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Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

04 OCTOBER, 2013

Secrets of The Phantom Tollbooth: Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer on Creativity, Anxiety, and Failure

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“Failure is a process … you have to fail over and over and over again to get anything that’s worthwhile.”

In 1961, a young architect by the name of Norton Juster received a grant for a book on urban perception and settled down at his house in Brooklyn Heights to write it. Struggling with the process, however, he began toying with a playful story about a boy named Milo in an effort to distract himself from the burden of his workload, and showed his drafts to his neighbor, an emerging political cartoonist named Jules Feiffer. Juster never wrote the urbanism book — instead, he teamed up with Feiffer and together they dreamt up The Phantom Tollbooth, which went on to become one of the most celebrated children’s books of all time, brimming with timeless philosophy for grown-ups — its map of The Kingdom of Wisdom alone is a profound metaphor for curiosity and the human condition.

Map of The Kingdom of Wisdom from ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’

In 2011, to mark the 50th anniversary of the beloved classic, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Hannah Jayanti set out to capture the book’s remarkable legacy by offering a rare glimpse of its creative process in a documentary that follows Feiffer and Juster, both 82 at the time, as they reminisce about their historic collaboration and the lesser-known challenges of the project. The documentary, funded on Kickstarter, has now come to life. Hannah has kindly offered two exclusive clips from The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations — one of Juster and one of Feiffer, each reflecting on the core of his creative philosophy — for our collective enjoyment. In the first clip, Juster explores the reverse bell curve of pleasure that stretches across what he considers to be the three stages of writing — a notion that maps almost perfectly onto Malcolm Cowley’s four-step model, only fusing the first two steps into one — as he looks back on writing The Phantom Tollbooth:

It was a wonderful experience — wonderful in an odd sense, in that I always felt there were three steps in writing:

The first step, which is the anticipation of writing — wonderful, because there you are with an abstract idea, and you’re quite sure that you can do it, and it’s going to be quite wonderful, and you can visualize all the wonderful sales, the interviews, the reviews; you start to write your Nobel acceptance speech. And so that’s great, because there’s nothing real there, in the anticipation of writing.

Number three is the other end of that, having finished — and that’s a wonderful feeling, because number two is an agony all the way.

Juster echoes Kierkegaard on anxiety as an essential part of creativity, reminding us of John Keats’s notion of “negative capability” — the uncomfortable skill of tolerating uncertainty and the prospect of failure, so very crucial to all good art — and harking back to Tolstoy’s notion of “infectiousness” as the ultimate litmus test for creative success:

I find that writing … it’s so anxiety-making, it’s so tense, it’s so scary, it’s so full of danger of failure, that you wake up every morning and you’re not sure what’s going to happen, and you don’t know whether you’re going to be able to do it… You can feel what you want in the back of your head but can you and are you going to get it down on paper so someone else can feel the same.

Juster’s closing remark, however — the revelation that someone as magnificent as Maurice Sendak experienced the same cauldron of creative anxiety — is strangely yet immutably comforting.

In the second clip, Feiffer reflects on his experience as an art educator and the importance of teaching his students the art of making mistakes — and reminds us that the fear of failure so core to the creative experience, while toxic, is also our greatest chance for transcendence:

Failure is a process … you have to fail over and over and over again to get anything that’s worthwhile, and to try everything.

The full film premieres at the 2013 New Yorker Festival and is available for pre-order online. Complement it with the magnificent The Phantom Tollbooth 50th Anniversary Edition, which features reflections from such beloved authors and artists as Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, and Maurice Sendak.

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05 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Salinger and the Architecture of Personal Mythology

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How “a broken soldier and a wounded soul transformed himself, through his art, into an icon of the twentieth century and then, through his religion, destroyed that art.”

In 1951, The Catcher in the Rye catapulted J. D. Salinger into instant literary celebrity and the 65 million copies sold to date have stirred generations of dejected adolescents. Despite having spent his entire adult life aspiring to become a successful author, Salinger found himself unprepared for the avalanche of attention with which the novel swarmed him. He withdrew into himself, publishing new work less and less frequently, until in 1965, without warning or explanation, Salinger silently disappeared. But he kept writing every single day for the remaining forty-five years of his life.

