Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Another time, I called a poet-friend and asked, “How would you characterize my work?” I had to write a paragraph for a poetry contest. I was amazed when she spoke about it in depth for 15 minutes.
That is one solution: To ask people we know and trust what our work means to them, what the important themes are, what the original contribution to the art is, what they love about what we produce.
I am sure if I asked you about your favorite filmmaker, you could be quite articulate about what you appreciate in that person’s work and how it has helped your own artistic path, right?
Frank: Many films blow me away. That being said, I’ll pick Barry Levinson (“Diner”, “Rain Man”). He has a way of creating characters, constructing scenes and managing emotions that goes right to my heart. This subtle magic is difficult to attain; yet, in his capable hands, it is compelling and deeply involving.
Ann: What is your favorite scene in “Diner”?
Frank: In this film, Daniel Stern hangs out at the diner with the guys and feels resentful that he has to go home to his new bride, Ellen Barkin. There is a scene where he is angry with her for putting his albums back wrong. “You can’t just put my records back any way you want!” he yells, “Pink Floyd is P! It goes between O and Q!” She doesn’t get it and he is practically crying.
This scene, both absurd and real, twists my mind and breaks my heart.
At home, Ellen Barkin carelessly rearranges one of Daniel’s albums—much like his life. Pink Floyd typically champions resistance against institutions in songs such as "The Wall”; even Pink Floyd encourages him to resist the constraints of marriage. In this perfect metaphor, Daniel’s new wife has stuffed his rebellion and disordered his life all at once.
Daniel, caught between two worlds—the old that sustained him, and the
new that attracted him, has a meltdown. His confusion and pain feel real to the audience.
Frank: That’s a terrific scene analysis and my appreciation of it.
Ann: How would you talk about your own work now to someone who has never seen it?
Frank: “’A Man Thinking About Having An Affair’ is a documentary where simple gestures communicate complex emotions and where vulnerable people are challenged by their choices.” I like that phrasing because it makes the work seem interesting without sounding overly promotional.
Ann: Can you take what you’ve said and apply it to explain the plot?
Frank: The main character, in his late 50s, is not getting along with his wife. He runs into a woman he’s always been attracted to and goes on a date with her. The story then examines attraction, love, desire, loyalty, honor — it digs deeper into the man’s thoughts and emotions in scenes with a therapist, where the man tries to understand his feelings.
Ann: It sounds like you’re fascinated with people in the process of becoming more authentic. This transformation may be ongoing for all of us; but a constellation of events or a critical decision by a character may trigger life-changing momentum. .
Frank: “A Man Thinking About Having an Affair” is about self-exploration — about me finding out about myself. My other film, “A Perfect Stranger”, is partially that. I like your phrase “becoming more authentic.” Therapy is a standard way to explore one’s self; a more unorthodox way is to make art. My film Montreal Main did both and was creatively the most successful thing I’ve done.
Ann: I’m not surprised. When artists take personal, emotional risks—the self exploration you describe—their work becomes more authentic. James Joyce said that the in the specific we find the universal. People identify with the character’s struggle. That’s what art does: transform both the character and viewer. The ancient Greeks who knew the ending of Oedipus Rex, wanted to see it again and again. That’s the pull of great art.
So, now, what are you going to do to promote your films? What does your inner advocate say? Anything new or different you might consider?
Frank: Two things that stand out from our conversation are “small emotional gestures conveying complex emotions” and the necessity to take personal risks. What’s new and different is talking about my work in the same scary way that I make the stuff in the first place.
Ann: That’s true: that vulnerable place also the place from where we must promote our art. We can make it feel safer by talking first to peers, people we trust—and also ask them for ideas how to promote our work. Every artist needs a brain trust—two or more friends who believe passionately in the person’s creativity ability and who will speak truthfully about it.
Frank: Serendipitously, I am days away from completing my enhanced eBook, The Metropolis Organism, an electronic book with audio and video. Over the course of this interview, I have sent 800 invitations to my January 29th book launch party. That month I will exhibit book stills on the wall at the Nyack (NY) Starbucks. A friend is doing publicity for the launch and marketing thereafter. Another, a professional media specialist, has agreed to get me onto local radio and TV,and to see where it goes from there.
I had been nervous thinking about getting to the marketing phase. But I don’t feel nervous now that friends and others are taking me seriously and are willing, even enthusiastic, to help.
Thank you, Ann.
Ann: You’re welcome, Frank. You add an important final note—there is an appropriate, even welcomed, place in our lives for the advocate. Yours is doing well. Keep up the great work, and congratulations on your outrageously inventive book! It deserves all the energy your advocate can muster.
Monday, September 14, 2009
I am pleased to discuss with Ann Cefola the second stage in her strategy to manage the creative process:
Frank: Ann, you’ve given us permission to play unencumbered. I imagine a child finger painting. But I want to create something professional to communicate with other people. How do I get from here to there?
Ann: Your challenge as an artist is to access that child-space where you can have fun, create new worlds and—as you say—get your hands messy. Once you have exhausted yourself that way, you need to back off from the work. Even the subconscious—the inner child—needs a break, nap time, milk and cookies, whatever!
Once you’ve guided that child, whom I call the Wunderkind, out of the room, it’s time to invite in the Editor. The Editor loves to create order out of chaos. The Editor will sort, select, try out, rearrange. More adult than the Wunderkind, the Editor is also playful and daring: like a teenager with some knowledge and the adrenaline to try something new.
