the sweet smell of success

Garrison Keillor, one of my childhood heroes, writes in Salon this week:

An intensely quiet blond girl… with no reluctance, sat down at the piano when I asked her if she played piano, squared her shoulders and played the exquisite Chopin Prelude No. 2 in A minor, the notes of the slow movement like raindrops on birch leaves, smoke drifting by, an anguished old man pacing in the grass, and played it so beautifully it transformed the entire evening….

Playing the Prelude No. 2 in A minor is not a step on a career path. There is only one Emanuel Ax, and he has the Chopin chair for now, and there are plenty of dead pianists around on CDs. I suppose that you could argue for a correlation between mastery of the Prelude No. 2 and scholastic achievement leading to opportunities in computer programming, but meanwhile, it simply is an extravagant gift from the heart of a girl to the hearts of whoever is standing nearby. Life is good, no matter the disappointments — O God the disappointments. Just square your shoulders and give them your utter best. As the late great Marilyn Monroe said, “I don’t want to make money, I just want to be wonderful.” Life is insurmountable, but we mount up every morning and ride forward. Thanks for being wonderful, dear heart.

Which is a beautiful sentiment, and one I subscribe to regarding art. But it’s also a difficult one to apply to my particular craft, because filmmaking is ridiculously expensive and my wife has informed me in very clear terms that I will not be spending our retirement or our future children’s college money on making independent movies — should we ever be lucky enough to have retirement or college funds. I have a couple of video cameras, and writing is free, of course, but if I don’t make it in the world of professional filmmaking, well, it’s very hard for an ordinary citizen to make movies as a hobby.

And don’t bring up El Mariachi or the pilot to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelhpia — those guys were taking steps in a career path, which is precisely the point. You can borrow your friends’ houses or build a fake restaurant in somebody’s basement once. You can convince actors, even good actors, to work for free once. You can steal time in an edit bay once. You can quit your job and let your spouse support you… once. The myth of the clever, resourceful no-budget filmmaker remains charming only because most people outside of L.A. aren’t actually friends with a no-budget filmmaker. Or, to be more honest in the nomenclature, a leech. All the things that make no-budget filmmaking possible are essentially favors. And everybody’s willing to help a friend out once, especially if it’s to set that friend on a career path — even one as improbable as becoming a Hollywood filmmaker.

But imagine if you had a piano-playing friend who came to you every couple of months and asked you for a couple hundred dollars to help him rent a piano. You might justifiably wonder aloud why your friend didn’t get a job playing piano at a hotel bar down by the airport — at which point your friend would sigh and shake his head and turn away from you irritably. And you would probably begin to see piano music as less of “an extravagant gift from the heart” and more of a goddamned nuisance and egotistical waste of time. Which is what most independent filmmaking, let’s be honest, probably is.

On the other hand, in the astonishing new era of YouTube, there are millions of hobbyist filmmakers. They make home movies about ninja cats, they dub their voices over screencaps of popular video games, they re-edit classic films to look like something new. They’re all doing great work, and all doing it without expecting or even wanting to make money. They just want to do something wonderful. Maybe it’s only the old dreamers, the people still secretly fantasizing about the Spike Lee or Kevin Smith career path, who have failed to grasp the point — that a movie doesn’t have to be Chopin to be worthwhile.

But I think there’s a sort of “uncanny valley” in popular media, a valley between the safely amateur antics of YouTube auteurs and the recognizably professional stuff we watch on TV and in theaters. We’re comfortable with mediocre but fun home movies because they show us something wacky without pretending to art. But how many of those are really narrative fiction art of the kind we’d actually pay money for? We’re actually uncomfortable with independent narrative films and reluctant to watch them online, not because the digital delivery system is inherently unwatchable — many, many people are now watching all their TV on Hulu — but because we have a strong, often correct intuition that a narrative film some guy makes in his garage isn’t going to be any good. Otherwise, why didn’t someone pay him to do it?

Which is the real reason I probably can’t be a hobbyist filmmaker — because it would embarrass the neighbors. Because it’s cool and charming when a doctor or a mechanic can sit down at the family piano and bang out “Jingle Bells” or “Lush Life” or even some Chopin. But it’s sad and disheartening when a forty-year-old claims adjuster still goes around town trying to recruit community theatre actors to do his single-room film version of Moby-Dick. People avoid talking to him at parties. His wife nods supportively when he’s around and then calls her mother and weeps when he leaves. His kids look at him and learn to disdain art. And when the shooting’s over and the high of victory wears off and the editing drags on and a calendar year rolls by and the festival deadlines pass and he’s forced to come up with vague answers to awkward questions about “What ever happened to that movie you were making…?” — well, this incurable sonofabitch is thinking about doing another one. Jesus H. Christ.

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4 Responses to the sweet smell of success

  1. Elana says:

    AHHHHH. Barely married, already TRADITIONALLY SHREWISH AND DREAM-CRUSHING. I must be better at this wife thing than I thought.

  2. The Camel says:

    Ha-ha! Nice. Except in this case, the dream crushes itself. Or society crushes it. Or something. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t you.

  3. Grambear says:

    Wow, just the way I feel about writing. You can do it as a hobbyist. You can write for years. And you can pretend that you will get an agent and send it out. A book is a huge amount of work to be done for fun. And yet I struggle on without any hope of every publishing a book. Why? No idea.And capitalism breeds the "it can’t be any good or someone would have paid for it." thinking. It would be lovely to have groups of readers without the publisher. One can do that on the net, but again you won’t get no respect.

  4. Dean says:

    Hmm… I always envied those with musical skills. I can’t play the radio. I still live in the hope that someone will read my blog and then tell me what a great writer I am. At least there is more hope in this media than saving short stories on my hard drive. Never give up. Don’t give a inch.

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