I’m Interested In. . . .
June 12, 2011
As I write this, my sixteen-year-old grandson, Steven, is shooting a short gangster film for his Italian class. In Italian. No matter that he doesn’t speak fluent Italian. No matter that he’s never shot a film before. No matter that he doesn’t know the first thing about framing a shot, close-ups, fade-outs or any of the other aspects of technique that a seasoned filmmaker knows.
When I asked him why he was doing it, he simply said, “Because I’m interested in making a short gangster film.” So he wrote the script. In English. Translated it into Italian using what he knew plus a translation program. He scouted a location – the disgustingly filthy top floor of his family’s garage. Think bug, spiders, dirt, falling-apart junk from previous owners. He got himself some actors – some friends. So far, he’s filmed three of the six scenes he’s written. When I saw him today, before he started filming the last three, he was dressed in all in black, so I suppose he will be appearing in a scene or two. When I asked him whether his work will be perpetuating stereotypes of Italian-American behavior (half jokingly), he looked at me and said, “It is what it is.” Which I suspect, means that it’s perpetuating stereotypes of Italian-American behavior.
No matter. At sixteen, the think is that he’s interested in making a short gangster film. And he’s doing it. He didn’t stop to think that he was unqualified. Didn’t stop to worry that his Italian isn’t up to the task. That he doesn’t know how to use a camera. He was interested. And he started doing something about what he was interested in doing. By the end of today, he’ll have his first film. And it won’t matter whether it’s a success or it isn’t. It’s his first film. Everyone has to start someplace.
On these hellish hot days we’ve been having in the East, punctuated by cool days with thunderstorms, I’ve been watching the Art:21 series, originally aired on PBS channels throughout the United States, and now available as DVDs or through Netflix. (I’m streaming them.)
I’ve always loved to hear artists, writers, composers, choreographers talk about their process. In fact, studying the artistic process has been at the center of my academic life. The Art:21 series is extraordinary in that, in addition to hearing the writer talk about her/his process, you see artists at work in their studios. You see how they apply paint on canvas; you see how they set up a shot for a photograph; you see how their hands works clay; you watch them as they rip pieces of paper for a collage. A priceless education for those of us who believe that the more you know about how creative people work, the better off we are.
What struck me as I listened to a score of these creative people was how often, when they’re describing their motivation in doing a series of works, they use exactly the same language that Steven did when he told me about his gangster film: “What I’m interested in is . . .”; “What I’m now interested in is . . ..” And when the artist spoke about her/his interest, what struck me was how another person might consider doing precisely what that artist was doing, but reject it out of hand because the idea behind the work might seem too trivial or undoable or not weighty enough to warrant the time it would take to bring a project to completion.
One artist expressed an interest in creating works on canvas using gunpowder and exploding the gunpowder in such a way that an image remained on the canvas. Imagine saying that to yourself: “I’m interested in creating works of art using gunpowder.” And imagine yourself saying, “That’s nuts,” rather than, “How can I figure out how to do that?”
Another artist expressed an interest in creating a sculpture to commemorate the deaths of people she loved using the roots of very large dead trees. Imagining saying that to yourself: “I’m interested in using the roots of dead trees in my work.” And imagine yourself saying, “That’s nuts; no one uses the roots of dead trees in their work.” But there she was, sitting in the cab of a large piece of earth moving equipment excavating one of a set of roots to use in a very large work.
Another artist expressed an interest in seeing what would happen if you dropped a canister of film in water and then developed it. Imagine if that artist said, “You don’t drop canisters of film in water.” None of the amazing works created from having such an interest would exist.
Another artist said he was interested in what would happen if he tried to make glass works depending upon the writings of two giants of modern architecture. And imagine if he stopped himself by telling himself that the plan was too grandiose, and besides, how could you ever do it?
Another was interested in collecting stereotypic figurines and illustrations that depicted African Americans – Aunt Jemima, Black Samba. He did not question his desire to collect these works; he simply did it, and trusted that, when the time was right, he’d make a series of art works using them.
Another artist was interested in living in an abandoned lighthouse for long enough to understand what it was that she was interested in doing. She made a series of photographs of water – just water – no land visible, no horizon, each, of course, different. Imagine if she’d said, “Live in an abandon lighthouse? That’s ridiculous.”
Another artist was interested in taking photographs of the exact same seascape incorporating water, horizon, and sky – no land in the foreground – over a number of days. Imagine saying to yourself, “How boring? “ instead of saying, “I can make this work; let me find out how.”
As I watched one show after another in this series, I wondered what it takes to move from the conception of a project (“I’m interested in….”) to work on the project (“For me to do this, I have to do X, and learn X, and figure out X) without killing a project before it even begins by saying to ourselves “That idea is too trivial”; “I don’t have the skills to do that”; “That would take too long”; “What happens if it doesn’t work out?”
Many of the artists interviewed for the series spoke of art as a kind of play. They recalled that when you were a child, playing alone, without anyone to criticize you, did you ever tell yourself that you were playing wrong? This summer, for a writing project, I’m reading D. H. Lawrence’s letters during the time he lived in New Mexico. And what has struck me, and what continues to interest me, is how Lawrence, like the artists in Art:21 never questions his interest in writing something. I have not yet found one letter in what Lawrence writes the equivalent of “I wonder whether this is worth doing.” When he went to Sardinia, he was interested in describing Sardinia and its people. And he began, and never questioned that he didn’t know the island well enough, or that his observations of the people were perhaps incorrect. He just wrote because the work interested him. To be sure, we can read The Sea and Sardinia today and take issue with his portraits of the people – I do. Still, there is something to admire in a writer who didn’t second guess his desire to write, who didn’t tell himself that his work was too trivial, who didn’t tell himself he wasn’t up to the task.
So, by now, Steven is finished with his film. He told me that by the end of today, it would be “in the can.” And so the question I pose is, “What are you now interested in….” And can you honor that interest in the same way that these artists have, and can you trust that that you have what it takes to get to the end of the project? Wouldn’t it be a significant loss if we forestalled a work because of our unwillingness to honor what we’re interested in, no matter how seemingly trivial, impossible, outrageous, unimportant. For, whatever we do that grows out of our genuine interest will, of necessity, be important.