Judgements & Dreams

The original Superman was never viewed as a brilliantly creative or well-drawn superhero. But this didn’t stop the long and immense fan following due to his unique and interesting mythology about why he chooses to be who he is — the protector of humanity.

“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking” ― Albert Einstein

I was watching a film the other night, and it wasn’t great by any standard measures, but by the time the credits rolled at the end of the picture, a couple of thoughts were refreshed in my mind. One, was that a lot of people (hundreds in fact) were required to make a project like this happen. It had the commitment of talented actors, established producers and a whole slew of artistic and technical crew. The second, in spite of its failure to engage on the whole, was that the film still had some very nice moments in it: good camera setups, thoughtful discourse and some excellent performances, all of which helped enliven individual scenes. This reminded me of a most important fact about art; any piece of art, created individually or by a group of individuals, is always worthy of respect. Simply put, making the long and hard effort to get something as difficult as a film (or even a painting or poem) complete is a huge accomplishment. The public always forgets this but shamefully, so do we — even as we battle day in and day out exercising our craft, trying to produce something of value.

Ridley Scott’s 1982 dream-like science-fiction thriller Blade Runner, featuring a riveting performance by Rutger Hauer as the replicant Roy Batty, was very poorly received by critics for its ambiguous characters and seemingly thin human story line. (A voice over narration was even inputted in its theatrical release out of fear that no one would understand it.) Today, those same critics rave about the subtle and imaginative brilliance of the film and respect it for much more than its legendary production design.

Now, that doesn’t mean we should applaud every piece of art out there or pat ourselves on the back for everything that we do, but we shouldn’t be so quick to undervalue creative effort either. I didn’t name the film that I watched because I’ve long believed that our time and energy is better spent in analysis, learning and appreciation of the creations by fellow artists rather than criticizing and judging them — I simply have too much respect for the people involved. We artists are already on a very lonely road and there is enough judgement and cynicism out there and I need not add to that. Constructive criticism — citing inconsistencies or problems based off dutiful analysis — is valuable and necessary, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. There’s a huge difference between cynical criticism and critical thinking.

“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” — Abraham Lincoln

As I have matured as both a man and an artist, my own attitude towards the judgement of things and people have changed significantly. I don’t have much interest it in anymore. I’ve begun to realize more and learn less. And while one can age without gaining any real experience (unfortunately), as we travel further in art (and life) we begin to see with greater clarity, which of course means, that we see both the good and the bad with greater obviousness and distinction. But instead of being overwhelmed by its flaws, I’ve found deeper appreciation and greater discovery. The more we see, the more we accept. We begin to see both the minutiae and the big picture, and how it’s all connected and how it all matters. There’s less room or reason for preconceived attachment to ideals or standards. There’s less desire to hold on to any expectations.

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.” — Stephen Hawking

Over time, I’ve found that intense emotional and mental focus on mistakes and failure limited in its usefulness — especially when it comes to viewing the works of others. We don’t look for “errors” in the works of Rembrandt or Van Gogh, not because they don’t exist, but rather because it serves no pragmatic purpose. Furthermore, their existence takes nothing away from the excellence of the work itself. Moreover, what we perceive as imperfect may be exactly what makes a piece of art so distinct and brilliant. Contrast is a fundamental component of great artistry.

Alberto Giacometti’s sculptural work is a brilliant display of contrast in shape and proportion. His “imperfect” representation of the real world is a “perfect” display of his creativity.

Again, it’s popular and even fun (in a childish way), to judge and criticize. It seems rational, harmless and natural to do so. And in this day and age where it’s so much simpler to blame others for our own insecurities and failures, being an armchair critic can be a veiled form of protection from ourselves; for the responsibility of not taking action, for not taking the risks associated with following our dreams. Having a cynical and disparaging attitude is also a very easy (and weak) way of demonstrating our so called superiority and knowledge. Unfortunately (or fortunately), what counts is action. We are defined by what we do and how we do it. Even making the most simple piece of art, whether that be a brief piece of music, a drawing or a short performance on stage or in the field, is much more valuable than the criticism lay upon it. It takes the powerful combination of verve and bravery to take this road less traveled.

