Change without and within

viaduct

Photo property of Iejano (www.flickr.com/photos/lejano/). Used without permission but undying appreciation.

There is a bridge that crosses Toronto’s Don River—the Queen Street Viaduct—that is itself bridged by an arch inscribed with the message:

“This river I step in is not the river I stand in”

The sentiment, I have learned, is an adaptation of the teachings of Heraclitus as handed down in Plato’s Cratylus:

“Everything changes and nothing stands still. You could not step into the same river twice.”

It is a concept that I have come to embrace deeply through my many walks around and across Toronto, my camera firmly planted in front of my face.

Although I regularly seek new routes to follow in the hopes of discovering previously unknown treasures (at least unknown to me), I also revisit well-trodden routes to explore the changes that occur from visit to visit.

As Heraclitus suggested, our world is one of constant transformation if we but seek to see it.

Every nature walk brings me new species of plants and animals to photograph and opportunities to better appreciate the ones I see regularly.

Every lane way and alley along the grid of thoroughfares that cross my city, offer me windows into the temperments of street artists and social commentators who splash their messages and visions on every surface in dazzling colour.

Grime

These displays and their constant revision is one of the reasons why I will never be bored on any of my walks. But there is another reason that resonates within me much more deeply.

I am constantly changing.

Just as Heraclitus suggested that the river flows and so is not the same from one minute to the next, my life and my experiences continually flow and so I do not greet my world in the same way from one minute to the next.

The same yellow warbler might sit on exactly the same branch at the same time tomorrow and I might never see it. And even if I did, I would appreciate it in a completely different manner for reasons I cannot begin to fathom and recount today.

Yellow warbler

Every experience—regardless of whether I am conscious of it—changes me and influences how I frame and absorb my universe. Acknowledging that helps ensure that I am open to all of these new experiences within supposedly familiar ground.

Thus, to paraphrase the Queen Street Viaduct:

“These eyes I look with are not the eyes I see with”

Believing this, I live in an amazing world and embrace every moment for its wonder.

InterOkay – review of Interstellar

interstellar-movie-banner

I can forgive writer-director-producer Chris Nolan for naming his movie Interstellar as few would be inclined to go see a movie entitled InterOkay and yet, that is what I thought of the movie. It was okay.

Not brilliant. Not amazing. Not a cinema-changing moment. Just okay.

Set in the near future, the Earth has suffered through a variety of crop blights and other unnamed disasters that has humanity at the brink of extinction. As one school principal puts it, the human race has become a caretaker generation, simply trying to manage the status quo in the hopes that something better might show up later.

Failed astronaut Cooper struggles to keep his family whole

Failed astronaut Cooper struggles to keep his family whole

Drop into this failed world the character of failed-astronaut now failing farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who struggles to protect his family—dutiful son, frustrated pre-scientist daughter, sage father-in-law—from the ravages of dust storms and drought. Through a series of odd events, driven by daughter Murphy, Cooper learns of a mission to explore planets in other galaxies in hopes of finding a new home for humanity. They will get there via a wormhole that suddenly appears near Saturn, sent by a mysterious ‘They’.

To get deeper into the plot of the movie here would be to trip all over spoilers and I don’t want to do that. It would also require that I better understand the various plot points, which would likely take a second or third viewing…call me when Interstellar makes it to Netflix.

In an acknowledged homage to every movie that has come before it—Grapes of Wrath meets Top Gun meets 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets The Right Stuff meets Waterworld meets Prometheus meets The Black Hole meets…you get the idea—Nolan and his cowriter brother Jonathan Nolan have woven together a vision of human spirit that is broad in scope, deep in meaning and soul-defining in spirit. Or at least that seemed to be their intention.

