A close friend of mine in law school elected early on to use the legal education we acquired for things other than jury trials about auto accidents and conveyancing deeds. We went to law school just at the time that video technology first meant that every home could rent old movies. My friend, an avid fan of Grade Z horror films, realized that in the early days of this new VCR medium, people would rent anything. He therefore used his new found knowledge on property rights to begin tracing the rights to forgotten bad horror and children's movies into the defunct corporations and decedent's estates where those rights reposed. Then he'd buy the rights, for a thousand or two, and license the rights world-wide. I found great amusement that, say, the Polish rights were worth x amount, while the Czech rights were worth y amount. The rules of the licensing game were simple--you got an advance and a promise of plush royalties. The promise of royalty would never be honored. This led me to learn one of my favorite aphorisms about the entertainment business--"what you get up front is what you get".
My friend had a perfectly workable deal going as a rights buyer and seller, but he wanted more. He wanted to be a film-maker in his own right. Unlike some, who want to direct art films or write a moving screen play, though, my old friend Jeff wanted to do the business side of genre films. He wanted to produce Grade Z movies.
His first film bore the initial title "Angel of Vengeance", but later bore the monicker "Warcat". The film comprises roughly 76 minutes of sheer, unadulterated "hunt down the girl" violence. Indeed, in the reviews for such genre films, critics always note that the film is a "cut above" because it makes no real pretense at plot or characterization. Bad guys want to catch girl in desert terrain; girl turns tables on them; girl disposes of bad guys, one by one. It's a different sort of "guy meets girl, guy loses girl, guy gets girl" story. As I recall, my friend cast an unknown Vegas cocktail waitress as his heroine. The original director was Ray Dennis Steckler, known for low budget horror classics such as "The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies". For one reason or another, though, in mid-film, Mr. Steckler was replaced as director by the more staid Ted V. Mikels, whose more Merchant/Ivoryesque oeuvre includes movies such as "Mark of the Astro Zombies". The whole thing was financed with friends/family money, and, in the way of these things, turned a profit through tons of tiny dollar licenses to countries all over the world. My friend Jeff later went on to script and produce "Soldier's Fortune", with Gil Gerard, and to produce "Alienator", with Jan Michael Vincent. I actually invested in "Alienator", against my better judgment, and made a very slight profit. I watched one day's rushes for that movie, and realized that I am not destined in life to sit in little screening rooms watching the same scene of an alien being run over by an RV over and over again. I didn't even get to meet P.J. Soles, but I did get to meet a horror film director from the 50s my friend assured me I should be impressed to meet, whose work included something about a "sun devil", if I recall.
Jeff went on to do a little legit TV movie of the week field direction in a few films, where he acquired the nickname "Doc", because he kept saying he wanted to go to Grenada and study medicine. Then he got an LLM in intelletual property in Chicago, bought the Charles Atlas Company, and settled into being a vendor of exercise programs and licensor of the famous ad "how Mac became a man", including the fellow kicking sand in the scrawny weakling's face. I saw him on the A & E biography of Charles Atlas, in his three piece business suit, speaking in hushed tones of passed greatness. He could have been Charlie Rose. This was a contrast to the article on him in "Fangoria Magazine", which focused on his fondness for schlock horror movies. Jeff's achieved a kind of success that, when he was 15, would have seemed really cool to him. I think that's one way to look at worldly success--how would one's 15 year old self feel about one now?
I am an avid non-fan of bad genre horror movies (i.e., I take pains to avoid them), and my choices in life, both professional and personal, are different than Jeff's in many respects. But I find in Jeff a few inspirations. Jeff grew up with a little money in rural Arkansas, but no connections at all. He didn't go to the "right" colleges, and he didn't "know" the right people. He met Vincent Price when Mr. Price came to his hometown for a film festival, but he didn't "make use" of this contact for anything. His projects usually involved raising funds from friends, done on shoe string budgets, with an eye to independent business. Yet Jeff managed to produce movies, direct movies, script movies and act in movies, and even become something of a cult "name" in his field. How did he do it? He focused on what he wanted and he believed in himself when everyone else thought him an eccentric joke. He found a niche, and carved in it.
Earlier this week I was going to post about William Jewel McGonagle, the Scot bad poet. McGonagle wrote rhymed stuff in Dundee, and actually earned a living of sorts at it. But the living he earned was not because of his immense talent, but because people would hire him to make fun of his work. He would give recitals in rented auditoriums to catcalls and jeers. He was unperturbed until late in life, certain that he was a great poet. Eventually, he did retire to Perth to try to find a more congenial set of hearers. I like that this man's life's work has been rewarded with universal fame as a bad poet. Of course, now "bad poetry itself spawns not only an LJ community, but contests world-wide. I prefer to make my poetry bad by inadvertence than by intention, personally. I am bad only because I am not good.
Production of inferior creative product is not a strange thing for me. I mailed off my third compact disk to a purchaser of "Vibrating Electric Fields", which I sold on eBay. "Chess Poems for the Tournament Player" has sold something in the range of 100 copies. I get kind notes from time to time from appreciative chess players who see it for what it is--a light-hearted bit of bad poetry intended to capture the moment of being a bad chess player. Sometimes I wish I were a truly "artistic" person, but I really like the little niche successes I achieve, tiny though they be. I am a microbe noticed only, really, by myself.
I'm probably one of the half-dozen people who really likes Woody Allen's movie, "Interiors". In particular, I like "Joey", the would-be artist who simply isn't talented. She's got the "soul" of an artist, but she's not got the chops. I think I like her character because I'm intrigued by the pull which being "artistic" has upon people.
