01 November 2009

"If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh!"

I've been thinking lately of Preston Sturges' 1941 comedy, Sullivan's Travels, even though I haven't seen it since I was in college five or six years ago (holy shit, really?). The "message" of the film has remained with me, and as I'm currently in a somewhat fallow period inspirationally speaking (someone give me an assignment fer Christ's sake!), it's cropped up in my mind as a creative beacon.

For those of you who haven't seen it - and though I'm kind of giving away the ending, I'm not really spoiling it for you, and it's not like you were going to watch it anyway - Sullivan's Travels follows a young hotshot film director who wants to make an extremely serious film about the plight of the poor working classes, one with a title you may recognize: O Brother, Where Art Thou? The studios just want him to make more silly comedies, but he says "Fuck that noise" and travels the United States disguised as a homeless wanderer to gain insight for his masterpiece. Zany misadventures involving Veronica Lake ensue. At the end of the film, the director is on a chain gang and living a miserable life. When the prisoners are given a brief respite to watch a Disney cartoon and laugh their asses off, he realizes that silly comedies, by giving the working classes a chance to let loose and be happy, do more good for them than pretentious dramas.

Frankly, I prefer The Lady Eve. Barbara Stanwyck was the shit.

It reminds me of what my college professors told me about Sergei Eisenstein and the invention of montage. He wanted to wield it like a plow, furrowing the brains of viewers so that the seeds of Soviet Communism could take bloom and lead to the true worker's paradise. As it turned out, regular ol' Ivan Ivanov hated that shit, and preferred to be propagandized by Hollywood pastiches. Maybe that's why I Am Cuba never took off as it was supposed to (it is a brilliant fucking movie, by the way).

How does this relate to me? Ideally, I would have oodles of money to make movies about any subject I damn well like - the demolition of the Edwardian Era by World War I, for example, or the colonization of an alien world by rapacious humans (wait...cross that one off). But I don't have oodles of money, so when I write something I want to film, I have to keep in mind what resources I do have - namely, whatever people, props, and locations are available in everyday life, and that's if I'm lucky. And so that leads to ideas of what might be called, for want of a better term, social realism, which have an unfortunate tendency to be not so entertaining.

While I don't agree with Sullivan that all downtrodden people want or need to see are mindless comedies, I do think that if you're going to create a work of art for the general public, it better not bore the fuck out of them. While we cinephiles may be able to endlessly debate and analyze every "Chaos reigns" moment a provocateur throws our way, most folks just want to have a good time. And I want to give them a good time while also telling stories that interest and captivate me, and that hold a certain degree of truth about human life. It's not the type of thing I think about before embarking on a project - "Hold on, what does this torture porn say about our daily existence?" - but if you're being honest with your characters and your story, it will emerge naturally. Star Trek may be sci-fi, but people recognize that all Kirk really wants to do is get his fuck on.

The best compliment I can receive is not an award (sorry, Project Twenty1), but a person coming up to me or a collaborator and saying "I went through something just like that." We get it a lot with Duly Noted - it seems as if everyone has had a roommate who leaves dumb, anal sticky notes as reminders or warnings - and that is probably why it's the film we get complimented on the most. But I've heard stories of former emergency personnel identifying with The Tin God, and a woman once told us that she had dated a guy just like Spencer in TUMBLER: the boom, God help her.

Maybe that's the highest goal of art: letting people know that they're not alone, and that we're all in this together, whatever it is.

After writing all that, I'm no closer to hitting upon a solid story idea than I was at the beginning. This is stuff I think about, but when it comes to brainstorming, I have to put it behind me and search elsewhere. Starting from the point of "I want to write a script that addresses the following modern issues" will result in didacticism. You just have to open your mind and your gut and hope something wanders in. And when it does, you know it instantly. Like the pearl growing in a clam, it starts off as a small grain of sand you latch onto, slowly building it up with additional nuggets and goodies until it's a beautiful curio to place on the shelf.

See what I mean? I wasn't feeling that simile, but I wrote it anyway. And now look at the fine mess we're in.

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