“When the artist is alive in any person… he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding.” — Robert Henri

Each day as a creative, I try to do my best just like all the rest of us. We work hard to create something new, we put our backs and hearts into it. No one deliberately makes “bad” art. No performer aims to fail or displease. It takes a kind of courage and nobility to do art because art appears to offer no pragmatic purpose; in the public’s eye, art serves only the artist’s ego. How many times have we heard that the artist is a “selfish” being? Society forgets that it’s the artist’s spirit that brings joy, beauty and realization to this world. Without visual art, music, theatre, writing or even sports —all of which are categorized as mere “entertainment” — the world would be bland beyond belief, with neither an appreciation of the present nor a sense for the future. It’s not surprising that the paying public is primarily obsessed with the established art of the past — it fails to accept and see what’s directly in front of them. It needs to be told what’s good and what’s not. But it is art, in fact, that teaches. It instructs us on how the world works and how to live by showing us how to see. Creativity is the ultimate act of living. Nature demonstrates its creativity each and every second with its continual birth of living things. Us artists are merely trying to do the same.

The late and brilliant Robin Williams stars as the inspiring English teacher John Keating in Peter Weir’s marvelous film, Dead Poets Society.

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ― Sylvia Plath

More often than not, we are our own worst critic, the primogenitor of judgement. Art is so responsive, so reflective, it’s hard to not see every flaw in our work and, more alarmingly, within ourselves. That is its power — we can learn more about who we are from our own work than from most anything else. At the same time however, we must be careful in the presence of such magic and veracity. A young or growing artist is not always ready to maturely handle such powerful truths which can be easily misinterpreted as damning indictments; it is all to easy to get too down on ourselves when witnessing our own inadequacies. To properly deal with our inability to perform requires time and reflection — to stand back and respond with calm and insight. Hence the importance of teachers and mentors who can keep us on that straight and narrow path (of not losing our mind or spirit). And sometimes, artists have to be their own greatest cheerleaders because, since the day we were born, we’re always dealing with loneliness.

“Dreams have only one owner at a time. That’s why dreamers are lonely.” — Erma Bombeck

As creatives, we have to battle each day with our mental, emotional and financial insecurity in order to proceed. This is just to get by, to survive. Throughout history, the world has been unkind to artists, lauding them only after official critical and financial success. It’s all much simpler to jump on the bandwagon of a “winner.” But should art be viewed in terms of winning or losing? Is that how we should define the value of our efforts? I think not. Because each creative act is built upon the foundation of many smaller creative acts such as planning, experimentation, practice and physical dedication — and it is physical because making and doing are not mere mental activities. Conception and inspiration may come first, but dreams stay dreams when they are not acted upon in the physical universe. Artists bring things into existence where there once was none.

“Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images.” ― Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

Marc Chagall’s paintings have a dreamy magic to them. They are filled with love, playfulness and joy. This painting is now perceived to be the inspiration that gave birth to the theme of “The Fiddler On The Roof” which is now one of most famous and beloved musicals of our time.

Hence, we cannot judge the success of our work or our lives by anyone’s opinion — and especially so if it’s particularly denigrating. An artist’s work is continual. We have to trust that this endless imaginative process has no choice but to reveal itself in the most honest and beautiful fashion. Because it’s all process. And in such a process, there is no room for invasive criticism or judgement. So why spend any of our time engaging in it? Our energy is best saved for making dreams come true.

“(There is) No end, no conclusion, no completion. (Only) Perpetual becoming.” — Henry Miller

Shot Analysis: True Romance

Directed by Tony Scott, True Romance (1993) features a playful script, fun characters and a multitude of excellent scenes and acting performances.

Much has been said about True Romance already, this being Quentin Tarantino’s first ever full Hollywood script and how it made the world aware of his exciting new talent at the time of its debut. As a film, it pays tribute to my favorite genre, the gangster flick, which has always held a place in my heart as perhaps the funnest, most daring and dramatic playground for exploring humanity. History, culture, politics and the dominion of family are all deeply embedded in the classic gangster movie. I could watch great gangster films all day (and have).

Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater play lovers Alabama and Clarence, the main stars (and heroes) of Tony Scott’s True Romance.