Frank: I’m glad that I can still play. I thought the Editor was going to be a taskmaster and I’d have to be clear-headed and detached. I’m not sure I am capable of that.
What does the Editor look like at work?
Ann: When you get tired after sustained creative activity or don’t know what to do next, that’s time to call in the Editor. You may have a longing for order—to rearrange dishes, sort through clothes, or clear the basement. Those transition activities can help summon your Editor. They create time and space for a shift to occur in both your brain and environment.
There’s a definite shift. To create a manuscript, I may spread poems on the floor. My Editor will quickly select and group them, put them together and pull them apart. It feels fun and intuitional—I have no idea where my Editor is leading. Days later, I may move several poems. My Editor is fine-tuning. I trust her completely.
Another way to invoke the Editor is before sleep. I can think, “I need help editing this poem.” It’s like placing an order: I go to sleep while my Editor turns on the lamplight and gets to work. The next day there may be some new ideas.
What would you ask your Editor for help with?
Frank: I want to know if my work makes sense, communicates, engages – in short, is it any good?
Ann: You would ask, “Is there anything I need to do to improve the film?” You might live with that question for a week. Step away from the creative churning for a while.
Frank: I am curious how your Editor interrelates with other Editors—in workshops, writers groups and with writer-friends?
Ann: My Wunderkind loves workshops and sharing work with others. She enjoys seeing what other people are doing. She finds inspiration and challenge among other artists.
Editing, however, is a solo practice. If a document is circulated, edits input by each person require quiet and focus. In graduate workshops, when 15 Editors suggested edits, I never knew which had the most merit; many were contradictory. My Editor felt overloaded and overwhelmed.
Teachers encouraged us to find two or three people we could turn to over a literary lifetime. Integrity is crucial here: Editors who constantly applaud work are useless. Similarly, Editors who do not understand the poet’s intent offer no value. I am blessed to know two award-winning poets whose Editors love to work with my Editor. We know we are there to support, challenge and promote one another’s work.
Frank: I learned something about giving feedback from my film class. For the first five years I taught it, I critiqued students’ one-page scripts. One semester, I got two scripts, one well written and the other—an incoherent script.
While the good writer made a so-so film, the incoherent writer created a spectacular one. I realized their scripts could not wholly convey their ideas; furthermore, my criticism could have been destructive. For 25 years now, I haven’t critiqued student scripts. I find what is good in them and bring that to students’ attention. This unconditional love works wonders—their film quality is much better.
Ann: Your story illustrates the interplay between the Wunderkind and the Editor beautifully. That student with the tidy script allowed her Editor to participate in her project too soon. Sure, she could hand in a great script—but the Editor’s continued presence created a less than adventuresome project.
The second student, with the crazy script, allowed her Wunderkind to be in control—its incoherence shows that a preverbal Wunderkind was guiding her project! That audaciousness and playfulness continued into the film.
Here’s the lesson: The Wunderkind and Editor cannot be in the room at the same time. The Wunderkind thrives on creative chaos and the Editor on patterns and order. If the Wunderkind is playing, the Editor will say, “What on earth are you doing? Here, let’s clean this up now!” And the Wunderkind looks around meekly and shrugs, “Okay.” Editors by nature are authoritative and that’s intimidating to the Wunderkind.
I once coached a man who could not get started writing his manuscript. I explained that his Editor was in the room. “What will you say to your Editor to make him leave?” I asked. He thought and said, “’I value you and will need you later. Right now, I am asking you to leave.’” After that, his manuscript poured out in a matter of months.
It takes 10 years for the Editor to learn his or her chosen craft. And, once we learn those rules, we can break them. That’s the Editor’s choice too. That’s why the Editor can end up being just as playful as the Wunderkind—but in a more adult, conscious, deliberate way.
What does the Wunderkind feel like to you? Your Editor? When do you know they are battling?
Frank: My Wunderkind is fear. When I explore a project, I feel it’s good it if it scares me. For my last documentary, “A Perfect Stranger,” I would go to Starbucks or Washington Square Park, find someone that interested me based on their appearance, then ask if I could do an in-depth profile on them.
Approaching strangers is scary. So is pushing them to reveal who they are. I paralleled the idea with an attempt to find out who I am. Now that’s really scary! (see the doc at: http://www.vitaleproductions.com/-/frank_vitale_new_work_%26_projects.html )
I like walking on the edge. To me, art is on the edge.
Ann: Georgia O’Keeffe spoke about walking a knife’s edge, knowing she will probably fall off, but being compelled to do so anyway. If you think about it, a kid would never have any problem walking up to a stranger and saying, “I want to make a movie about you.”
When the Editor is in charge, make sure the Wunderkind doesn’t sneak back in. The Editor needs solitude. If a novelist is putting final touches on a book, the Wunderkind might say, “Let’s have aliens land in Chapter 3,” or “Why can’t the main character live happily ever after instead of dying?” Sometimes there can be valuable insights but mostly it’s an attempt to derail completion.
In the final moments of completing a project, stay tuned with that energy that brought you to this point. Say, “I still don’t know where this is going, but I trust the outcome.” If you are picturing reviews, visualizing the audience, take a break. Do what you need to do to get back in your zone—whether saying a prayer, doing a little writing, or going somewhere for a walk. Art is a spiritual practice and any background noise needs to be addressed.
Frank: That is really useful and I know it will be to others as well.
Thank you, Ann. This has been great. I look forward to the final character in your triumvirate, the Advocator.
Ann: My pleasure, Frank! Next time we’ll talk about getting our work out in the world.