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Posts Tagged ‘film’

19 NOVEMBER, 2014

Creative Value of Staying Loose: MacArthur Geniuses on the Art of “Connected Irrelevance”

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“Cut short of the floundering and you’ve cut short the possible creative outcomes. Cheat on the chaotic stumbling-about, and you’ve robbed yourself of the raw stuff that feeds the imagination.”

The history of the term “genius” is as long and convoluted as the term’s modern usage is nebulous and arbitrary. It’s hard to even agree on the greatest genius who ever lived, yet alone on who today is worthy of the label. But if there is one entity that confers that honor more unambiguously than anything else, it is the MacArthur Foundation’s fellowship, colloquially known as the “genius grant,” which occupies in today’s popular imagination a place partway between fairy godmother and patron saint of creativity.

In the late 1980s, former trial lawyer Denise Shekerjian read a newspaper account of how the prestigious award was bestowed upon the creative individuals selected by the MacArthur Foundation’s secret committee — a mysterious phone call informed the lucky recipient that she or he has been awarded a generous six-figure grant ($350,000 then; $625,000 now), with no strings attached, to continue pursuing her or his chosen field of creative endeavor. Fascinated by the notion, Shekerjian set out to investigate what made these fortunate individuals worthy of the generous grant and the “genius” status it conferred.

The result was the slim, near-forgotten, and immeasurably insightful 1991 book Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born (public library | IndieBound) — a collection Shekerjian’s conversations about creativity with 40 diverse recipients of the coveted award — artists, writers, scientists, composers, filmmakers, a translator, a Mayan epigraphist, and a creative universe in between. Applying the essential pattern-recognition of creativity, Shekerjian then synthesized these interviews into several core insights on what it takes and what it means to reach genius-level creativity.

Among them is the concept of “staying loose” — an antidote to the misguided myth of the “a-ha moment” as a core of the creative process, emphasizing instead the zigzag nature of the creative life and the importance of “the long period of uncertainty that precedes the magic moment of epiphany,” or what the poet John Keats called “negative capability” and what Rilke meant when he extolled “living the questions.”

Painting by Maira Kalman from her unusual alphabet book, 'Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag.' Click image for more.

Lamenting how traditional accounts of genius focus on the precise moment of creative breakthrough and thus “neglect the very soil from which the creative flower blooms,” Shekerjian — whose prose is itself delight-granting genius — considers why at the outset of a creative journey “a period of uncertainty is a helpful state of affairs” and writes:

Cut short of the floundering and you’ve cut short the possible creative outcomes. Cheat on the chaotic stumbling-about, and you’ve robbed yourself of the raw stuff that feeds the imagination.

For many of us, staying loose is an uncomfortable, unsettling feeling if sustained for too long. Ambiguity is confusing, even alarming. We like to frame our inquiries in sharply delineated terms and prefer clean, tidy resolutions to yes or no dictions. Fuzzy circumstances, the ragtag and bobtail of daily uncertainty, exhaust us. It’s much nicer, we think, to have our options cast as either black or white, entirely excluding the hazy middle zones of gray.

Creative people, by contrast, seem to have a great tolerance for the ambiguous circumstances that begin most projects and are more accepting, even welcoming, of this unstructured time. They aren’t lusting after quick outcomes or definitive bottom lines. They are more willing to entertain a prolonged period of leisurely drifting about, curious to see where the unpredictable currents will take them. From this lightness of spirit come the fruits of imagination; there will be plenty of time for the sweat of exertion later on.

Many of the MacArthur “geniuses” she interviewed echoed this notion of staying loose — from poet Douglas Crase’s case for “the dim and mushy start” of a poem to Mayan scholar David Stuart’s faith in the revelatory discoveries that come about by randomly sifting through stacks of hieroglyphics. But one of the most enchanting articulations comes from poet, novelist, and essayist Brad Leithauser, who was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 1983:

In every field, things get so specialized. The generalist — and artists are often, by necessity, generalists — winds up feeling a sense of futility. At the moment I’m trying, for example, to write about Kobo Abe, the Japanese novelist. I’m reading him, as I have to, in English. There are Japanese souls who have spent the last few decades pondering him. Am I going to come up with anything new and special? Well, my hope is yes. I cling to the optimistic belief that the haphazard and the hopscotch, the creature that sips among many flowers, may actually come up with something. It’s finally an irrational belief, in most cases, an unrealistic goal. But one holds to the sense that just sipping broadly enough, from enough flowers, strange and fruitful pollinations will arise.

