Thursday, January 07, 2010

Stones polished, then in consciousness

Rocks and water

On the range of art from high to low, from fine to schlock, film has a way of spreading its net most broadly. I’ve always believed that moving pictures are the true art of our generation. They give shape to our zeitgeist, and they also fulfill Wagner’s definition of the highest art: they combine visual art, music, and poetry. But as with all of the greatest art, they have the most capacity to fail.

Baz Luhrmann is one of my favorite directors, not because his films are always successful, but because I always enjoy them, even when they fail. More and more, I’m paying attention to the way in which artists have to constantly pick themselves up after being slapped in the face by critics and the public. Being a successful artist requires, more than anything, resilience. After acerbic critical response (what comes to mind is the Rolling Stone writer, name now forgotten, who asked “what is this sh**?” after a Dylan album from the seventies), a musician, writer, filmmaker, has to pick herself up, dust herself off, and say: I’m going to continue to create.

A good example is Cormac McCarthy. I enjoyed All the Pretty Horses, and then encountered this bitter and caustic review in The Atlantic, and wrote him off entirely. It’s horrible to contemplate that I could write off entirely a writer’s oeuvre because of some thwarted critic’s mean-spirited, if well-intentioned, criticism. But I did. The article made some good points, points that any creative-writing teacher tries to drill into her students. But it also demolished the hope of every working author it mentioned. It gutted them wholesale.

I finally returned to McCarthy, after a ten-year absence, reading The Road this month. Maybe McCarthy was able to take the good criticism with the bad, because he met some of it head-on. What blows my mind, though, is that he found the courage to tell any story at all, and especially such a difficult, dangerous one. The book is a love story, the story of the love between parent and child. In a world of darkness and horror, he posits, love is what saves us.

Maybe the book’s successful. Maybe it’s not. But McCarthy was brave enough to write it. He stood in the face of brutal criticism and said: no. I will continue to write. I will continue to publish. I will continue to take on difficult subjects. You can’t stop me.

Luhrmann does the same thing. I recently saw “Australia,” a film destroyed by the critical press. It was overblown and a little hokey, but I liked it. The line that stays with me is when the Drover says: “I’m the richest man alive because I have the best stories. At the end of my life, I’ll have a story worth telling.”

I do, too. And having a great, grand story means risking failure. It means failing. It means picking myself up and dusting myself off and thumbing my nose in the face of the naysayers. At the end of my life, I want to follow Dave Eggers’s dictum, as he says here.
What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who's up and who's down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.
What matters is saying yes. Eggers says yes. McCarthy says yes. The Drover says yes. I will, too.


Tree of Valinor said...

Amen. The longer I live the less valid I think it is to criticize anything someone has taken the trouble to create. Hardly anyone creates anything anymore anyway. Comparison is OK—comparison with what you know someone can do or even comparison with others, if it's in the right spirit. But in any case the author has to have very thick skin and the maturity to realize what criticism is valid and what isn't. Have you read John Updike's rules for reviewers?

Melissa said...

That's great. I think I had read part of the rules on TR's blog--but it amazes me again how gracious Updike was. Sometimes it seems like those in the world of criticism are just trying to score points at anyone else's expense. Aren't we all on the same side?

Red Sonia said...

Firstly, I remember when we all passed the Egger's essay around and were amazed. It does not lose anything with time and re-reading!
To you and to him, I totally agree about the taking risk and saying yes bit. I always think of Virginia Woolf's dictum to write at all cost, without regard for talent or other's opinions and that this is the only way for people to thrive and for good work to be created.
I wonder at the role of the critic however, as it feels they need to take strong and hard stands in order to get attention/make a living at it? Maybe the problem is that we as artist or believers in the process need to be less affected by their words. I don't know how to do this, as I am the first to listen to anyone's opinion or critique and take it in as my own (i.e. dismissing or embracing something). The only exception to this is one of my old co-workers and I had oposite taste so we knew that if one liked something, the other would hate it (and vice versa). In my creative writing class we just talked about how you can hear 100 great things and one negative and you are devistated and fixated on the one negative. I guess I wonder on all sides why we are so sensitive.

Melissa said...

I forgot we had read the Eggers essay in book group, but I agree that it's even better upon re-reading. It does seem like criticism is important, although it's hard for it to toe that line between constructive and destructive. Did you read Updike's rules? They really are great.