actors were already on board and that they liked the script (in other words they were desperate for work). I suggested that maybe starting with a more intense dramatic scene than having two cops passively discussing the bad guy at the police station would be a good hook. I even gave notes and an example I came up with, starting the story in the midst of a crime in progress, and the local police foiling the crime, yet not catching the criminal. I explained that starting off with a tense bit of drama and as much action as the budget would allow, would make a good lead into the office scene. For my troubles, this writer acquaintance no longer talks to me, I guess for my attempt to help, I was seen as showing disrespect or something. I simply figured that the concept of putting in a hook in the first few pages, and then keeping the audience involved vicariously and/or voyeuristically, and on and off the edge of their seats throughout, as characters were developed and a plot unwound, and then bringing it all skillfully to a climax, was good storytelling technique. But good storytelling seems to be something a lot of folks who call themselves writers, seem oblivious to. I think this is the ego getting in the way. I look forward to seeing the finished production (which to the best of my knowledge is still in preproduction). I am after all, a curious person.
Many films coming out of “indiewood” suffer from the same malady. They seem to just be mere collections of scenes that the writer and director (often and unfortunately the same person) thought up and jotted down. Maybe someone thought of an interesting thing that could happen to someone and made that the centerpiece of the story, and then slapped a bunch of disjoint scenes together in front of and after it almost as a filler, and then thought they had written a good screenplay worthy of producing and distributing. I can’t imagine these writers having started with a log-line, then a synopsis, and then an outline, and then laying out color-coded scene cards on a table and arranging and rearranging them, carefully thinking about story threads interweaving across locations and between characters, as a complex plot emerges and colorful dimensional characters are shown evolving—all leading to a satisfying climax.
I get the feeling most of these “writers” have never read a book on writing nor taken a single writing class. It’s blatantly obvious when their script doesn’t even follow universal screenwriting conventions. But even if they’ve read one or two books, they still don’t seem to understand what they’ve read. When I was learning the craft of screenwriting, I was advised by my instructors and in countless books and articles I’ve read on screenwriting, to read as many scripts as I could get my hands on, in multiple genres, to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, and why. I found after I’d read maybe a hundred different screenplays, that I was just starting to get an idea of what flows well and makes a good and entertaining story.
If I could give these aspiring writers one important bit of advice, it would be if you want to be a decent writer, you should first become a reader. Read, read, read, read—everything you can get your hands on. “Elements of Style” is a must-read. There are a number of good books on screenwriting out there, but my personal least favorites are the “Save The Cat” series (for promulgating the Hollywood formulaic approach to writing (find a successful story and “write the same thing only different”). The advice to read lots and lots and lots of screenplays bears repeating. You can get them for free from various sites on the Internet.
And for god’s sake, master the English language—strengthen your vocabulary and knowledge of grammar, syntax and usage. Even if you’re writing a down and dirty street story full of slang, you want to use the slang and idioms and “street talk” in the right places and in the right way. If you are not reasonably competent with the language you are writing in, you probably shouldn’t be a writer until you do become so. You don’t want to negatively impress the world with poor language skills when you’re trying to sell the idea that you’re a writer. Now, I’m sure I’ve overlooked a mis-spelling or three in this blog that the spellchecker missed, and maybe got the grammar wrong somewhere, but this is blog of the kind that gets cranked out in one sitting. Hopefully there was nothing too distracting. In the blogosphere, there is no luxury of passing work onto an editor for prior review. So forgive my petty sins fellow writers. I am of course always looking to improve myself, so fire away with your salvos if that makes you feel better.
To conclude this rather verbose entry, it’s a darned shame that moviemaking has become so easy that people have gotten lazy with respect to the demands of good storytelling. Reliance on just on having a decent camcorder or cheap DSLR, and a few willing friends to stand in front of it and monotonically read a script you slapped together with all the reckless abandon of a blog, might be a good practice exercise, but it is not a formula for making a good film. If you want to be a successful screenwriter (or novelist, musician, photographer, painter, sculptor, dancer or whatever) you have to be able to tell a good story folks. And I do believe that like any talent in any area of endeavor, some people are born with innate skills and others have to work very much harder to come close to the same level of proficiency.
To answer my own question: no I don’t think storytelling is dead. There are some great storytellers around. There are great small-budget filmmakers (I hope to be able to interview one from time to time), just as there are some great singer-songwriters amidst a sea of kilowatt amplifier stacks, tight spandex, and high-speed guitar shredders. You just have to look harder for them. And when you find them, make sure you let them know in one way or another that you do like to hear or see or read a good story.
