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More daring and more sincere

My taste, I mean if I had to pick one movie, which I would  never want to do, I keep thinking about “La Strada,” because there’s such a total commitment to those people and the movie never puts itself above any of the people in it. It’s a very Franciscan approach to the drama, and to me that’s very beautiful.

[Author] George Eliot said “the purpose of art is to extend our sympathies” which I think is very beautiful. Kubrick wished all movies were “more daring and more sincere.” A lot of directors today are focusing on what is daring, but are not really focused on what is sincere.

— James Gray via Heidi Saman

Self-doubt vs. self-criticism

When I teach today, I often judge young artists based on whether I think they have the character necessary to solve the inevitable problems in their work. I didn’t. I also didn’t understand how to respond to an outer world out of step with my inner life without retreating into total despair. Oscar Wilde said, “Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all.” Artists have to be self-critical enough not to just attack everything they do. I had self-doubt but not a real self-critical facility; instead I indiscriminately loved or hated everything I did. Instead of gearing up and fighting back, I gave in and got out.

— Jerry Saltz in My Life As a Failed Artist

I think there’s a real dearth of “literature” about failed artists. One doesn’t have to look hard to find successful actors, artists, filmmakers, comedians, etc., talking about how they achieved success, often with an emphasis on the follow-your-dreams-and-never-give-up words of inspiration. I wish those talks were more clear about the specific mechanics of not giving up, in terms of what strategies the artists used to adjust to adversity and creatively overcome it.

Saltz had a very common experience — the self-doubt of an artist. But he wasn’t equipped with the tools or understanding to move forward with his work. And I think that’s what bothers me about the just-believe-in-yourself thinking. It’s unrealistic. Even wildly successful artists are plagued by self-doubt. The doubt doesn’t really have anything to do with the work — it’s just a feeling, not an output.

And it might even be harmful to completely believe in yourself. People who want very badly to be very good at something but feel like they are far away from being very good at that thing tend to work hard to get better so they can get closer to being very good.

The supremely confident person who isn’t already very good has no pathway to getting better except for dumb luck. Why try to improve when you already believe that you’re great?

I think the self-doubt, when channeled properly into improving oneself, is precisely what allows people to succeed if they have the right tools for managing that self-doubt and can channel it into improving their work and growing, rather than letting it cripple them or driving them to drink. Maybe if Saltz had someone in his life that could have talked him through this at the time and helped him focus his energy in the right place, he might have found a way to get through the dip and break through.

I try to frame it to myself as “given that I work really hard for a long time and challenge myself in ways that will lead to creative growth and improvement in my craft, I believe that I will get better and eventually create something that other people really want to watch.”

That’s a bit of a mouthful but I think it’s important to think through these things and figure out under what conditions a platitude might be true and under what conditions it might lead to the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do.

Another thing I like about this article by Saltz is that we can also see that failure at one thing, while it can be crushing psychologically, is not the end. You can take what you learned as an artist and use it to become a good critic (I’m assuming he’s good, I have no way of knowing whether or not he is or not). There are probably a dozen other careers he could have transitioned to where his art background would have helped on some level.

I think we should be honest and admit that yes, dreams do fail, and not everyone is going to be a successful artist, no matter how much they believe that they will be. Some will fail for a lack of talent, some for a lack of willpower or hard work, and some because of the dumb fucking luck.

It’s important to talk about what happens when you fail and how to decide when it’s time to move on or when the failure is just one bump in a long road to success.

Between stimulus and response there is a space.

Viktor Frankl came up with what is probably the best pop psychology line ever: “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 Frankl, via @vgr in Breaking Smart Season 2

Assorted Links

Going through stuff saved in Evernote.

1) Selling Out: An Artist’s Search for Money and Meaning

2) “Sound is also the only truly tactile dimension of the cinema. It is the only way in which the cinema physically touches the spectator.”

3) The Sex and Cash Theory.

Tony Zhou on stealing from other (older) filmmakers

Tony Zhou on stealing from other (older) filmmakers, via Kottke:

My advice to people has always been: copy old shit. For instance, the style of Every Frame a Painting is NOT original at all. I am blatantly ripping off two sources: the editing style of F for Fake, and the critical work of David Bordwell/Kristin Thompson, who wrote the introductory text on filmmaking called Film Art. I’ve run into quite a few video essays that are trying to be “like Every Frame a Painting” and I always tell people, please don’t do that because I’m ripping of someone else. You should go to the source. When any art form or medium becomes primarily about people imitating the dominant form, we get stifling art.

If you look at all of the great filmmakers, they’re all ripping someone off but it was someone 50 years ago. It rejuvenated the field to be reminded of the history of our medium. And I sincerely wish more video essayists would rip off the other great film essayists: Chris Marker, Godard, Agnès Varda, Thom Andersen. Or even rip off non-video essayists. I would kill to see someone make video essays the way Pauline Kael wrote criticism. That would be my jam!

Agreed.

The cardinal sin is dullness

There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.

Frank Capra

The identity gap

There’s a famous quote by Ira Glass that’s had a healthy life on the inspiration-for-creative-people circuit on the internet:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

I cut it off at the end but you get the gist. It’s a good observation and resonated with me enough that I printed it out and put it on my wall next to my desk a few years ago.

Then I had a thought the other day. I’ve found a weird sense of “happiness” this summer. Quotes because I don’t really trust it, as it’s foreign to me to feel genuinely happy for no reason for what feels like weeks now.

Naturally, I asked “what the fuck is going on?”

For Glass, the gap is primarily between how good your work (1) is now and how good the work of your heroes is. The gap between your work and the work that meets your standards of taste. Let’s call it the taste gap.

