The Beatles, Get Back

The first really magical moment, when everyone was feeling the power of the music, was Paul’s first performance of “Let It Be.”

I just finished watching the new Beatles’ documentary on Disney+, Get Back. It’s in three parts, and the third part ends with almost the whole rooftop concert (some but not all downtime between songs seems to have been cut), which wound up being their last public performance together. So I put together this playlist to reflect all the songs they performed, using rooftop performances where available in the order in which they appear.

https://music.apple.com/us/playlist/the-beatles-rooftop-concert/pl.u-VL2aIBYGkNr

My playlist covers these songs:

  1. “Get Back,” original studio version. This wasn’t part of the rooftop performance, but was captured in the Beatles’ studio on Saville Row some time before. The first rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t seem to be available on iTunes.
  2. “Get Back,” 1969 Glyn Johns mix. The second rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted this one. Glyn Johns put together a version of the songs on Let It Be originally intended for an album titled Get Back “that would match the documentary nature of the forthcoming film” (more about the film later; taken from the liner notes to Let It Be… Naked). Johns’s mixes are now available on a deluxe version of Let It Be recently released.
  3. “Don’t Let Me Down” (first rooftop performance).
  4. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  5. “One After 909” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  6. “Dig a Pony” (album version that sounds like the rooftop performance to me, but I’m not sure).
  7. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (the second rooftop performance doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted the 1969 Glyn Johns mix).
  8. “Don’t Let Me Down” (1969 Glyn Johns mix, same as above).
  9. “Get Back” (third rooftop performance from The Beatles Anthology 3. The anthology doesn’t indicate which rooftop performance, but Paul has a line in here about getting arrested, which he added after seeing the police on the rooftop, so it’s the third performance).

We should keep in mind the whole recording session was intended to be released as a TV special. According to the liner notes on Let It Be… Naked the original concept was a TV performance of songs from the white album, and then it transformed into a documentary recording the creation of a new album from the beginning. The conclusion of the TV special was intended to be live performances of the new songs in front of an impromptu audience, which would be their first live performance since August of 1966. What wound up being a documentary film about the recording of the album was released concurrently with the album in 1970.

A few observations.

It’s a miracle they got anything done. Of course the eight hours of video we see is greatly edited down from the 60 hours of video available, but they seemed to spend most of their time singing their own and other people’s songs in funny voices. Sometimes it seemed like they were just having fun (most of the time, actually), but sometimes it seemed like they were tired of it all and not taking it seriously. Billy Preston showing up changed everything and made everyone feel better. He was great. George Martin’s presence seemed like a good thing as well, even though John told Martin to stay away at first (liner notes for Let It Be… Naked).

Paul goes on a little tirade at the beginning, at the very beginning, saying something along the lines of, “If we’re not going to do this, we should just quit right now.” I felt at the time like that was what split up the Beatles. Throughout the sessions Paul refers to their days in Hamburg several times, which leaves the impression that he hadn’t really had much fun with the band since then because that was a few years back by this point, and he seems dissatisfied with just making albums.

I don’t want to create a false impression. Paul was playful most of the time and upbeat. He just had some moments. George actually quit and the other three had to take a few days to get him to come back, and then later on George talked about all of them just doing solo projects and then coming back together. He seemed frustrated in having too small a role in the band and its songwriting.

There is a little scene, sound only, where Paul and John are talking together about what they need to do to get George back. The documentary claims that the filmmakers at the time hid a microphone in a flower pot at a diner where Paul and John went to discuss the situation with George. That sounds like nonsense to me. You have to realize this was 1969. There is no WiFi or Bluetooth. Of course they had transmitters, but they weren’t that small, and a sound cable running underneath a random booth at a diner would be kind of obvious, not to mention the fact the filmmakers had no way of knowing exactly where Paul and John would be sitting. So I think the conversation was staged. That doesn’t mean the conversation didn’t reflect anyone’s real feelings, but I’m just not buying the hidden mic in the flower pot story.

Moving on, I had a strong impression that anything Paul touched musically would be golden because of it. Any input he gave would make a song better. And the first really magical moment, when everyone was feeling the power of the music, was Paul’s first performance of “Let It Be.”

