Favorite Films: Part 3

Comedies are the hardest films to take seriously. But perhaps that’s exactly why they’re so darn fun and why we can’t resist watching them. Still, because of our innate love for them and the release they give us from the strains of living, the craft is often compromised. It’s not surprising that there are hardly any comedies listed in the top 100 lists. It’s REALLY hard to make a great comedy. Most are compromised. Nonetheless, there are exceptions. Here are my faves that I like to turn to for a good laugh and smile.

Annie Hall (directed by Woody Allen)

Woody Allen’s most famous film Annie Hall was groundbreaking when it arrived on the silver screen. It still is; it’s as fresh, real and funny as when I first saw it. Here, Allen set out his trademark one liners that ignite laughter at every turn. Intelligent and thoughtful, but without being snooty or overly cerebral, Annie Hall evokes nostalgia while exposing our most basic human frailties. The visuals highlight Allen’s excellent sense for physical comedy, all captured brilliantly by Gordon Willis’ superb photography. With love and relationships the core theme here, Alvie Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) are a perfect match in comedy heaven. Falling in and out of love continuously, the two characters weave their way through ambitions and insecurities in truly fantastic fashion. The screenplay here is so fun that it’s near impossible to count all the great lines of dialogue. Some viewers might be turned off by the bittersweet ending, but I don’t think it could’ve ended any other way without it losing its purity. Winner of Allen’s first  Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, some would argue that Annie Hall is not only his best movie, but the best and most original comedy ever written. There is literally no film like it out there before or since.

The Big Lebowski (directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Coen brothers make great films. All kinds too. But my absolute favorite of theirs remains their brilliant, yet absurd comedy about nothing, The Big Lebowski. It’s been hard for the magnificent Jeff Bridges to be thought of as anyone else but the “Dude” after his iconic contribution here. In typical Coen style, Joel and Ethan Coen crafted an absolutely unique comedy, with a character that’s essentially an easy-going bum; Jeffrey Lebowski is literally the laziest man we’ve ever come to love on screen. With standout performances from supporting cast members John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, and Julianne Moore, the viewer finds himself laughing at one ridiculous scenario after another. The exploration of topics include nihilism, ransom etiquette, the Sabbath, sex/pornography, the First Amendment, and modern art. And the visuals and music are perfect compliments. All this, and bowling too. What more can a movie fan ask for?

When Harry Met Sally (directed by Rob Reiner)

The late Nora Ephron made a big name for herself with When Harry Met Sally and she deserves the acclaim. Seldom do we find popular romantic comedies so well written. Along with the deft hand by director Rob Reiner, we find ourselves watching the actors at their very best — both Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan shine here  — as neither has been able to top or even duplicate their performances here. Set in New York City, it captures a time and place that anyone who’s lived through it can totally understand. The scenery, humor, and the scenarios— they’re all reminiscent of the way American men and women thought and talked in the 1980’s. And even now, we are just as anxious and uncertain about love as these characters were then. I loved how, unlike other romance movies, love wasn’t found at the end of the film, but instead it was something that occurred during a long relationship; the characters didn’t court each other, they learned to love each other. It just so happens that they took a long time to realize that they’ve been giving each other love and companionship the whole time they were friends. What a great and unforced view of love! That this happens with great dialogue, laughter and silliness makes this a perfect little romantic comedy.

Back To The Future (directed by Robert Zemeckis)

Who didn’t want a stainless steel DeLorean after watching Back To The Future? Robert Zemeckis made one of the funnest films of all time here. Time travel has always been a difficult topic to present in movies, but here, the execution is perfect. I always had a soft spot for Michael J. Fox (we’re from the same hometown after all), and his performance as Marty McFly was perfect. So too, was the supporting cast. Christopher Lloyd will likely always be remembered for being Doc Brown, the crazy scientist who invents time travel with his flux capacitor. And though there’s fun action and adventure here, it’s those moments of character interactions that provide all the fun: Marty’s mom (Lea Thompson) having the hots for her future son; the son realizing that Biff’s bullying of his father goes way back;  Marty finally getting the chance to take the musical stage uninhibited. Many films have aped a lot of the ideas first presented here, but none have been able to duplicate its sincerity. Despite being a film with science fiction elements, VFX plays only a small but effective part here, complementing the wonder of the moments and the acting of its stars. Two sequels were made of Back To The Future, the third being pretty decent. In each, the actors reprise their roles in a fun and unique manner. But it’s the original that’s the gem — it’s the one worth going back to future for.