(Shekerjian herself is a wonderful meta-testament to this notion — at the time she began working on the book, there were 6,822 “hits on creativity in print” in the library database, a number that seems laughably endearing today when a search for “creativity” yields 173,000,000 Google results in 0.49 seconds, but one that she found discouraging at the time. And yet she performed precisely this kind of loose flower-hopping that rendered her book exceptional then, and even more exceptional now, even amid our Googletopia where we struggle to extract true wisdom in the age of information.)

Frederick Wiseman by Gretje Ferguson

Staying loose is also how legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman — “a master of uncertainty, the grandmaster of the documentary,” per Shekerjian, and the recipient of the “genius grant” in 1982 — makes his celebrated movies.

Shekerjian points to his first film, Titicut Follies, which tells the story of the inmates at the Massachusetts Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The 1967 film was so controversial that after winning a number of film festival awards, a federal judge ruled that it could only be shown to mental health professionals and law students, leading Wiseman to later boast that it was “the only document of any sort — films, books, plays — in American constitutional history that has a partial ban on its use other than a matter involving national security or obscenity.” And yet, despite the restrictions, the film took on an underground life of its own and went on to become a cult-classic among civil libertarians. (Since the dawn of the digital-media age, the film is now available to all.) Wiseman went on to make a film a year, exploring “the way we live, our institutions, our stress.”

He was thirty-six at the time and, as Shekerjian puts it, “too old, some might say, to have given up his solid law career in order to take up, willy-nilly, some artsy thing like filmmaking.” But, like writer Michael Lewis, he did. His crew consisted of a photographer and a young writer named David Eames, who later wrote about his experience with Wiseman in a New York Times article, articulating the subtle but crucial difference between staying loose and being wholly unmoored from any creative vision:

I don’t think Fred had any notion that this project, so vaguely conceived, so loosely defined, so fuzzy and wacky and chancy, would turn out to be, a long year later, a film called Titicut Follies. Which is not to suggest he didn’t know what he was doing… Part of his genius lies in his unilateral trust in his own instincts and his unswerving dedication to them.

Shekerjian writes:

All of his movie projects begin the same way: with only a very broadly constructed feeling for the subject matter, almost no preparation or research, and as few preconceptions as possible about what he’ll find in the institution he has decided to investigate.

He enters a scene quietly, casually. He leans up against walls, he wanders, he lingers, he observes. He doesn’t work with a script… He doesn’t stage the action. He doesn’t direct the people he shoots. In these initial weeks of the project, he isn’t interested in proving a point or fleshing out a theory or chasing down an angle. He rambles. He roams. He sinks into the chaotic welter of detail and doesn’t worry about trying to make sense of it all.

[…]

The approach is loose, hazy, open. Some of what he films makes no sense to him… He’ll think about it later. In the meantime, he stays open, available.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

The point, in essence, is that the “temperament of receptivity” Oscar Wilde believed was required to appreciate art is also required to create it — a permeable membrane between mind and world is what allows the creative force to flow through, to transmute one into the other and back again, until the final work of genius is birthed. Much of creative genius, however, lies in the editing process that chooses what flows in and what flows out — what French polymath Henri Poincaré had in mind when he asserted that to invent is to choose. Considering the role of critical judgment in Wiseman’s genius, Shekerjian captures this elegantly:

The editing process — creating form from chaos — is at the heart of his art.

“Staying loose” is essentially a matter of open-mindedness, or what modern psychologists like to call “divergent thinking.” Writing in an era when cognitive psychology — the very discipline whose output now feeds an entire industry of pop-psychology publishing — was “an emerging territory of science,” Shekerjian highlights the work of pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and cites one particularly fascinating study he conducted with a colleague:

In the experiment, art students were asked to select and arrange objects from which they were to create a still-life drawing. Analyzing the results, the team discovered a relationship between the procedures of the students and the quality of their products and professional standing seven years later. The most creative among them (as judged by their eventual commercial success, which in a field as slippery as creativity is as valid a standard as any) played with more objects, inspected them more carefully, and chose more unusual objects for their compositions. They tended not to have a clear and precise idea of the sort of principle they wanted to capture in their drawings, but rather discovered the arrangement through the handling, positioning, and repositioning of the objects. And even as they proceeded to finalize their drawings, they continued to change and adjust the position of the objects as well as to experiment with different paper.

