One of my favorite filmmakers is Jeff Nichols. His first film, Shotgun Stories, is about a violent feud between half-brothers. Three from a father's first marriage... which was miserable and left behind. And three from a father's second marriage, which was prosperous and made the father seem like an upstanding person.
The feud starts when the brothers from the first marriage show up at the father's funeral and spit on his casket.
The film implicates men in the atrocities they perpetuate against each other. But implicates their women enablers just as much. Which is why I love the film. It does not judge. It simply presents the world as the filmmaker sees it.
At the height of the Ottoman Empire, the first born son would order the execution of his younger brothers to prevent any challenge to the throne.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that most killings in history have in fact been brother against brother.
What is it about men that makes us feel like we must destroy each other? Who are we honoring? Who are we protecting?
Why can't we just stop?
I set out with two self-imposed and arbitrary rules with this blog.
I would not make it about my anger. Too much.
I would not delve into my personal life. Too much.
Loss disguises itself in its own shadow. And the last person to notice it is the one which the shadow follows.
The good old coming of age story. The child's fairy tale... these are core narratives. Because they represent an attempt to cross the lonely oceans of time to retrieve the irretrievable.
It may very well be that aging and decay and emotional trauma are faults in our genes. But for now eternity eludes us.
Except in our attempts to live it backwards in the stories we set down about our selves.
What an immeasurable thrill.
Why else would we bear what little life we have already?
A game like chess or soccer has a lot of rules. But you can't play it the same way twice. And you can't plan what each player is going to do ahead of time. It kills the game.
It will kill your art too. Valuing consistency is sham institutional piety. It places the need to please those with financial power over you at the center.
Does consistency count for something? Sure. Showing up. Your health. General common sense and decency and respect. That's about it.
But there is no room for obedience once you're in the ring.
Anyone who tries to tell you this is the way things must be can shove it. Don't tell them that though. Your job is to say thank you very much, and go your own way anyway.
The penguins are just mad at you because they know they can't fly.
Freud said that if you name a terrible thing, it begins to lose its power over you (and for our purposes, the audience).
We spend so much of our lives pretending things don't happen, just to survive. But in the theatre (or the page) everything must be acknowledged, or else the ritual is betrayed. The actor mustn't pretend the vase did not fall off the coffee table even though that was not blocked or scripted; the writer mustn't ignore that thought they know they shouldn't be thinking--that's exactly the thought we need.
Nothing was more freeing to me than being told that acting is a way of seeing. And that one does not have to be or even to believe. One can wipe one's feet at the door. One can leave the pretentions of polite society and political correctness when they enter a space where all that matters is the truth--and of course, the ability to wipe one's feet of what occurred in the space in order to reenter society as whole as they left it (which is what we really mean when we say safety).
It's just as important to look at writing this way. It can be difficult (although very fun) to dissociate oneself from the terrible truths one puts to paper. Just because you can (and must) be held accountable for what you write (and believe me you will) does not mean it is a reflection of who you are or what you actually believe about how things should be (who really knows, in the end?).
The stories you tell--if you tell them honestly--are not a reflection of your beliefs. They are a reflection of what you see. What you see is rarely so correct and fully formed. You control your beliefs. You don't control what you see. You only allow yourself to see. Or you don't. But having been granted the physical and mental privileges to do so, why deny yourself the thrill of seeing?
It is the audience's prerogative to make judgements. Not your own. Judgement is a kind of cowardice for the artist. It is safe. It shields you and the audience from discoveries that might elicit an honest response. And a growth of understanding in who we are.
It is still a kind of vain glory to present the world and people and outcomes of circumstance as they ought to be. It is an invented task. It is waste.
More difficult and more simple and more generous to present things as they are.
Dave Chappelle prefers not to talk about his religion, Islam, publicly because he doesn't want it associated with his own flaws as a person.
Ruth Negga admits to being very territorial about her identity because it's been "hijacked by so many people with their own projections." And that she doesn't trust anyone who's identity does not shift.
Both these perspectives and their lives in action contain immense wisdom.
You are what you claim to be. And it is ok, necessary in fact, to protect that.
And on the other side of the fence, there are people who do not understand the pain of having one's truth denied. Careful around them. And if you do understand that pain, notice the shields people have up about themselves.
And respect them with your life.
Albert Einstein said that he wasn't smarter than anyone else, he just stuck with problems longer. People--including myself--work so hard to make their craft more difficult than it is. Problems with the work almost always come down to a question of commitment. As an actor am I going to stop telling the story as it was written for me because I am bored? Do I stop writing because my work isn't going anywhere recognizable?
The solipsism our society induces within us makes even people-watching seem like an aggravating tedium to most. We can't stay with a thing long enough to allow for surprise. And there always is surprise, if we pay attention long enough.
"I am shocked but not surprised" has been a kind of slogan among my contemporaries over the last half decade. I am sad... not for the state of society but for them. Whoever says this. Because if you are going from shock to shock, you are addicted... continually hunting for the new shock. And the meh feeling you project whenever someone asks how you're doing is not an honest response, it is an attempt to connect in the most safe and predictable way you know; a signal to your tribe of floating meh people.
