Wednesday, March 28, 2012

My Journey Through Kerouac's On The Road

I'm just coming to the last pages of On The Road as part of the research I'm doing for a screenplay I'm eyeing to write.  I've come to one conclusion: this is some dangerous literature for a glittering, wide-eyed young pup wanting to add scores to their life experiences.

His writings stir up something indescribably 'mad', as he puts it.  It's an itch that even strikes me at 25 and is a lifestyle so far removed from my own that I can only live it vicariously through the text.  That's the power of On The Road.

The same itch that Kerouac had found for his book hit me at age 18 and spawned a similar adventure and even a similar traveling circuit as he took in his first round of travels, but with much more preparedness and cutting out the trip east of Indiana.  My adventure was ended abruptly in a pretty terrible car accident, though.  But it still left me yearning for more afterwards.  Life on the road in America is dirty, but terribly romantic.

In reading On The Road, I can see how this morphed generations; especially considering how constricted and conservative society was at the time.  This became an almost how-to guide for anyone lost in the world and looking for adventure.  It's the cheap way out of problems, and although Kerouac's trek doesn't land him with what he was hoping to discover, it's understood that it's the adventure itself that matters.  It's being down and out and making something of your situation.  It's learning to appreciate the small stuff in the hardest of times.  Some cultures send their children out on their own into the wilderness for months on end to learn self sufficiency.  They leave boys and return as men.  I see this same journey in On The Road.  Although the landscape might be different and Kerouac was certainly not a boy when he began his life on the road, it's about learning yourself and learning the world and returning with wisdom.  It's your basic hero myth.

Kerouac paints a picture of adventure with poetics and romanticism; penning a simplistic and free lifestyle set against a beautiful America.  It's fantastic and wondrous, but only runs so deep.  I'm sure the masses who attempted this trek after finishing the book were sorely disappointed when they found themselves stuck in the middle of Kansas on a back country road, drenched in cold autumn rain with hunger pangs hammering away at their ribs, tremulously dangling their thumb for a ride as butterflies flew out of their empty pockets.  It's a sucks-to-be-there-but-sure-sounds-good-on-paper type of situation.  But I think most good literature is like that.  There's conflict, and you feel for them, but at the same time you feel wrapped up in the warm blanket of poetic pages and know things will be fine in the end.

Kerouac introduces future generations to a whole vocabulary of colorful words and philosophies.  He writes continuously through the book about the 'mad' people they meet and the 'kicks' they get into.  That's the heartbeat of the beat generation, and I think the real value that resonated with that particular generation.  It's appreciating character, and acting on impulse.  I think, at least for the first generations to read this, it spoke to them as a call to break free from conformity and monotony, and live life wildly on impulse.  It's as if the book says 'I know we're all messed up, but that's just fine.  Go out and live messed up together.'

With that said, there's also another matter of fascination: the syntax of the book.  I chose to read the 'Original scrolls' of On The Road rather than the edited version that Viking published in 1957.  The book is one long paragraph and was originally written as one continuous scroll that, to Kerouac, represented 'the road'; the words were simply the characteristics of that road.  I think that alone elevates the book from being classified as pages of poetic journal entries into the realm of artwork and true American literature.

There's been a myriad of different critical reviews-- some called it complete incoherent garbage while others praised it as a masterpiece.  I fall somewhere in between.  At times, yes, it does feel like rambling journal entries that are scattered and difficult to follow, but at the same time I don't think you could write such poetic prose without mapping it out (and that's made clear in the foreword discussing his manuscripts and journals leading up to writing it).  Although it's loose in structure, it's obvious that Kerouac put thought and care into the structure and rhythm of his sentences.  There's no denying that.

I suppose with every generation, sub-cultures form.  From that, martyrs, icons and sign posts arise that help shape and explain those microcosms.  On The Road does that for the Beat culture.  To that first generation that got their hands on it, they lived it in spades.  To me, reflecting on it years later, I can still appreciate it and understand its significance.  And even today, the ideals of that lifestyle and the yearn for simpler times reflected in Kerouac's book are even moreso wistfully sought.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Forging Mountains of Gold and Diamond

As I delve deeper into research, I’m quickly realizing that the thesis is really about defining the importance of romanticism and how each of my ‘pillars’ ties into the encapsulation of how we perceive ourselves and the qualities of life that we see as important.  Storytelling at its core is spinning tales of life and reflection of the human condition.  You use poetics of prose or visual persuasions to frame your story.

All forms of storytelling is about illustrating the ordinary and rendering it extraordinary.  The best stories don’t do that to a select minority, but spin the tale to sing to the masses.  This is how ideas are changed, this is how society is shaped.

