“I thought my ideas were so clear.” That’s Guido Anselmi, the stand-in for Federico Fellini in 8 ½, trying to explain his inability to take the movie that exists in his mind and articulate how to film it to his increasingly impatient production crew. “I thought I had something so simple to say. Something useful to everybody. A film to help bury forever all the dead things we carry around inside.” He sits at the base of an enormous fake spaceship that is being built by the crew at enormous expense, to little apparent purpose. Anselmi’s head rolls into his chest, black hat merging with the shadows around him. “Now I’m utterly confused.”
In layman’s terms, I suppose you’d describe Anselmi as suffering from filmmaker’s block, though I think he, like most artists, would reject the bluntness of that term, it’s connotation of a stuck drain or a road closed to traffic. Really, he’s muddling through the earliest stages of creation. Grasping at his memories and fantasies, trying to find within them some narrative that might evoke a faint approximation of his understanding of the world, a thing as elusive to himself as it is to any stranger.
This, the opening gambit that might eventually lead to the completion of a film (or a book, or a painting, or a ballet) is simply no fun at all. Nor is it very enjoyable to play publicist once an artwork has been finalized and released. In the sixth and final book of My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgård describes the months surrounding the release of the autofictive epic’s first volume in 2009 as unbearable. Beyond the typical drudgery of sitting for interviews where he finds himself totally unable to speak about his work in anything but the most perfunctory terms, there’s the added complication of clearing the book with the many friends and family members who are included in it, many of whom react to his depictions of them with anger. Controversy ensues, generating what Knausgård dismisses as “a lot of talk, much written and said in newspapers and blogs, on the radio, in journals and magazines.”
To your typical aspiring literary sensation, such a level of press attention may seem synonymous with success, but Knausgård views it as little beyond an enervating distraction. “I’ve had no interest in that discourse and have kept out of it as much as possible,” he writes. “There’s nothing there for me. Everything is here, in what I’m doing now.” Which is to say: the writing itself.
The writing itself — like the filmmaking itself, or any other process of artistic creation — is all there really is. In the past year that I’ve been freelancing full-time, I’ve become acutely aware of how unpleasant the beginnings and endings of projects are when compared to their middle. Writing my way into a new story is as tedious as its publication is deflating. I grit my teeth through the inevitable grousing missives from sources as surely as I do the occasional issuance of praise from a grateful reader. How preferable it would be to simply fast-forward to the next story — but then, shoot, now again here’s the puzzle of how to begin.
The only reason to continue is the divine feeling of giving oneself over to the work of writing. Knausgård describes this subsuming of the mind as akin to “when snow vanishes into snow.” You become a vessel not for thought, but language. At its best, this is an out-of-body experience; writing becomes a thing you can observe yourself doing automatically, as if pre-programmed by some other, distant intelligence. That experience is not always available. Sometimes, one must think through each sentence as an individual unit, decide which of several synonyms to use, labor over how to fit a quotation into your argument. But you stick with it because you know it’s possible that, with time, you may just break through all that and really start writing.
Psychologists have labeled the sensation I’m describing as “flow state.” Though I imagine every profession has its version of executing work so thoughtlessly that time falls by the wayside as a superfluous concern, artists, I think, are particularly attuned to its rhythms. You can glimpse it in the face of the painter Helen Frankenthaler as she rises from a crouch over one of her canvases, saturated with paint on the floor, and begins to stalk its perimeter, her eyes flickering over the pools of color as she grabs another bucket. Or perhaps in the effortless way a dancer like Kaelynn Harris transitions from a funky, everywoman groove to forceful, body-isolation moves and balletic leaps, her body becoming a seamless give-and-take of power and grace.
For dancers and musicians, the moment of creation is synonymous with the work itself. For filmmakers and writers, all those moments add up to an artwork that exists for the audience only in its entirety, obscuring the labor that went into its assembly. In both cases, though, the self must be lost in order for art to be achieved. Snow vanishing into snow, a black hat merging with the darkness — whatever image you prefer, the frustrating beginning and lackluster end fall away all too easily once the mind merges with the work.
A lot of what I’ve been working on over the winter won’t come out until next month, but in the meantime you can head over to High Country News to read my essay on the failure of artworks like the Utah monolith and the sculptures featured by Palm Springs’ trendy Desert X exhibition to contend with the reality of life in the desert. Oh, and don’t miss the newest project from Components, an interactive map that visualizes data from the music site Bandcamp to show which genres of music are most popular in every city. Did you know musicians in Indianapolis gravitate toward “ethereal” music? Or that there are an abnormally large number of “dub roots reggae” groups in Barcelona? Seriously, you could spend hours with this thing.
A somewhat forgotten portrait of James Baldwin was restored for the 2020 New York Film Festival, and that peculiar little film from 1970, Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris, is now available to stream on MUBI. A good half of the documentary’s 27-minute run-time is taken up with the British director arguing with Baldwin about whether or not he’ll participate in what’s intended to be a discussion of Baldwin’s books, as the director proves himself startlingly ill-equipped to grapple with Baldwin’s discomfort with having his personhood filtered through the perspective of a white filmmaker. The back-and-forth between the two men is a riveting example of a subject seizing control of a film away from its director — I honestly can’t say I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. But then again, Baldwin was one of a kind. “I am a Black man in the middle of this century” the writer says, the Bastille looming in the background as he explains his reservations to the director. “None of you know — yet — who this dark stranger really is. None of you know it! That is what this quarrel is really about. I am not at all what you think I am.”
That’s all for now. Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. You can find me at my website, or wandering around the apartment with a jar of sourdough starter, trying to find a spot warm enough to induce a good rise.