L.A. Story (directed by Mick Jackson)

I love LA. And I love L.A. Story. In a city full of sunshine, urban sprawl, and absurd materialism, what could make for a more ridiculous setting for love than Los Angeles? Steve Martin is a genius. Renown for his physical comedy and stand-up performances on stage, Martin is also an intelligent, whimsical and philosophical innovator. The screenplay, which he also wrote, captures all those little goofy nuances and caricatures that make LA  what it is. Having lived there for a significant portion of my life, it brings back memories of all the little perks and hideouts that make the city so unbelievably fun and strange. And Martin makes it all shine. Every scene is visually hilarious and the dialogue is filled with wit and charm as Martin plays wacky weatherman Harris K. Telemacher, a man who finds himself dating one woman, “SanDeE” (yes, that’s how it’s spelled!) played by Sarah Jessica Parker with star-turning charm, while falling in love with another, Sara McDowell, played by Victoria Tennant. Like a tourist traveling through the inroads of Los Angeles, the viewer is taken on a fantastical ride that has a magical Hollywood twist; a signpost that talks to people in distress. The set up gives Martin ample opportunity for visual chaos and sharp tasteful dialogue. L.A. Story is so fun yet so smart, I never get tired of watching it.

Jerry MaGuire (directed by Cameron Crowe)

It’s hard to make a popular mainstream movie that’s both entertaining and inspiring without it feeling cliché, forced or patronizing. Cameron Crowe’s Jerry MaGuire is one of the few films able to pull it off successfully. He also made it funny. In a screenplay that moves swiftly, you can’t help but feel for Tom Cruise’s character, Jerry, even if he’s that smooth-looking guy with the smarmy smile typical of untrustworthy sales people. The set up of man rediscovering who he can be is a hopeful one, and one that sends a truly inspiring message to all who listen. Cruise is fantastic here; at times confident and charming, at other times, he’s a complete and vulnerable mess as his character goes through the whipsaw of personal emotions that’s familiar with all men who are honest with themselves. Disguised as a sports movie, it’s really a character development piece wrapped around again by love and friendship. Cast members Rene Zellwegger and Cuba Gooding Jr (who won Best Supporting Actor) illuminate here in support. With some tasteful Bruce Springsteen music, great lines, and playful turn of events, Jerry MaGuire is a moving gem that always makes me smile at the end.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (directed by Stanley Kubrick)

Stanley Kubrick was a pioneer in many aspects of the film medium. In Dr. Strangelove, he invented the black comedy with perhaps the darkest (and probably sickest) joke of all time — nuclear annihilation of the entire human race. The movies serves as a warning as to our obsession for land, power, and bragging rights to selfish ideology. Boasting a sensational cast — the primary characters all except one played by the amazing Peter Sellers who’s renown for his Inspector Clouseau character in the Pink Panther — the film resonates with brilliant humor and ludicrousness. Here, Sellers takes on the role of US president, the English Colonel Mandrake, and the bizarre ex-Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove himself. (He was scheduled to play the Texan bomber pilot too, but a broken leg prevented the actor from climbing into the cockpit of the plane.) Shot in black and white, the stage of the drama that unfolds feels classic, but at the same time profound despite the comical demeanor of the players involved. With nuclear war being triggered by a US General who’s lost his mind, America’s military leaders are left with the choice of going with the flow and bombing Russian Communists to hell with the head start or call in the Russians for clarification and a unified approach to stop the planes from completing their bombing missions. The potential triggering of a Doomsday machine — an automatic response defense mechanism set up by the Russians in the event of a sneak attack — pushes up the stakes significantly. The famous “War Room” and detailed bomber cockpit were inventions of Kubrick himself, exemplifying the creativity of its director. The fact the nuclear war has been started because of a man experiencing a bad sexual episode makes this joke all the more funny and typically believable as to the stupidity of men.

