The Artist’s Lamentable Way

Body and Soul video image

If you want to listen to music (me singing Billie Holiday’s Body and Soul) while you read, click the image or here; the Youtube will open in a new page. Then come back here to carry on reading.

Ever come across the idea that it’s noble to be a poor and miserable artist living in a garret, unappreciated by the world, and that artists who don’t have that experience aren’t being true to themselves? It’s seductive, like the idea that poverty is romantic and worthy of being elevated in grand masters’ paintings and that the artist or the poor wretch also finds their misery romantic.

Right. It’s romantic until you try it or find yourself there. You don’t like it and nobody likes you. There’s a great blues song Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”. It’s been sung by Bessie Smith, Adele, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin – each one a fantastic rendition – and a host of others, for good reason; it’s gorgeous and the words are pretty damn true.

It’s also true that many artists have experienced poverty and rejection of one sort or another and their creative response has been mighty powerful. But the notion that you have to be miserable to be a true artist is formulaic, so it can’t apply to all the artists all the time. As an African American musician Ella Fitzgerald didn’t have it easy, but she also didn’t go through the pain that Billie Holiday or Etta James did, but all three of them are brilliant. Michaelangelo never experienced Van Gogh’s depths of misery and rejection but they’re both superb artists. Ella had a different temperament to Billie and Bessie. Michaelangelo knew how to market himself whereas Van Gogh, poor soul, had no social skills at all.

Some people get less creative when they’re down and out, others get more. There just isn’t a formula for it. Like there isn’t a formula for the perfect painting, the perfect song, the perfect screenplay.

There’s a monumental industry built by self-proclaimed authorities on the subject of artistic perfection. And they all need you to believe that you can’t judge the quality or otherwise of your own work and that if you don’t do what they say (because they know how to do it) you’ll be a failure. The screenwriting industry is a great one for that.

But here’s my difficulty with it. With painting you can see if the artist hasn’t accurately represented what they’re painting. It’s called anything from Expressionism to Cubism to Abstract. I’ve seen paintings that are picture perfect and I can see that the craft is good but the art doesn’t move me, whereas a painting that’s kind of childlike and loose will touch my heart.

With music you can hear if there’s a wrong note but I’ve been at classical concerts where the solo violinist played quite a few wrong notes but oh my God their passion was supreme and I and the whole audience gave them a thunderous standing ovation. What about quality of sound or depth of interpretation? Don’t even go there. No wait a minute, let’s go there. I think Adele sings like a dream and a lot of people in the world think so too. But what about Rod Stewart? You can’t compare his gravelly voice to Adele’s but he’s divine. IMO. My Dad didn’t agree with me. But then he loved Bing Crosby. As it happens I like him too.

As for books, plays, screenplays, there’s no penultimately perfect one: there’s no single Writer God whispering into anybody’s ear. There are a gazillion Gods all jostling with each other “I’m right!” “No you’re not, I am!” I just partly read a John Grisham novel and I found the dialogue is unbearably stiff, unnatural and often just irrelevant; it doesn’t move the story along at all, so the pace positively crawls. But many will say he’s brilliant. I saw a one-man play by Tennessee Williams starring Al Pacino. The man was a few yards away from me for heaven’s sake. I yawned all the way through. I tell you, I missed my opportunity there; the audience was invited to give feedback on the acting. I had some that I thought could be really helpful; Pacino acted at the same level of intensity; if he’d broken it up he’d have been brilliant. I didn’t send my letter in. What the hell was I thinking? Forehead slap!

So here’s the thing. Quality of art and success are two totally different animals and IMO it’s best not to confuse them. Success in the world is sometimes on account of artistic integrity and the artist refusing to change to suit the world. At first they might get rejected but often the power of their work eventually speaks to the masses; not always in their lifetime, alas. Sometimes success comes to those who study a sector of ‘the market’- you know, those mindless beings who can’t think for themselves and just want to be force fed – and then give it what it thinks it wants.

If you can figure that one out, kudos to you and bingo! Dollars in the bank. Inner satisfaction? I don’t know, who am I to judge? I like dollars a lot and they give a gal a creative boost for about ten seconds then the motivation factor pales. Same thing with external ‘discipline’. The only thing that turns me on consistently and sustainably is love of what I’m doing.

To get back to success, sometimes it’s about being persistent. Sometimes it seems to just come upon you. Sometimes it’s because you know a lot of people. Sometimes somebody sees you in a bank and likes the look of your face. The next thing you know you’re starring alongside all the A-listers. Talking about Charlize Theron here. Sometimes, a la Diablo Cody, it comes to you when you’re a dancer in a nightclub and a director reads your blog and says I want you to write a script. You say nah, I’m not into that stuff. And, contrary to what everybody says (you only have one chance so don’t blow it) you don’t lose your chance, because when you change your mind and think you might as well try, you produce an Oscar winner. And you’ve never done it before, never studied screenwriting.