The ‘pillars’ I've defined (nostalgia/Americana, cultural constants, child wonderment and folklore/fairytale/myth) are all avenues of romanticism.  They’re retellings, expectations, customs and societal understandings of what we wish to perceive as how the human condition exists.  

On a more personal, self-serving level, I think what attracts me to the principals of the thesis is that it lays down a groundwork for me as a filmmaker to develop my own sensibilities as a storyteller.  I understand it, and can see how some of the greatest artists have gone through the same process.  It’s an understated, but crucial part of the growth of anyone vying for success in film.  Speilberg put this into practice in the late 70’s and early 80’s with all of his hits-- he explored these same avenues on his own and figured out what worked and what didn’t, and once he developed that sense, he could spring off of that to make some of the heavier, more culturally resonating films of his career.

The same thing could be said for any of the other major artists out there.  I see it in some of the artists I've already examined.  I've seen it in Norman Rockwell, George Lucas, Walt Disney, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the list could go on and on.  They’ve all gone through this soul-searching period and once they latched on to the principals that this thesis talks about (unknowingly of course), they were able to figure out their voice.

Rockwell did it with his vignettes of American life, that even at the time of creation, were regarded as nostalgic and yearning of a forgotten yesteryear.  George Lucas went through this by exploring Americana in American Graffiti and folklore/fairytale and mythology in Star Wars.  Walt Disney tackled principals of child wonderment, folklore/fairytale and mythology, and both Twain and Fitzgerald gravitated toward Americana to forge their voices and develop their greatest literary successes.

They all had a sense of romanticism and poetics going into it all, and were attracted to specific instances of the romantic pillars for one reason or another, but all of them succeeded at least initially in this and were able to develop an artistic voice out of it.

Finding your own artistic voice is the one major principal that’s often overlooked or sometimes discouraged in film school.  You are lead to believe that developing a ‘style’ limits yourself as an artist and that you should not market yourself as a one-trick pony.  But you need to develop boundaries for your filmmaking sandbox, otherwise your sandbox will just become a desolate desert.  A basis needs to be chosen and rooting needs to be established by a filmmaker in order to truly flourish as an artist.

The other major thing I’ve learned thus far is the importance of hard work, study and analysis.  That’s the other major principal that’s looked over in film school and is often the reason that the professors of that filmschool ended up as professors rather than filmmakers.  They did not truly learn and develop enough of a craft and voice before they gave up.

There’s a misconception among budding artists that they’ve got what it takes right off the bat to be successful-- they assume they were born with the knowledge to make a film, paint a picture, write a song, tell a story.  They’re conditioned to think that if they’ve got talent, and maybe even a few connections in their particular industry, that they’ll become a rising star and knock their idols off their thrones.  NO!  It takes dedication.  Writers have the best bead on that discipline.  You don’t become a success without first paying your dues and failing at your first few thousand pages.

You need to write, reflect, rewrite, seek critique, rewrite, and rewrite again.  It should be understood that great work, even by the masters, doesn’t take a day to make-- it takes months, years or lifetimes to make a great piece of work.

It takes discipline to learn any craft.  There’s such a disconnect in principals between people just starting out and people who have carved a career for themselves.

You have to make it happen.  You have to put in the time.  You have to read the books.  You have to study the greats.  You have to practice, fuck up and feel the shame and torment of those initial failures but then learn from them.  You need to get over that initial slump of screwing up your work and not achieving the true vision you had in your head when you began creating.

The problem is, most people don’t have enough faith and willpower in themselves to take it beyond that.

It starts with ‘I want to be a writer.’  ‘I want to be a painter.’  ‘I want to be a filmmaker.’  Okay, so do that.  Study the true masters of your profession.  Emulate.  Learn from the best.  Collaborate.  Develop taste and preference.   Manifest opinions.  Always be self reflective.  Ask why-- ‘Why am I attracted to this artist’s work?’  ‘Why is this considered one of the classics?’  ‘What are their techniques?’  ‘How was this created?’  ‘How can I get to their level?’  ‘Why doesn’t my work create the same impact as theirs?’ ‘How can I learn from my failures?’  These are all INCREDIBLY important questions that have to be constantly asked and constantly honed as you produce new pieces.

Allow yourself to make a whole mountain of garbage.  Spend years doing that.  It may feel like you’re always at the bottom of the mountain and that no progress is being made, but if you’re keeping at it, it will happen.  One day you’ll look down at the pile you’ve been standing on and realize you’re pretty damn high.  Whoopee!  You’re just about there.

As you put the finishing touches on the pieces at your summit, climb to the top, plant your flag and claim it.  It’s your mountain of garbage.  It belongs to nobody except yourself.  After the cheering and celebration dies down and you’re left standing there alone on the top of your body of garbage, don’t forget to descend from your place of high stature in the garbage kingdom.  When you get to the bottom, hop in a car, take a train, or travel by horseback and ride as far as you can from it.

