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.