The wives were all there at different points. Yoko the most, then Linda (still Eastman with her very young daughter from a previous relationship, who was precocious and hilarious), then Ringo’s wife Maureen, with Pattie Boyd (Harrison) appearing once. Yoko was quiet and unassuming throughout the sessions, and watching her occasional facial expressions and gestures — and they were rare — is worthy of some study and attention. She would at times sing/screech into a mic while the Beatles played to it; at one point Paul played drums to Yoko’s singing. So yes, there were tensions within the band. It’s not clear they weren’t manageable. It’s hard for me to say that Paul, or John, or George, or Yoko split up the band.

What really seemed to be working against the band was having to come up with a bunch of new songs in three weeks and then be ready for a television special at the end of it. They could only agree to get George to come back by scrapping the TV special idea and moving their songwriting and rehearsals back to their own studios instead of the warehouse in Twickenham that was serving as a sound stage. So I think a number of factors were working against the Beatles, the biggest one of them being the Beatles.

I wish they had been able to do what John suggested, which was record their own solo albums and then come back together and record as the Beatles, especially in retrospect of the enormous creative output each of them enjoyed as solo artists in the 70s. It really was something seeing them all at different times sit behind drums or piano or strum the guitar. I think George was the only one who didn’t play any drums.

I couldn’t wait to see them get on the rooftop, because that was a public performance. That’s the one time there is no doubt that while they were having fun, they were also taking the music seriously. The rooftop concert deserves special attention, but not only because it was their last public performance. As a performance, it seemed more like a rehearsal of their new songs than a performance. “Get Back” was played twice at the beginning and once at the end, and two other songs were played twice. Two of those performances of the other songs wound up being the tracks used on the album, while the version of “Get Back” used was performed in the studio some days earlier.

What was enjoyable about the rooftop performance, beyond just seeing the Beatles perform, were interviews with the public on the street. Young and old said, “It’s the Beatles!”, “I wish we could see them,” “This is wonderful,” with a number of complaints too: “They woke me up from my sleep and I don’t appreciate it.” Ha. The police arrived after reportedly receiving 30 complaints about noise in a few minutes. They were stalled, and the two officers who initially arrived on the scene looked like two rosy-faced little fourteen year old boys, blustering and threatening like teenage boys too. There’s been quite a bit of reporting over the last day or two (from this writing) about the officers. The main one in the film was Ray Dagg, who was 19 years old at the time. I can’t track all the references right now, but he admitted he was probably making up “30 complaints” (he had no idea how many they received), and that he was bluffing about being able to arrest them on the charges he specifically mentioned. They don’t apply on private premises.

Most interestingly, he said he knew he was being recorded in the lobby of the Beatles’ studios because he saw a microphone in a flower pot. On the one hand, this validates the mic in the flower pot story explaining the recording of Paul’s and John’s earlier conversation about George, but on the other hand, if he saw it just looking casually while standing up, it’s hard to believe Paul and John wouldn’t notice it sitting at a table.

But throughout all encounters with the police, everyone was very polite. When the police arrived at the rooftop, the Beatles finished their performance without being asked while the officers stood by and watched. They ended with the version of “Get Back” in which Paul sings a line about being arrested which appears on the Beatles’ Anthology 3 collection.

And that’s the thing with the lyrics. No one showed up with written lyric sheets except maybe John for “Across the Universe” and perhaps George’s songs, but I don’t recall in the latter case. Otherwise, lyrics were improvised on the spot with the music. In one of the film’s highlights, Paul wrote a first run at “Get Back” while they were all waiting for John to show up, who was an hour late. “Get back.” He’s late. Get it? “I miss the old days at Hamburg.” “Get back.” Get it? Several of the songs seemed like immediate reactions to the situation at hand later revised into songs. One version of “Get Back” reflects anti-immigrant feeling in Britain popular at the time, which seemed terribly and painfully familiar.

It’s a great documentary. It’s real life. But it’s real life hanging out with the Beatles while they try to make some new music. It’s real life amplified. It was 41 years to this day since John Lennon died when I posted an initial draft of this review to Facebook. I am grateful for the timing of it all, but what a loss.

“Avengers: Endgame, Iron Man, and America”

Avengers: Endgame, Iron Man, and America”
by James Rovira

A revised version of this article now appears on Sequart.org.

