Part I: The Courage to be Unconventional
I’ve found that much of the material out there about how to develop as an artist is not very helpful. Excluding a few notable exceptions, the discussion of the topic tends to involve lots of platitudes about believing in yourself and working hard, but few actionable steps are provided.
Believing and working hard are, of course, important qualities but by themselves, they won’t build you a rocket ship. If building a rocket ship is what you really want to do, it might be helpful to study astrophysics and learn from those who came before. So it is with developing an artistic voice.
In art, as in everything, there’s no guarantee of success, but I’ve noticed that the artists I’ve studied tend to have certain shared habits that the rest of us can adapt to move in the right direction. Over the course of a few articles, I hope to distill my observations into some actionable steps.
By now you may be wondering about my background and whether you should give credence to what I’m going to share. I hear you. I would be wondering the same thing if I were reading this article and not writing it.
Maybe like you, I’m just a guy trying to find his way toward a sustainable career that involves artistic expression. Truth be told, I’m still trying to find my own artistic voice, but I’ve learned some things along the way that might be helpful to some of you.
Making a living as an artist is not an easy thing to do, so I’ve studied several artists I admire looking for clues on how to make it work and have written articles about a few of them. I also host The nsavides Podcast where I interview various filmmakers and creative people about the art of collaboration. Ron Dawson, whom most of you know through this blog and Radio Film School, was a recent guest.
Both the artist explorations I’ve written and the podcast I host have given me an opportunity to observe the characteristics of those who have what I consider a unique artistic voice. Those observations have laid the groundwork for my comments here as have a few books and resources that I’ll reference in a later post.
With that out of the way, let’s dive in by looking at some of the films that director Wes Anderson has mentioned as favorites.
In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, he mentioned these films as “The five movies that I just say, for whatever reason,” his way of resisting the invitation to provide his definitive top five list:
- Rosemary’s Baby
- A Clockwork Orange
- Trouble in Paradise
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
1. The Earrings of Madame de…
2. Au hasard Balthazar
3. a three-way tie for this slot
- Pigs and Battleships
- The Insect Woman
- Intentions of Murder
4. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV
5. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
6. The Friends of Eddie Coyle
7. Classe tous risques
8. L’enfance nue
9. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
10. The Exterminating Angel
It’s worth acknowledging that Wes Anderson does seem to be playing to his audience with each list. His first list includes more widely known films with high scores on Rotten Tomatoes. His Criterion Collection list, on the other hand, embraces the esoteric one-upsmanship that occasionally shows up in art-house cinema discussions.
Notably, Criterion has also released a version of Rosemary’s Baby, his top film on the Rotten Tomatoes list, but it is nowhere to be found in his Criterion list. Even an artist as distinct as Wes Anderson is prone to fluctuate his sensibilities depending on those he’s around. That’s because finding an artistic voice is just as much of a collaborative process as it is a deeply personal one, but that’s a whole other topic.
In comparison, talk to the typical film student, and you’ll get a more homogenous list. I’m willing to bet that films from Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese will come up, maybe even multiple times in one list. Try doing your own research on this and tell me if I’m wrong, but my results have been pretty consistent, at least for the time being. I’m sure other names will surface in the years to come. When I ask what it is in a Tarantino or Scorsese film that people admire, I usually get a generic response about intensity or action or something along those lines. That’s not to say that I consider either filmmaker to be unskilled.
There’s a lot that I admire about Scorsese, but it’s complicated. As to Tarantino, I consider him to be an accomplished stylist, but I have reservations about the content of his films. (You can hear some of my objections to Tarantino’s films in the end of the podcast interview I did with Laura Cayouette, an actress who you might recognize as the sister of Leonardo Dicaprio’s character in Django Unchained.)
There is a certain consistency in the best-of lists for many film students that is lacking in the lists of Wes Anderson. Interesting right.
Love or hate Wes Anderson, there’s no denying that he has a unique artistic voice. No one else in the world could make the movies he’s directed, at least not the same way he makes them. The same can even be said of Tarantino and Scorsese, and like Wes Anderson, both Tarantino and Scorsese have an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema history.
OK, OK it came up recently in this Fandor video essay and other places too. Just making generalizations here for illustrative purposes. Moving right along…
Don’t get me wrong: Citizen Kane is certainly a well-crafted film, but it doesn’t inspire me to create in the way that other films do. Even now, if Citizen Kane came on TV at the same time as Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or Star Wars, I would be more inclined to watch any of them over Citizen Kane.
Of course, that wasn’t the only reason my work wasn’t quite up to par. I was learning new film-related skills and trying to figure out the person I wanted to be, but my inclination to conform to the artistic preferences of the supposed experts was a big creative roadblock for me.
Citizen Kane has inspired a number of filmmakers. I’m just not one of them, and that’s OK. We all have different life experiences, interests, and abilities, and we become better artists when we acknowledge as much.
As a side note, if you’re ambivalent about Citizen Kane and want moral support for defying conventional wisdom give, a listen to this episode of Awards Chatter with Robert McKee, the acclaimed (or notorious, depending on your perspective) Hollywood story instructor. He is far less nuanced about his ambivalence to Citizen Kane than I am and even relishes his contrarian position, giving plenty of ammunition to those who want to take shots at the film.
Going back to our discussion, any developing artist will face pressure to celebrate and emulate the popular or critically acclaimed art that has come before, but giving into that pressure can stifle an artist’s unique voice before it is fully formed.
I’m not saying that we should discredit what is popular or critically acclaimed just to be unconventional. A lot of times there is merit in what is conventional.
It’s just that if we only mirror the tastes of others, we’ll limit the development of our own sensibilities. Instead of doing that, why not try to “follow your bliss” to quote Joseph Campbell, the mythologist who influenced George Lucas, and see what happens.
Ah yes. Follow your bliss: It’s a nice-sounding phrase, but is it just pie-in-the-sky fluff, or is there more to it than that, and how exactly are we supposed to do that while trying to make a living? We’ll discuss all that and more in Part II.
For now, I am curious to learn about some of the ways that your sensibilities go against conventional wisdom. What films, albums, or artwork do you like or dislike in spite of what the experts think and why? Tell us by leaving a comment below.