But if you are surprised, and the surprise further fuels your curiosity, you are paying attention. Some things just aren't worth the time allotted to you. You and I both know what they are. Pick something worthy. And commit. Stick with the problems that count.
You don't have to think twice about how to respond to this moment. Whatever this moment is for you. A moment is already the past unless you seize it. And anything you seize is yours. The moment is yours. You don't have to respond to the moment at all.
You're an artist... you lock yourself up and do the work. You keep your head down and you look up every once in a while just to know what the hell you're doing it all for. What you see can often disturb you.
Turmoil, suffering, danger this is the cycle.
The stories, the beauty, the work, the art we create despite the cycle is the exception. That is the immortal thing.
I care about what happened at the capitol. But, no, I don't care. I really don't. To be honest if people weren't blowing up my phone I wouldn't have noticed.
I cared enough to write this post. I think every blog post is like the remains of an aborted child. Something that could have grown into something more but the world is not ready for it. But the remains are the result of a process that will not be forgotten.
Do I care that I just compared blog posting to abortions? Does that draw me closer to the maniacs who stormed the capital the other day? This sort of non-filter? Am I scared that I wrote that? A little. Yeah. I am a little scared for writing that.
But that's what separates me or anyone else from these utter fools who think they are alive. They're so wildly self-confident they've never experienced the terror of true living. And they've never been alive. The true person, the one who stumbles over their own crippling self-doubt with just enough momentum to do what they were called to do, that is the hero in every single one of us. And we don't need to respond to a call to arms or a call to the streets or whatever call that is loudest in attempting to squelch this wave of anxiety over the collective soul. We have an opportunity to be that hero every single moment we choose to. Because we possess the wisdom of doubt. The wisdom of fear. Fear is our power. The humility to cower before the vastness of our unknowing. Every moment in our lives is a potential for true courage. What a thrill.
I care about what happened at the capitol. I looked up. And then I put my head back down and got back to work. Because that is what I have. And no one, no one can take that away from me.
No one can take it away from you, either. Get your ass in the chair with that brush or that keyboard. Teach yourself to sing, call a meeting for your grassroots campaign, solve quantum gravity... whatever you are called to do. There is not much time.
Is it a privilege? Yes. Privilege is a word. A beautiful word. It used to mean something nice. Life is a privilege. Seeing, hearing, feeling. All privileges. All entail responsibilities afforded by privilege. These responsibilities are demanding. Going after them will make you feel cold and alone because the responsibility is to make what was not there before into being. Something new. Something people don't yet understand. And people so fear what they don't understand. Our own families will doubt their love for us when they encounter something we make of ourselves that they do not understand.
There are people who have this privilege; this responsibility who won't go all in--not because they are lazy, they are often far from it, but because in their heart of hearts they think they do not deserve a place. And so they play at an idea of doing something worth their while in order to hold themselves at a distance from the pain this sort of path may entail. I have no patience for such people, though I have been there. Maybe I am still there. Today I am not there. No. But tomorrow is a new story.
Pay attention. Get your outrage out of the way. Get yourself out of the way.
Stop feeling so ashamed of yourself.
I think maybe that answers your question is a sentence I heard while listening to an interview recently. In fact, I must have heard some variation of this sentence in every interview I've ever listened to. It is such a strange and beautiful phrase.
I think maybe that answers your question. The interviewee seems to want to appease the host... look, I know I'm a fallible fool but I am working so hard to be clear for you! If anything, I am complimenting you because your question is so complex and interesting I really have to search deeply for my response.
How does one answer a question? Like actually answer it? When is a point of perfect understanding ever reached? Has anyone ever truly answered a question? Has anyone ever truly asked one?
Plenty, I'm sure. And I don't need to name them.
My point is this,
questions and answers. The most exciting of human endeavors is the process of increasing the former and decreasing the latter.
The villain is always more dynamic; more fun. And even if they're not a fun sort of villain their story is always deeper; more layered. The villain is carried with an inspiring and insurmountable conviction and resourcefulness. The villain is always played by the better actor in the movie. Why do I always root for the villain?
It's not a race thing. I'm not talking about Cowboys and Indians; I'm talking about dynamics that have flesh.
And it's not because of some "natural capacity for empathy." No, nothing so cliched as that.
Why do I find the classic hero so unbearably obnoxious but their cosmic role so compelling?
The hero has their perks too. People like to look at the hero. And I like to be looked at. So it's clear I want to be the hero, too. The hero has a destiny.
I still love the classic story structure--hero and villain driving unstoppably to an unforeseen but inevitable meeting point.
How this structure evolves depends on how they get to this point, and what they do when they get there.
I want to live in a world where this meeting point is more rewarding for the villain, and more punishing for the hero.
And that's when we can ask the real question,
what is the incentive to do good?
God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his child,
and at the last minute god said,
This was not a malevolent test of loyalty. It was a trial of trust.
All of the best stories; all of the best jokes operate as a trial of trust.
Just before the end faith is all but forsaken, only to be replaced by an even stronger faith needed for the more challenging trial that emerges from this end. A new beginning. A new story.
How far can you and your audience go together before dropping the ball? Before you go so far afield they never forgive you; never return? How do you get them to follow your lead somewhere even crazier than before?
Abraham forgave god.
And went on, at god's command, to leave his spouse and child alone in the desert.