The ones left behind search for a way out (Jessica Chastain)

The ones left behind search for a way out (Jessica Chastain)

On paper, the most meaningful speeches seem to come across as cliché, trite or in the most offensive cases, Pablum. And it is only because the Nolan boys have put these speeches into the mouths of some great actors—e.g., John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain—that the movie is not laughed off the screen. Only actors of this quality could breathe life into these leaden lines and hoary speeches.

For me, possibly the worst example of this is scientist-cum-astronaut Amelia Brand’s (Anne Hathaway) attempt to explain love as a higher dimension of existence, as something that transcends space and time and should thus be counted as at least an equal in making logistical decisions. I’m not saying that her argument is wrong (or right) but rather that the material comes across as angst-riddled teen melodrama, made all the worse because it’s coming out of the mouth of an adult.

Ferris Bueller with lipstick? (Anne Hathaway)

Ferris Bueller with lipstick? (Anne Hathaway)

Where I have to give the movie massive credit, however, is in the visual treatments. (Thank you, Director of Photography Hoyte van Hoytema and Production Designer Nathan Crowley.)

This is a visually stunning film where each image is inspired. You feel parched while witnessing the death of the American heartland and your eyes itch with the approaching dust storm. The other worlds are crafted with such realism that you sense the dampness or the cold. And for all its darkness, a black hole seems anything but black.

Without getting into spoilers, I found the story line challenging in some respects because it felt like the Nolans wrote a relatively short screenplay and then every time they asked someone to read it, they were asked “Yeah, but what about…?”

At least three times during the film, I caught myself thinking that this must be the end, only to have Nolan scream “plot twist” and have the movie spiral in another direction to tie up a loose end. Even as the credits rolled, I had the sneaking suspicion they would get half-way done and we’d have more scenes.

And the very last scene before the credits was either “Oh shit, we forgot about…” or was a ham-fisted attempt to set up the sequel (of which I have heard nothing).

bridesmaids_screenplay02

As friend and fellow blogger Danny F. Santos suggested to me recently, he thought the movie might have been better served by converting it to a mini-series and I can definitely see his point. Some aspects of the film seemed rushed, despite its lengthy running time of 169 minutes. (Danny’s blog)

Given the importance of the replacement Earths to the conceit of the story, however, amazingly little time was spent on these worlds. I appreciate that the Nolans may not have wanted to make it longer, but that just lends credibility to Danny’s idea (or they could have done a Peter Jackson-Hobbit impersonation).

To their credit, the Nolan boys have woven an incredible tapestry of plots and subplots, tapping into several deep questions about humanity, the explorer’s heart, interpersonal commitment, abandonment, the purpose of science and complicity in our own demise.

Unfortunately, they used so many strings that they seem to have suddenly found themselves with a lot of loose ends that they either tied off with a bow or tied to another string. For the latter of those methods, I am confident that they wanted me to experience a revelatory “Oooooh!” but too often I was left with a confused “Eh?”

For all my issues with plot points and dialogue, however, I do have to admit that the movie passed my butt test. At no point did I find myself squirming uncomfortably. As the credits rolled, I found myself comfortably rested and satisfyingly entertained.

Unfortunately, for a movie of the scale and scope of Interstellar, “rested” and “entertained” are an indictment, not praise.

…but I know what I like

Congratulations! You’ve landed a paid writing gig. Finally, all of that hard work and practice is going to pay off.

Mind you, unless the person paying you to develop a screenplay, marketing campaign, novel, whatever, is simply giving away his or her money out of some form of altruistic zealotry gone mad, the benefactor is likely to want to participate in the project, to take some degree of ownership, and therefore to weigh in…with notes.

So, you’ve just received your first batch of notes.

And amazingly, they are relatively minor and/or completely in sync with concerns you had about the work and so give you further impetus to make the changes you kind of knew needed to be made.

But seriously, folks. These notes don’t make any sense. The note-giver clearly didn’t understand the nature of the project he or she assigned you. To make most or any of these changes would be to seriously weaken or outright destroy the project.

Now, what the hell do you do?

shock

Step 1: Curse.