Disclaimer: this commentary includes major spoilers starting with the second sentence of the third paragraph, so I wouldn’t read too far if you haven’t watched Avengers: Endgame yet. It also won’t make much sense if you haven’t watched Endgame and the Iron Man, Captain America, Avengers, and Captain Marvel films.

With the release of Endgame the weekend of April 28th, 2019, Marvel Films completed a remarkable achievement: the conclusion of a story that took 22 films to tell. Endgame itself is virtuoso storytelling, wrapping up multiple story and character arcs in a single, deftly told, gripping film. There is no wasted screen time beyond some needed comic relief, and the film is three hours long. I think it’s fair to say that Endgame is this generation’s great epic film, its Ten Commandments. Given the resources and time invested in this eleven-year film cycle, I think it’s worth a little bit of time thinking about what the MCU has been saying to us all this time. I think the MCU is telling us that we still, collectively, haven’t overcome the trauma of the Holocaust, and it’s pointing to a possible way that we might do so.

IronmanposterImmediately after watching Endgame I went back and rewatched the first MCU film, Iron Man (2008). While the MCU encompasses twenty-two films (so far) and dozens of characters, many of whom have their own stories and character arcs, the only characters with completed story lines from origin to end of life are Tony Stark, Captain America (to old age, though, not death), Vision, Black Widow, and Thanos. Of these, Tony Stark/Iron Man and Captain America are the focal points of three films each, unlike Vision and Black Widow, and Thanos is the chief antagonist within the MCU, so this twenty-two film story arc is best understood as a contest between Iron Man and Captain America, on the one hand, and Thanos on the other. But since the MCU begins with Iron Man’s origin and Endgame concludes shortly after Tony Stark’s funeral, this series of films is fundamentally about Tony Stark vs. Thanos. Captain America is important to the series as he represents a different kind of foil for Tony Stark, taking the form of a different way of being a hero, but occupying that position makes him a secondary character in relationship to Stark, who in the end, as the MCU series protagonist, is the one who defeats Thanos.

The question, “Who is the protagonist of the MCU series?” seems silly and academic, a fun exercise for a high school English class, especially given the range of characters and number of films, but I think we need to take seriously the fact that the Infinity Stones story, and the MCU itself, for that matter, begins with Iron Man’s creation and ends with Tony Stark’s death. The central image from Stark’s funeral, his first miniature arc reactor encased in a ring that said, “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart,” originated in the first Iron Man film as a gift from his future wife, Pepper Potts. It was a wry joke at the time, the idea that Stark the billionaire playboy weapons manufacturer needed proof he had a heart – and that this proof would take the form of a high-tech gadget in a case – but the centrality of this device I think encapsulates the MCU universe’s commentary on the real nature of the contest that it’s representing.

Tony Stark is America after World War II: weapons, tech, war, and hedonism. The MCU is assessing not the greatest generation, the one who beat Hitler, but the Baby Boomers, their children, what we did with our parents’ and grandparents’ legacy, and how we inherited their fears and managed them. I mean this “we” literally. I was born in 1964, so was among the last of Baby Boomers, and Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Tony Stark, was born about eight months after me in 1965. In the MCU, Stark himself was born in 1970. People our age are of the second generation after World War II: our parents didn’t fight in the war, but our grandparents did. My grandfather served during World War II while my father was in the Army during the Korean War. So the MCU represents our grappling with the legacy of World War II and the Holocaust from an American perspective, documenting two different responses to this legacy distributed across two to three different generations.

Thanos_AvengersThe first response is Thanos’s, who is driven by his own personal holocaust, the literal loss of his world, and how he sought to prevent that loss from happening on a cosmic scale by wiping out half of all life in the universe. His thought was that with less competition for resources life could thrive again. When he realized life couldn’t move forward after such cataclysmic loss, his plan B was to wipe out all life completely and start again. I think we need to come to grips with this psychology of death. The trauma of Thanos’s holocaust was so internalized by him that he sought to repeat it. His desire was never to preserve life, but to be the controller and distributor of death, to be the source of the next holocaust rather than its victim.

