Sometimes Ignorance Leads To Innovation
There's something our younger generation is afflicted with and I like to call it perpetual student syndrome. I'll try to find a better name for it. Another version of this affliction might be called hero-worship. But what I'm talking about isn't quite hero-worship.
Admittedly I bring it up because I'm guilty of it my self. Not so much that I am constantly reading biographies of people I admire. Biographies are dreadfully boring and tend to amplify some of the uglier aspects of a person's life because people think that's juicier. Ultimately a biographer is just another writer, someone who is trying to be read. My point is I'd rather not know about an artist's life and just appreciate how they contribute to the form, either through their work or what they have to say about it by virtue of their experience.
In that sense, I felt ok about picking up a little gem called My Lunches With Orson. Which isn't a biography, just a series of printed conversations that the actor Henry Jaglom had with Orson Welles at Welles' favorite restaurant toward the end of his life. It's illuminating in surprising ways, and it's where I got this idea about "perpetual student syndrome."
For those who don't know, Orson Welles is one of the most iconic actors and radio/film/theatre makers of the twentieth century. His film Citizen Kane which he helped write, direct, and star in is considered one of if not the greatest film of all time.
The conversations in My Lunches With Orson are again, illuminating. For one, Orson Welles is incredibly erudite and has compelling perspectives on history and literature.
But aside from that, something that really struck me was his attitude to movie-making all together. Here's a quote from the book:
"I don't read books on film at all, or theater. I'm not very interested in movies. I keep telling people that, and they don't believe me. I genuinely am not very interested! For me, it's only interesting to do. You know, I'm not interested in other filmmakers--and that's a terribly arrogant thing to say--or in the medium. It's the least interesting art medium for me to watch that there is. Except ballet--that's the only thing less interesting. I just like to make movies, you know? And that's the truth! But I do know quite a bit about early movies, because I was interested in movies before I made them. And I was interested in the theater before I went to it. There is something in me that turns off once I start to do it myself. It's some weakness. In other words, I read everything about the theater before I became a theater director. After that, I never went to plays or read anything. Same thing with movies. I believe that I was threatened, personally threatened, by every other movie, and by every criticism--that it would affect the purity of my vision. And I think the younger generation of filmmakers has seen too many movies."
I emphasize those last two sentences because it's the point I want to make.
If you're my age or older and have been an amateur for at least as long as I have, you've seen enough movies/plays/read enough books to know what your tastes are. Perhaps you've seen too much; I know I can relate to that.
If your taste is like mine it's quite a demanding one. I know what I like and I know why I like it. The problem is, having such an ideal for what a movie or play or novel should be can be paralyzing for anyone who wants to make their own.
Around college and when I first began my acting career in the Bay Area--I was watching and reading everything. If I was in my own performance and couldn't watch other plays (which for better or worse was most of the time) I was catching late night showings in movie theaters. In periods when I was homeless the movie theater was a nice place to have an extended nap. But most of the time, I was taking everything in like a student.
Of course, watching other actors you learn a lot. And one learns quite a lot about what good dramatic writing is too. Often times I would listen to the dialogue and just imagine what it would look like on the page... what's the difference? Did it meet the script's intention in a surprising and compelling way? Was the original intention a good one to begin with?
Also one starts too look for little details like where the actor places their eyes and how intentional their movements are.
One does learn quite a lot from watching this way.
The other side of that coin is one starts comparing their own work to the work of others. Or tries to consciously employ the things they've seen others do. It's not quite imitation as it is an intellectualization of an essentially mysterious process. It's trying to make something that worked in one situation work completely outside the context it was intended for. Which is death for any artist.
It's also difficult to not want your own work to match the work that you really love. This can be a quite paralyzing feeling. And what's the use of trying to "learn" from others if one isn't going to strike out into the dark on their own?
There's an obnoxious habit among actors my age that is the fawning over who they perceive as "great." I'm not saying one shouldn't respect other's experience, or try to learn form them or take their advice.
But you're not an idiot. If it smells like bullshit, it's bullshit. A lot of times we'll watch a performance that is total shit and try to come up with reasons for why it's great just because we had already decided it was supposed to be great before we've even watched it.
