Thursday, September 11, 2008

Peter Sellars Knows The World's Secrets

As Peter Sellars entered the TFF Student Symposium classroom, a 'zone of coolness' was ushered in with him. That's right. A zone of coolness.

'Coolness' is Sellars' term for a person's aura, their vibe, the energy with which they greet the world; admittedly, this all might sound like a thrust towards bizarre new age philosophies and hippie hoopla, but let's run with it for a while. Let me convince you that Peter Sellars is the most loving, well-intentioned human being one may ever come to know -- Peter Sellars knows the world's secrets and he wants to share them with everyone.

It is not so much that Sellars has uncovered hidden relics or mysteries of human history, but that he has realized evident truths which not everyone is conscious of. Much like Ken Burns' philosophy on film, Sellars pays specific heed to the personal as a window into both a universal understanding and the underlying truth of who we are or are meant to be.

Film, like life, is all about framing -- in the frame, you choose what fits and what doesn't fit. A frame is that through which things are felt, experienced and understood. In Sellars' mind, developing a film is about coaxing its substance out from your nocturnal (ie. subconscious) self and presenting it in the daylight (ie. out in the open). It is about focusing on making what is personal to you, the director and filmmaker, accessible to everyone else -- it is about establishing a dialogue based on the personal which translates to the universal.

Sellars champions experiential knowledge over academic knowledge -- this is to say purely that he is more interested in what is written on a person's heart than on a piece of paper or in a book. As equal part inspiration and mentor, he cites the French philosopher Simone Weil. Sellars' claims that Weil once said something to the tune of 'work (meaning process) is what gives life meaning.' It is not thereby the end result that is the most satisfying, but the journey of getting there that is the true treasure. How true.

Sellars' main point, then, is about finding yourself and staying true to yourself by living actively in the process of life, accomplishing what you set out for yourself and being who you want to be. To this effect, Sellars said something remarkably poignant, that I don't think I will ever forget, if only because it struck such a chord with me personally.
"It's when you're in a miserable state in your life that you really realize what it is you want and who you really are -- also, you realize how to come to that ideal place." -- Peter Sellars (08/29/08)
I don't necessarily want to step up onto my own little soapbox here, but damn it all if Sellars' sentiment here doesn't ring gloriously true for me in my life. But, to a certain extent, I understand what Sellars is saying here based on personal experience. It is the reason the year 2008 was so far different from 2007 -- change needed to be made, and it is still happening. Thank goodness.

Sellars told us that the 21st Century is all about connecting, about being connected, about democratizing not only our technology but our lives in their entirety. He talked about the "gaze that goes both ways," which for Sellars means Darshon, a Buddhist principle of seeing God and having him see you back. For me, I interpreted this as the kinesthetic ability for response in live performance, the ability of performer and spectator to see one another, to be present in the same space at the same time; liveness personified.

Sellars urged us to articulate the world see ourselves living in. He posed an important question to us as a follow-up, a reflection of this sentiment.
"How do you move into a place in your life where all the things you look forward to (ie. dream about) are waiting for you?" -- Peter Sellars (08/29/08)
The answer he gave us to this query was three words long: "Imagine, Create, Live." The energy of one's being directed properly can accomplish what you wish for in your life -- make the effort, speak from your heart, don't deny yourself what it is that you need to become who you are.

Again, our world is all about connecting. After all, even the unconnected things can be connected through the existence of rhyme.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Man Behind the Brand: His Effect

On the afternoon of August 29th, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns came to visit the students in the symposium as the inaugural speaker, the first in a long line of brilliant individuals, each with a message distinctly and presently their own. Burns, despite my own negligence in terms of familiarity with his filmography, was an engaging and inspirational speaker.

As aforementioned, I haven't seen a lot of Burns' work. The Civil War, The War, Jazz; I had heard the names before, but I never had the opportunity to see them. However, hearing him speak about it with both specific anecdotes about several projects and, more generally, about his process and goals as equal artist and filmmaker, he made me want to quickly digest everything he has made to-date.

Early on, a student asked Burns a question about why he specifically makes documentary films and not fictional narratives, shorts, experimental, animation, et cetera. He answer was clear-cut and without hesitation; it's what he knows how to do. In all essence, he wouldn't have it any other way. He went on saying that documentary film is a "forum in which you advocate a point of view -- and, more recently, it is of the political realm" (Burns, 08/29/08). Despite this sentiment, Burns' own take on documentary is a differs a bit from this standard definition.

Burns then segued into an example of the particularities of his feelings on his own framing of a political message within his films. Clearly, the subject of politics is unavoidable, for even what you choose to show and leave out is a polemical decision. Burns noted that it is goal to keep small and big 'P' politics out of his work, as much as this is possible. As an illustration, he referenced an upcoming project, a documentary tribute to Senator Edward Kennedy who is currently being treated for brain cancer.