This, Shekerjian notes, is empirical evidence that “staying loose in the early stages of a project greatly improves the chances for a more creative result.” But there is another reason to “embrace a period of rambling discovery” — it opens us up to unexpected influences that might at first appear unrelated to our creative endeavor but end up enriching it enormously. This is what legendary educator Abraham Flexner meant in his spectacular 1939 case for the usefulness of useless knowledge. (The recent boom in biomimicry in solving design problems is an excellent example.) Considering this parallel benefit of staying loose, something she poetically terms connected irrelevance, Shekerjian writes:

What blocks a creative solution to a problem is often an overly narrow and single-minded concentration from a single frame of reference. The person who can combine frames of reference and draw connections between ostensibly unrelated points of view is likely to be the one who makes the creative breakthrough.

Illustration by Bhajju Shyam from 'The London Jungle Book.' Click image for more.

This notion of breaking out of a single frame of reference, Shekerjian observes, is common to many MacArthur “geniuses.” The poet Joseph Brodsky reported listening to music to enhance his poetic prowess and touched on it in delivering the greatest commencement address ever given. Wiseman reads poetry and looks at art “to see how others have solved some of the same problems he faces.” (There is, of course, the famous example of Einstein coming up with some of his greatest physics breakthroughs during his violin breaks.) Shekerjian writes:

Staying loose, allowing yourself the freedom to ramble, opening yourself up to outside influences, keeping a flexible mind willing to entertain all sorts of notions and avenues — this is the attitude that is most appropriate for the start of any project where the aim is to generate something new.

Uncommon Genius — which also gave us legendary science writer and essayist Stephen Jay Gould on how dot-connecting powers creativity — remains a must-read. Complement it with Werner Herzog on creativity and Julia Cameron on how to unblock the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow.

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30 OCTOBER, 2014

Jazz Legend Bill Evans on the Creative Process, Self-Teaching, and Balancing Clarity with Spontaneity in Problem-Solving

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“The person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning and [knows] that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time.”

In a 1915 letter to his young son, Albert Einstein advised that the best way to learn anything is “when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.” Many decades later, psychologists would give a name to this distinctive, exhilarating state of immersive, self-initiated learning and creative growth: flow. Again and again, artists, writers, scientists, and other creators have described this state as the key to the “spiritual electricity” of creative work.

In 1966, legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans (August 16, 1929–September 15, 1980) sat down with his composer brother, Harry Evans, for an intense and deeply insightful conversation later released as Universal Mind of Bill Evans: The Creative Process and Self-Teaching. From filmmaker William Meier comes this gorgeous cinematic adaptation of Evans’s thoughts on the autodidactic quality of creativity and the value of working at the intersection of clarity, complexity, and spontaneity.

Here is a longer excerpt from the documentary, where Evans discusses the step-by-step process of creative problem-solving:

The whole process of learning the facility of being able to play jazz is to take these problems from the outer level in, one by one, and to stay with it at a very intense, conscious-concentration level until that process becomes secondary and subconscious. Now, when that becomes subconscious, then you can begin concentrating on that next problem, which will allow you to do a little bit more.

I don’t consider myself as talented as many people but in some ways that was an advantage because I didn’t have a great facility immediately so I had to be more analytical and in a way — that forced me to build something.

Most people just don’t realize the immensity of the problem and, either because they can’t conquer it immediately, think that they haven’t got the ability, or they’re so impatient to conquer it that they never do see it through. If you do understand the problem then you can enjoy your whole trip through.

People tend to approximate the product rather than attacking it in a realistic, true way at any elementary level — regardless of how elementary — but it must be entirely true and entirely real and entirely accurate. They would rather approximate the entire problem than to take a small part of it and be real and true about it. To approximate the whole thing in a vague way gives you a feeling that you’ve more or less touched the thing, but in this way you just lead yourself toward confusion and ultimately you’re going to get so confused that you’ll never find your way out.