Tony Stark, on the other hand, illustrates how our desire to build a shield around the TheAvengers2012Posterworld to keep the Holocaust from ever happening again is what is killing it. His first shield around the world was Ultron, who nearly destroyed all life on Earth in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). In the next Avengers film, Avengers: Infinity Wars (2018), Stark and the Avengers failed to stop Thanos, who succeeded in wiping out half of all life in the universe by finally acquiring the Infinity stone that Stark placed in Vision, whom he built to stop Ultron. In effect, our powerful defensive measures in themselves created the repeat holocaust they were intended to stop. Therefore it’s no coincidence that Stark is a defense contractor. He embodies the profits and hedonism of this industry, its love of tech and power, a love that is disseminated throughout American culture, embodied in superhero movies themselves, and extended across the globe through US foreign policy. The MCU’s Iron Man originated in the Middle East with Stark’s discovery that his weapons, which were intended for the defense of the United States and its allies, were being sold to terrorists. Our real shield around the world, we should learn from the MCU, started out with a desire for protection and has descended into the naked pursuit of profit at the expense of all principle.

Avengers_Infinity_War_posterStark’s other foil, I have observed, is Captain America. Captain America/Steve Rogers represents the imaginary form of our uncorrupted ideals, the Greatest Generation itself, who in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) was frozen in time in 1945 to be later resurrected in the present generation to battle evil once again. But his presence alongside Stark led to a civil war among the good guys in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Stark, on the one hand, wanted to bring the Avengers under the control of world governments while Steve Rogers, on the other, seeing how Hydra had infiltrated the top levels of governance – further commentary on what we have become – no longer trusted the system with that power. A civil war among the good guys was inevitable because both sides were right. Superhero power, if it existed, would need to be held accountable to governmental oversight, but those who would provide this oversight can’t be trusted. The MCU only resolves this dispute but pitting them against a common enemy that represents nothing less than universal death itself, Thanos, the embodiment of our own death instinct.

Thanos_with_Infinity_Gauntlet_and_Stones_(MCU)But Stark was the one who defeated Thanos in Endgame, not Captain America. I think we should consider carefully just what the Infinity Gauntlet, powered by all of the Infinity stones, really represents. It’s a cliché: if you could snap your fingers and change just one thing, what would it be? Thanos would snap his fingers and wipe out half the life in the universe, and then, when frustrated, all life itself to start over. Stark snapped his fingers to wipe out Thanos and his forces. The problem is that both sides still think the only way to win is to kill everyone on the other side. Worse than that, even Captain America thinks like Thanos: early in Endgame, Captain America says that if we can’t move forward from the massive loss of life experienced at the end of Infinity Wars, then Thanos should have killed us all. When Thanos realizes that life won’t move forward from the loss incurred at the end of Infinity Warshe reasons exactly like Captain America: if they can’t get over it, kill them all and start over.

Captain_Marvel_posterSince the Infinity Wars plotline is about the prevention of a holocaust, I think that the MCU cycle of films reveals to us how much the Holocaust, the real one we suffered in World War II, continues to scar us all: we beat the Nazis but have become them in that we think killing all the bad guys is in the end the only real solution to our problems. If you don’t believe we think the only way to win is kill off all of our enemies, why all the nukes? What better way to kill them all, how more efficiently, than with nuclear weapons? Why do you think we have so many? Do you think it’s a coincidence that the real villains of Captain Marvel (2019) wound up being the Kree, an intensely technological, highly diverse federation of planets? Do you think it’s a coincidence that the “terrorists” in Captain Marvel were minority victims of the Kree? Who here most resembles the United States? But more importantly, what a massive failure of the imagination it is to think that the only solution to our problems is mass death. Why couldn’t Thanos snap his fingers and make all life consume only half as much resources to survive? Why couldn’t Stark snap his fingers and change Thanos’s mind, maybe by showing him a different future? Why can’t we snap our fingers and keep the world safe in a way that doesn’t involve bigger and faster planes, missiles, and troops?

PeggyCarter2A new way of thinking is needed here, a way that the MCU teaches us we haven’t learned yet but, maybe, Captain America did. At the end of Endgame, Rogers completed his mission, returning all of the stones to their original locations in time, but then he didn’t come back. He stayed in the past, married the love of his life, Peggy Carter, and lived a full life with her. Captain America’s character in the MCU teaches us that we don’t move forward until we learn the solution to our problems won’t be found until we stop killing.