Favorite Films: Part 2

We continue our introduction/re-introduction to influential films. As noted earlier, it’s difficult to pick and choose one film over another in terms of their excellence or originality, for art is ultimately a matter of personal preference, but here are a few more. These are foreign titles:

Ran (directed by Akira Kurosawa)

Akira Kurosawa is clearly one of the most prolific filmmakers of the 20th century. With films like The Seven Samurai, Ikuru, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, High and Low, and Kagemusha, his work, like Hitchcock’s, is mandatory viewing for every aspiring filmmaker. Ran, produced when the director was 75, is my favorite of his. The reason lies not only in the stunning imagery and powerful acting (Tatsuya Nakadai is absolutely amazing as the manic emperor), but in the maturity of the film-making. Kurosawa’s creative choices in his version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, show a depth to it that is almost unexplainable — it feels like a movie created by a man who has actually lived life thoroughly and not just conjured it out of one’s imagination. As I age, the film itself seems to come with newer meaning and empathy every time that I view it. Beautifully balanced between moments of deep family drama and stunning battle sequences (no one does a battle sequence better than Kurosawa), Ran pulls you right inside the world of feudal Japan with its gorgeous costumes, make up and sets. The story maybe Shakespeare, but the film is definitively Japanese.

To Live (directed by Zhang Yimou)

What a film To Live is. Zhang Yimou’s penetrating movie about the history of the 20th century Chinese experience is one of those films that covers a massive amount of living. Portraying life in post WWII China, it’s a film that follows the hardships of a strong yet very real woman in Jiazhen, played with immeasurable depth and beauty by Gong Li. In the journey, we witness both her’s and her husband’s battle for survival during immense cultural and social change, as they experience the transfer of power from the Nationalist Party of China to that of a Communist regime. In their travails, there are a moments of hope and sadness, advancements and setbacks — all played out with dutiful honestly. Even as it avoids political statements, it demonstrates the director’s high level of sophistication and respect for the life of the ordinary citizen during the rule of the Red Guards. Still, Zhang Yimou was banned from directing for two years after the film’s release, even as it triumphed in international festivals. I believe To Live is a film that young people today, both in China and around the world, need to see or revisit. History has been captured here, and captured with dignity, sincerity and frankness.

Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring (directed by Kim Ki Duk)

Kim Ki Duk’s simple yet profound movie Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring is one I return to seasonally. Buddhist in theme but universal in application, it captures the cyclical and karmic wonder of life as we follow the journey of a young boy who lives with a Buddhist monk on a floating temple in the middle of a remote lake. It’s a film that tells a tale of discovery, innocence, and suffering. We witness the coming of age of a young man, how he turns away from simplicity to complication, from peace to desire (for lust and passion), and how this ultimately pulls him away from a life of harmony. It’s too hard for any young man to understand the peace and wisdom that surrounds him, and hence we witness the inevitable display of karma and the lessons that the universe is here to tell (or in this case show) us. The film is light and almost ethereal in nature — it captures nature’s innate healing power. The sets, costumes and the atmosphere feel handmade; you can almost touch and even smell it. This beautiful yet philosophical movie moves me deeply each time I see it.

Cinema Paradiso (directed by Giuseppe Tornatore)

Giuseppe Tornatore made two very beautiful films, Cinema Paradiso (1988) and Malena (1990), both of which are paired to the perfect music of Ennio Morricone. Malena is richer (and sadder), and possibly more beautiful with its throwback to Fellini. But it’s Tornatore’s earlier film that has that enigmatic quality to it that holds onto you more deeply. It’s a nostalgic film that captures the innocence and curiosity of boyhood better than a lot of films that have come before and after it. Everything is simple and small scale but like childhood, everything that happens while you’re living it feels so grand and dramatic. Both the main characters’ (Salvatore and Alfredo) and the townspeople’s joys and frustrations revolves around the love of movies, and more specifically the tiny village theater. Watching it is like experiencing the past all over again, revisiting a time and place that no longer exists. Along the way, we find deep friendship and romance — the two things that matter more than anything else in the world for its protagonist and, by default, the viewer. Cinema Paradiso expresses itself as a simple story carried by beautiful imagery and music but at heart it’s a film about love and a film for people who love movies.

