Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Don't be Afraid to Grow (Even when it hurts)

 This may sting. Ready?
I want you to think of your favorite films (or books or plays or televisions shows). Whatever. Think about how they make you feel, really take the time right now and think about them.
Now suppose that I told you that these films, TV shows, plays, or novels weren’t very good. I bet you felt something there. You felt protective and a little hurt. Maybe even a lot hurt. Right? You want to defend these things you love. “They are good—you’re wrong!” You’d probably like to say that to me even though I have no idea of the films you were thinking of.
We get emotionally attached to stories sometimes and it doesn’t matter what other people think—you like it, so therefore it is good. Simple. Well, not really.
This is fine for fans, but if you are going to become a master of your craft you must be able to look at a story objectively. You have to see what is and isn’t working without sentiment blinding you.
When I lay out a case for why I don’t like a particular film, more often than not I give a point-by-point argument for why I think the thing did not work structurally. I might say, “There are scenes that are there for no reason.” I will talk of specific scenes and how they did not contribute to the thematic thrust of the story. Or how the story started out expressing one idea, but concluded with another theme all together. Or how the story seemed to have no theme at all because it wasn’t clear as to its point. Again I will cite specific examples.
What I get back more times than not is a blank stare followed by, “I disagree.” Well, “I disagree” is not an argument. Or the defender might say, “I think it had a theme.” Also not an argument. Or they try to win where they can, “But didn’t you like the cinematography?” “The soundtrack is great!” “I like that actor.” Again, not arguments about construction.
These statements are coming from an emotional place. There are often some personal reasons for responding to a story and that is valid—I would not presume to suggest there is anything wrong with that. But this is not the mindset of a craftsperson.
I think we can fall in love with stories—and, just like with romantic love, not always for the right reasons. That is to say, your reasons may be so personal that to find flaws in the things we love can feel like a kind of death.
 I know I have had to do this myself from time to time. The film Silverado comes to mind. Back when Silverado came out, I thought it was the coolest movie ever.
 
I should say the Silverado was written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. I have the utmost respect for Kasdan, who wrote both Raidersof the Lost Ark and The EmpireStrikes Back. He also successfully remade the Billy Wilder film Double Indemnity into the film Body Heat. The man is no slouch, is my point.
Silverado is Lawrence Kasdan’s 1985 all-star western. I first saw the film at a sneak preview, I was so excited to see this new film from this guy. And this was at my very favorite theater, the UA/150, and I was with some of my best friends. 
I even saw someone get out of a car who looked like Lawrence Kasdan and called out, “Larry!” to see if he would turn his head. He did, confused that someone had called his name. Oh my God, Lawrence Kasdan! My 20-year-old heart almost stopped. I remember the buzz in line to see the film. People couldn’t wait—they were really hyped to see this film.

Lawrence Kasdan

And the audience was not disappointed—they loved it! There were cheers and laughs from the crowd throughout the film. I loved it so much, when it was released officially saw it a few more times.
I remember telling a friend that he had to see it. He did. He told me afterwards that he didn’t see what I saw in it. He didn’t like it. I respected the friend because he’s a smart guy and what he said stung because I liked the movie so much. But in the end, I just thought he didn’t get it. He was clearly wrong.
On one of my outings to see the film yet again, the friend who was with me ran into someone she knew, and my friend and I talked up the film quite a bit to this person. When the film was over the woman laughed in our faces and said that Silverado was the worst film she had ever seen. That was a little over the top, I thought. (In fact, I still think so.)
 
But it got me thinking—how could I like a film so much, while others seemed not to like it at all? One of the ways I learned what I know was from watching audiences. If I saw a film more than once, the second time, I watched the crowd reactions to see what got them excited or interested or what bored them. So I was practiced in trying to see what others saw.
I was determined to see what wasn’t working for these people. I just kept watching the film over and over. Finally, I saw it. The film is fun and exciting. It has really great characters with great actors giving solid performances. It has funny lines and character interactions: the film even put a young Kevin Costner on the map and made him a star. And some of the writing is every bit as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it was also all over the map.
 The first act is very long and seems to have little focus beyond getting the large cast of heroes together. It took its time getting to any kind of real plot. I’m not really sure of the theme of the piece; the film itself seems unsure of its theme. It’s full of subplots and side stories that I don’t see connecting in a thematic way to the main point of the story—whatever that is.
This was a painful revelation for me since I had liked the film so much. But in the end I saw what I saw and there was no unseeing it. That said, I see people “unsee” things all the time. They cannot bear to let go of this thing they love so much. They hold on to it. They make excuses for it.
  And it the end it blinds them and they do not develop the eye of a master craftsman. I see this all the time with students. They remain loyal fans and fail to develop an eye.
Often the reverse happens—people have personal reasons for hating something. They hate happy endings. They hate sad endings. They don’t ask themselves if the ending was the most appropriate for expressing the story’s point. Sometimes they don’t like an actor. Again, they don’t ask themselves if the actor was well cast. They aren’t using a judgment beyond personal taste or perception. This way of evaluating things also causes a kind of blindness.
None of this is to say that you cannot trust your instincts; being a creative person is all about trusting one’s gut. It helps, though, if you have also developed the skills to recognize when you are being swayed by your emotions rather than guided by them.
When I saw Silverado I was among the first to see the new film from the Raiders of the Lost Ark writer. And the man himself was there. I was with good friends and this was my very favorite theater. Some of the actors were favorites of mine. I was primed to like this film. I was swayed by all of the good feelings surrounding the experience.
The purpose of this post is not to review Silverado. You may hate the film, you may love the film. That is inconsequential. The point is that we must all, to become masters of our craft, work hard to develop some sense of objectivity. There will always be subjectivity to an experience and in its way it can be a guide, but we had better learn why we like what we like and if that will transfer to our audience.
This is not easy to do. I have seen people fight tooth-and-nail not to change. That’s because it is sometimes painful to grow. But unless you brave the pain you will not grow—you will not become better at your craft.