In this film especially, Burns' goal was not to complicate the life of a man with his party affiliations, but instead to celebrate the life of a human being who made difference in the world. The question Burns faced while making this film, the challenge of it all, was exactly this: "How do you contain a life [preserved on film] without making it a eulogy?" Admittedly, it's a tough question to answer -- and it is a question that Burns still struggles to find the answer to.

As Burns went on to describe his process, his characterization struck me as remarkably poignant. Burns' process would become a veritable through line in all of the films we would see for the remainder of the festival, a testament to artwork and true auteurship. Maybe I found this in the films we saw precisely because I was looking for it, but then again maybe there's more to such seeming coincidence than meets the eye. Burns' message was this:
"History, as in filmmaking, is all about telling stories. What are the complex personal relations [emotional archaeology] that make up the history of an event which can be described through factual means?" (Burns, 08/29/08)
Burns described the 'emotional archaeology' behind an event (or a story) as the glue. He said, "Feeling is the sticky substance which allows for one to relate to a subject. It is an impulse to find something deeper" (Burns, 08/29/08).

Hearing this and realizing at once that it matched up with my own feelings on how the microscopic (very personal stories) can be a used as a window into understanding the macroscopic (the bigger picture), I asked a follow-up question to Burns about this. It was also the question that ended our session with Burns.

Burns responded enthusiastically, enlivened by the question.
"That is an excellent question. The necessity of art is to access the personal. [Small] problems are the friction that creates life. As filmmakers, we try to frame a universal story that can become everyone's story (because it is so personal). Do you know that William Blake quote? 'The truth of the world can be found in a grain of sand.' That's the whole fucking shebang." (Burns, 08/29/08)
Yes. Ken Burns said "whole fucking shebang."

And, damn it if he didn't make my day for doing so. He gave exactly the answer I was looking for, both a confirmation of my own beliefs and a supremely unreal reinvigoration of both my aspirations and goals.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

DGA Presentation Overview

Lisa Layer, Special Assignments Executive for the Directors Guild of America, came to visit the Student Symposium on Friday at approximately noon. In addition to bringing us DGA swag in the form of winter caps, she provided to us invaluable information with regard to low-income, independent pictures or in some cases no-budget experimental projects.

In her lecture/discussion with the Symposium, I learned a couple of important tidbits for the future. First, I learned of a program that I may take into consideration after finishing my undergraduate degree at Northwestern, which is a 2-Year Producer's Program through the DGA. It's official title is the Director's Guild Producer Training Plan.

Now, here's what it is all about. For two years, you live in the Los Angeles or New York area, working on a variety of different projects for a multitude of studios as a 2nd Assistant Director-in-Training. After two years of on-the-j0b, paid experience, mixed in with curriculum-based classes, you are placed on a Qualification List as a Second Assistant Director and become eligible for membership in the Director's Guild of America.

There are pros and cons to this program. It's selective, so it is an honor to be chosen for it. And, being placed on the aforementioned list of 2nd ADs almost guarantees one work immediately after the close of the program. It is, however, somewhat difficult to make the jump from 2nd AD to Director. Not impossible, as it can be done (and has been done). Time will tell whether this is the right path to pursue. It would be a great experience to be sure, but if I want to direct my own films... I'm not sure.

In the meantime, Lisa Layer also informed me of the DGA's Experimental Project Agreement for non-DGA members to use DGA-affiliated persons to work on independent and no-budget short projects, similar to student film projects essentially. This is something to look into for the immediate future. Already a number of ideas strike me for materializing a project such as this; indeed, one in particular seems remarkably approachable. I'll be attempting to put together a team in the near future, drawing from individuals both local and global. Exciting, no?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Requisite Photo Post!

So, I met many lovely and swanky individuals at the 35th Telluride Film Festival.

As such, here are some pictures. A couple are from my own camera and the others are images taken at the festival by other festival-goers. Huzzah!

Jeff Goldblum is a fantastic (and delightfully enormous) fellow!

Laura Linney came to visit the Student Symposium!

David Fincher visited the Symposium as well, but made everyone sad. :-(

Ken Burns was the first filmmaker to speak to the Symposium. He is marvelously inspirational.

My Chance Meeting With Leonard Maltin

Early on Friday morning, at approximately 9:30 A.M., I made the decision to head down to the Staff Clubhouse in Telluride to grab a bit of breakfast. I wasn't quite certain as to the exact location of the clubhouse, so I was sort of ambling along down sidestreets and dusty trails, in an attempt to find the necessary sustenance to get me through the day. Pretty soon, I became relatively lost (albeit that Telluride's a small town).