As with many things, my thoughts and feelings on this are contradictory. I find on the one hand that some people really do have almost innate gifts for art, for poetry, for music and for novels. I find a much larger set of folks have sufficient talent that with hard work, they can achieve beautiful things. But it's undeniable that some folks have the longings to "be" artistic, but not really the chops to do so. When the longing is a writing or painting prompt, great. But pain because one is not what one is not seems to me to be rarified air indeed--so rarified that one cannot breathe.
I remember taking an acting class at a Unity church while I was in law school. I even co-wrote the class play, though I remember my co-authorship as more about typing than writing (indeed, most of my literary effort is like the Vidal quote about Jacqueline Susann, author of "Valley of the Dolls", that "she doesn't write, she types"). During the class, one instructor called upon each student to just walk, just make an entrance naturally, without acting. I'll never forget that one woman, an amiable "I love to act" type. When her time to "enter" came, you could see her lift herself up and change her carriage in an effort to act naturally. I still remember her hurt expression when the instructor asked her to go back and try again before she had even gotten going good. It's so hard to just be--one wishes to be someone else. She wished she could act--but it was hard to just act as herself.
I think that people love to express themselves, regardless of their talent. I see nothing wrong with this, and in most ways I see something very right in this. I think that the need for connection is a laudable thing, and the need for recognition is a perfectly understandable thing. But the reality is that only a tiny set of folks will get recognition or an income or the Heaven of remembrance by posterity. Artistic or musical or literary success is a very thin reed upon which to hang one's sense of self-worth. It's so elusive. In addition, it's so hard to know when one has achieved it what one has achieved. I like to read, sometimes, obscure little university scholar poets, but, like the book of poetry in the Millay poem, their work ends up in the second-hand store, largely neglected, unless someone by chance buys a book for a dollar and opens the pages.
In an earlier time, people posited that art could substitute for religion, religion having shown through scientific error and needless regulation its unsuitability to govern souls. But art itself proved a difficult goddess. The lack of common aesthetics, the competition between "experimental writing" and "quality writing" and "genre writing" and goodness knows what else, the constant sniping and over-analysis and sport by people who write but don't read--it's a curious time in the arts.
I sat on the plane to El Paso a week or two ago, reading Millay's "Lyric Poems". The 60ish orthopedic surgeon next to me, seeing my book, talked to me about poetry, and then launched into a diatribe about MFA over-abundance, and the problem of academic fiction and poetry. He was so over the top as to seem almost smug and negative, but I heard echoes in him of things I might say (and made a mental note to avoid this form of curmudgeonry as I age). This diatribe featured the story of his friend, a poet, who would smuggle his work into the shelves of the fabled City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. The doctor reported pointing it out to owner (and great poet) Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who would complain that this author was the only "reverse shoplifter" he had, who would try to smuggle books in rather than out. I can sympathize with that poet--wouldn't it be great to be someone that people wanted to sell at "City Lights"? Part of me thinks with amusement of the difference between one's aspirations as a writer and one's achievement as a writer. I can well imagine that on the one hand, one sees oneself as living a bohemian life, with a magnetic personal attractiveness, thinking great thoughts, doing great things, when, in fact, one gets one's MFA, tries to write short stories for little literary mags nobody reads, drives an old Honda, and prays for a Pushcart Prize. It's hard to be a member of the lost generation when berets are at Wal Mart and all your literary atmosphere comes from having a brownie at Barnes & Noble. But surely the literature of this time is not that of Paris 1923 anyway. The poets of this time must write of SUVs and curious men named Ashcroft and the way that flowers look on smoggy days.
I think, though, that the cinematic cachet of "being a writer" or "being an artist" and even the "compulsion" to be one all distract from the reality. One works at what one can find to do that one feels will do what one is trying to do--earn money, find a vocation, fulfill oneself. When one is not working, one spends time with family, with hobbies, with oneself in a further attempt to make life enjoyable or at least bearable. If one is caught up in the "I am an artist or I am nothing" mode of thinking, that's very limiting indeed. I want a broader path to walk than that.
At the same time, I think that creative expression by a non-artist has a value. I know that my own work sometimes shows that I am trite or sentimental, not because I lack craft, but because I am sometimes trite and always sentimental. I think that the inauthentic writer can sometimes show the sheer authentic experience of inauthenticity. This is not always a bad thing.
I like to think that in life, adding to the overall contentment, adding to the overall compassion, and adding to the overall understanding are very important things. The arts can do any of these things. But imagining that only success in a literary endeavor "qualifies" as a good life seems to me to be limited indeed. It would be easier to be the strictest fundamentalist than to live in a world in which only good artists matter.
I like the Isak Dinesen story "Babette's Feast" (whose first US publication, by the way, was in "Ladies' Home Journal"), in which a French chef is forced to flee to Norway. After years of cooking flavorless fish dishes at the request of the sisters who are her employers, strict protestant religionists, she uses lottery winnings to make them a fine French meal. The sensual food is her gift to them for their kindness, and a window to a new set of experiences for her employers. To me, Babette is an artist, but she has no patrons, no followers, and her work is forgotten, after the moment which is a life. But her gift matters.
But, really, I don't have some grand conclusion which ties all this together. I just think that music and art and fiction and poetry all matter a good bit. But they are not the only reason to live.
I think there's more to life than thinking that one is an artist, if one only had the talent. Ultimately, life is more about kindness than great art to me, anyway. Artistic expression, after all, is omnipresent. But kindness and contentment---so elusive.