Abraham's child in the first story went on to father the world's most celebrated bloodline.
Abraham's spouse and child in the second story were blessed with a well-spring of the earth's purest water, which continues to be drunk with zeal by millions of pilgrims every year from across the planet.
That is the power of trust.
That is the power of a good story.
What if we understood one person's rigor and commitment to address a specific question as the result of an irresistible build up from a kind of human web of internetted thoughts? An internet of thoughts that existed thousands of years before the computer age. And I don't mean prophets, artists, scientists or philosophers building on the work of previous prophets, artists, scientists, and philosophers.
I mean the cumulative psychic affect of a bunch of normal people going about their lives thinking these amazing thoughts; thinking up these passing questions that just scream for an answer and the universe finally going I've had it!
And picking someone and going, you! fix this.
Copernicus was not the one. Whatever one which had been built on the residue of the exploding human thought web somehow landed on him.
So daydream; think; you don't even have to write it down. It will be remembered. And the energy will always find an outlet. Your effort is not required.
Just your presence.
In his book, The War Of Art, Steven Pressfield says, "Call it overstatement but I'll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas."
Hitler wanted to be a painter.
Do your art for the sake of attention and adoration and the blank canvas will drive you to destruction.
The blank canvas is your teacher. And your only one. Besides death.
Run away from the lessons of your one true teacher, seeking out charlatans who will sell you an image of having a place among the ranks at the expense of your soul, and you just might destroy the world.
You make the ranks every day you decide to face the blank canvas.
There are two trains in my mind on a collision coarse.
One train says, history is dark, misleading, useless;
Another train says, when I look into the past all I see is immortality.
One day, when these trains finally collide, I might come up with something worthwhile; so worthwhile I might add a significant portion to the excesses of our own time. Excesses that some poor soul one thousand years from now will look back at and agonize, like me, about how preoccupation with it is affecting him. Is it killing him? Or giving him more life than anything he can see, taste, or touch?
I just hope he feels alive, like me, in the agony.
There is a pernicious shadow haunting every single one of us trying to make our way in the world of pleasing an audience; it is that our work must contain some message or have some point to make about the world; it's not so much that we are forced to make our work that way but those who consume it are so deluded by the overbearing need for usefulness that they assume any artistic output that isn't blasting CGI all over a wide screen--the artsy fartsy stuff--must contain some edifying quality. And so they project their own paranoia and suspicion of the author's point of view (which they, in fact, can never know even if the author wanted them to) onto the work; this is egregious. And I know it happens because right now I am more audience member than artist and I commit this sin all the time. So this isn't just another angry rant, it is also a confession.
There is a wonderful essay by Susan Sontag; I'm sure you've heard of it; it's called Against Interpretation. I still have to read it many times again before I can say for sure that I understand it, but my point is you should all read it.
Our efforts to interpret things have ruined our ability to just surrender to our senses. It's ruined everything from scripture, to greek tragedy, to shakespeare, up until our contemporary age.
I'm not saying artists (or audiences) should never hold a point of view--political or otherwise--but if they wanted to tell it to us they have other avenues. I was introduced to Sontag (who was a fiction writer and filmmaker in her own right) because of her apparently incendiary essay in the New Yorker the Tuesday after 9/11 (which I stumbled upon years after its publication since I was seven at the time of the events); she was the only one in that New Yorker feature who wrote something that refused to play into the punditry of American victimhood after the terrorist attacks. You should all read that too. An incendiary essay in the New Yorker is a good way to tell the world what you think and get in trouble for it. Sontag was incredibly political, but she didn't let it cloud the way she read a book or watched a movie or witnessed any other creation.
Here's the truth: I am an amateur. Right now this is a very scary and very stupid foray into the world of writing for me. Writing blog posts; writing short fiction; writing things for myself to perform (my feverishly made and thoughtless podcast). There are things that I plug into my writing because I read them somewhere and I find them curious or fascinating and like any good amateur I am still unable to resist the temptation to show how smart I am. But those references don't really mean anything.
Because I don't want to be useful, I want to be entertaining. The question I want asked (if there is anyone out there who has listened to my podcast) is not "hmmm, what does this say about society?" or worse, "what does this say about the author?" The question I want asked is "What's going to happen?" or "Wasn't that funny?!" or "Oh my god did you see that coming?"
Well, what about stories like, say, The Constant Gardner? Doesn't something like that have a very obvious political message? Interesting point. But I'd venture to say that a) the circumstances in The Constant Gardner really are just how the world works, and so there is nothing "political" about them, and b) those circumstances make for a good story, and c) if John Le Carre thought his twenty two novels were an effective way of relaying polemics against corporate imperialism he wouldn't have spent so much time writing speeches and giving talks and interviews in which it was very clear he was issuing such polemics.
I love essay books. Because I love reading an author's point of view. James Baldwin wrote incredible essays that were very political. Mary Oliver wrote incredible essays that were mostly non-political but also expressed her environmental ideals. And it isn't as if any author could ever completely filter out their opinions in their poems or novels or films--that would just deaden them--and it would be dishonest because the point of writing is to be true to yourself. But if these authors truly cared about their opinions they would just write them out directly (which they do) instead of couching them in the improper form.