The scene we’re about to look at is the most famous scene in the movie, one featuring the incredible talents of two real heavyweights in the acting world, Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. In fact, the scene is so good, it almost overpowers the movie itself; the directing, writing, acting and music here all work in picture-perfect unison. It’s almost ironic — and not one talks about this — but here we have one of the greatest scenes in film history and it doesn’t feature any of the main actors, as both Walken and Hopper only play very short supporting roles in the story (I believe each of the two actors have only one other scene that precedes this one). I don’t believe that has ever happened before. The only comparable actor making such an impact in such limited screen time would have to be Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s The Third Man; although in that film, Welle’s character, Harry Lime, is the title character talked about by the main characters throughout the film.

Orson Welles plays Harry Lime in the 1949 noir classic, The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed. Welles delivered one of the most magnetic screen performances in film history despite being in the film for only 15 minutes.

Although, the popularity of this scene is magnified due to the nature of the “content” discussed, this should not be a reason for it to be dismissed by anyone, especially not by any artist trying to learn more about the craft of acting or film-making in general.

The following breakdown of the scene are simply moments and characterizations I personally found intriguing in terms of story and acting performance.

The Scene: (please be warned that the scene contains coarse language, racial slurs and graphic violence)

Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance script really shines here in this magnificent scene starring Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. That said, I doubt even Tarantino himself could have envisioned such a powerful result.

The Breakdown:

In this opening shot, Worley (Dennis Hopper) is struck immediately upon entering the doorway. He will be struck again both midway during the scene and at the very end. The idea that violence is inevitable here is being sent loud and clear to both Worley and the audience, and because of his situation we empathize with this character almost immediately. His time on screen may be short but Worley will play the tragic character here in this story.

Next, we cut to the physical set up of this little cat and mouse game we are about to witness. In this section, the frankness of Walken’s character, Vincenzo Coccotti, is contrasted by Worley’s act of stupidity — a natural defense mechanism to parry way responsibility by pretending like he knows nothing — one that is seen right thru by Coccotti. The pronounced activity with the cigarette first, followed by his calm and direct expression of his intentions makes this character extremely frightening and real. He’s here for business. It’s an excellent use of the environment and props by Walken.

After hearing Coccotti confirm his greatest fears, Worley sits in a brief moment of realization. Look carefully and you’ll notice this beautiful moment of acting by Hopper, his eyes glancing to screen right momentarily, reflecting his awareness of the situation (i.e. he knows that he’s screwed). He sinks his head downwards. A deep breath and a series of fast blinks reveals the difficulty in accepting his current predicament and his concealed efforts to compose himself. The most telling acting is often between the lines of dialogue where nothing is spoken.

This a nice moment by Walken, again using movement and props to give texture and rhythm to his acting.  After kindly offering Worley a cigarette, he gets up and takes off his coat signifying a character about to get down to work. His position is now physically higher and even more dominant over his adversary. The polite gesturing in his request for truth is balanced by his prepared position to act as needed. When Worley fails in his feeble attempt to lie to someone higher up in the food chain, it is met with swift confirmation about who’s the boss here.

Here Walken’s character does a little exposition, reviewing the events of the story both for Worely and the audience, to make sure everything is absolutely crystal clear. He even has a little laugh at the expense of Worley’s son Clarence, for leaving his driver’s license at the scene of the crime (an important story point indicating the kind of stupidity and carelessness in the family genes which is later confirmed when we discover that his son also left his LA address on the fridge door). Writer Quentin Tarantino has sneakily introduced the element of humor here which will pair itself beautifully when Worley exacts the last laugh and punishing blow against Coccotti.

After another brave effort to stand up to his adversary and then having his palm sliced, Worley is left hopelessly digesting more of Coccotti’s demands and lecturing, this time with the counselor proudly informing him of his superiority and that it’s genetic. The small section showing Hopper tilting his head indicates he’s now tired of hearing more from Coccotti. It appears this is where Worely has decided what he’s gonna do despite the final threat of death, should he continue to be so uncooperative.