What happened? Where did he go and why? What filled those private pages, and how did he fill his days?

That’s precisely what writer David Shields and screenwriter, producer, and director Shane Salerno investigate in Salinger: The Private War of J.D. Salinger (public library) — a masterwork of inquiry into the literary legend’s inner world, nearly a decade in the making, straddling Salinger’s death with five years on one side and three on the other.

J. D. Salinger spent ten years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it.

Before the book was published, he was a World War II veteran with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; after the war, he was perpetually in search of a spiritual cure for his damaged psyche. In the wake of the enormous success of the novel about the “prep school boy,” a myth emerged: Salinger, like Holden, was too sensitive to be touched, too good for this world. He would spend the rest of his life trying and failing to reconcile these completely contradictory versions of himself: the myth and the reality.

[…]

The critical and popular game over the past half-century has been to read the man through his works because the man would not speak. Salinger’s success in epic self-creation, his obsession with privacy, and his meticulously maintained vault — containing a large cache of writing that he refused to publish — combined to form an impermeable legend.

Landing at Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

But the legend, it turns out, was composed largely of fanciful half-truths — half-truths deliberately and systematically architected by Salinger himself who, like Freud and unlike Joyce, engineered his own myth:

Salinger was an extraordinarily complex, deeply contradictory human being. He was not — as we’ve been told — a recluse for the final fifty-five years of his life; he traveled extensively, had many affairs and lifelong friendships, consumed copious amounts of popular culture, and often embodied many of the things he criticized in his fiction. Far from being a recluse, he was constantly in conversation with the world in order to reinforce its notion of his reclusion. … Much has been made of how difficult it must have been for Salinger to live and work under the umbrella of the myth, which is undeniably true; we show the degree to which he was also invested in perpetuating it.

Shields and Salerno’s claim to difference is that, unlike previous biographies — which they divide into the distinct trifecta of inferior categories: “academic exegeses; necessarily highly subjective memoirs; and either overly reverential or overly resentful biographies that, thwarted by lack of access to the principals, settle for perpetuating the agreed-upon narrative” — this one turns to nearly half a century’s worth of never-before-seen letters to and from Salinger’s friends, lovers, wartime brothers-in-arms, spiritual teachers, and other previously untapped sources from his inner circle, many of whom had refused to speak with biographers until after Salinger’s death.

Salinger at McBurney Prep School.

This biography’s quest, Shields and Salerno note, is three-fold: To understand why Salinger stopped publishing at the height of his success, why he disappeared, and what he spent the last forty-five years of his life writing. That understanding is anchored to two turning points in the author’s life, at once conflicting and osmotic — the brutality he witnessed during World War II and his submergence into the Vedanta religion branching out of Hindu philosophy — presenting a poetic, if heartbreaking symmetry to Salinger’s own inner contradictions. They write:

This is the story of a soldier and writer who escaped death during World War II but never wholly embraced survival, a half-Jew from Park Avenue who discovered at war’s end what it meant to be Jewish. This is an investigation into the process by which a broken soldier and a wounded soul transformed himself, through his art, into an icon of the twentieth century and then, through his religion, destroyed that art.

'The Four Musketeers': (L–R) J. D. Salinger, Jack Altaras, John Keenan, Paul Fitzgerald.

Paul Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger with their beloved dogs.

