Movies about time travel are always fun. In Robert Zemeckis’ wonderful Back To the Future (starting Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd) we ponder the “what ifs” and get to experience the world from a completely different perspective – by going back in time.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” — Lao Tzu
Looking in front, looking side to side, looking back – these are not just the perpetrations of a soldier or an athlete. Being artists we forget that we need to always try to see things in different ways, from different directions. If you’re an animator, this means that you have to look forwards and also backwards in time.
Unfortunately, life seldom affords this luxury. When we trek forward, a lot of the time our minds are still obsessed with what’s already happened. Struggle and tragedy seem to confirm this reality — the more mistakes we make, the more we regret. Letting go, is not nearly as easily as one casually advises. Or, in the words of satirical cartoonist, Tim Kreider, author of the very funny book, We Learn Nothing:
“It’s easy to demonstrate how progressive and open-minded and loyal you are when it costs you nothing.”
When I lived and worked in Asia, I lived on a high apartment complex that overlooked another building’s rooftop. Each and every morning there was a man who walked backwards endlessly from one end of the rooftop to the other. In a city, like all big cities, where people are constantly charging and rushing forwards, this seemed fascinating to me. Was he trying to go back in time? Was he mentally ill? Or was he simply following a prescribed exercise regimen? Or perhaps, these are just the kind of stupid and silly mental meanderings of an artist who wakes up six o’clock in the morning.
Korean director Lee Chang Dong’s 1999 masterpiece, Peppermint Candy, was a film shot going backwards in time, from the past to the very present. Profoundly executed with great dignity, human emotion and tragedy, it reveals explicitly how our past actions make up who we end being today. Without reflection, one can slide insidiously onto a path that is far from the dreams and ideals we had when we were young.
Although we must live presently in life (even when we plan for it), we can only learn and understand by looking back. It’s the only way we can see ourselves truthfully and objectively. We need perspective, and although feedback from others can be true and honest, we’re not always so receptive to hearing it at the time of struggle or conflict. This is commonly expressed by those who have struggled with addictions, whether those afflictions be psychological or chemical. We can only change when we’re ready and able. To see clearly, oftentimes there needs to be some distance. Sometimes, the most appropriate and effective distance is time.
Degas’ wax and mixed media piece “Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” shows that he was so much more than a painter of beautiful imagery. This now famous sculpture of a young ballerina, was viewed as “lecherous and disturbing” during its initial exhibition due to its non-conformity to the images of female beauty at the time. We must be cautious of judgement made without the benefit of perspective granted by the passage of time.
Art, because it reflects life, has this power to engage with the past. It can remind us of our history, through its recordings and creative re-interpretations, and can invite us (or sometimes just plain force us) to examine the total human experience from underneath our flesh and deep within our minds.
“I want people to know what it is they’re looking at. But at the same time, the closer they get to the painting, it’s like going back into childhood. And it’s like an abstract piece… it becomes the landscape of the brush marks rather than just sort of an intellectual landscape. — Jenny Saville
“Reverse.” Jenny Saville’s magnificent work is both large in size (this one measures 7 x 8 feet) and emotional impact. She captures the visceral effect of flesh like few others.
As artists, we often look back at our work and cringe. Whether you’re Edgar Degas or Jenny Saville, we all struggle to look back into our past for some reason. (Degas was famous for stealing his paintings back to re-work them, while Saville on the other hand, admits to being unable to view her old work). We easily forget that those past choices helped us get better and to know ourselves better. The danger we have in our lives today (and in this industry in general) is our obsession with speed and productivity. If we don’t stop to think and don’t stop to look back, with no post-mortem so to speak, we’ll not only continue to repeat our errors, but we’ll never do anything truly new or exciting. In other words, we’ll stop doing anything that’s worth doing. This is common behavior today, both individually and in society as a whole.
“We are not here to do what has already been done.” — Robert Henri
Walking forward, you can only see what’s in front of you and not behind. In Yi-Yi, Edward Yang’s beautiful film about life in modern day Taiwan, a young boy photographs people unsuspectingly to help others see from a viewpoint they’re not often privy to. Yang’s film explores living with perspective, hardship and the curiosity of “what if” by telling a story with characters who get a chance to re-visit their past. Would we make the same decisions if we saw things differently – if we could’ve have seen what’s in front of us or what’s behind?
This is why feedback is important. And it has to come from all sources and not just those who work or live with us. But what actually matters most is our own perspective after the fact – only we can see, look back, and reflect on the correlation between the problems at the time, the decisions we’ve made, and why we might do things differently given our newfound objectivity and inspection of the results and outcomes.
Without studying our own work and thinking process, we can’t improve.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” — Steve Jobs.
Looking back into the past can be painful — personal traumas, bad relationships, the agonies of defeat or failure are hard, if not impossible things to erase. But only by looking back, can we learn from those trials. As artists, it’s the only way to get better and make our lives more enjoyable. If we don’t look back, study and learn from previous experiments, we’ll repeat those same mistakes over and over again. Habits form whether we like them to or not.
Drawings like these only come from years of hard learned experience and hours of exploration. Milt Kahl didn’t become “MILT KAHL” overnight — it took decades of learning, practice and reflection. From Disney’s Jungle Book.
The paradox can be troubling — we must learn from the past, but at the same time let go of it. I suppose it’s not profound to say that life is hard. But at the end of the day, our art, and who we are, is determined by our actions at the moment. We can only do our best.
“Make good things happen and bring warmth, joy and inspiration to yourself and others.” — Søren Kierkegaard