Sure, a novel like Go Tell It On The Mountain could be seen as a protest novel, in part (among a multitude of wonderful things). But I love it only because when I read it, I couldn't get a line like "I don't care how many times you change your ways, what's in you is in you and it's got to come out" out of my head; I don't even remember which character said that line.
As an audience member it's best if I just unburden myself from the assumptions I fling onto the author.
Of course, as an author, my constricted imagination can only go so far... obviously what I build will inevitably reflect some perspective on the world that I happen to hold at the time. But that's not the point.
My fiction, if anyone cares, is not about expressing my opinion. I just want to make that clear at the outset, so that there are no misunderstandings when I've actually written a considerable amount of fiction.
I have this blog so that I can tell people what my opinion is. But even then, I don't think I have the amount of craft necessary to let you know the full complexity of what I think when I choose to open my mouth and express an opinion.
Again, I'm an amateur; my opinion isn't really worth anything (yet) but I might as well practice.
Then again maybe I should stop writing and acting all together. Seems much more trouble than it's worth.
I really love this quote from Synthesizing Gravity, a book of non-fiction prose by Kay Ryan
Workshop. In the old days before creative writing programs, a workshop was a place, often a basement, where you sawed or hammered, drilled or planed something. You could not simply workshop something. Now you can, though. You can take something you wrote by yourself to a group and get it workshopped. Sometimes it probably is a lot like getting it hammered. Other writers read your work, give their reactions, and make suggestions for change. A writer might bring a piece back for more workshopping later, even. I have to assume that the writer respects these other writers’ opinions, and that just scares the daylights out of me. It doesn’t matter if their opinions really are respectable; I just think the writer has given up way too much inside. Let’s not share. Really. Go off in your own direction way too far, get lost, test the metal of your work in your own acids. These are experiments you can perform down in that old kind of workshop, where Dad used to hide out from too many other people’s claims on him.
I want to send out the final episode and epilogue of Speaking Into The Fog before Christmas Eve. I get it that this Christmas thing is kind of a thing. And I want to leave people alone for a few days.
What was I thinking? I wrote Instalment six in a sort of fever... the story took a turn in a way that surprised me. I was just figuring this out as I went along. Installments (almost) daily, just whatever I was thinking at the time and the microphone on my phone and some catchy tunes...
Now that I am so close, it feels like the easiest time to give up. Who would care? Who would even notice? I can let myself off the hook...
But it's never about others, it's about the place I get myself to. If I can move myself, I can help others move.
Or maybe I'm just an idiot.
Time Traveler: A Scientist's Personal Mission To Make Time Travel A Reality, by Doctor Ronald L Mallet.
This touching and ambitious autobiography chronicles the life of one of the (still living) pioneers of theoretical physics and time travel theory.
Dr. Mallet's story starts with a childhood need--to reverse the premature death of his father. And ends with discovery and bittersweet beauty.
It made me want to be a theoretical physicist. But my affections did not that way tend... I read a lot of books but could never grasp the science. But it taught me to approach the rest of my life with a sense of wonder and the nerve to explore one's despair--even in the good times; especially in the good times.
True And False, Heresy And Common Sense For The Actor, by David Mamet
I never gave myself full permission to be an actor. And then I read this book... I disagreed with everything. I agreed with everything. But I knew I had to be an actor after reading it. What one agrees with never really matters with a book does it? What matters is the book affirms your place in the world.
And David Mamet knows how to do that. All of his essay books are worth devouring... but I mention this one because it came at such a vulnerable moment in my life. I read it once through standing up in the Barnes and Noble Theatre section. And I haven't looked back sense.
Sure, Mamet has been a bit of a shit show (in his writing) the past few years. But this is a reality of my life I can't just cover up.
How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti
I read this just a few months ago.
It rearranged my molecules. Lifted me out of a crippling indecision.
It is also one of the funniest and most disarmingly honest works of fiction that I have read. The language is simple and striking and always shipped with a humor that could make the most brutal of civilian impulses worth laughing at.
Safe to say this book is the reason I am being so bold as to write this on-the-fly-podcast, who's final installment will come within a day. And I have never written for myself before.
It is another book that seemed to affirm my place in the world.
I almost swore I would never make book lists.... there are just too many books, too many authors that hold a special place in my heart. And often I will be so sure that one book is my favorite or one author is my favorite because their work just happens to have extra resonance in that specific period of my life.
But in retrospect, it is these books that are the ones which have led (so far) to epochal shifts in who I am. Into decisions that I made to act a certain way or take a certain path.
It is the books not that comfort or pleasure you or get you excited by a new insight or way of looking at the world (though that is always important too) which are truly life changing. It is the ones that get you to actually act.
I can say for certain that these three books have done that for me.
I could not see the end when I started, because I started with nothing. Just a need. A need to create.
But now the finish line is so clear it's as if this story wrote itself.
I know it's not perfect.
I know I could have used a better mic.
I know I could polish a lot; cut a bit. Refine.
I know I could have cleaned up some of the diction. A lot of the diction.
But the goal was to not stop. And I haven't stopped.
And trust me,
This installment, and the two (or three) that will come after it, are going to blow your mind.
If I write them.