As an aside, we should note that Captain America returning the stones to their original locations at the end of Endgame didn’t solve the problem of creating an alternate reality, as Thanos’s time travel forward created two timelines: one of the current Infinity Wars/Endgame chronology in which Thanos lives until 2019 until he is beheaded by Thor, and an alternate one in which Thanos leaves that timeline in 2014, before recovering any of the stones, and never returns to it, to be finally defeated later in 2019 by Iron Man. Steve Rogers stayed in this alternate reality, married the woman he loved, and then caught up with the Infinity Wars reality as an old man. I think Rogers just appearing naturally in the Endgame timeline, showing up on a bench, was a mistake as well. He lived his life in the alternate timeline. He should have only been able to return to the Endgame timeline in a quantum travel suit.

Either way, while the MCU teaches us that we haven’t learned, the MCU also teaches us that we really learn when we quit being soldiers and start having a life. The best of us, the Greatest Generation, did that for the most part, but it also gave birth to the modern military industrial complex. Their children and grandchildren picked up that complex and ran with it. Our grandparents beat the Nazis, but as a culture we’re still like Tony Stark, partying on war profiteering. We should learn from these films that as of right now, on our current course, in our real history, we’re racing toward the next holocaust. The MCU also teaches us, however, that we have other, better examples before us, so in the end asks this question: will we follow our better examples, or will we stay on this path until we cause another holocaust?

Bohemian Rhapsody, A Review

Bohemian Rhapsody is a great biopic about the history of Queen from Freddie Mercury’s first encounter with the band (then known as Smile) to the Live Aid concert in 1985, largely focused on Freddie Mercury.

It had the flaws that most biopics share — it’s not tightly plotted — but it strived to be an honest (though not necessarily always factual) portrait of Freddie Mercury. It didn’t downplay his bisexuality or partying, or how much of a jerk he could be with his fellow band members and other people he loved, but instead tried to get us to understand Mercury through the lens of his relationships.

His primary relationships were with a long time lover Mary Austin, whom he always called “the love of my life,” his fellow band members, his parents, and Paul Prenter and Jim Hutton, with whom he was involved at different times. So you see his flaws, and you see why the people around him loved him, but you don’t see the media stereotype of Freddie Mercury — which is what I think some people wanted to see.

Small parts of the film were cinematic kitsch, like a tour sequence in which the names of cities are formed in bright letters out of Mercury’s different performance postures, and a montage of different very negative reviewer comments about “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The former wasn’t necessary: I think a montage of concert performances would have been enough. The music always carries the day in the film. But the appearance of kitsch should be forgivable in a film about Queen, who could always elevate it to art while indulging in it. The latter, however, was still enjoyable, as “Bohemian Rhapsody” is arguably one of the three to five most important songs of the 70s and their signature song, so these negative reviews deserve the short attention they get.

I probably took more pleasure in seeing arguments with record producers about singles and arguments the band had with each other during recording than I should, but I think the band members who produced the film — Brian May and Roger Taylor had producer credit, and Jim Beach, the band manager, has writing credit — wanted to depict those tensions as part of the band’s creative energy. I think it worked.

Rami Malek was impressive. I’d only seen him before in the series Mr. Robot, and if you’ve seen that series, you couldn’t imagine two more completely different characters. One is a deeply introverted computer geek who suffers from multiple personality disorder, and the other is Freddie Mercury. I now see Malek as up there with Heath Ledger and Johnny Depp in range of characters. Performances overall were very good, and it’s worth seeing for no other reason than the fun and energy of the music, which is I think the film’s real star. The film is as in love with Queen’s music as anyone could hope.

Incidentally, the film is also a great tribute to Live Aid, the 1985 concert for Africa relief. It begins and ends with the Live Aid concert. Retrospectively, and because of this film, I think the Live Aid concert was the last great swan song for major acts from the 60s and 70s from Dylan to punk. The 70s ended in 1985 at that concert. In terms of the band’s history, ending the film with Live Aid omits the last six years of the band’s life with Freddie Mercury, which covered the last three albums released during Mercury’s lifetime and what would have been a heartrending presentation of Mercury succumbing to AIDS-related pneumonia. So the film is an incomplete portrait in terms of the band’s history, but I think a good portrait of a group of personalities creating music together and a great celebration of the music itself and the larger than life personality who made it come alive for so many of us.