It’s obvious at this point that Worley knows for sure there is no hope, nor is there any point in delaying this any further. He agrees to be forthcoming by asking for that cigarette initially offered, a gesture that should confirm to Coccotti that this guy finally gets it and he’s gonna tell him everything. But Worley’s eyes reveal that he has not thrown in the towel — they are focused. Cocotti’s paused reaction before agreeing to give him that cigarette shows he’s not 100% convinced either, but he’s willing to let this play out. I really love the way Worley first asks for a match and then proceeds to pull out a lighter. It makes the scene feel so real and genuine — because that’s what real people do — acting instinctively and behaving according to habit. As the music slowly creeps into this transitional moment, we know we’re about to witness a change in the mood. We do, but it’s not what we nor Coccotti expects.

Trapped in a chair and surrounded by a handful of gangsters, the only weapon Worley’s got is his mind. You can see Coccotti lean back initially as Worley begins his tale and he’s uncertain where Worley’s is going with this. Then of course, comes the surprising first blow, one that not even someone as powerful as  Vincenzo Coccotti can deflect.

What follows — the famous Moor/Silician fable portion of the scene — is really dynamite here. The dialogue is so fun and the actor’s expressions only magnify the playfulness of the scene. Thematically, here is where the tables are turned, Worley is now the storyteller, physical and animated as he gestures with his arms, cigarette in hand. Coccotti is now the passive listener, being toyed with by Worley, who goes on and on with one insulting jab after another. Coccotti continues to sit mostly motionless except for the odd smiles and glances backwards towards his posse as he expresses his utter disbelief of the gall of this measly little security officer. Worley has caught Coccotti in unfamiliar territory and he’s got no prepared response to this except to laugh and reluctantly join in on the joke, even if it’s at his expense.

After begrudgingly laughing along with his adversary, Coccotti finally and swiftly acts out his anger in the most demonstrative fashion — issuing six bullets directly to the head of his victim. The inevitable ending doesn’t deny who the real victor is in this little game. The mouse may have been killed here — that was never in doubt — but the cat has been wounded in a battle that shouldn’t have been any contest. Coccotti’s very last words state as much as he wipes his hands and spits out his gum in frustration, emphatically closing out the scene.

Final Word:

Great lines and story are what give real meat for actors to hold on to and build from. Writing and story is first and foremost. Ideas matter. That said, its proven time and time again, that even though dialogued moments may be the most memorable ones of any movie, it’s the acting — the combination of verbal expression and the acting between the lines — that make them so convincing and powerful. Great actors, such as Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, clearly build their characters internally. But ultimately, that internal creation can only be communicated to the audience externally. How a character speaks and moves is everything; we can only comprehend what we see and hear. This is a lesson we, who are trying to deliver the best possible performances in film or animation, must continually be aware of.

Creative Confidence

Image from James Cameron’s 1989 science fiction epic, The Abyss, a film about exploring the unknown beneath the earth and within ourselves.

“The rule for all terrors is to head straight into them.” — Alan Watts

We all know that in order to do something new and exciting, or to find true fun and real meaning in whatever we’re doing, we’ve got to face our fears; fears of the unknown, fears of rejection and the greatest fear of all, that of failure. But if we don’t take that plunge, our lives are bland. Empty of challenge and devoid of curiosity, life loses its significance both inwardly and outwardly. Mankind’s creativity is what makes us so distinct a species.

“Change is not a threat, it’s an opportunity. Survival is not the goal, transformative success is.” — Seth Godin

But sometimes the problems we face, both in art and life, seem too grand, too complex and impossible to overcome. There are times when effort alone isn’t sufficient. We need mental fortitude and steadfastness. We have to keep trying and keep digging away at it, even when it appears futile to do so. Why? Because failure is the strongest step towards success. Each time we make mistakes, we discover another way of how NOT to do something. Failures reveal weaknesses in our game and expose (sometimes deep) inadequacies. Setbacks are nutrient-rich experiences; like seedlings, they serve a purpose only to be seen much later. We must be careful to attend to them with thoughtful analysis and reflection.

Setbacks are like tiny seedlings but ones that we don’t consciously plant. It’s easy to mistake them for weeds. So in all likelihood, we don’t notice them or the benefit that they will bring in the future. And if we ignore them, nothing valuable will sprout from those experiences.

