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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

23 JANUARY, 2015

The Principle of Infinite Pains: Legendary Filmmaker Maya Deren on Cinema, Life, and Her Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers

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“The love of life itself… seems to me larger than the loving attention to a life. But, of course, each contains the other…”

Russian-born American filmmaker, poet, photographer, choreographer, and critic Maya Deren (April 29, 1917–October 13, 1961) endures as one of humanity’s most significant experimental filmmakers and champions of independent cinema. She was only twenty-six when she made the influential classic Meshes of the Afternoon, which remains required viewing for film students, visual storytellers, and general connoisseurs of creative culture alike. But Deren was also a masterful writer and film theorist, who authored dozens of articles in film journals and popular magazines, often included extensive program notes with her films, and self-published a chapbook of her writings. Nearly half a century after Deren’s sudden and premature death, the best of her written work was collected in Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film (public library) — a compendium of her views on cinema as an art form, the rewards and challenges of independent filmmaking, and broader questions of art, reality, and the creative process.

But arguably more revealing and insightful than all of her formal critical writings in the collection combined is a single letter Deren wrote in April of 1955, shortly before her thirty-eighth birthday, to James Card — film archivist for George Eastman House, the institution Deren was considering for representation and preservation of her archive. Card had invited her to send a reel of Meshes of the Afternoon and preview prints of her other films.

After a series of questions intended to assess whether George Eastman House would provide a proper home for her films and be a bastion of her legacy — Deren observes that “it may seem exaggerated to speak of a will,” a remark particularly poignant given her untimely death a few years later — she notes that she considers her films Ritual in Transfigured Time and A Study in Choreography for Camera “most representative” of her work, then writes:

Meshes of the Afternoon is my point of departure. I am not ashamed of it, for I think that, as a film, it stands up very well. From the point of view of my own development, I cannot help but be gently proud that that first film — that point of departure — had such relatively solid footing. This is due to two major facts: first, to the fact that I had been a poet up until then, and the reason that I had not been a very good poet was because actually my mind worked in images which I had been trying to translate or describe in words; therefore, when I undertook cinema, I was relieved of the false step of translating image into words, and could work directly so that it was not like discovering a new medium so much as finally coming home into a world whose vocabulary, syntax, grammar, was my mother tongue; which I understood and thought it, but, like a mute, had never spoken.

Noting that “the first speech of a mute is hoarse, ugly, virtually unintelligible,” Deren points to the second reason of her film’s success — the technical acumen and mechanical expertise of her husband and collaborator, Czechoslovakian filmmaker Alexander “Sasha” Hammid, who made sure the film didn’t sound like a mute’s “first speech.” Embedded in her specific gratitude is Deren’s general advice to aspiring filmmakers about the importance of technical mastery and painstaking attention to detail — especially regarding speech and sound — as the foundation for a well-executed creative vision:

My debt to him for teaching me the mechanics of film expression, and, more than that, the principle of infinite pains, is enormous. I wish that all these young film-makers would have the luck for a similar apprenticeship. As it is, when they revolt against the meaningless rhetoricians of film, they tend to throw out the baby with the bath water. They don’t bother to shape the lips and mouth carefully before letting the sound out, and ignore the fact that a good idea merits careful enunciation with the result that a good many of them sound, at best, like Marlon Brando… I mean, you just know he’s feelings things like crazy, but why doesn’t he take those marbles out of his mouth!

Maya Deren and Aleksander Hammid, 1940

But Deren places even greater importance on the role of movement. Reflecting on her film A Study in Choreography for Camera, she writes:

This principle — that the dynamic of movement in film is stronger than anything else — than any changes of matter… that movement, or energy is more important, or powerful, than space or matter — that, in fact, it creates matter — seemed to me to be marvelous, like an illumination, that I wanted to just stop and celebrate that wonder, just by itself…

And yet Deren offers a perfectly worded disclaimer to mistaking her insistence on technique for an absence of a deeper concern with creative vision, which she illustrates with an exquisitely insightful metaphor:

I have reticence about the more profound significance which is hard for me to explain except, perhaps, by analogy — the way a woman will look up and say to a man “That suit looks very well on you” instead of, “I love you. I am happy that you are here to look at.” The trouble is that people often think that technique is my primary consideration when I speak of techniques — just as if that man would begin discussing wholesale prices and yard goods, which would make the woman feel peculiar.