On Being Creative

NewyorkstoriesThis is a somewhat modified repost of an entry originally published in September of 2014. I thought I’d revisit and update it because I’m teaching an introduction to creative writing course this semester, and my class and I have been covering the creative process over the last couple of chapters.

Artists and their Art

I’m going to start by illustrating my points from two films: New York Stories and Bullets Over Broadway. I won’t be discussing it here, but I would also recommend the film S.O.B.

New York Stories is an anthology film featuring three short films by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen, respectively. Scorsese’s and Coppola’s films aren’t at all characteristic of their usual work and are wonderful, magical, and worth watching. Allen’s contribution is a hilarious abstract of his entire life’s work. If you can pick up or stream these films, don’t pass them by.

Scorcese’s short, Life Lessons, is about New York artist Lionel Dobie (perf. Nick Nolte) and his much younger live-in protégé and lover Paulette (perf. Rosanna Arquette) immediately before a big opening for one of Dobie’s shows. They have become estranged but are still living together. Dobie remains sexually obsessed with Paulette, while Paulette continues living with Dobie to be mentored by him, and to receive some confidence in and validation of her work as an artist from him.

He continually withholds his praise, however, always coming back to, “Well, what do you think?”, which increasingly frustrates her. She, in turn, teases him sexually almost to the point of torture while still withholding herself from him, largely as punishment for his refusal to validate her work. I think she would even have been happy with a clear invalidation, for that matter — so that she could know she was wasting her time. But she didn’t get anything from Dobie either way. This dysfunctional dynamic, combined with how difficult it is to live with Dobie (he can only paint with his music on at almost concert level volumes), ultimately drives her away in a rage right before his show.

But what’s particularly interesting about the film is its depiction of the artistic process. The more tense, dysfunctional, and intense this dysfunction became, the better Dobie was able to paint. Her screaming and their shared frustration seemed to fuel him creatively. On the night of the show, he attends alone, and at the end we see him recruit a new young female protégé, one clearly hoping to be mentored by him, and for his part clearly intended to serve as his perverse, dysfunctional inspiration for his next project.

Now just hold this picture in your mind while I move on to the next film: Bullets Over 220px-Bullets_over_Broadway_movie_posterBroadwayBullets is about young, idealistic playwright David Shayne (perf. John Cusack) who seems to be seeking fame with marginal talent. He cuts a deal with a mob boss to get financing for his play: in exchange for financing, the play will star the mob boss’s girlfriend, Olive Neal (perf. Jennifer Tilly). To both keep her safe and to make sure that David lives up to his end of the bargain, the boss assigns hitman Cheech (perf. Chaz Palminteri) to attend rehearsals.

In the course of rehearsing the play, however, David’s bad writing is confronted by the professional actors he hired. Cheech, sitting in the position of the audience and the critic, virtually rewrites the play with David as it is being rehearsed: Cheech has a talent for character, narrative, pacing, and lines that David doesn’t. In short, Cheech is a real writer.

When the play goes to performance, it is universally praised, with the exception of Olive’s acting. Olive is not only a bad actress but something of an idiot. When that becomes apparent to everyone, Cheech does what needs to be done: he drives her out to the docks and shoots her, dumping her body in the water. Olive’s part is then played by a professional actress and the play goes on to be widely acclaimed and to a national tour.

What I’d like us to consider here are two characteristics of the artist beyond talent:

1. You’re willing to kill for your work. Short of that, you’re certainly willing to do anything else. It’s the work that matters.
2. What you think about your work is what matters. You know that because you’re the artist. You may listen to others, but in the end, it’s what you think that matters.

Now, you’re reading this post to learn how to develop your creativity. I have two questions for you:

1. Are you willing to kill for your work? What are you really willing to do to create something great? For anyone with any kind of moral compass, the answer is always “No, I’d never kill anyone,” so let me follow up with another question: If it really came down to it, would you at least be seriously tempted?
2. Do you think external validation for your work is irrelevant, at least while you are creating it?