In a future blog I will talk about what happens when the writer and director are not the same person, and the director misinterprets the story but insists he or she has the sole authority and responsibility to manipulate the story for the film medium.
Learning is universally applicable. We apply it to everything in life. Some even say that death is graduation day. Some, sadly close their minds off at a certain age (Like after high school) or after infusing some dogmatic hyperbole (you know what I’m talking about brothers and sisters).
Part of learning is self-assessment of where we’re at and where we want to be. I have my own personal “Chang scale” I use to measure the value and quality (as I see it) of various artistic endeavors. In the formal education system, we have grades. If we pass the tests and do the homework, we get moved up to a higher grade. The grades not only act as a measuring stick, but also prescribe the type and level of knowledge to be imparted to us. Outside of the school system and its grades and diplomas, we have other, simpler ways of measuring ourselves (and others). Common methods of measuring skill level are things like high, medium and low levels of proficiency. And then there are terms like beginner, novice, intermediate and advanced. Some people add more levels like expert or advanced intermediate. Truth be told, these are all subjective. Smart-ness (I know) is in the eye of the beholder.
When I’m trying to learn something, mental or physical, and whether it be guitar, writing, mountain biking, hockey, surfing, or whatever, I tend to sense myself hitting walls and being on a plateau for a period of time before making some breakthrough to what is clearly a higher level of proficiency. However many levels you break the learning process down into, I have found myself usually having two or three eureka moments and facing two or three plateaus where I just seem to be stuck. For the sake of simplicity, I will stick to low-medium-high (beginner-intermediate-advanced) or whatever you want to call it, in my examples.
I remember when I started out playing hockey as a kid, I could barely stand up, let alone skate. This is rank beginner-hood. As my skating skills slowly progressed, I remember the hallmark of my playing ability was that as soon as I was in possession of the puck, I would take a quick look around and then push the puck in the direction of the nearest teammate (despite their shouts to “skate”). It was at that moment when I could actually skate and stickhandle the puck with my eyes up, looking around as I skated that I felt my game improved dramatically. I was actually seeing the game from a different perspective. I had made it past the first roadblock and into the intermediate level. I developed bits and pieces of advanced play before I had to hang up the skates due to recurring injuries: like being able to propel a backhand shot with velocity to the top of the net, being able to redirect slapshots from in front of the other team’s goal, being able to slam on the brakes hard when skating backward and the attacking opponent thought he could pull a fast one on me by slamming on his brakes. I never really got to be a seriously advanced player because I never was able to skate fast enough. But IMHO, I came close.
Surfing: (a big shout out to my bro Bert Mack out in Hawaii)
Starting to learn to surf, you find yourself endlessly paddling around looking for a wave you can take off on. There are little things you learn along the way to that first hurdle, like being able to duck dive out through a rip. But that first big eureka moment for me was the first time I was able to stand up and actually ride a wave (granted it was only knee-high) all the way until the wave closed out. I didn’t make any hotdog moves for sure, but at least I was able to steer the board away from other surfers paddling out (I’m certain that they appreciated that). I actually had a glimmer of advanced skill when I was able to ride an overhead wave in New Jersey after a nor’easter had passed offshore, without dying. Surfing an overhead wave without dying is always a good thing to accomplish. Again though, a spate of hockey injuries to knee, shoulder and back kept me from going much further. I have only surfed maybe twice in the past twenty years and probably will find myself back down in beginner land the next time I go out.
I remember getting that first guitar. The feeling is sheer exhilaration. But then you hold it in your hands and all you can do is strum a few open chords, and you wonder if you’ll ever be good enough even to say play in a garage band just for the fun of it. Thoughts like that alone can really hold you back. But I found as I studied music theory for guitar, played my idols’ riffs from tabs, and noodled around, that when I got to the point where I could play bar chords, power chords and other movable chords in all positions on the neck, with reasonable speed and timing, that I had passed my first hurdle. I had become a reasonably competent rhythm guitar player (note I did not say guitarist. There’s an implication of anything with “ist” at the end being an artist as well as technician). So now, my endeavors to take it to the next level involve learning speed lead (A.K.A. shredding), slide, improvisation and articulation. I figure maybe by the age of eighty I’ll be a pretty advanced guitarist (notice I used the superlative suffix this time).