Similarly, Deren points out, the masterful technique for which her films were commended wasn’t an end of itself but merely a way for her to both access and articulate the deeper vision:

Each time one of those technical sequences buzzed in my head, like a beacon signaling “This way, this way,” it was because I was tuned to that frequency. I was not simply trying to get out of that room and go somewhere, anywhere, I was heading in a certain direction, and no matter how minute the crack that gave upon it, it was to pass through there that I labored. There may have been wide doors to both sides. I did not even try them for they did not give in my direction. And, looking back, it is clear that the direction was away from a concern with the way things feel and towards a concern with the way things are; away from personal psychology towards nerveless metaphysics. I mean metaphysics in the large sense… not as mysticism but beyond the physical in the way that a principle is an abstraction, beyond any particulars in which it is manifest.

She points to each of her films as complementary examples:

[Meshes of the Afternoon] externalizes an inner world to the point where it is confounded with the external world. At Land has little to do with the inner world of the protagonist; it externalizes the hidden dynamic of the external world, and here the drama results from the activity of the external world. It is as if I had moved from a concern with the life of a fish, to a concern with the sea which accounts for the character of the fish and its life. And Rituals pulls back even further, to a point of view from which the external world itself is but an element in the entire structure and scheme of metamorphosis: the sea itself changes because of the large changes of the earth.

Noting that her latest project, The Very Eye of Night — which would be her last finished film — had “taken [her] out in space about as far as [she] can go” and spurred her desire to explain why she considers Meshes of the Afternoon a “point of departure,” she zooms out into a wide view of her body of work:

Each film was built as a chamber and became a corridor, like a chain reaction.

Maya Deren (Still from 'Meshes of the Afternoon,' 1943)

But Deren’s most poignant point in the letter has nothing to do with her films themselves and everything to do with the spiritual foundation from which they spring. She recounts a recent awakening of sorts — the kind common to near-death experiences from which one emerges with a newfound gratefulness of the glory of life:

Last May I had an emergency operation; it was touch and go for a few hours there, and I came out of it with a rapidity that dazzled: one month from the date of that operation (I had to be slit from side to side) I was dancing! Then I actually realized that I was overwhelmed with the most wondrous gratitude for the marvelous persistence of the life force. In the transported exaltation of this moment, I wanted to run out into the streets and shout to everyone that death was not true! that they must not listen to the doom singers and the bell ringers! that life was more true! I had always believed and felt this, but never had I known how right I was. And I asked myself, why, then, did I not celebrate it in my art. And then I had a sudden image: a dog lying somewhere very still, and a child, first looking at it, and then, compulsively, nudging it. Why? to see whether it was alive; because if it moves, if it can move, it lives. This most primitive, this most instinctive of all gestures: to make it move to make it live. So I had always been doing with my camera… nudging an ever-increasing area of the world, making it move, animating it, making it live… The love of life itself… seems to me larger than the loving attention to a life. But, of course, each contains the other, and, perhaps, I have not so much traveled off in a direction as moved in a slow spiral around some central essence, seeing it first from below, and now, finally, from above.

Deren leaps spryly off this spiral of intensity into a playful sign-off:

Anyway, this is one way to look at that reel of film. You can’t say you haven’t been briefed!

Six years later, Deren died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage. She was forty-four. Essential Deren remains the most complete record and bewitching glimpse of the singular mind and spirit which produced some of the most influential visual masterworks of the twentieth century. Complement it with a contemporary counterpart — Werner Herzog’s compendium of reflections on film and life, which was among the best books of 2014.

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22 JANUARY, 2015

What to Do When Your Wife Is More Successful than You: Wise Advice from Tchaikovsky’s Father, 150 Years Ahead of Its Time

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“Married happiness is based upon mutual respect, and you would no more permit your wife to be a kind of servant, than she would ask you to be her lackey.”