If you don’t answer “Yes” to both of those questions, you’re not really an artist yet, and your creativity will be hampered. You’re in the position of Paulette, who wants to please an audience and get praised for it (in this case, Dobie), or David, who wants to get famous. But you’re not focused on the work itself. You’re focused on drawing external resources inward (which is narcissism) instead of projecting internal resources outward (which is creativity).

Both films affirm this answer in their own ways. Dobie’s refusal to validate or invalidate Paulette’s work was actually the best thing for her, the thing most likely to transform her into an artist. Asking, “What do you think?” directed her to the only question that matters, at least during the creative process. He was trying to get her to fall back upon her own resources, to exercise her own critical judgment of her own work, to act and think like she knew what she was doing.

Everyone wants a great review: don’t get me wrong. But while you’re creating, what you think is what matters. Getting feedback on the finished product — if the feedback is professional, good, and focused on your intent for your work — that helps too. But in the end, it’s what you think that really matters. But do you know what needs to matter even more than your opinion of the work? More than anything else, in fact, even more than you yourself? The work.

Not your reputation, your praise, your recognition, your self-image as an artist, your theory of art, your ideals about art, or the politics or beliefs underlying your art: just the work itself. That’s why Scorsese’s representation of the true artist was someone willing to kill to perfect his play. It was easy for him because he was a hitman, but I think the artist part of him would have been just as willing to kill himself for his work if, somehow, that is what it took to perfect it. At least in theory: in reality, that’s never the case. Suicides for art are generally committed by pseudo-artists seeking fame.

If you know what it’s like to selflessly love your children, I think you know what I’m talking about, but I only say that with the caveat that to develop as an artist you need to understand that your work really isn’t your baby. That means you’re willing to sacrifice anything within the work itself to perfect the work. The real killing takes place during the creative process, a sacrifice made within the creative work itself.

Creativity vs. Narcissism

rawmaterialNext, I’d like to return to the idea that creativity is the act of projecting internal resources outward. It’s not unusual, of course, to see an artist’s work as a representation of his or her experiences. Perhaps the best statement to this effect is Wordsworth’s 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads. But that’s only partly what I’m talking about.

What I really mean to allude to here is the artist’s management of emotional resources to create art (also the subject of Wordsworth’s Preface, by the way). When you create anything, you’re usually going to have to tap in to some reserve of emotional resources that allows you to create, or to some defining experience that has somehow created the person that you are, or to a compelling emotional need. Whatever that emotional core is, you will draw from it to create, and your creations will somehow be reflective of that.

Now I’m not talking about “writing what you know,” and I’m not claiming that all art is autobiographical. That is dealing with art in the realm of fact: character, plot, setting, etc. Content is interchangeable: the emotional core of a work is what I’m talking about. What makes Stephen King keep writing horror? What makes Nicholas Sparks keep writing romance? Why did Zane Grey focus on adventure and the west? In each case, the author’s creativity comes from some kind of inner emotional core, but that emotion varies widely by artist. It may be fear in some people, anger in others, romantic love in others, sex in others, or depression, or joy, or politics, or God, or just one specific woman or man… all of these result in very different creative products.

Now I’d like to add a caveat here: not everyone writes like this. Some writers (let’s just talk about writers for now) — and these are among the most productive professionals — see writing as a bag of tricks that they can manipulate expertly to any effect. But this meme artmemehere exists for a reason: talking about your art is a seemingly narcissistic enterprise. That’s why I started this post with a longish discussion of two films. It’s too easy to spend too much time talking about yourself when writing about the subject of creativity.

 

When I am able to write something, I have to manipulate emotional material. And that emotional material has to be linked to a word, an idea, or an image. But once I have distinct emotional material linked to a distinct image or word or line, I can write. I usually think next of poetic form — which poetic form is best suited to this content — and then I write.

Art and Its Sources

My history of creative writing began in a small way in high school, but in a much bigger way in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I started publishing poetry. And then I started graduate school in 1999, and my creative writing stopped almost completely. Around 2009 I started teaching 200 level creative writing classes, so I started writing again, and then in 2014 I hit some inspiration yet again and started writing poetry much more prolifically than I had in the past. In every period in which I wrote, I found some emotional content, latched onto it consciously and deliberately, found words for it, and wrote. But I’d like you to consider the variety of emotional content that we experience every day: it ranges from deep, long-term commitments to fleeting thoughts. However, when you turn any of those into a creative work, they all develop the same profile: they seem big and important.