It is true of any subject that the person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning and [knows] that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time and that he has to enjoy the step-by-step learning procedure. They’re trying to do a thing in a way that is so general [that] they can’t possibly build on that. If they build on that, they’re building on top of confusion and vagueness and they can’t possibly progress. If you try to approximate something that is very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t advance.

Universal Mind of Bill Evans is revelatory in its entirety. Complement it with the great composer Aaron Copland on the conditions of creativity and Julia Cameron on how to get out of your own way and unblock creative flow.

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04 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Werner Herzog’s No-Bullshit Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers and Creative Entrepreneurs

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Why all creative work is the product of “a furious inner excitement” and how to cultivate the best possible “climate of excitement of the mind.”

Psychologists have long championed the idea that the ability to remember and integrate experiences is a central component of creative work. In Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — the same wide-ranging beast of an interview that gave us the legendary filmmaker’s thoughts on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living doing what you loveWerner Herzog lays out a spectacular case for the value of experience, of having lived wide, as the essential tool of creativity.

A decade before Kickstarter, he offers idealistic yet practical advice to aspiring filmmakers, which applies with equal poignancy and precision to just about any field of creative endeavor:

The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself. That’s all you need to make a feature film these days. Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books. A lot of what you see in my films isn’t invention; it’s very much life itself, my own life. If you have an image in your head, hold on to it because — as remote as it might seem — at some point you might be able to use it in a film. I have always sought to transform my own experiences and fantasies into cinema.

Later in his conversation with interviewer Paul Cronin, Herzog goes on to outline his unconventional vision for the ideal film school based on this very notion that all creative work must be rooted in lived experience and not in theoretical teaching or technical skill:

You would be allowed to submit an application only after having travelled, alone and on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of nearly two thousand miles. While walking, write about your experiences, then give me your notebooks. I would immediately be able to tell who had really walked and who had not. You would learn more about filmmaking during your journey than if you spent five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. Somebody who has been a boxer in Africa would be better trained as a filmmaker than if he had graduated from one of the “best” film schools in the world. All that counts is real life.

My film school would allow you to experience a certain climate of excitement of the mind, and would produce people with spirit, a furious inner excitement, a burning flame within. This is what ultimately creates films. Technical knowledge inevitably becomes dated; the ability to adapt to change will always be more important. At my utopian film academy there would be a vast loft with a boxing ring in one corner. Participants, working every day with a trainer, would learn to somersault, juggle and perform magic tricks. Whether you would be a filmmaker by the end I couldn’t say, but at least you would emerge as a confident and fearless athlete. After this vigorous physical work, sit quietly and master as many languages as possible. The end result would be like the knights of old who knew how to ride a horse, wield a sword and play the lute.

A diverse repertoire of experience, Herzog argues, offers the creative person “legs to stand on” — a kind of insurance against the loss of dignity and independence:

If a filmmaker has no other legs to stand on, he can be easily broken. When someone knows how to milk a cow, there is something solid about him. A farmer who grows potatoes or breeds sheep is never ridiculous; nor is a cattle rancher or a chef able to feed a table full of hungry guests. The eighty-year-old man who brought me a bottle of wine from his vineyard before my first opera opened in Bologna could never be an embarrassment, but the film producer who takes to the red carpet at every opportunity and keeps his awards polished will always look foolish. I have seen dignified ninety-year-old cello players and photographers, but never filmmakers. My way of dealing with the inevitable is to step out of my job whenever I can. I travel on foot, I stage operas, I raise children, I cook, I write. I focus on things that give me independence beyond the world of cinema.

His most important advice, however, is also the one that seems most obvious but remains the hardest to stomach — a straightforward formulation of the psychology-backed idea that grit rather than mere talent is the key to success:

Things rarely happen overnight. Filmmakers should be prepared for many years of hard work. The sheer toil can be healthy and exhilarating.

Elsewhere in the interview, Herzog addressed one of the eternal struggles in filmmaking and other creative careers, offering his no-bullshit advice on the question of funding. Indeed, A Guide for the Perplexed — not to be confused with E.F. Schumacher’s equally engrossing 1978 philosophy book of the same title — is an immeasurable trove of idealism and practical wisdom in its entirety. Complement it with Ira Glass on the secret of success in creative work and advice to aspiring writers.

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