Eastern Europe is not exactly a region known for empowering women and promoting gender equality. When I was growing up there in the 1980s, the gender norms for women — from appearance to domestic duties to self-actualization prospects — seemed stuck if not in the caveman era then at the very least in the preceding century. Imagine, then, how disorienting it must have been for an Eastern European man in that preceding century — a man of great ambition and genius, no less — to face the prospect of marrying a woman more successful than him. But that’s precisely what the great composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky confronted in late 1868 as he became infatuated with the prominent Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt, five years his senior — one of the world’s most famous women at the time, whom he had met earlier that year during the Russian tour of an Italian opera company that had caused a sensation in Moscow with Artôt’s performance.

From The Life and Letters of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (public library; public domain) — the same endlessly rewarding volume that gave us the great composer on work ethic vs. inspiration, the paradox of client work, and why you should never allow interruptions in your creative process — comes this magnificent exchange with his father, who provided wonderfully wise and heartening advice on love, creative purpose, and why a healthy ego thrives on equality rather than fearing it.

On January 7, 1869 — three decades after Darwin famously weighed the pros and cons of marriage — young Pyotr despairs in a letter to his father, Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky:

My friends … are trying might and main to prevent my marriage. They declare that, married to a famous singer, I should play the pitiable part of “husband of my wife”; that I should live at her expense and accompany her all over Europe; finally, that I should lose all opportunities of working, and that when my first love had cooled, I should know nothing but disenchantment and depression. The risk of such a catastrophe might perhaps be avoided, if she would consent to leave the stage and live entirely in Russia. But she declares that in spite of all her love for me, she cannot make up her mind to give up the profession which brings her in so much money, and to which she has grown accustomed. At present she is on her way to Moscow. Meanwhile we have agreed that I am to visit her in summer at her country house (near Paris), when our fate will be decided.

If she will not consent to give up the stage, I, on my part, hesitate to sacrifice my future; for it is clear that I shall lose all opportunity of making my own way, if I blindly follow in her train. You see, Dad, my situation is a very difficult one. On the one hand, I love her heart and soul, and feel I cannot live any longer without her; on the other hand, calm reason bids me to consider more closely all the misfortunes with which my friends threaten me. I shall wait, my dear, for your views on the subject.

Désirée Artôt

Three days later, he receives an exquisitely thoughtful and emboldening reply from his father, who writes:

My dear Pyotr,

You ask my advice upon the most momentous event in your life… You are both artists, both make capital out of your talents; but while she has made both money and fame, you have hardly begun to make your way, and God knows whether you will ever attain to what she has acquired. Your friends know your gifts, and fear they may suffer by your marriage — I think otherwise. You, who gave up your official appointment for the sake of your talent, are not likely to forsake your art, even if you are not altogether happy at first, as is the fate of nearly all musicians. You are proud, and therefore you find it unpleasant not to be earning sufficient to keep a wife and be independent of her purse. Yes, dear fellow, I understand you well enough. It is bitter and unpleasant. But if you are both working and earning together there can be no question of reproach; go your way, let her go hers, and help each other side by side. It would not be wise for either of you to give up your chosen vocations until you have saved enough to say: “This is ours, we have earned it in common.”

His father then goes on to address the specific admonitions issued by the composer’s friends, beginning with the notion that marrying a famous singer dooms him to “playing the pitiable part of attendant upon her journeys,” living on her earnings, and relinquishing his own prospects of gainful creative work. Tchaikovsky père writes:

If your love is not a fleeting, but solid sentiment, as it ought to be in people of your age; if your vows are sincere and unalterable, then all these misgivings are nonsense. Married happiness is based upon mutual respect, and you would no more permit your wife to be a kind of servant, than she would ask you to be her lackey. The traveling is not a matter of any importance, so long as it does not prevent your composing — it will even give you opportunities of getting your operas or symphonies performed in various places. A devoted friend will help to inspire you. When all is set down in black and white, with such a companion as your chosen one, your talent is more likely to progress than to deteriorate.