10644949_713856375336016_5831366228878047703_nThat’s just not always the case subjectively, though. On more than one occasion during these writing spurts, I’ve had people close to me ask me some specific questions about my personal life because of the poems I’ve written. Are you okay? Need to talk? Alright, who is she? I totally understand that: the questions always reveal the insights of a friend who knows me. And if every poem that I wrote had the same emotional profile, particularly the one implied by the poem, I would need friends asking those questions.

Furthermore — and here we’re getting into territory that helps us interpret as well as create art — whenever I grab an emotion and turn it into a poem it becomes something else. Whatever the emotion was that I first relied upon to create is transformed in the creative process, so that the emotion communicated through the work is in somewhat different form the emotion present in the finished work. T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” has become for me, therefore, more than a significant theoretical work from the early twentieth century. I now understand it as a personal statement with some applicability to me.

So, you’ve read this far: very far. I think you deserve to have it all boiled down to a few bullet points. So here you go. If you want to create,

  • Care about the work itself above all else.
  • As a corollary:
    • Forget about yourself: think only about the work.
    • Forget about being a writer or artist. Focus on writing or creating art.
    • Forget about being creative. Focus on creating.
    • Forget about what other people think. What does the work do for you?
      • And forget that self-conscious assumption that your work is bad, which is always just fear of rejection. I’m going to break up with him/her before s/he breaks up with me.
    • Do whatever it takes to grab that emotion that will allow you to create.
    • But don’t be a sociopath. People are always more important than things: “Every thing that lives is holy.”
    • Create. If you want to be creative, create.

10371963_649270955163324_8959216672163100761_nI’d like to conclude by articulating an unspoken assumption that’s been guiding my thoughts so far. You actually need to know something about your art. You need to know its history, master its conventions, understand the theories behind it. I’ve been able to refer to a couple of texts about creativity here only because I’ve read them. You need to train your knowledge of your art academically. By “academically” I don’t necessarily mean for college credit, but by studying the field systematically. And you need to train or develop your taste. If you don’t develop your taste, you’ll be one of the worst kinds of artists: you will believe that only your own opinion about the work matters, and your opinion will suck. You’ll be an idiot about your own work. Good luck with that.

Final bit of advice: quit thinking about being creative. Quit studying being creative. Quit reading about being creative. Go out and create something. Above all else, quit being such a coward. Create. Become a god.

Recommendation for a New Movie Rating…

I took my twelve year old son to see Batman v. Superman yesterday. He enjoyed it. I enjoyed it. I thought it was flawed, don’t get me wrong, but I enjoyed it. I think I enjoyed it because I was watching it the same way my 12 year old son was watching it: with most critical faculties turned off.

And then I got onto Facebook today and saw responses to the film by a couple of friends of mine who were not only very disappointed in the film but so disappointed that they were very annoyed. I think this Mother Jones review speaks for them. They did not go to see the film with a twelve year old. They did not watch it with their critical faculties turned off. They did watch it as an extension and development of the DC films preceding this one. And they did not like it.

That’s when it hit me: we need a new movie rating system. Not one that takes into account nudity, violence, or swearing, as our current rating system does, but one that takes into account the mental age needed to enjoy the film.

So we know it’s rated PG-13. Without seeing it, we know there’s violence in the film and probably some language (I honestly don’t recall hearing any language or not).

Now suppose we also rated it MA-12. That would tell potential viewers they need a mental age of twelve years old in order to enjoy the film. A rating like this would tell viewers like me and my friends to scale their minds way back when they walk into the theater. Just don’t notice those gaps in plot or character motivation. Just allow the slimmest pretext to advance the plot to the next action scene, and then just enjoy the action scenes at face value: don’t question their plausibility (even given the world of the film), their respect for physics, or remember where you’ve seen those action sequences before.

I think if we had something like this the film might score a bit higher than 29% on Rotten Tomatoes.

By the way, Wonder Woman was in it, and she was really cool.

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