Yes, feel free to curse the gods for this tedious torture of your creative soul. How dare these mere mortals give you notes? The audacity to think they could contribute to this work of Art, when the very notes they provide merely highlight their ignorance.

I don’t have a problem with hosting a pity party of one (or a few close friends). The key is keeping the party short, particularly when working to deadline.

You are an Artist, and Art requires Ego and a degree of Hubris. Without hubris, how would any of us ever have the cahones to show our work to others?

The reality, however, is that we have chosen to work for others, so…

unimpressed

Step 2: Set aside your ego and re-read.

Put a tea-cosy on your vision for a moment and really try to understand the notes you have been given. I’ve heard it said often: What is the note within the notes?

I have found that people often can’t identify or vocalize what they specifically find troubling in a piece of Art. But rather than simply give you no notes, they try to identify things that may have some bearing on their issues…the operative word there being “may”.

If you stand back a little further and ignore the specific requests, can you see something in common between the notes, a greater theme or need from the note-givers?

Do your best to step out of your shoes and into his or hers. A change in perspective may give you a greater insight as to the real challenge the note-giver is facing with your work. You’re the writer; you have one need. A director or a marketing manager will have different needs and perspectives. Respect that.

It is possible, however, that you will still be uncertain (or clueless) as to what to do next. In that case…

what

Step 3: Ask questions/seek clarity.

Acknowledging the note-giver’s concerns or comments is not the same as accepting them. It does, however, give him or her a sense that you respect them and are trying to maintain a collaborative relationship. I cannot begin tell you how much this means to people and pays off in the long run.

Offer your interpretation of the issues to confirm you see things the same way as the note-giver. If you do, brilliant. You can now offer alternatives to the less palatable requests that may satisfy the note-giver’s misgivings.

If you don’t, brilliant. Now, you have the opportunity to gain insights into the note-giver’s perspectives. This will allow you to brainstorm new approaches that will satisfy both parties.

You may also find that many of the requested changes are not a high priority for the note-giver or were merely suggestions of things you could do. For all the opinions people offer throughout their lives, most individuals are incapable of giving effective notes and thus, demands, suggestions and brain farts all look alike to the person receiving them. This holds for the Artist, as well. Don’t allow your and their ignorance to drive you crazy.

So, now that you either have an understanding with the note-giver or realize you are working with a control-obsessed ego-maniacal asshole (it happens)…

gotcha

Step 4: Make your changes or rollover.

What you now do with these notes hinges on a cost-benefit analysis.

Are there ways you can bring greater clarity to the story you have written that will address the needs without either incorporating the specific requests or significantly altering your vision of the story?

If yes, then you have not only improved the work, but you’ve established a wonderful rapport with the note-giver that will likely lead to future opportunities for collaboration.

If not, you need to ask what your goal is for this particular project.

If it is your magnum opus, then feel free to stick your heels in and refuse to make the requested changes, but in the knowledge that you may very well be fired and find it difficult to get work in the future. The note-giver and community may respect your stance and in the final analysis, acknowledge you were correct in your refusal, but it doesn’t happen a lot.

If, however, this project is the first step toward a longer term relationship with the note-giver and/or the hiring community, then go back to Step 2 and think harder as to how to make this work to everyone’s advantage. The onus is on you to do your best work within the framework you are given.

In this latter situation, of course, another alternative is simply to rollover and acquiesce to the requested changes. It is completely possible that the note-giver is right and you simply could not see the problems because your ego was in the way (aka you were too close to the project).

On the flipside, of course, if the note-giver was wrong, you may carry the burden of his or her errors and so find future work with that individual unlikely but then why would you want to work with that asshole again. Or, he or she could step up and take ownership of the error, in which case, you may have found a partner who will trust your instincts more the next time.

Getting notes is never easy, but it’s going to happen whenever you leave your Artistic cave. How you deal with them will have a significant impact on how often you get paid to do your thing.