When starting out in photography (and probably all along the way), you take lots of pictures every chance you get. You bring a camera everywhere and are always on the lookout for a great shot. As a beginning photographer starting out, you take snapshots (not to be confused with slapshots). For me, the transition to an intermediate level is somewhat still in progress. I am framing my shots in more interesting ways. I am a devotee of the eastern world’s view of background and empty space being of equal importance with foreground and objects. And I am gaining an understanding of how light behaves—how it is absorbed or reflected, refracted and diffused. My experience in sound engineering has helped me quite a bit in understanding how energy waves can behave and how you can capture them to your liking. I am carrying this into videography/cinematography, and discovering that the fourth dimension of time adds quite an interesting and challenging new set of issues. I’ve been learning that framing now involves knowing where a moving object enters the frame, where it exits the frame, and how long it stays in frame. Similarly, when camera and subjects are both moving, the angle of light hitting the subject and the lens changes. There’s so much to learn. I’m in awe of the very good cinematographers I know locally and have had the pleasure of working with.
When learning a foreign language, you typically start out memorizing phrases and carrying a phrase book when you travel. This works fine if the foreigners you meet always use the canned phrases. Of course this rarely happens. But they can look at your book and point to a phrase and let you know what they’re trying to say (like “don’t pester me”). When you are able to understand enough grammar and built up a reasonable vocabulary (say, a few thousand words), you have made it to the next level. You can construct sentences and understand what people are saying (for the most part—assuming the foreign speaker has mercy on you and sticks to basic simple language). Instead of a phrasebook, you probably will carry around a dictionary. And then as you might expect, the next level of proficiency is fluency. There are always levels within these broad classifications. Native fluency is a level that few can ever achieve in more than one language, save for children born into a mixed household or living abroad from a very early age.
In general, it is commonly believed that children learn things more easily than adults. The reason is not entirely clear. Some believe the brains of adults become less plastic and thus less open to reprogramming. Whatever the reason is, it seems evident that someone learning a skill from early childhood tends to gain proficiency faster and to a higher level than someone learning the same skill as an adult.
Abilities involving physical skills development tend to plateau at a point where only the development of complementary mental skills can carry the person to a higher level. Elite athletes know that the higher level you attain, the more the game becomes more mental in nature. Things like developing muscle memory, ignoring pain and fatigue, “psyching out” the opposition, and staying positive despite facing seemingly insurmountable odds, are all traits of an elite performer. The top hockey superstars talk about not just knowing where the puck is, but where the puck is going to be. I’ve read the same about good action photographers. There is a sort of instinct or “sixth sense” that develops at the highest most advanced levels of proficiency.
I have no doubt that learning itself, like any ability is something some people have more of an innate potential for. But like anything you strive to attain, hard work, dedication, perseverance and self-confidence can carry you over many of the obstacles that block the path to high proficiency. But one of the saddest things is observing how many people just plain give up on learning new things and improving their selves. For whatever reason, it seems a terrible shame to not care about being a better person in some meaningful way every day.
Cary really never was a serious cultural mecca, well at least not compared with places like Raleigh, Durham, Carborro and Chapel Hill. It seems though to sink farther into sterile suburban hell each year though, despite its growing size. The Indie film community was saddened last year when the Galaxy Theater closed down in favor of yet another Harris Teeter store taking its location. Gone are the opportunities to see independent films in Cary, along with the Bollywood offerings that had been crossing cultural boundaries. There was talk of finding another location when the theater owner was evicted, but that completely fizzled out. Now Caryons (I prefer that moniker) can feast on run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare unless they want to drive to another city. There are but a handful of good independent theaters in the triangle area, and it is unfortunate to see one die like that.
And then I stopped off at Fat Sound Guitars to look for a glass slide for my middle finger. After years of being able to drop in and buy my strings, picks, cables and other accessories there, I was shocked to see the place had closed down. The shelves were empty and there was no indication they had simply moved somewhere else. Fat Sound was a fantastic resource for boutique guitars and amplifiers and a convenient location for all the other paraphernalia. One of the Triangle’s best luthiers (Mark Kane) was based in a back room there (he has moved to a new location in Cary). Fat Sound’s loss now joins my list of sad reminders of what Cary is becoming.
And I still haven’t forgotten way back when Gypsy’s Shiny Diner was opening and the town elders were up in arms that a non-drab building was being placed within the city limits. I remember how they insisted that the owner’s plant shrubs all around it to “soften up” the shininess.
Then the Border’s Bookstore around the corner from Gypsy’s closed as part of their corporate bankruptcy. And then there’s the great wasteland at Waverly place.
So I find myself wondering what’s next for Cary. Perhaps an ordinance banning colorful clothing? Maybe a fine for driving a car with the windows rolled down and the radio playing? Or how about a regulation preventing people from flying colorful flags in front of their houses? I moved to Fuquay Varina from Cary years ago, and wondered at the time if moving out to “the sticks” was going to be a drag. It turns out I have to drive to downtown Raleigh anyway for anything smacking of culture. Rest in Peace City of Cary.