I used to fly from L.A. to N.Y. twice a year on week-long visits in the eighties and nineties where I’d stay at the small apartment of a friend on the upper west side of Manhattan who was one of the most talented people I knew and probably will ever know. Whenever I’d arrive, we had a running bit where he’d stand back, look me over, and about half the time would say:
Wow, you look fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. You must not be working hard enough.
Whether the correlation was true or not (Note: About half the time it was) I knew what he meant. There is something about a creative person who is a non-actor looking great on the outside that seems to indicate that they’re not pushing what’s inside (nee – their talents) far enough.
That, of course, is bull crap. Or is it? I’ve never quite figured it out and at some point I stopped trying. Long ago I came to the conclusion that the only thing to be sure of about one’s own creativity is that the more you focus on whether what you’re doing in terms of time and effort is too little, too much or just the right amount is that much more time you’re not spending focusing on the job at hand – which is to simply employ your talents as best and as often as you can for whatever project is at hand and at whatever pace you can manage.
In the midst of summer film sequel/cartoon/superhero-itis there is a quite imaginative movie currently playing across the country that, among other things, focuses generally on this issue and more specifically on the vagaries of the creative mind. It’s a sort of anti-biopic and tells the story of one of the most talented musicians of the last century, presenting his creative process –which in this case is tantamount to musical genius – in a way most of us has never seen before. The movie is called Love and Mercy and its subject is Brian Wilson, the musician-songwriter prodigy who was the driving musical force of the iconic Beach Boys. Oh, and what’s also worth mentioning is – it’s pretty unforgettable.
Love and Mercy has many things going for it but what makes it more unique than any movie out at the moment is that is a film about both a real person and about something. Set it two time periods – the 1960s and the 1980s – it tackles the young Mr. Wilson’s recording of the Beach Boys’ iconic Pet Sounds album and the mental illness of a broken, middle-aged Mr. Wilson and how he was saved at the time by his now second wife – a former model and unlikely Cadillac salesperson named Melinda Ledbetter.
Yes, Mr. Wilson’s story has a combination of elements that none of ours do – the once in a lifetime genius browbeaten by an abusive father, show business fame, success and money far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, drugs in the 1960s, depression, possible schizophrenia and an evil abusive doctor – all of which exist against the sparkling backdrop of beautiful, coastal southern California. Then, of course, there is also the music – an instantly recognizable soundtrack of tunes to three and possibly even four generations of musical tastes.
But strip that all away – which its director, writer and cast often does – and it’s not that much different than our own. An insecure, sort of nerdy guy tries to do work most of his family and friends can’t relate to. The guy knows he’s different and strange and doesn’t really fit in but tries to and sometimes succeeds. People tell him they love him but he can’t quite take it in. And even after he does and he gets some acceptance, he is not always sure who he really is or if what they love about him even exists the way they think it does.
There are few Hollywood movies these days that move back and forth between two time periods where two famous actors, who don’t much look alike, play the same lead character in two distinctly different decades. Not to mention, I can’t really think of any summer film in recent years that was the least bit impressionistic and whose screenplay and/or scenes within weren’t either telegraphed or spelled out – either through action, dialogue or music cues – within an inch of its life. Yet somehow Paul Dano and John Cusack – who resemble each other about as much as I bring to mind Meg Ryan – manage to make us believe they are the same person while we, the audience, can not only merely follow but also really feel the story they’re in without the benefit of time cards and a studio approved list of overpaid and overqualified, un-credited screenwriters dumbing it down for us.
There is something to be said for feeling oneself through the creative process as either a creator or audience member. Not everything has to be made clear within an inch of its life. Not every effort has to spawn a toy or a fast food product. And not every subject or piece of work lends itself to a Twitter handle or is a complete failure if it doesn’t appeal to a reality TV show audience. There is room for more – a lot more. And both the work and the audience might surprise all of us and emerge as not only crystal clear but exciting – certainly enough of both that a good enough majority of people get it. No, I mean like – REALLY get it.
Not to bring this back to myself – though after all this is MY blog – but I watch some reality television, have over 1000 Tweets (@notesfromachair… impressed?), AND have been known to play with a toy of two and I could actually stay with this one. Not only that, but I am by no means an experimental screenwriter and have even been accused by several of the students I’ve taught over the years of being a bit too square because I tend to heavily emphasize traditional dramatic structure and detailed scene outlines in my classrooms. Yet, miracle of miracles, this one also really worked for me on that score.
However, the reason for all that is pretty easy. It’s because whatever methods one employs in the quest for self-expression, it’s really only the end result that matters. Of course we all use something slightly different or even similar to get there (Note: Which is as it should be) and we all take multiple and varied wrong turns along the way as we attempt to get what’s inside of us out. This goes not only for those of us who make art but for all of the many rest of us who are just trying to live a decent life.
And this is where Love and Mercy’s first time director Bill Pohlad succeeds far beyond what one might expect for someone who has never been behind a camera before. Somehow he manages to take the elusive subject of artistic self-expression – which often seems either unbearably ponderous or impossibly precious on film – and make it universally representative of what it’s like for all the rest of us average Joes who feel a bit weird inside just being ourselves in everyday life. It’s all a struggle – whether we’re Brian Wilson or not.
I don’t know all the ins and outs of Mr. Pohlad’s process even after listening to an afternoon panel where he and much of the cast and crew of his film spoke about how they did it. It’s not that they weren’t clear or concise it’s that you can never quite quantify the precise elements of the formula it takes to make a creative effort people are responding to that is both unique and unusual. Mostly because –- there is no formula.
This became apparent when one listened to not only Brian Wilson’s music during the film about him but when one heard the actual Brian Wilson speak in person, as I did after the showing of his movie. Receiving a long-standing ovation, his responses to questions were limited to a few simple words and an uncomplicated sentence or two. The only time things got complicated were when others asked questions about his music. Luckily, he and everyone else there were smart enough not to try to answer those but to merely let the actual songs and film’s images speak for themselves.
It’s a good lesson for the rest of us to remember when trying to create our own work or do our own jobs – or explain how we do our jobs – show business or not. You’re only as good as what you produce and how you do it is up to you and perhaps, often times, unexplainable. Oh sure – some of it will make sense to others – you take a little bit from here, a little bit of that. But most of it, well – good luck trying to get what’s on your mind onto the proverbial written or oral page. Not to mention explaining the whole ordeal (process?) to anyone else. Which again, is as it should be.
This all begs the question of how good or not good it might seem to others. Does the fact that Love and Mercy didn’t make as much money as San Andreas at the box-office this weekend mean it’s not a better film? Or even that SA is worse?
It could. Or it could not.
Mostly, it just is.