And yet, without diminishing the remarkably rigorous research involved, it’s hard not to wonder whether Shields and Salerno, while sneering at the myth-weaving of previous biographies, are simply weaving a myth of their own — a story that is undeniably different from the commonly perpetuated mythology of Salinger’s life, but one that remains a story nonetheless, one driven by that ineffable yet palpably toxic desire to be right rather than to understand, to paint rather than to penetrate, to reduce the complexity and richness of a human being to a cultural currency of possibly shocking facts. As if to know one in life weren’t hard enough, to know one in death seems especially presumptuous. There’s an ever-so-slightly objectionable omniscience with which Shields and Salerno approach Salinger — not of his circumstances, but of his self; not of his biography, but of his being — to a point where he himself begins to read like a character:

Profoundly damaged (not only by the war), he became numb; numb, he yearned to see and feel the unity of all things but settled for detachment toward everyone’s pain except his own, which first overwhelmed and then overtook him. During his second marriage, he steadily distanced himself from his family, spending weeks at a time in his detached bunker, telling his wife, Claire, and children, Matthew and Margaret, “Do not disturb me unless the house is burning down.” Toward Margaret, who dared to embody the rebellious traits his fiction canonizes, he was startlingly remote. His characters Franny, Zooey, and Seymour Glass, despite or because of their many suicidal madnesses, had immeasurably more claim on his heart than his flesh-and-blood family.

Compounding those twinges of dramatization for effect, rather than inquiry for truth, is the fact that the biography accompanies the release of a documentary directed by Salerno, billing itself as “the motion picture event of the year,” complete with a Hollywood suspense-score and a thespian trailer:

And yet, though the trailer promises to reveal “the biggest secret of [Salinger's] lifetime,” the book admits that there isn’t one — at least not in that dramatic, box-office-ready way:

Salinger’s vault, which we open in the final chapter, contains character- and career-defining revelations, but there is no “ultimate secret” whose unveiling explains the man. Instead, his life contained a series of interlocking events — ranging from anatomy to romance to war to fame to religion — that we disclose, track, and connect.

Creating a private world in which he could control everything, Salinger wrenched immaculate, immortal art from the anguish of World War II. And then, when he couldn’t control everything — when the accumulation of all the suffering was too much for a human as delicately constructed as he to withstand — he gave himself over wholly to Vedanta, turning the last half of his life into a dance with ghosts. He had nothing anymore to say to anyone else.

This begs a question about the direction of cultural debt: When someone swells into celebrity, does he owe the world the innermost contents of his life and private self as the price of public acclaim, or does the public owe him the right of privacy and integrity of self to which every human being is entitled?

That, perhaps, is the most valuable takeaway from Salinger, which, questions of motive aside, remains an exquisitely researched and beautifully engineered piece of storytelling about one of modern history’s most enigmatic personas. What Shields and Salerno give us, above all, is an unprecedented look at the elaborate blueprint of a masterful architect of personal mythology.

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22 AUGUST, 2013

Ray Bradbury on Writing, Emotion vs. Intelligence, and the Core of Creativity

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“You can only go with loves in this life.”

Between 1973 and 1974, journalist James Day hosted the short-lived but wonderful public television interview series Day at Night. Among his guests was the inimitable Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920–June 5, 2012) — beloved writer, man of routine, tireless champion of space exploration, patron saint of public libraries, passionate proponent of doing what you love and writing with joy. Highlights from the interview, which has been kindly digitized by CUNY TV, are transcribed below.

On the misunderstood, and often dismissed, value of the fantasy genre:

The ability to fantasize is the ability to survive, and the ability to fantasize is the ability to grow.

On the scope-expanding quality of science fiction, something Isaac Asimov has attested to as well:

The great thing about growing up with science fiction is that you have an interest in everything.

On the formative influence of fairy tales and Greek myths

My aunt and my mother read to me when I was three from all the old Grimm fairy tales, Andersen fairy tales, and then all the Oz books as I was growing up… So by the time when I was ten or eleven, I was just full to the brim with these, and the Greek myths, and the Roman myths. And then, of course, I went to Sunday school, and then you take in the Christian myths, which are all fascinating in their own way… I guess I always tended to be a visual person, and myths are very visual, and I began to draw, and then I felt the urge to carry on these myths.

If I’m anything at all, I’m not really a science-fiction writer — I’m a writer of fairy tales and modern myths about technology.