Which I will. Because I've gotten this far. And I ain't turning back, even though I have to push myself harder than ever.
Enjoy Speaking Into The Fog Installment Six: In which the universe councils me in my despair... and the terror becomes all too real...
It's a game changer. Or at least, the one that comes just before the game changer. Isn't it always so hard to tell? Between the goal and the assist?
A double play is one whole in of itself. Separate the two outs and it isn't the same play.
And the crowd doesn't cheer nearly as hard.
Call it youthful arrogance but I do think there has to be an eternal value placed on what we do whenever we crawl like little wretches out of bed to face the glowing screen or wait to enter our stage from the wings.
There are artists for whom my respect is so great, I would eviscerate myself into particles of sand if it meant that it would help their works echo through the oceans of time.
Don’t take my word for it I like being alive :)
But you know something? I just want to say,
Sometimes my best work is the sincere emails I send to better artists.
I hate reading, because I want my writing to be that good. I hate going to the cinema and the theater, because I want my acting to be that good. The word; the voice. They still hold so much power; they can change the face of one life and that one life can change the face of history. See I was born a fanatic. When something strikes through my bones and makes my heart burst out of my chest shrieking like a mandrake, I can’t help but proclaim,
This is the truth.
It is inexplicable and unmistakable.
And when I’m able to look back at my so far brief and so far long life, it is moments where I’ve experienced this which make even the most horrible and despairing moments of my life seem like what they in fact are… footnotes in the epic story of a beautiful time spent on earth.
Actors; writers; those who direct and design and research and find the talent that is all too hidden in the crevices of a cold cruel world… these are my people. People who’ve helped me up and people whom I want to help up.
People whom I’ve hurt. People who’ve hurt me.
It’s all for the work, in the end, it really is.
To do our best with it as we do our best with each other.
The work matters. Death is real.
But the work matters.
If it helps you carry on, still that quiver of loneliness in your bone marrow, or quell the despair just enough to do what you need to do please know that if you have a hint in your heart that this letter was written especially for you;
you’re right. It was written for you.
Maybe it is all just youthful arrogance.
But like the fanatic, who always holds a secret doubt, I must continue to believe in the truth;
it’s the only way I’ll find home every night.
Five good minutes. That's all John Patrick Shanley needs, to know that a play is good.
When I set out to write this podcast before I knew what I was doing--writing out the scripts and recording them the day of--that's what I set out looking for. Five good minutes.
With this fourth installment of my podcast Speaking Into The Fog, now released, I will be at close to seventy minutes done with this story. My cap is at one hundred and eighty.
I don't know what the hell I'm doing.
I'm just giving my version of the answer to the question which is the first sentence in Shanley's play, Doubt, the best play written by an American to date.
What do you do when you're not sure? Asks Father Flynn
The fuck I want. That's what.
I'm just chasing those five good minutes.
And I think I'm getting closer.
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.
It Has A Deeply Ingrained Purpose
One of my favorite stories in The Arabian Nights is the one about a young man who goes to a wedding feast. It's the most anticipated wedding feast in the entire village and everyone is acting their best. The mullah arrives to say a few prayers and everyone goes absolutely silent; the mullah lets rip the loudest fart in the history of farts.
The mullah, embarrassed out of his mind runs away. He steals a camel and rides out of the village; out of the kingdom all together and goes all the way to the other side of the world. In his new life he finds years of prosperity. And now old and rich, he takes a huge caravan and finally returns to his old village. As he approaches with his caravan, some women are working in the fields; they look up and say, "look, there's the man who farted at the wedding."
Embarrassment lives with us longer than anything else. It is crueler to reprimand your child in front of the other kids than it is to actually beat them at home.
That's a big statement, I know. And I'm not a child psychologist or an anthropologist, but speaking from my experience there is nothing more life crushing than being humiliated in front of your peers.
Shame can have incredibly damaging effects.
But that is only because its positive function is so deeply ingrained within us and so necessary.
The good thing about shame is that if used to proper affect it can mean spurring one to positive action.
This is where it helps (or doesn't help) to be a man. Again, I'm not coming at this from a scientific perspective just speaking from my experience.
Women tend to get over things a lot quicker. Their evolutionary stakes are higher. They have to maintain their physical and psychological well-being in ways men can't fathom. So when they experience some embarrassment they bounce back a lot quicker because they have more important things to consider than what others think about them. They're thinking about what's good for the whole, rather than what's good for themselves.
Men internalize things more. I know I do. When we fail in front of others or repeat mistakes we tend to feel guilty and to self-flagellate.
Maybe its because growing up we were taught that no one cares what happens to our bodies or to our emotions. Who knows what the excuse is these days. If something doesn't apply to you, you don't have to acknowledge it just because it is the accepted narrative. Living is far more complex than the stories people project on one another based on what they heard someone in a TED talk say.
We should listen to people with expertise and knowledge, but only when we know how to listen to ourselves first. We can't accept everything that's being spoon fed by someone who we listen to. In the end, we actually listen to someone not because of their expertise but because they know how to tell a good story.
Anyway, let's say that this narrative about boys who skip the transition to becoming men is true... what are you going to do about it is the real question.
One can't hop into a time machine and tell every person in their life who told them to "suck it up" or "stop crying" to fuck off. Nor will the residual effect of childhood trauma wear off because you start talking about it all the time.