Fireworks (directed by Takeshi Kitano)

As writer, director, editor and actor of most of his movies, there’s little that Takeshi Kitano doesn’t understand about the film-making process. He’s internationally famous for his flock of Yakuza stories and facial twitch as a performer. His films, which are characterized by long sustained moments of silence and brief bursts of intense violence, signal an assured directing hand that controls every element of the pacing and energy. In Fireworks (Hana-bi), the creator is at his best — the movie explodes with emotion across the screen. Playing a character Nishi, who’s faced with the paralysis of his best friend and the impending death of his wife, Kitano carries a quiet but brutal power. His scenes with Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) are tender and balanced with delicate humor. Each sequence has a fresh feel completely unique in the world of cinema — they hold you, make you wait and then stun you. Afterwards, you find yourself releasing that slow breath that echos the gravity of situation just experienced. The creative mix of cutting and imagery also make the film visually tactile, even as it reveals a deep undercurrent of pain and pending violence throughout. The winner of the  Gold Lion Award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival, Fireworks is bound to leave an impression on anyone who sees it.

In the Mood For Love (directed by Wong Kar-Wai)

Auteur Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai is famous for his eclectic manner of movie-making. Like a Miesner actor, who reacts to the immediacy of the opposing actor, Wong seems to direct on instinct, working his magic with the sets and actors almost unscripted. Perhaps that is why his films have such a dreamy, free-flowing quality to them, yet at the same time what results is a product that couldn’t be more perfectly melded together in sight and sound. In The Mood For Love is Wong at his best. Paired with the hypnotic music of Shigeru Umebayashi, the viewer succumbs to the director’s spell as he travels along with the camera, peeking inside hidden worlds and carefully constructed images containing intimately guarded secrets. Acted with flawless subtlety by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung with few words spoken, it’s a film that expresses very loudly our longing for love and connection even as we all live with loneliness and do so mostly in secrecy. While the film displays no overt physical intimacy, the love that emerges between the two characters is rich, stirring and unforced even as it feels prohibited. In The Mood For Love, like its stars, is hypnotically beautiful and the emotions that run through you as you watch can only be described as a deep sort of aching that can’t be fulfilled, much like the romance between its characters.

Old Boy (directed by Chan Woo Park)

Chan Woo Park’s mind-blowing film about a man who appears wrongfully imprisoned for reasons beyond his or the audience’s understanding is truly original in both theme and execution. From the opening scene to the last, the viewer is powerlessly sucked into a ride that is non-stop, hypnotic and terrifying. In Park’s Old Boy, it’s near impossible to predict what may come next. In each scene, we frenetically yet methodically wander along with its protragonist Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-Sik) to find out what this story — his story — is about, and, along the way, we empathize with his confusion, his anger, his hope and his tragedy. Buoyed by an astounding physical and emotional performance by Choi Min-Sik, and fantastic scene after fantastic scene, Park has made an incredible film so unique and so creative, that it makes you ponder hard about it as soon as it’s over even as you feel drained from your viewing experience. The film is in many ways absurd, masochistic and gory. But it’s also a wildly entertaining ride that’s perfectly bound together by its kinetic score and eclectic visual imagery. Old Boy won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004, and deservedly so — it’s a stunner. It’s the kind of film being made today (although more and more so in the East than in the West) that gives me hope as a lover of cinema in the midst of the standard fare of Hollywood remakes and superhero sequels.

Favorite Films, Part 1

I’m an art and film nut. I own over a thousand films and seen many more. And then there’s the countless hours spent studying them for the writing, cinematography, and acting. So, for fun, I wanted to share a small selection of some of my favorites.  They’re not necessarily the best films ever made, but rather, they represent films that have had a huge influence on me as an artist and as a person, and carry with them a quality that makes me come back to them over and over again. Some are groundbreaking in theme or execution, while others have incredibly memorable moments characterized by superb acting or indescribable choreoraphic beauty. All of them carry with them a resonating quality that I believe will never be replicated ever again. You might be familiar with these titles but I suggest re-visiting them as they get better with each viewing.