21 comments:

Kochise said...

I just had this discussion over the weekend. Preaching to the choir, my man, preaching to the choir.

Cole Higgins said...

Great post Brian, thank you. Just this morning I was having a conversation with a friend about "the Good the Bad and the Ugly." He was commenting about how a few points were unclear, I was definitely feeling defensive because I like the film. After a while, and reading this post :) I went back and apologized for the defensiveness and had a more subjective talk about what the film may have been lacking. As always thanks for keeping our story telling minds on the right track!

Brian McD said...

Thanks, guys.

Unknown said...

"I have seen people fight tooth-and-nail not to change. That’s because it is sometimes painful to grow. But unless you brave the pain you will not grow—you will not become better at your craft."

All too true Brian. What you say certainly applies to many aspects of life as well.

I recall a quote that goes something like "every seed must die before it grows." Seeds themselves don't exactly die, but they are placed deep into the ground, are buried, and eventually, if they are cultivated, they stop being seeds altogether. To bury parts of yourself--whether it be the harmful sway of your own subjectivity, or something else altogether--it can feel suffocating at first. But it does get better. And like the seed, eventually you may find that you can reach up higher than you thought you could before.

Thanks for the reminder.

bko said...

Nice post Brian. The difference between like and good can be painful (especially if they are diametrically opposed) but I think you nailed it when you linked it to fandom. As a fan you are allowed to like anything, and I do mean ANYTHING but if you are a storyteller and seeking to perfect your craft, you need to be able to step back and ask"...is it good?". There are plenty of movies that I do not like that are just damn good and I have to study them.And there are things/directors that I am a fan of that I have to be really careful when I am watching the work. Thanks again for this post Brian!!

Brian McD said...

Hey, Unknown, thanks for the insightful comments.

Brian McD said...

Thanks BKO (Brian) for chiming in, man.

I have seen so many people fall into the trap of failing even to try to see things objectively. Their work really does suffer as a result.

nordst said...

Hi Brian,

Great post as usual, thank you for posting.

I have to wonder if one reason for why it is so difficult for people to change their minds about a story is because they often lack a full understanding of what "story" is?

I know that I personally from reading your books have grown my vocabulary in order to look more solidly at a theme. Before gaining that understanding, I was guilty at only judging the things I did indeed understand before too (Cinematography, Actors, pace of movie, etc.)
Since I realize that a story does indeed have a structure to it, I have been able to look much more objectively at movies.

My point is that in order for people to fully grow, I think it might be important to lend them that framework first, so that we can move beyond the things that are easy to judge.

Not sure if I am making sense here, but would love to hear your thoughts regardless.

Digg said...
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Digg said...

Perception is such an odd thing. I've definitely fallen victim to that "mob mentality" on occasion. And strange though it may sound, that's why I rarely go out to see a film early in it's run.
I once saw a comedy on opening night in a crowded theater, and was so overtaken in the moment that it didn't bother me at all that the 6'4" 300 lb. stranger behind me laughed so hard that he grabbed my shoulders and physically shook me with delight. I loved it. I felt like we were all sharing something special... and for weeks went around telling people that was the funniest movie ever.
Needless to say, it wasn't.

So now I make sure that I check films out after they've been out a while... and usually not in a theater where I would expect a crowd. I want to judge the flick on it's own merit, and not be swayed by the masses.

Of course, on a very base level, this means I don't really get to have as enjoyable a movie-going experience as I otherwise could have... and that's all I think most viewers are looking for. I guess the joy for me now is the rare occasion that allows me that same level of enjoyment, despite my scrutiny.

As much as I analyze the craft, the act of getting lost in a well told tale is all I'm really looking for.

Nice post, Brian. As usual. Thanks!

Ju-osh said...

Digg: While I agree with your thoughts on the dangers of 'mob mentality' to critical thinking and artistic aesthetics, weren't movie theaters pretty much created as a vessel for shared experience? Isn't an occasional shared sense of euphoria worth a couple of hours of, say, Tom Cruise?

(That said, I saw Independence Day on opening night with a standing room only sized crowd. Boy did I have a great time! I went back a week later to a matinee and, well...you know the rest.)

Augie Pagan said...