A fucked up childhood is the norm. How do we use its lessons to our advantage?
When Spartan warriors had to fight for their survival, any soldier that ran away from the battlefield was ridiculed by women in the city who danced around them in a mocking way. The warriors grew to fear that ridicule more than they feared their own deaths. Because shame was something they had to live with. Every society that at one point or another possessed a strong warrior ethos employed the methods of shame. The Muslim Ummah of seventh century Arabia was surrounded by tribes bent on their extermination and threatened by many treacherous elements within their ranks. The women and men who fought and died for that community did so out of a love for death; if they could not change a world where the oppression of slaves, orphans, and widows was the norm then they would rather leave this world than live with the shame of subscribing to such a system. In the system of the Ummah, the worldy tough guys of the old arabian system weren't told "don't cry;" they were encouraged to cry as a means of increasing their spiritual currency; these people had a reason to stop fearing death, why would they be afraid of openly crying? The only shame was in denying the truth that their world is corrupt.
Bastardized as it is within the prevalent comforts of western society, the predilection for shame goes back to a need to spur communities into urgent and fearless action.
"Dishonor not your mothers," is how Shakespeare put it in the dramatization of King Henry V.
I still find it hard to openly cry in front of people. I tend to go hide in the toilet and sob there about my shortcomings. The danger of this is that the feeling of shame becomes a habit and a masochistic addiction rather than something one can employ for their benefit.
I'm not saying one should sob and moan in front of their friends all the time. One wouldn't have very many friends after that. But anyone who has been on the deep end of shame; who has allowed their addictions to suck up time and energy that would be better spent pursuing their dreams or having quality time with loved ones knows that our monstrosity, no matter how private, is always affecting others even when they or (we) don't realize it.
It affects others by cheating them of your gifts and talents and of your time and your grace. Perhaps people think you're normal because you know how to put up a good front. But deep down you know you can do better, and that they're missing out on the real you. Which they deserve.
It would be best to stop covering up the shame. To stop hiding your mistakes. Seek professional help if you need it.
If you don't need it, then don't lie about what you're doing. If you need time alone to work on yourself (exercise, creativity, mindfulness) that is wonderful.
But stop making excuses to escape yourself and loved ones because you need to pop open that bottle or to have that regretful fling with the first person who says hello or go on to a social media rabbit hole that leaves you vastly more empty than you were before.
Easier said than done. But what might help, again, is employing shame for its original purpose.
Next time you're at the bottom of your mood, thinking "Fuck me. Seriously? Again, how many times do I have to..."
Hold on to that. Talk to someone who cares. Do what you need to do to make that feeling register. Write it down or record something on your phone or just sit with it.
The point is to know how to recall that feeling once and for all the next time the giant three headed dragon of temptation rears one of its ugly heads.
Use that memory recall as a sword to slice off its head. Of course the head will always grow back. And you'll need just as much strength the next time you have to face it, which is always sooner than you think.
But the point is you know you can beat it now. And you remember how. You just have to keep yourself from forgetting.
It takes training yourself.
It's The Only Way To Keep Moving Forward
In acting there is a phrase called "delaying the event." It's a technique where the actor does everything in their power to withhold any release of emotion until the moment in the play when it is absolutely necessary to let go. Every story has a moment where once a character reveals a piece of information or admits to something earth shattering, the story is over and the rest of the action is just cleaning up the mess that's been made. One basic "event" might be when a character says "I love you." After that exchange, nothing that transpires between those two characters can ever be the same and a new story begins.
If you watch a movie and a character says "I love you" fifteen minutes in and there's a big make out session followed by a sex scene you know you are watching a terrible movie. There is nothing, nothing interesting about watching two people kissing in the middle of a drama. It in fact should (and almost always does) signal the end of the play. Because any good love story is about what the characters can't do. It's about tension. But I digress.
Here's another example of an event: take Breaking Bad. The main event after all five chaotic, bloody, brilliant seasons is this simple exchange:
"Everything I've done--"
"Walter, if I hear one more time that you did all this for the family--"
"No. I did it for me. It was fun."
I'm playing that scene from memory. Not exactly how it went, but you get the idea. The moment Walter admits "I did it for me. It was fun" is the event. He spent five seasons hyperactively convincing himself that he became such a towering criminal for the sake of his family. The moment he admits the truth, the play is over.
The actor Bryan Cranston from then on knows that there is no more arc. There is no more urgency, just a sense of brutal resignation. At long last he can surrender to the wave of the story, as opposed to making order out of the immense chaos thrown at him by the writing team. The event is the moment the character stops fighting their fate. And all stories are about characters fighting their fate--battling the gods until the moment they absolutely can't anymore.
Phrased another way, the question becomes "what will it take?" What will it take for a character to finally admit their love? What will it take for Walter White to admit the truth? When an actor knows this, they've found one possible way into a character. And when a writer knows it, they have a solid event to build a narrative on.
But I'm not coming at this from a purely technical perspective on story telling--I wouldn't presume to. I'm simply regurgitating what I've been learning over the years as an actor and now presumably a writer. I am bringing this up because it might be helpful to think about how we as human beings "delay the event" in our own lives. And "what will it take" for us to finally admit the truth about ourselves.