Only by pushing beyond our current limits (risking failure) can we find alternative solutions and, more importantly, greater insight. Doubt and difficulty then, drive our spirit upwards and outwards. Then events turn and fortuitous accidents occur. We don’t get those things for free. Because when we continue our battle into the field of the unknown we trigger all sorts of forces into play, such as unexpected visions or chance interactions with significant individuals. Determination invites serendipity.

“We can not win unless we learn to lose.” — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

It ain’t just genetics. Perhaps the greatest basketball player ever, the 7’2″ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stills leads the NBA in all-time points scored (an astounding 38,387 points) and has had more individual and team success than any other player in league history.

No one likes to talk about hard work because it sounds boring. It lacks the sexy appeal of the individual who was born special — the “prodigy” — or the artist who was “only” creative because he was high on drugs or alcohol, the so-called price of greatness. In reality, none of those stereotypes have more than an ounce of truth in them. Substance abuse and extreme behavior destroys clarity and creativity while many who are gifted never develop their abilities beyond the ordinary.

“Do not envy those who seem to be naturally gifted; it is often a curse, as such types rarely learn the value of diligence and focus, and they pay for this later in life.” — Robert Greene

At the end there is only one commonality for excellence, that of tenacity and open-mindedness. All the greatest feats of humanity were accomplished in such manner. No one ever talks about the years of emotional struggle and hard work. I can only presume that editors think it doesn’t sell. But I do remember a billboard I once saw while I was living in Los Angeles, and although I don’t remember the featured athlete, I haven’t forgotten the quote:

“You train so hard, people think you’re lucky.”

The official trailer for the animated biopic, Loving Vincent. Each frame of the animation, incredibly, has been hand-painted by hundreds of artists creating in total over 56,000 individual oil paintings all done in the colorful and visceral style of Van Gogh’s artistry.

Hard work doesn’t have to feel awful. Once incorporated into our being as part of what defines us — discipline, dedication, fortitude and persistence — we begin to take pride in the blood, sweat and tears we put into our cause, whatever that may be. Our practice of mental and physical determination becomes our ritual. Excellence, then, translates into an approach to life that in turn becomes habitual. Continually putting in the hours, learning and unlearning, exploring new ways to expand and enrich our knowledge and abilities comes to define us as individuals who care about what they do. The ultimate destiny, mastery, is achieved in such manner.

“The artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself; and the agony of the artist, far from being the result of the world’s failure to discover or appreciate him, arise from his own personal struggles to discover, to appreciate and finally to express himself.” — E.E. Cummings

The road to mastery, is a long and unpredictable one. That’s its nature, that’s the road that the gods of have built for us. We only have to choose to take the path or leave it. But once on it, we must endure; self doubt, financial struggle and ridicule must not be allowed to distract or divert us from our journey. We need to keep in mind the the power of repetition. Choose what you tell yourself; make it up if you have to.

Bart Simpson borrowed from Matt Groening’s hit TV series, The Simpsons.

“Perceptions can make us or destroy us.” – Billy Mills, Olympic Champion

Frequency is more powerful than sheer force. If we repeatedly tell/show those whom we love messages that convey kindness, respect and sharing as a means to greater happiness, the odds of sustaining meaningful relationships is greatly enhanced. Same too, applies to our relationship with ourselves and our work. Being an artist is hard enough; we needn’t add further strain and doubt on top. If required, we must alter our perceptions. Some of us (like myself personally) have to do that regularly having grown up in an environment of full of doubt, harsh criticism or bullying. Reality is what we make of it. There are theories abound that show that the link between the scientific and the spiritual/intuitive is not as distinct from each other as we’ve come to assume.

A Black Hole seen via x-ray, optical and radio light. Does this feel real to you? You can’t touch it or see it without the aid of modern technology. Looking out into space is a gentle reminder of how much we don’t know that’s right in front of us the whole time.

Therefore, we mustn’t be scared of the challenges ahead. We need to grab hold of our whole being and direct it towards the positive — focused on excellence, dignity and determination. With the world being so complex today, creative thinking is the best (maybe only) way to get ourselves out of our current predicaments. We have to explore, drive hard and aim for the stars. And, love what we do.

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress: Working hard for something we love is called passion.” — Simon Sinek