Brian, Thanks for posting that link to your short on the UA/150. Before I was familiar with your work (I think it was pre Invisible Ink blog) I was hesitant to take a chance on your class for the first time, not knowing what to expect. After I saw that short doc, I was sold. Anyone who's that passionate about film has to know a thing or two about a thing or two. Glad I decided to take that chance. Thanks man.

imyjimmy said...
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Jamie Baker said...

All good points, Brian. But it raises something that I feel is a tricky issue in being BOTH a creator and also a fan.

As someone who makes things, it is true that I must try to look at the things that I make objectively, if only to see how these things may appear to others. So that can be a balancing act, especially if there was a personal emotional reason for making the thing in the first place.

But, speaking only for myself here, I do not want to lose the capacity to be swept along by someone ELSE's piece of art for purely emotional reasons. I enjoy the process of a film (or book or whatever) pulling me into its particular world.

My life is full of attachments to things and relationships that would not stand up to objective scrutiny. That do not "make sense" but I value them just the same.

Brian McD said...

Hey Jamie,

In the end I guess it’s a balancing act.

I’m sure all of us who are creators first got swept away emotionally by some art, or music, or movie or whatever and that made us want to do this work.

I just find that more often than not people let these emotions take over their creative choices rather than guiding them.

I don’t think we need to give up the things we love, but I do think we should know what we are responding to.

Jamie Baker said...

you nailed it, Brian; it's a balancing act. And I guess life in general is that way too. We must listen to Spock AND Bones.
:)
I have noticed in myself that the more I understand about how things are made, there is a growing inability in me to surrender to the process of being in the audience and watching and participating. I always have my mental templates and calipers out, measuring what I watch.

Something about that is cool but a part of me finds it sad too, simply because I am distancing myself from the true surrender to enjoyment.

I guess it is a case of "familiarity breeds contempt"?

Anyway, I am at the stage now where I go out of my way NOT to re-watch fave films from my childhood because I cherish my memories of being drawn into them and being affected by them and I do not want that memory over-written by the new realisation that the film was lame.

THE SHAGGY D.A. is a classic, dammit!

jean said...

"There is nothing any more creative in acting, directing, or writing than there is in any other kind of work. --Paddy Chayefsky

I'm still trying to fully understand that statement. I think basically it means that people put their personal attachments/emotions above craft, and craft must always come first.

And, Brian, thanks so much for recommending The Collected Works of Paddy Chayefsky, truly a must-read for every storyteller.

Jean

Brian McD said...

Hey Jamie,

For me it’s a little different than for other people, I think. When I was young the way something was done held just as much magic and emotion as the end product. It never ruined anything for me to look behind the curtain and see the wizard.

But I can also be swept away by the emotion of the thing. It reminds me of the time I visited the Magic Castle which is a private club for magicians in Hollywood (http://www.magiccastle.com). Only magicians and their guests can go there. There are several performing areas where magicians perform for fellow magicians.

What’s amazing is that the magicians all know the secret of the tricks they are watching, but they are just as entertained as the civilian spectators – more I think.

What sweeps them always is the art beneath the art – the “sprezzatura” as the Italians say. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprezzatura

For me the sprezzatura has always been part of the thing I enjoy. Maybe that wasn’t true at my youngest ages, but I cannot recall a time when I was not interested in how something was making me laugh, or cry or whatever.

And for those of you who are wondering about Jamie’s Bones/Spock reference. It’s kind of an inside joke about the beautiful balance of those original Star Trek characters.

I was talking to Jamie once about how well designed those characters where. I don’t know if it was a plan or an evolution, but the writers knew enough to go with it.

Bones is the doctor on the Enterprise, so all of his concerns were about the well being of others. He took his Hippocratic oath seriously – “do no harm”. So his arguments in any given circumstance would always be emotional ones.

Spock, on the other hand, was cool emotionless logic. This is why these two characters were often at odds. The writers didn’t just do this because it was fun to watch these guys fight. They did it so that each extreme point of view had a voice.

It was Kirk’s job to balance these too ideas – to weigh them out and make the appropriate decision. Beautiful design. Beautiful sprezzatura.

Brian McD said...

Hello Jean,

I’m glad you got so much from Paddy Chayfesky. I am so happy that he put some of his wisdom down in a book. There’s a lot to learn from him.

That quote that got you thinking is a good one. It is one that will mean something deeper and more profound with each passing year of contemplation.

Paddy was a firm believer that “art” was a job and should be treated as such. He wanted to demystify the process. It can make it easier to work through problems if you know that you are just doing a job.

I tend to think of the work that way myself.

Anyway, glad you liked the book. Read it again in a year and you’ll like it even more. The more you know the better that book gets.

Writer Chick said...

I am late to the party, having just found your blog. This is a wonderfully intelligent explanation; alas, it applies to many of my heroes.

But having read this, I can allow them to be my heroes, and still see their flaws. I wasn't comfortable with that before. Thanks for the hand up toward maturation as a writer, Brian.

Brian McD said...

Hello Writer Chick,

Not so sure there's a "party" to be late too, but it's nice to have you as a reader of the blog.

I'm happy to know that this post helped you in some way.

Thank you for taking the time to write and I hope you find more things that interest you on the blog.

- Brian