Bring a friend or an enemy and make a day trip out of it.  Once you get far enough to be out of it’s shadow (as the sun is now setting, because you’ve been traveling all day), stop your transportation and look back at your mountain with your travel companions.  Truly look at it.

Then look at everyone else’s garbage mountain around you.  How does yours differ?  What is that little twinkle that shines in yours that the others may not have?  What was it in the way you constructed yours that draws you back to it and give you enough pride to call it ‘mine’?

Once you’ve figured that out, you’ve got it.

You can only make a mountain of precious gold and diamonds only if you have the blueprints from building your mountain of garbage.  If you have the blueprints and know how to make your mountain stick out among the others, you’ve got it made.

Now how’s that for a little inspiration?

I feel as though I’m still pretty close to the bottom on forging my mountain of garbage, but I know I’m still creating and still scaling it in indefinable increments.  The advantage I’ve got is that I have a strong feeling that I already know how my mountain is going to stick out among everyone else’s.

In that revelation, I’m not so rushed to make it to the top before everyone else, but instead, am able to create a wider base to begin with and can really take the time to learn the fundamentals, emulate the masters and let myself learn from the mistakes I make without falling so steep when things don’t go as planned.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Artist, Hugo and the Kuleshov Effect

I've been pretty hush hush about my thoughts on the best picture nominees this year. It's hard to contain my excitement with how many great films came out and how many were recognized for that.

Perhaps it's my unquenchable thirst for anything nostalgic and pertaining to the craft of filmmaking but Hugo and The Artist were my top picks this year.

Hugo was a wonderfully woven story drawing comparison to the early days of the magic of cinema and the limitless potential with which the newer medium of stereographic 3D beholds (despite dissenting opinion of its true place in filmmaking from many critics). Any filmmaker who disliked the film is in the industry for the wrong reasons. I read reviews of critics picking apart every detail of the film. This blog isn't for you if you were a member of that camp.

This is for those who were inspired by it and rejuvenated by the majesty of film, and the alchemy side of the craft. The draw of a continuous piece of celluloid flickering against a wall in a dark room. Two hundred mouths agape, all sharing the same emotion; sharing the same laugh, the same tear. It's the magic of movies and the whole emotional side of the craft that matters.

I believe aside from Hugo, The Artist explored this beautifully. From the moment I saw the trailer a year before the film was actually released, I had high hopes for it.

Both showed such a strong understanding of the craft to tell two very different stories, but each capable of soliciting the same wonderment you experienced as a child seeing some of your very first films.

I'm truly captivated by that emotional draw of film, and the mechanics of that process and just how putting the most elemental principals together can completely put an audience in a state of wonderment. It's a difficult feeling to achieve as an adult, as most of us are jaded and often forget what it means to appreciate the things we did as children, but the truly successful moments in film often draw back to very elemental and primal experiences with which we all shared growing up.

I have the utmost respect for Mr. Hazanavicius, and felt privileged to tell him that in a short little back-and-forth email between he and I several months ago. It takes true mastery to tell a story with sound and picture, but to limit yourself to just picture is a true accomplishment. After leaving the theater, I found myself inspired and it left me considering just how important the rudimentary mechanics are in filmmaking and just how important it is to know them.

Flashforward a few months and this little spotlight piece by Joe LaMattina rolls out on Michel Hazanavicius, who discusses the challenges in directing The Artist. In it, he mentions among other things the 'Kuleshov Effect'.

I must have been asleep the day we talked about this in my film theory classes at Purdue; I was shocked I hadn't heard of this yet. The Kuleshov Effect exhibits the most basic functions of storytelling in film I've stumbled upon. It shows the direct relationship of human and subject, and from that, the audience is capable of filling in the blank.

You show a man with an expressionless face looking at something off-camera, followed by a shot of steaming spaghetti and meatballs, and cut back to him with the same void expression. The audience reads his emotion as 'hungry'. You show the same shot of the man's face and then a shot of a coffin and back to the expressionless face, the audience perceives it as sadness. You show the SAME shot of a man, followed by the shot of a beautiful woman walking with another man, and back again, and it conveys jealousy. It's fascinating mechanics, and I feel like the principal is rarely used anymore, even though it's often more entertaining and effective than just a spelling out of the emotions through overly-complex editing sequences. This should honestly be one of the first lessons in film school over anything else. It teaches not only the importance of simplicity, but also the importance of all departments, performance, cinematography and editing. A story can be told at the most basic level this way, and it's truly sad that this basic mechanism for storytelling is often looked over and viewed as archaic. Thank you Mr. Hazanavicius and Mr. Scorsese for reminding the whole new emerging crop of filmmakers how to tell a story.