Since there are just far too many excellent films to share, this series will be split over several posts.

The Godfather 1 & 2 (directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

In my humble opinion, Francis Ford Coppola’s two Godfather epics are the greatest films ever made. Based on Mario Puzo’s deeply penetrating novel about the rise and fall of the Corleone’s ascension to the throne as America’s most powerful Mafia family, the film is a complex and involving web of action, dialogue and scenery that pulls the audience deep inside the closed world of crime and the world inside the mind of its main character, Michael Corleone, played with immense power and restraint by Al Pacino. Along the way, we witness the erosion of a man who seems helplessly pulled towards evil and the consequences it has on his family and his soul. Despite riding along with the violence, tragedy and “bad men,” the film sucks you in, as you helplessly sympathize and even root for its characters. Loaded with standout performances (including that of Marlon Brando, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Robert DeNiro and Diane Keaton) and numerous iconic moments, The Godfather is film-making at its absolute best. Complemented by the masterful cinematography of Gordon Willis and Nina Rota’s simple yet mesmerizing score, it’s a film that never grows old.

Vertigo (directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

When one thinks of Alfred Hitchcock, one thinks of consistency and excellence. There are so many films to like: Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, Rebecca, Rope, To Catch A Thief, Notorious. But my all-time favorite remains his remarkable 1958 love-story/tragedy, Vertigo. Set in the backdrop of the most visually-cultural city of America (San Francisco), the story is one filled with mystery, beauty and sadness. It’s also a film that is both visually and emotionally enveloped by madness, as depicted perfectly by one of America’s most beloved actors, Jimmy Stewart (who plays Scottie, a retired cop). Falling is the theme here; to fall for a con, to fall in love, to fall to one’s death. Complemented by a beautifully subdued performance by the lovely Kim Novak (who plays the mysterious Madelaine), the storytelling is as hypnotic to the viewer as Madelaine is to Scottie. You find yourself riding along with Stewart’s character, as he turns from honorable man of humor, kindness and nobility to one who is filled with lust, obsession and control. No one does suspense like Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann’s chilling score complements the mood perfectly.

Chariots of Fire (directed by Hugh Hudson)

When I need to be inspired, I watch Hugh Hudson’s 1981 classic, Chariots of Fire, a film about Britain’s participation in the running events of the 1924 Paris Olympic games. It’s a seemingly simple film but one that makes a huge statement about human nature and the power of will. The main characters Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) create a wonderfully contrasting pair — two men in their physical prime who carry opposing beliefs and personalities but have an identical goal; to be the fastest man on the planet. Buoyed by Vangelis Papathanassiou’s magnificent score and a marvelously sincere and subdued performance by Ian Holms, the story that unfolds grabs you tightly across the heart; you find yourself cheering wholeheartedly for both protagonists. There are many films that show characters that try to prove themselves and define their worth but few do it as convincingly as Chariots of Fire.

The Thin Red Line (directed by Terence Malick)

There have been some really great war movies made in Hollywood each one worthy of the heavy weight title for the category: Oliver Stone’s Platoon is a harrowing account of the director’s own personal experience during the Vietnam War; Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket captures, what my Marine Sargent friend tells me as, “the most accurate portrayal of military training ever depicted”; Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan, is the most visceral and spellbinding experience of real military combat I’ve ever witnessed on film. But it is Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line that captivates me over and over again. There are no good guys or bad guys here — only the inescapable and wholly encapsulating experience of living inside of war. The contrast of the senselessness of war in the backdrop of the incredible beauty of nature make the point of the film remarkably clear. In the midst of both sensually depicted memories and beautiful abstractions of reality, we slide effortlessly inside the mind of the soldier trying to make sense of our actions and our very existence. Complemented by Jim Caviezel’s soulful performance and Hans Zimmer’s poetic score, the film is fine art dissecting the horrors of man’s violent intrusion over nature and his own soul.