In storytelling one must delay the event as long as possible, because people come to see drama not a moral lecture.
But in life, I don't recommend it. I speak to myself first. Admit that you love someone. Or hate them.
Admit that you're not buying a third, fourth, fifth round at the bar because you need to "recharge," you're doing it because it's fun. Which is fine. But do you stop when it stops being fun? Can you tell when it stops being fun? What will it take to admit that to yourself?
What will it take to stop acting like your family or your parents have to give approval for every action you take in life? What will it take to stop pretending that your friends are supporting your life journey and not being a crutch every time you feel obligated to respond to their need to "hang out."
What will it take to finally admit to yourself that you are in fact ambitious as hell? That you're not too young or old to be so. Not the wrong color or gender. Not born in the wrong time or have the wrong name or speak the wrong language.
What will it take to admit to the fact that if you're reading this, you are every bit as capable as you hope to be?
I don't want to give some inspirational speech. I just wanted to think about a technical aspect of strong drama that sheds some light about how we live our lives.
Honestly, as humans we can't help but delay the event. There are simply things we must go through, mistakes we must make, burnt and ugly roads we must follow before we know what our place in life is not. At one point or another something so monumental, so irresistible will come along that we will have no choice but to live the truth of our lives.
Or it won't. Which is the scary thing. And, I can't help you there.
But with some reflection and understanding; an honest and consistent examining of one's life, you might have a better chance of catching those moments where you are finally open to letting go of the lies in your life.
Drama is about the lie. At the end of the drama, the truth is revealed.
That doesn't mean that at the end of your drama, you die (unless that's what it has to mean), it means that this story of your life is over. And a new one can be begin--and in that story more lies will have to be uncovered.
I am just a work in progress figuring things out. Trying to move on to the next story, like an actor looking for the next job.
I know an actor who said once, "an actor's best job is his next one."
That is absolutely true.
Life is about finding the next story. Once you reveal the truth of one story move on to the next. There will always be a lie in your life worth defeating. Always be on the look out for the next story, until the day comes when you have no more stories to tell.
We Write Because The Current Times Have Failed Us
A history book written by a scholar who is an expert on a particular period might be especially concerned with facts. Though of course, no historian as much as they might try can deny their own interpretation of those facts. And most don't even try. Nevertheless, an empirical scholar of ancient Greece will have a different take on the Trojan war than the Iliad. And a scholar of ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia will have a different take on those civilizations than the Old Testament. Much different.
So why are those narratives more popular than any scholar's? Or why for example would I rather watch Shakespeare's dramatization of the War of the Roses or Henry V rather than actually troll for facts about the Plantagenets or the Bolingbrokes?
Or why would I rather enjoy these works of historical fiction rather than something that reflects my every day life?
The answer seems obvious. Is it because these narratives are inherently more entertaining? They are meant to transport us from are deathly polite understanding of the world and take us into a realm with larger than life figures experiencing larger than life dramas? Probably. But I venture it is something deeper.
I venture these narratives capture our imagination more because rather than reach for facts, or try to sensationalize what we've already experienced, they reach for the essence of a past we can't possibly ever know.
What is that essence?
Every civilization (or tribe) at one point or another faces a crisis of faith. A moment where they witness their own fall from grace; it takes the imaginative genius of artists to look into the past and witness those qualities about a society that make it worth existing.
Honor. Integrity. These are not abstract terms; they only become that way when we've lost the means of expressing them.
It is up to writers to look back at those times when those qualities could be expressed unironically and remind the people of today of who they were and what they can be.
This is why writers always supposedly "steal." Writers are not innovators. They are reminders.
To tell the story of Henry V or Harriet Tubman or Omar Ibn Al Khattab is not about getting the facts of their life straight. It's about capturing what those people meant. It's about capturing a time and a person whos honor and integrity was expressed forcefully.
It is not just historical fiction that we find this to be the case. But in religion as well.
Karen Armstrong, that all-encompassing genius scholar of religion, asserts that the Enlightenment's ideal for the "separation of church and state" was not about purifying matters of state from being corrupted by religious agendas, but to purify religion from the inherently corrupt agendas of the European state.
I mentioned the Greeks, who always concluded their dramas with ritual sacrifice. I mentioned the Old Testament.
Take the Qur'an. The Prophet Muhammad knew he wasn't inventing anything new. He not only admitted it, he insisted on reminding people of what came before--because the tribespeople of Arabia had lost their way. The Qur'an asserts itself as the word of god and not entertainment, despite being a linguistically groundbreaking phenomenon. Though I venture our understanding of "entertainment" (i.e. idleness) is not the original purpose of being entertaining.
Which speaks to another point. Writers and storytellers exist to revitalize impotent language. To entertain can actually mean encouraging development of our highest self, rather than embracing idle pleasure--if we allow it to. When a society no longer has the words to express high ideals honestly; when they subvert their expressions to irony and crass and debase themselves in their words and thus their actions, the only way to save them is to get them to look back at those times where people expressed their highest ideals wholeheartedly.
The writer or dramatist or storyteller who makes the past present and allows us to relinquish our need to fit into society by allowing us to indulge in immersion through a time when we imagine it was safe to express our highest ideals (though in reality, it could never be--then or now).