Recounting how he got his foot in the door of a local radio station through the sheer force of persistence, Bradbury reflects on the broader role of doggedness in success:

I discovered very early on that if you wanted a thing, you went for it — and you got it. Most people never go anywhere, or want anything — so they never get anything.

On the supremacy of intuition over rationalization and the intellect’s propensity for immorality:

I never went to college — I don’t believe in college for writers. The thing is very dangerous. I believe too many professors are too opinionated and too snobbish and too intellectual, and the intellect is a great danger to creativity … because you begin to rationalize and make up reasons for things, instead of staying with your own basic truth — who you are, what you are, what you want to be. I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads “Don’t think!” You must never think at the typewriter — you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway.

On how the warping of that dynamic exposes the relationship between creativity and dishonesty, and why emotional excess is essential to creative work:

The worst thing you do when you think is lie — you can make up reasons that are not true for the things that you did, and what you’re trying to do as a creative person is surprise yourself — find out who you really are, and try not to lie, try to tell the truth all the time. And the only way to do this is by being very active and very emotional, and get it out of yourself — making things that you hate and things that you love, you write about these then, intensely. When it’s over, then you can think about it; then you can look, it works or it doesn’t work, something is missing here. And, if something is missing, then you go back and reemotionalize that part, so it’s all of a piece.

But thinking is to be a corrective in our life — it’s not supposed to be a center of our life. Living is supposed to be the center of our life, being is supposed to be the center — with correctives around, which hold us like the skin holds our blood and our flesh in. But our skin is not a way of life — the way of living is the blood pumping through our veins, the ability to sense and to feel and to know. And the intellect doesn’t help you very much there — you should get on with the business of living.

On how intuition and love, not intellectual understanding and rationalization, shape his poetry and prose, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:

If there is no feeling, there cannot be great art.

On the tremendous value of libraries in discovering ideas to fall in love with, embedded in which is a bittersweet reminder that in today’s search-driven culture, we’ve lost that magic of serendipitous discovery:

I use a library the same way I’ve been describing the creative process as a writer — I don’t go in with lists of things to read, I go in blindly and reach up on shelves and take down books and open them and fall in love immediately. And if I don’t fall in love that quickly, shut the book, back on the shelf, find another book, and fall in love with it. You can only go with loves in this life.

On why he turns to children’s books — something we share in common — for creative inspiration in his “serious” literary work:

I try to keep up with what’s being done in every field, and most children’s books are ten times more enjoyable than the average American novel right now.

He returns to the role of the emotional in anchoring all true art:

This is the emotional thing, you see — you must galvanize people, so they want to be completely alive and live forever, or the next thing to it. And out of that comes art, then, and survival through emotion.

On finding no conflict between religion and science because the mysterious is at the root of both and “ignorance” drives them — something Bradbury had previously explored in his unpublished poetry:

The processes we’re going through are two sides of the same coin, because everything ends in mystery — the scientists have theories, and the theologians have myths, and they are both the same thing, because we end up in ignorance. … We have to think about the unthinkable, which is what religion does and science does, too.

On finding your purpose and avoiding “work” by doing what you love:

[I love my work] intensely — I wouldn’t be in it if I ever stopped loving it, I would shift it and go over into something else. … I don’t think life is worth living unless you’re doing something you love completely, so that you get out of bed in the morning and want to rush to do it. If you’re doing something mediocre, if you’re doing something to fill in time, life really isn’t worth living. … I can’t understand people not living at the top of their emotions constantly, living with their enthusiasms, living with some sense of joy, some sense of creativity — I don’t care how small a level it is. … I don’t care what field it is though, and there’s gotta be a field for everyone, doesn’t there?

A resounding secular “Amen!” to that, Mr. Bradbury, and thank you for everything.

For more of Bradbury’s inimitable mind in conversation, see Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews by his official biographer, Sam Weller. Complement with the wonderful 1963 documentary Ray Bradbury: Story of a Writer and the beloved author on space exploration, libraries, and the meaning of life in his lost Comic Con interview, then revisit the collected wisdom of great writers.

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