Jaws (directed by Steven Spielberg)

Like many of the directors listed here, Spielberg has made many fantastic, even iconic films: Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park, E.T., The Color Purple, Munich, etc. But Jaws, made when the director was only 27 years of age, still holds for me a most special place among his legacy of films. In his hands, the classic “monster in the house” story becomes something much more than just a film about a very large shark. It’s a character study of men; our need to protect those we love, to live up to our word, and to face the demons that haunt us. In this case, we have three richly developed characters in Brody (Roy Schneider), Quint (Robert Shaw) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who not only have to battle the shark but each other. The visuals and editing are inventive and many sequences marked what would become Spielberg’s trademark as a filmmaker — excellent pacing complemented by moments of brilliant imagery and careful character development. Nothing is rushed and always more is hinted at than what is seen. I love Jaws. There’s a reason why it scared everyone from going to the beach when it first came out in theaters. Unlike the films of today, special effects are not the star here. Instead, the spotlight belongs to the actors and a story whose mood is perfectly augmented by John Williams’ renown piano score.

Stay tuned for more!

Discipline — What does it mean?

Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981) is one of the most inspiring films ever made, telling the story of young men who display great discipline and courage to live out their dreams and uphold their principles.

“Right discipline consists, not in external compulsion, but in the habits of mind which lead spontaneously to desirable rather than undesirable activities.” — Bertrand Russell, Writer

When people hear the word “discipline” they often associate it with something arduous, time-consuming and painful. The same thing can be applied to the ethics of work — an onerous virtue linked to duty (and punishment) that is to be avoided as often as possible. This is rather unfortunate because the thing is, human beings are designed to work, just as our feet are designed for walking.

But there is more to it than that — discipline is required for true fulfillment as a human being.

“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” — Buddha

The word discipline actually finds its roots from “discipulus,” the Latin word for pupil, and is also the source word for disciple. So discipline actually refers to the practice or code for the acquisition of knowledge and skill — a route towards higher personal development. In fact, it is a core component to mastery,  along with concentration, patience and commitment. There is no easy prescription to excellence, happiness or fulfillment, only practices that enable its becoming.

“One might think that nothing is easier to learn for modern man than discipline… (yet) modern man has exceedingly little self-discipline outside of the sphere of work (organized labor).” — Erich Fromm, Psychologist

Without discipline, nothing is ever accomplished that needs to be accomplished. If it’s so obviously important, then why do we dread it so? Why can’t we overcome our laziness or fatigue and bear down and just do it (as that famous shoe brand tell us)?

These two infographics show what hours of sitting and a sedentary lifestyle do to us. The human body is designed for a minimum of 2 hours of physical exertion everyday— that’s less than 10% of the day. Yet how many of us give even 2 % of our day (less than 30 minutes) to caring for the body, our vessel, that carries us throughout this long journey called life?

Perhaps it’s because far too many of us have jobs and/or other external demands that “obligate us” to do to labor that is unsatisfactory, uninteresting, non-creative or simply incompatible with our being. Worn out from eight or more hours of the day, both working and commuting to work on something that has no meaning or joy in doing will do that to us. In other words, being an automaton creates resentment and bitterness, which in turn adds to the fatigue of an already taxing routine. Some of us can escape this mindless drain with work that more closely resembles careers — employment that offers greater mental and creative stimulation — but even then, the long hours, stressful deadlines and office politics could be enough to offset any feelings of true satisfaction or fulfillment. At best, it seems we sacrifice one thing for another; namely, time for money, or meaning for time.

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” — Henry David Thoreau, Philosopher

As a result, the idea of any kind of discipline to be practiced (post work hours) becomes too high a concept for the mind/body to accept. There is simply no will power left over to work on our own person, or spend time with family or nature. It would take discipline just to schedule time off for rest alone. Therefore, it’s almost inevitable that, once the work day is over, we want to  engage in the most rebellious activity possible; to participate in a sort of infantile self-indulgence, as psychologist Erich Fromm noted, such as the excessive browsing of the internet, playing video games or watching TV or worse — damaging activities like hard drinking or drugs to fill our emptiness. Study, exercise or eat a plate of raw veggies? “You got to be kidding me!” would be the most likely reaction to any such suggestion.