Crème de Glace

So beautiful

So beautiful

Leaving the house to go to work,

I open my door to find

My world transformed.

Branches of the trees

Hang a little lower

In the cold morning air,

Suffering the burden

Of a coat transparent.

The rains of late evening

Have been transformed

As o’ernight mercury fell,

And the harsh rough bark

Gained a smooth icy coat,

Glimmers in the early light of day.

 

Droplets that formed

On branch tips and boughs

Are caught in tableaux,

Diamonds reaching out

To cut glace.

In the modest light of morn,

An explosion of stars

As branches dance

On the breeze,

And the horizon is littered

With silvers and golds

Of ice and leaves yet true.

 

An image in transition.

The day is a busy one.

As the run rises higher

And the ebon bark

Absorbs Helios’ glow,

The ice will melt;

Diamonds lost forever,

Stars fallen to earth.

And we’ll await

Another day,

Other magical illusions.

(Written 17 years ago, this seems appropriate today.)

Selling out versus selling

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Over the last few years, I have met a lot of artists of various stripes, and almost to a person, one of the major fears each has is the belief that to become a success and to make a living with their Art, they will have to dilute that art. They’ll have to sell out. Some simply fear it in quaking silence, while others fend it off with flecks of foam like some rabid dog chained in a backyard of their own making. To each, their own.

You have a vision for your Art and you must respect that. It is because you are doing your Art that your Art is different from anyone else’s. By the same token, if you do hope to make enough money to keep at it, you must be able to express your Art in some commercial way.

Admittedly, with technologies such as self-publishing (formerly known as vanity publishing) and phones that offer better cinematography than anything Cecile B could have dreamt of, you can go it alone as no one before you could. You can make all of your dreams come true, but the question is, will those dreams come true? Will anyone beyond your mom, your partner and a few close friends bother with your Art once discovered?

I’m not saying to make a living you have to sell out. Don’t despoil your craft in the name of crass commercialism. If you’re truly an artist rather than a hack, it wouldn’t serve your purposes and you’d come to loathe the thing you once loved.

No, I’m talking about finding a line of compromise between your vision and the market’s.

As this is particularly close to my heart right now, let’s say that you’re writing a screenplay. First, congratulations. There may be thousands of screenplays out there, but I am confident there are billions of unfinished scripts and half-thought ideas.

Having completed your screenplay, however, is only the first step. Now you’ve got to share your creation with dozens of other people, each of whom will want to put his or her stamp on the work.

Story editors, readers, producers, directors, actors, financiers, market researchers. To a greater or lesser extent, each of these people has to buy into what you’re selling before your movie will get made.

Sure, if your film is small with a very modest (miniscule) budget, all of these titles may be handled by 3 to 6 people, but even then, you’ll likely run into issues with distribution.

I’m not saying it can’t be done. History is replete with artists who decided to go it alone. But the unwritten backdrop of that history is swamped with the myriad films sitting idle on bookshelves or hard drives, or competing with cavorting kittens and bad karaoke on YouTube or Vimeo.

If you want to share your Art—and I’m betting that you do—then you want outside thought, you want feedback, you want people to contribute.

Don’t look at barriers, but rather seize opportunities to engage. These people are your first audience. Respect them. Use them. Understand them. Do this and you’ll be well on your way to realizing your vision in their world.

 

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because I refuse to let anyone sell out.)

Lost

Image

Where are you?

I watch you though

You are not here.

Your eyes search

The horizon absently,

Wandering lands

Only you can see;

Listening for noises

Only you can hear;

Searching, needing.

 

Where are you?

I sit with you

But you not with me.

I feel your heat,

Your breath, your soul,

But you are unaware

That I am waiting.

You cannot sense

My heart beating,

My eyes watching,

My mind racing.

 

Where are you?

I want to know

So I can help

You with your search.

 

(Image used without permission because I was distracted.)