Or in its inverse, historical fiction allows us to indulge in debased times long gone that may allow us to heed the direction our current society is going.
And from those stories we are able to immerge with a renewed innocence and hope.
Despite what our actual influencers and so called "leaders" are doing.
"Catharsis" in Aristotle's Poetics is not about enjoying the actual act of purging our feelings. It's about allowing a release of our darkest impulses so that we don't unleash them onto society.
When we write and tell stories, we reach for something more whole than what the current times have allowed us. Perhaps the perpetual cycle of society is that we are never allowed to experience this wholeness. And that any time where we might experience it is wholeheartedly imagined.
All the more reason, then, to write.
It's Not About Telling Jokes. It's About Survival.
Be honest. You can't bear another minute on zoom. You can't stand cooking with your mother even though you're supposed to be "bonding." You know once and for all that your kids are complete shitbags. You're sick of hearing about the presidential debates; you dread knowing that you should vote even though statistically you probably never have. Your friends are a nuisance and you don't want to deal with them.
Don't Just say them to yourself. Make sure people know. You don't need to be contemptuous. You don't need to make light of things. And for goodness sake please don't be sarcastic; sarcasm is lazy and overrated.
Be humorous. Be honest in your own idiosyncratic way. It's something you have to figure out on your own. Because humor is about survival.
It will bring you closer to the people in your life in the most counterintuitive way.
A lot of people in my life now get that one of my quirks is being absurdly honest (not brutally, absurdly). I'll be on the phone with a friend who had just ranted to me for fifteen minutes; here's an example of how I respond.
Through the deafening silence, an audible inhale. And...
"Wow. I had doubted that you were a sad sack of shit. Then I heard that story."
And I really mean it.
And the person on the other line laughs. Hysterically.
Not nervously. Not piteously. Hysterically.
Because they are enlivened by the surprise of someone finally being honest with them.
Which is more than can be said about the people in our public sphere right now (if ever).
When I say things like that, it's not the words that matter. It's the timing. And the honesty.
And what better time to be honest than now?
Does this approach also involve risk?
And what better time to take risks than now? When it is clear that normalcy has failed us.
Everyone is so serious about the world right now. Understandable. But you should be more serious about finding your humor. In one of my favorite acting books (I'm an actor; I don't have a job; And that ain't funny neither!) Audition by Michael Shurtleff, the author says,
"Humor is not jokes. It is the attitude toward being alive without which you could have long ago jumped off the fifty-ninth street bridge. Humor is not being funny. It is the coin exchange between human beings that makes it possible for us to get through the day. Humor exists even in the humorless... When we say about a life situation, 'and it's not funny either,' we are attempting to inject humor into a situation that lacks it. We try in life to put humor everywhere; if we didn't, we couldn't bear to live."
You're telling too many jokes. This is no time to be funny. It's time to find humor. It's time to stop putting on airs or pretending that you feel a certain way when you're truly miserable. Be miserable. It's easy enough to tell yourself that all your feelings are "valid" while you're meditating (if you do that bullshit). But what about in the moment? Are your feelings valid then? Your feelings are never valid. But they are always the truth. And unfortunately we live in a society that invalidates the truth. So stop looking for so-called "validity."
Your feelings aren't always the best guide for what to do. But they are never wrong. And denying them is a sure road to hell.
The Hebrew Prophets were slain because they dissented against those priests who followed and prescribed external laws without obeying the law in their hearts.
That's why lust is a sin when you look at someone lustfully.
The Book of Jeremiah writes the ideal for god.
"They shall know me, for I will write my law in their inward parts."
Or written in the Qur'an
"Whether you conceal what is in your hearts or bring it to the open, god knows it."
That is to say that people are not obeying god's law until their inward desires are actually in line with it. That is to say the cannot obey god's law unless they want to.
That is to say that god's law is nothing short of being completely honest.
Humor is nothing short of being completely honest.
Being honest about your feelings--even the ones that make you completely hate someone (including god)--is the only way to survive the ones you think are causing you trouble.
If you believe in that bullshit, anyway.
Being honest with yourself; using humor you may guide yourself to feeling the way you actually want to. Hate can turn into an expression of love.
My grandparents are experts at this. Here's one beautiful exchange I witnessed:
GRANDPA: "I try never to give people a reason to be jealous of me."
GRANDMA: "Why on earth would people be jealous of you?"
GRANDPA: "I've had a good life."
GRANDMA: "No you haven't."
GRANDPA: "You're the one sore spot."
GRANDMA: "You old bastard."
They laugh. Hysterically.
They weren't being funny. They weren't joking. But they made each other laugh because they were honest.
And they made themselves, after fifty years of exclusive monogamy, that more bearable to each other.
Like Alan Watts puts it,
"We are just as much a part of the natural order as flames in the fire or stars in the sky. But this is only apparent to the person who is honest... in other words the person who is tied up in trying to pretend their feelings are other than they actually are. They can never see this. And they're always a trouble-maker. They are the original hypocrite."
Don't be a hypocrite. Be like a prophet. Find humor and tell the truth.
Yours and the rest of our survival depends on it.
If you believe in that bullshit, anyway.