But we all have to make a living don’t we? Not many of us were trust fun babies or have lives that resemble celebrities. What then should we do while we still live in a world that aims to maximize production-consumption?

Traditional Japanese culture honors deep principles in “how” we do things, and no where is this code for living more fully expressed than in Bushido, the way of the warrior as emblemized by the life of the Samurai.

If we’ve got a job to do needed to pay the bills, then we must be more than just aware of that fact. Whether it’s an ideal job or not is irrelevant. It’s a choice we make. And if it’s a lucid choice, and we’ve decided to take or keep such a job, we can no longer approach it like a burden. The issue is a matter of perspective. Once we view one thing as a burden, we begin to view other things as burdens. If we create an environment (either internally or externally) that is poor, we become poor.

“Every Roman was surrounded by slaves. The slave and his psychology flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly, and of course unwittingly, a slave. Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious of their psychology. No one can shield himself from such an influence.” — Carl Jung, Psychologist

The narrative we give to a situation alters our entire experience of it, for “one’s man pain is another man’s joy.” So if we’re gonna do the job anyway, we mind as well do it well and be respectful of the workplace — the people we work with, the company we work for, and the work itself. That’s what taking a professional approach and attitude means. And we’d be surprised at how much we can learn from the experience and, more importantly, how much we can learn about ourselves. Learning any craft is a process. In participating in that process, we discover knowledge and build respect. And it is with respect that we learn to appreciate and then love something, anything.

Muhammed Ai, seen here alone doing the classic sit up. All the “glorious” careers (sports, drama, music, art, etc.) come with the requirement of practicing the less sexy stuff behind the scenes. If we learn to accept or even love the process required, we begin to love the job.

“It’s not what you do, but how you do it.” — John Wooden, Record-winning UCLA Basketball Coach

Now, if the work is truly absolute torture with no relief in sight, a job that causes immense strain and robs us of not only all the time that we’ve got but our passion to live, then it should be clear that we have to make a serious change. There’s always an option. We cannot be afraid to be free. Most people are. It takes courage to be free — and ironically, discipline — to listen to your intuitive self.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor E. Frankl, Writer & Holocaust survivor

Choosing Yourself

Rembrandt Self-Portrait completed 4 years before his death in 1665. Rembrandt may have died blind, poverty-stricken and largely ignored, but his work lives on 350 years after his death, his name now synonymous with the word genius. That’s not such bad a deal in the grand scheme of things.

“What you need is to free yourself from your own preconceived ideas about yourself. It will take a revolution to do it, and many times you will think yourself on the road only to find that the old habit has possessed you again with a new preconception. But if you can at least to a degree free yourself, take your head off your heart and give the latter a chance, something may come of it. The results will not be what you expect, but they will be like you and it will be the best that can come from you.” — Robert Henri

Here, we talk a lot about discipline, preparation, and balance. The reason is because it’s through such means that we make the life we lead truly our own. It is, as Robert Henri states, no easy proposition. But is there a better alternative? Would you prefer someone else tell you how you should live? We all know that governments and private industry are more than happy to fulfill such a role. If we want freedom, know that it comes attached to personal responsibility.

I was visiting a boxing gym recently and came across the above quote on the window. It’s true, if it isn’t hard it isn’t worth doing.

Positive change is hard. We all know it. But to be yourself, to live honestly, requires full consciousness and awareness. We must look and see, listen and hear. The senses are our tools and they must be well-maintained and our usage of them must be practiced. We cannot, unlike the majority of society, afford to be lost in the noise. It’s not healthy nor natural for the artist to chase things. Instead he pays attention, contemplates, and then responds. This ritualistic practice is what allows him to see and create beyond what is common or mundane.

As we enter into the Fourth Industrial Revolution — the fusion of the physical and biological spheres with that of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics — we shall witness a dramatic altering of our social and economic fabric. It’s a time when our artistic awareness is more valuable than ever. Our sensibilities to our environment and humanity allows us to see and adapt to change, even foretell the future so to speak. It’s not surprising that it wasn’t the scientists or industrialists who foresaw how technology would change how we live but the writers and filmmakers of science fiction.