As one does when lost, I looked about to see if someone in the vicinity could assist me with directions. Only two individuals stood within proximity - at the time, I had no idea who these people were. Without thinking, I approached with the aim of asking directions. As I asked the requisite direction-related, only then did I realize that I had approached renowned film critic Leonard Maltin. Let's have that again. I was asking Leonard Maltin for directions.

Maltin is the current president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the movie reviewer of Entertainment Tonight and teaches at the University of Southern California (USC) in their Cinema Studies department.

Our meeting is particular peculiar on the account that only a week before Telluride I had been looking at the USC website for Cinema Studies as consideration for graduate studies; in particular, I explored Maltin's biography and information on the course he taught at the university.

So, here I was, having gone from Maltin on my computer monitor to inches away from me, in real life. Talk about life-changing.

Maltin was standing on the sidewalk with his daughter Jessie near Telluride's gondola station when I approached. Both, I learned, were waiting for transportation to arrive to take them to their condo. He and his daughter were beyond cordial, even helpful as to the location of the Staff Clubhouse. After pointing out the location, the three of us talked about the festival, how it was my first time and how Jessie had been coming since she was ten (and she's only a year older than me). We also talked about USC. Maltin answered some questions that I had about the school, with particular attention to his course and then we parted ways. I thanked them for the jovial discussion and mentioned that it was lovely to meet them.

I left from the conversation ecstatic at having for the first time experienced the magic of the Telluride Film Festival. I was bright-eyed, having realized that the first story of many to come had just happened. Little did I realize that the Sunday afterwards, I would run into Jessie Maltin again at a concessions stand outside Le Pierre (one of the festival theatres) and our having met on the Friday before would be the cause of a wistful and striking conversation that ran the gamut from jazz music to linguistics. It was, in short, quite excellent.

She and I exchanged contact information thereafter and, having returned to Chicago, I look forward to our continued correspondence and our next meeting. Hanging out with her in Telluride and having one of those rare wittily magnificent conversations was one of the many experiences I will never forget from Telluride. Here's to more of such memories to come!

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Awful Truth (or What's With All Those Rules?)

David Fincher was a tributee at this year's Telluride Film Festival. Yay.

He was due to spend time with all fifty of the students as part of a Symposium discussion. It's not that he skipped out on it -- Mike Leigh (director of Naked, Happy-Go-Lucky and others) did that. To be fair to Leigh, it was a scheduling error and he's making up for it by visiting us tomorrow.

However, to return to the subject, I need to say something about Fincher. Out of any and all activities planned for the Student Symposium, I was by far most looking forward to our discussion with him. In that light, it's a terrific shame that he turned out to be the single disappointment with regard to this entire trip.

Fincher was soft-spoken, subdued and unenthusiastic to be among us students. His mind wandered as he answered questions passively or with one-word/one-sentence responses. Most filmmakers go into the business of directing films because they have a story to tell that is distinctly their own or at least a story of someone else's that the director feels a strong connection to in some nigh inherent. With Fincher, it turns out to be quite the opposite.

When asked about his method and aspirations for filmmaking, Fincher replied curtly to the student asking the question with the following sentiment.
"No, I don't bring my subconscious to work." (Fincher)
Neat, eh? No. Not really. Crushing? Perhaps.

Fincher described himself as a "functional illiterate," who rarely reads his source material before shooting wraps on his films. An example he gave was with his newest, yet-upcoming film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Although the film's about finished and due to be released, it was only months ago that Fincher finally read the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story that the film is based upon.

Fincher also mentioned that he has no projects that are personal to him. The above quote illustrates to a certain extent, but another sentiment does a bit of a better job at laying it out clean. Fincher mentioned that he never watches his films after completing them and went on to add that, in fact, he doesn't even enjoy his own movies after finishing them. My assumption here is that he meant to say (instead, opting for poor phrasing) that he enjoys the process of creation of a film rather than the end product, which necessarily represents catharsis and completion -- for Fincher, it seems like he would never finish a film if he didn't have to.

Another way to view this is that Fincher is a soulless directing machine, injecting absolutely zero personal feelings, wisdom, emotion or anything you can think of into his films. But this, quite clearly, is a drastic notion and admittedly pejorative. It's just nuts.

It is probably best to take these two views in contrast to one another, realize the validity of the first, discredit most of the ridiculous second and arrive at the honest truth (in my opinion) that Fincher does not represent anything of an auteur director. Fincher seemingly lacks the heart and soul that goes into a filmmaker like Spike Lee's movies, which is exactly why Lee will remain a constant forge of inspiration and Fincher will be placed on the back burner, though I'll never in my life stop loving The Game or Fight Club.
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