I've been across actors with some of the best reputations in the community I've worked in. No doubt they earned those reputations some how, but often times I'll be working with them and can barely hold back the need to yell "would you please stop making so much of that damn line!" I'm sure no doubt other actors have felt this way about me too. That's one of the deals one makes when they become an actor; they are going to hate others and be hated by others for many irrational reasons. Just because someone is great in some projects doesn't mean they're always great.
My point is whether you're working with someone with experience or are experiencing the work of someone with experience, don't let the idea of their greatness infiltrate your own convictions.
When I'm on the set of a student film, it's heartbreaking when I watch the crew agonize over a scene set in, say, an office because they're wondering "well, how would Martin Scorsese film an office?"
Why are you comparing yourself to someone like that? I don't ask because of how successful Martin Scorsese is; I ask because Martin Scorsese is not you.
Who knows? You might be better.
I also hate it when student filmmakers want to do a "master shot" only because they feel like they have to. It's their homework as opposed to something that will actually contribute to the project.
Do what you need to do to make the film/play/book, not the thing that will impress your teachers or the thing that your hero does a lot.
The truly illuminating thing about studying the work and process of those you admire is that you start to see that the true greats are the ones who held on to their individuality. Orson Welles rarely if ever did master shots and almost always only filmed what was going to be in the movie. He didn't cut; he didn't really edit.
I'm not advising anyone to go about movie making this way. I'm still in the process of learning myself. But this struck me because we're often told "Filmmaking is editing."
I still believe that, but at the end of the day that's only a platitude. It's a truism but not a truth that must always be applied.
Techniques and education are important. But not if they become a prescription which squashes out the essential artistic impulse.
The artistic impulse is always about breaking the rules.
In fact, let me rephrase that. Because there are no rules to begin with. Rules apply to decent society not to the life of a poet (or actor or writer or filmmaker).
One does learn a great deal from studying what came before. One really does. I'm not advocating against this.
But those who came before us; those who's shoulders we supposedly stand on didn't make their art for us to study it. What a dreadful intention. They made their art for us to enjoy it. To be entertained by it. To gain an insight about our lives. Not to make an ultimately futile attempt to intellectually grasp that which attempts to make the mysterious concrete.
In the end, we are only witnessing the attempts of others. Not the solution. One should go to the theatre or pick up a book for one reason and one reason only--to enjoy it. To accept the artists' gift of seeing a world that no one else saw before they wrote it down and/or performed it.
The only thing one can actually "learn" from that is how to have the courage to do what that artist did. Which isn't to employ the form and execution which has already been invented, but to have the mindset and discipline to make their own form all together.
Behind every story is the story of the one who told that story. They were able to tell that story because they were in touch with who they are in their own unique way.
They were innocent and stupid. They figured things out as they went along. They invented new methods without knowing they were inventing them.
In fact, there is a great interview where Orson Welles talks about being completely ignorant about lighting techniques while working on Citizen Kane. Just watch the first two minutes of this clip, here:
Get to the part where he says "I didn't know what you couldn't do. I didn't deliberately set out to invent anything. It just seemed to me 'why not?' There is a great gift that ignorance has to bring to anything, you know. That was the gift I brought to Citizen Kane... ignorance."
Now of course this raises as many questions as it answers. Who is the real innovator here? Orson Welles? Or Gregg Toland the technician who had mastered many camera and lighting techniques for movies?
The symbioses of Toland's technical mastery combined with Welles' limitless and untainted curiosity is what made so many great frames in Citizen Kane. Of course, you need your Toland as much as you need your Welles.
And within yourself you need a spirit of ignorance along with a rigorous attention to technical detail.
But too often the need to study begins to overwhelm the need to discover. And ultimately, what an actor or writer does is not something that if a certain pattern is consistently applied to it, the same quality and results will emerge. There is a mystery at the heart of it all. And the hardest part is throwing away all the notes and techniques and preparation and finally actually creating something.
So please continue dissecting the technical intricacies of those who's work you admire, if that's what you truly enjoy. Just know that it's not the same as being an artist.