A harrowing scene from Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking and prescient 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film created almost 50 years ago. 

Technology has always altered the world as it entered it. But modern technology has taken a giant leap from the cantilever or printing press; the power of digital media and its emergence as a way of working, living and socializing has altered the entire consciousness of our species. Or, as stalwart historian and media expert Marshall McLuhan states from his seminal work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, it appears that only creatives have a chance at even accurately acknowledging what is happening:

“The effects of technology do not occur at the levels of opinions or concepts but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.” — Marshall McLuhan

The city at night in current Shanghai, China.

The city at night from the movie Blade Runner (1982). Ridley Scott’s and Phillip K. Dick’s dystopian future world is not quite here nor are its flying cars, but the themes in question are becoming very much pertinent in our times. What will become of our world? What is it to be human?

Times are changing. The world in front of us, already doesn’t look much like the world we’re leaving behind. In a short 150 years, and more substantially, since the advent of computers and the internet, change is expanding in both size and speed — automation will bring unprecedented and even unforeseeable change. Even the great poets have acknowledged this transformation of our world:

“The visible world is no longer a reality and the unseen world is no longer a dream.” — W. B. Yeats

Hence the artist carries a very important role in society and in mankind’s evolution. Not only do we record our history more comprehensively (i.e. being inclusive of direct human experience versus just pure facts or data), but we can, at times, predict our own future and more importantly, even shape it. So it becomes paramount that any creative remain true and pure as he can be. He must be faithful to himself. This is what we want from him.

Study of a Horse by Leonardo da Vinci. Can you imagine our world without the great contributions from the artists of the Renaissance? Leonardi da Vinci’s contributions go beyond science or art because his work encompassed both.

It’s also important to maintain an optimistic outlook. Yes, it’s frightening what advancing digital technology will mean for jobs, social security and survival. But for every crisis, there lies great opportunity. If we, as artists, develop and access our acuity in our sensory perception, we won’t become “machines.” We may work with them or alongside them, but we can remain aware and sensitive to the social and emotional impact that our changing environment brings. Instead, we look for beauty, both in joy and in sadness. It’s the reason why this blog refuses to fall towards despair or complaint despite co-existing in an unfair world that is becoming more and more machine-like everyday. The business and scientific world is obsessed with numbers. The artist’s abilities and responsibilities lie in the intangibles, in the humane. We must continue to value and develop our very human sensibilities.

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” — John F. Kennedy

But if we give away our freedom or our individuality, we kill what is the most human part of us — our unconscious and our soul — things that sense and see with greater precision than the rational mind. It’s well known, for instance in psychology, that a repressed soul leads to neurosis. Our society needs its writers, artists and poets to be healthy, free and true. The sane and lucid artist is one who chooses himself. He must ignore society’s current opinion of him. He serves it best by being imaginative and honestly expressive in his work. That’s where his generosity lies. He has to make a choice to be happy.

“Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination.” — Immanuel Kant

Even this humble blog has to make choices. It wouldn’t be hard to post daily quick anecdotes or secret tricks of the trade that will “vastly” improve skills or lead to “creative success.” That would certainly garner far more followers or “hits” to the website — to make it short and easy to read, a place that lures and promises with fast answers and quick witted humor surrounded by strategically placed advertisements to “monetize” my efforts. That’s what our society currently values, accepts, and expects. It’d certainly be easier to produce and less time-consuming than spending the many hours to put together what I have done here. Why write 1000 or 2000 word essays when 100 word excerpts would suffice? But then, the generosity and spirit of what I want to share wouldn’t surface. I’d be like everyone else — after a quick buck, chasing immediate attention to satisfy an insecure ego. To be different means to take a risk. To be true to oneself means to be different.*

“I think real artists are too busy with just being and growing and acting (on canvas or however) like themselves to worry about the end. The end will be what it will be. The object is intense living (and) fulfillment” — Robert Henri

*In the same generous spirit of this blog, I ask that you multiply the contributions here by sharing this free blog, whenever you can, on your own sites or social media platforms.