But I think there’s another level to this that Glass doesn’t touch on, an existential gap if you will. It’s not just that you are disappointed that you haven’t gotten good enough to make something you’re proud of — it’s that you’re not yet the person that you want to be.

You set out as a writer. You write a screenplay or a novel. The first one sucks. But you are writing and so you are a writer (identity here as defined by your actions, not by telling everyone that you are a writer or whatever).

But while you are a writer, we can add a qualifier: you’re a mediocre writer. Or a bad writer. A novice writer. A shitty writer. Whatever. I’m not saying this to be mean; it’s important to be honest with ourselves so we can get better.

And so the gap is more than a gap between the current quality of your work and the desired quality. It’s a gap in your identity, a gap between who you are today and how you want to see yourself (and how you want other people to see you). The gap creates a tension in you, or maybe a dissonance.

The feeling is experienced as an oft-present internal pressure or anxiety. You might have to walk around through life for years carrying this tension in you. That’s quite the mental burden and hence you seek out quotes like Glass’s to soothe the pain or you risk paralysis or getting torn up inside until you can’t go on. It’s probably what makes a lot of people give up, even in the face of countless inspirational “don’t give up!!” narratives.(2)

The existential terror of this is heightened because there’s no assurance that you will actually cross the gap and become a good writer or artist or actor or whatever. Odds are that you won’t.(3)

So what happened to me? I wrote and directed a film that I’m proud of. I think it’s good. People whose opinions I respect think it’s good. 99% of people might think it’s not good, but I’m proud of it and my friends like it. For me, that’s enough to cross the gap — it feels like a win and so it is a win. Not that it will find commercial success or even critical success, but it’s a win in that it’s helped me become whole by crossing the gap. I made good on my identity.

I called myself a filmmaker and now that I’ve made something that I’m proud of, the dissonance between what I call myself and how I feel about myself is resolved. Thus, happiness.

Why focus on the identity aspect?

I was thinking about another pursuit in my life where I am woefully worse than I would like to be: tennis.

I’m not comparing myself to Roger Federer, I’m comparing myself to the people I play with that are really good but nowhere close to being professionals. The gap is achievable in my lifetime and maybe in 3-5 years with regular lessons and practice. But I experience zero anxiety about this gap because it’s not something I claim as part of my identity. I think of myself as someone who happens to play tennis, not as a tennis player. I don’t care how the world views my tennis playing so I don’t feel a gap.

What’s the difference?

I mean, if we define identity by what we do, then tennis should define me as much as filmmaking. For me, it’s about a deeper pull I feel towards filmmaking or artistic expression. I don’t really understand the difference except that maybe I chose artistic expression and not tennis to be a part of my identity.

There’s some logical inconsistency there and I’m not really sure how to think about it yet.


  1. Work here as shorthand for art, craft, tennis, whatever you’re trying to get better at 

  2. Those narratives suffer from survivor bias. Nobody ever tells you about how they never gave up their dream of being an actor and then found themselves at 50, bitter and broke. Not because it doesn’t happen, but because those people don’t get invited to write books and speak, unless of course they turned that failure into some kind of other success and the failure serves the never-give-up narrative. 

  3. I’ve failed at a few things this way and the psychic aftermath is pretty unpleasant. But don’t listen to people that say if you never give up, you’ll succeed eventually. They’re lying because they don’t know for certain anymore than you can know for certain. That’s kind of the point thought–that it’s something brave and risky because it can fail. Learning when to quit and try something else is an important skill and helps you get back up for another fight when your project fails. 

Sidney Lumet on Editing

I was going through my notes as I work on editing The Deadline and I found this quote:

In music, everything from a sonata to a symphony uses changes in tempo as a basic part of its form. Typically, a four-movement sonata will change not only its musical themes in each movement, but also its temo in each movement and sometimes even within each movement.

Similarly, if a picture is edited in the same tempo for its entire length, it will feel much longer. It doesn’t matter if five cuts per minute or five cuts every ten minutes are being used. If the same pace is maintained throughout, it will start to feel slower and slower. In other words, it’s the change in tempo that we feel, not the tempo itself.

Quoted from from Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies.

I read this and thought about how I cut Words Fail Me and realized that I used jump cuts (LOTS OF JUMP CUTS) to speed things up and now I realize that by making (most of) the episodes move so quickly without changes in tempo, I was actually making it feel slower.

With The Deadline, I’ve been using tempo changes more effectively (I think) and taking Lumet’s advice in conjunction with Walter Murch’s advice to cut on changes in emotion/thought (and his Rule of Six), I’ve at least got a better approach to how I edit, as opposed to just winging it.

I started to wonder what I was doing there

I found this line in Michel Houllebecq’s Submission:

I started to wonder what I was doing there. This very basic question can occur to anyone, anywhere, at any moment in his life, but there’s no denying that the solitary traveler is especially vulnerable.

It reminded me of:

At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.
-Albert Camus

I finished Submission last night and it’s one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read. It’s not at all what I expected it to be and apart from being superbly written, it’s left me with a lot of questions.

Claude Chabrol on filmmaking

I still love and find great joy in filmmaking. The part of the job that I love the most is being on set. Thanks to the 50 unlucky people that work with me all the time, they make my joy. When I start shooting I am surrounded by these technicians and actors who do nothing but to make me happy and to share my dream. What can I want more?

and

Luckily the cinema of filmmaking did not stop with La Nouvelle Vague. Of course there are many young directors that are avant-garde nowadays. I think all over the world there are two kinds of filmmakers: those who have the inner need to make films and those who just want to be in the film industry. The second category doesn’t interest me at all, while the first one is always very interesting. Having said that, I see a lot of movies and two or three per year are very good, but the rest you can forget.

From Claude Chbrol | The Talks.

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