Formulas? Nightmare city for me. The best I can do is listen to my own standards and do my best to get better all the time, because that’s when I have more satisfaction and when I’m enjoying myself it’s infectious. And there seems to be something in putting forward a confident air. So that’s about as formulaic as I can get. I listen to Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Adele, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin, Janis Ian, Peggy Lee and others and I learn from them something about how they use their voices and I fiddle around with acoustic and electric guitars and piano; think about fiddling around with a real fiddle again. For screenwriting I watch movies and read screenplays and decide what works for me and what doesn’t. For novels I like American crime writers like John Sandford so that’s kind of my style too. My art has been on hold for a while but my sketching and painting is kind of sort of Impressionist I guess.

Whether or not anybody else will agree with a person’s standards or like their artistic output is in the hands of the Gods, I reckon. I’m not above praying to them, mind you. Now and then. And when they don’t respond, I’m a great fan of the Tantrum.

One thing I do know; I don’t want to get to the end of my life and look back and see that I never even tried to do it my way. What a damn waste that would be.

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Oprah, Robert de Niro, Charlize Theron and the audacity of hope

I went back to Oprah’s website today, saw it in a different light.  There are some great photos of her as she is, celebrating her new network.  What an achievement, I don’t know what was the matter with me the last I time I logged on.   I didn’t see the part where she was calling for women in their 20’s – maybe she got enough responses.  Whatever, she’s opened it up, and there are no age or gender restrictions.

The category is just “do you have a dream”.  Well hell, yes.  Scores of them, actually!  Lord, how to pick one.  And write about it in 1500 characters.   I picked my film script, what the heck.   This is what I wrote:

I have many dreams!  One is to see my film script made into a film.  It’s about a woman who can’t remember her childhood, has nightmares & epilepsy, is in debt, hates her business, has no friends, fantasizes relationships (incl. one with Robert de Niro who becomes her inner mentor/father-figure).  She’s in denial that her life is out of control until bankruptcy forces her to face her truth. She goes back to where she grew up, to try & remember what she’s forgotten.  Her violently traumatic past re-enacts in the present,  taking her to the brink of losing her sanity & her life.

But she triumphs, claiming her life back from the past.  Steps out of history.  It’s a thriller/drama with lots of complications & is a heart-warming story about triumph of the spirit & the power of  truth.  1st prize would be for Robert de Niro & Charlize Theron to play the main roles.  There are other major roles, could be a really good cast.  Set in NY, Cape Town, Zimbabwe.

Feel very passionate about this!  Got it to Robert de Niro who was (coincidentally? don’t believe in coincidences) in CT the week I finished the nth draft!  Didn’t speak to him though.  I long for this film to be made, even if it has to be re-written by a more experienced hand than mine.

Bankruptcy, by the way, turned my life around.  It was the best thing that ever happened to me!  I know first hand that denial imprisons you & truth sets you free.  Thanks for this opportunity, Oprah.

It’s true about Robert de Niro.   I’d written the book 6 times, and then the script who knows how many times.   I got to a point where I needed some input from a filmmaker I could respect.  I typed “END” and said “I wish I was in the same town as de Niro, then I could at least walk to wherever he was, and try and give him my script”.   The next day somebody said “he is in town”.

He was here for a hotel opening.  Charlize Theron as well.  He was staying at the hotel but she wasn’t, and I couldn’t find out where she was.  Tried to get into the hotel opening, but was stopped by men in shades, tuxes, walkie talkies.   Invitation only.  Then I called the hotel and said can I deliver something for him?  I was told no.  I called the Tribeca Institute  (he’s co-founder) in New York.  The guy spat at me “call his agent”.  I asked if he could give me the number.  He slammed the phone down on me.

Found the agent anyway, called him in LA.  Got his PA’s PA, who said “no way”.  Jose.  He was very friendly and apologetic, but said it’s a closed system and unless I’m represented by a high profile agent I can’t get to de Niro’s agent, and he’s the only one who accepts scripts.   So I said thanks, nice chatting.  And to myself I added “I’m not giving up.  No way.  Jose.”

Ended up delivering it to the hotel anyway.   The receptionist asked “is Mr. de Niro expecting this?”

“Oh, I’m not sure, he might be” I said casually.  How did I know any different?  He may have had a dream about me.

He got it, I know he did (concierge told me).  Didn’t phone me yet, though.  It’s so strange, this world of writing a film script, and the hopes you carry about it.  The hierarchical system you have to find a way of breaching without pissing people off.  I spent a lot of time on the script, it’s very real to me in that sense, but the actuality of it being accepted is so completely outside of my experience.   So all I have to go on really is hope.  Faith.

The audacity of hope.   Why shouldn’t it be me?  No reason at all.  What a giant step out of history that will be.