He then counters the caution that once the infatuation burns itself out, there will be only despondency left:

Even if your first passion for her does cool somewhat, will “nothing remain but disenchantment and depression”? But why should love grow cold? I lived twenty-one years with your mother, and during all that time I loved her just the same, with the ardor of a young man, and respected and worshipped her as a saint…

There is only one question I would ask you: have you proved each other? Do you love each other truly, and for all time? I know your character, my dear son, and I have confidence in you, but I have not as yet the happiness of knowing the dear woman of your choice. I only know her lovely heart and soul through you. It would be no bad thing if you proved each other, not by jealousy — God forbid — but by time.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for a book version of Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker.' Click image for more.

The story would be delightful if it ended there, with a “happily ever after” addendum. But real life — especially for those whose souls are ablaze with the great fire of genius, which can sometimes burn as it illuminates — is always messier than such fable-like idyls.

Ilya’s final point turned out to be the most insightful of all, for young Tchaikovsky’s infatuation with Artôt didn’t stand the test of time — in large part because the composer’s attractions up to that point had been to men, and — as both his official biographers and his brother’s autobiography have demonstrated — he experienced tremendous inner turmoil over his homosexuality and went to great lengths to suppress it. (This fact was expunged from history for more than a century, which is hardly surprising given Russia’s history of LGBT rights violations. Even Brain Pickings, even today, has been repeatedly blocked in Russia for featuring LGBT artists and writers, thus violating the gobsmacking “gay ban” instituted by Putin’s administration. It must be terribly aggravating for a government whose formalized bigotry is among the world’s worst failures of human rights to acknowledge that the country’s greatest composer was a gay man; it’s unsurprising that censors would go to obscene lengths to obscure and outright falsify that fact — including, for instance, suppressing entire sections of Modest Tchaikovsky’s autobiography, in which he chronicles his brother’s homosexuality.) Artôt, after all, was the Cher of her day — it’s possible that Tchaikovsky was taken with her as a diva to be worshipped rather than a lover to be possessed. Similar instances can be found elsewhere in the fossil record of LGBT history — Hans Christian Anderson, who never married or had children, was infatuated for a time with the famous Swedish opera diva Jenny Lind, and Oscar Wilde married the socialite Constance Lloyd in the midst of his long love affair with Sir Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.

But the actual break wasn’t initiated by Tchaikovsky — on September 15 that year, to the composer’s shock, she married a Spanish member of her opera company. According to Tchaikovsky biographer Anthony Holden, the marriage was likely prompted by pressure from Artôt’s mother who, upon finding out about the composer’s orientation, took every measure to ensure her daughter wouldn’t marry him — the surest strategy for which, evidently, was to push her into matrimony with another man.

Eight years later, Tchaikovsky married Antonina Ivanovna — a young woman who had been flooding him with fervent fan mail. The marriage was acutely short-lived — mere hours after the wedding ceremony, the composer was gripped with the terror of having made a grandiose mistake. Despite trying to make a go of it, the couple’s emotional and sexual incompatibility crescendoed two and a half months later, and they split. Although they remained legally married, they never lived together again and Antonia mothered three children by another man. A few months after his failed marriage, Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter to his brother Anatoly:

There’s no doubt that for some months on end I was a bit insane and only now, when I’m completely recovered, have I learned to relate objectively to everything which I did during my brief insanity. That man who in May took it into his head to marry Antonina Ivanovna, who during June wrote a whole opera as though nothing had happened, who in July married, who in September fled from his wife, who in November railed at Rome and so on — that man wasn’t I, but another Pyotr Ilyich.

But for the rest of his life, Tchaikovsky maintained that Artôt had been the only woman he ever loved.

Many more of the great composer’s beautiful and strangely assuring complexities and contradictions can be found in The Life and Letters of Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. Complement this particular piece with Wendell Berry on what the poetic form reveals about the secret of marriage and Amelia Earhart’s remarkably progressive requirements for matrimony.

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15 JANUARY, 2015

The Art of Tough Love: Samuel Beckett Shows You How to Give Constructive Feedback on Your Friends’ Creative Work

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“If I were less concerned with you I should simply say it is very good.”

If it is the duty of friends to hold up a mirror to one another, as Aristotle believed, and if true friendship is the dual gift of truth and tenderness, as Emerson eloquently argued, then it is a chief task of friendship to hold up a truthful but tender mirror to those things which the friend holds most dear — including the labors of love that are one’s creative work.

By this definition, the great Irish novelist, playwright, poet, and Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett revealed himself as a true friend to Aidan Higgins — a young Irish writer living in South Africa, for whom Beckett has remained a lifelong influence. (Beckett was also deeply invested in the fate of civil rights in South Africa and, in protesting the country’s apartheid, placed an embargo on his plays being performed before segregated audiences.)

In the spring of 1958, 31-year-old Higgins — then a rising star described as “a Rimbaud in search of an Africa” — sent 52-year-old Beckett one of his short stories, hoping that it might be a fit for the literary journal Botteghe Oscure, with which Beckett had significant editorial pull. Alas, Beckett deemed the story unsuitable, but sent Higgins an exquisite letter of constructive feedback on how it might be improved, found in the altogether revelatory tome The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 3, 1957–1965 (public library).

Samuel Beckett by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Beckett opens with a cushion of assurance, indicating his affectionate intent and respect for Higgins by noting his initial reluctance to criticize, but then puts into action Emerson’s conviction that a friend is a person with whom one may be sincere“I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage,” Emerson wrote. “When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.” — and instead argues that constructive criticism is part of the creative communion between kindred spirits:

My reluctance to comment has become overpowering. I hate the thought of the damage I may do from such unwillingness and such incapacity. If I were less concerned with you I should simply say it is very good, I like it very much, but don’t see where to send it, and leave it at that. But I don’t want to do that with you. And at the same time I know I can’t go into it in a way profitable for you. This is not how writers help one another.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton courtesy of the artist

Taking care to note that offering criticism is a “terrible effort” for him, Beckett goes on to offer a detailed deconstruction of Higgins’s weaker points of style, from small typos — remember, this was decades before spellcheck and a writer this young was probably unable to afford a copy-editor — to a particularly meticulous itemization of overindulgent similes:

“menacing as banners” … “cumbersome as manacles” … “ponderous as Juggernaut” … “colossal as a ship’s hull” … “reckless as the sibyl of Cumae” … “Indelicate as chinaware” … “incorrigible as murder” … You want to be careful about that.

Beckett also reveals himself as a master of the compliment-criticism-compliment sandwich, remarking on a passage that begins on the fourth page of the manuscript:

Up to there I had read with only very trifling reserves and with admiration for the firmness and precision and rapidity of the writing. This quietly is present throughout and I do not mean that those passages are devoid of it… I simply feel a floundering and a laboring here and above all a falsening of position… I suppose it is too sweeping to say that expression of the within can only be from the within. There is in any case nothing more difficult and delicate than this discursive [explaining] of a word which is not to be revealed as object of speech or as source of speech… The vision is so sensitive and the writing so effective when you stop blazing away at the microcosmic moon that results are likely to be considerable when you get to feel what is possible prey and within the reach of words (yours) and what is not.

Folded into the particularities of his critique is a spectacular general point on writing — Beckett frequently seeds those throughout his letters — making an apt admonition, especially timely today, against the rush to publish:

Work, work, writing for nothing and yourself, don’t make the silly mistake we all make of publishing too soon.

Five weeks later, Higgins wrote to a friend: “He wrote an extensive criticism of [the story] which was probably more helpful than publication.” The following year, shortly before the release of Higgins’s first book, Beckett wrote to another friend: “I think he is very promising and should be encouraged.”

The Letters of Samuel Beckett is an infinitely absorbing read in its entirety, full of Beckett’s insights on literature, life, love, and more. Complement it with this compendium of advice on writing from some of humanity’s greatest writers, then revisit Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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