How many times have I stopped the car to listen to the end of an “act,” as Ira Glass calls them. The stories are so revealing, often so complicatedly and deeply personal, so funny, so beyond the easy narratives we usually hear about ourselves. Most importantly - they’re often about what the world wrongly tends to call “unimportant” or “small” or too “personal.” Hooray for the space they’ve created on our national radio for the “small!” I’m often asked how I could tell such a personal story; ‘was it hard?’ or ‘was it scary?’ A big part of my answer is that so many of my art heroes reveal their personal selves, the parts of themselves that they don’t fully get and definitely aren’t in control of, and I’m really just following their lead. People like Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, and Fellini, and yeah, all the folks over there at This American Life make this kind of work. I even went to their website and purchased a comic book that Mr. Glass made about how to create TAL shows. It’s kind of a how-to graphic story (which I’ve since lost, and now can’t find online?!), explaining the formula of their shows for people submitting. To my memory there was one part about how the shows have a back-and-forth between anecdotal reporting of the subject’s life which is then periodically summed up and discussed in more thematic terms, in a much more top-down kind of voice. Ira Glass warns this is only good for radio because radio is a highly expositional medium. So, of course I decided not to listen to that part and occasionally have my lead character sort of step out of the story and analyze some of the things that are happening to him, how he got here, in a very top-down thematic way.
I get asked all the time about the posters in Oliver's house. They’re mostly Polish film posters, mostly by this guy - Andrzej Krajewski. How gorgeous are these?? How lush and juicy and raw and full of life. Why are they in the film? Simply ‘cause I love them and I hoped they would bring some of their jubilance to the house, some of their strange boundary-lessness. In some of our improvising, Ewan walked by and patted the drawing on the bottom which inspired Mélanie to walk by and scold the drawing for flirting with her man - that's just how powerful Krajewski’s graphics are!
If you want some, you can actually get them here.
(The book, not the film!)
Milan Kundera, 1984
How can I express how much this book means to me?! I first read it when I was about 20-21? I never stopped thinking about it really, thinking that there is something at the bottom of it that points the way for me and certainly did with Beginners. To name a few examples: the way Kundera’s constantly breaking his own form; the way he talks about romantic love as inseparable from family-culture-history; his gentle self-reflexiveness; the accuracy of his description of all the strange stories we create and recreate for ourselves and our partners when we’re in love; the way Kundera is always tracking the characters’ choices and desires and ways of organizing the world - tracking all that back through the ever-larger stories of their parents, their family, their town, their country, their moment in history. But mostly, the way Kundera was able to conceive of the novel as being formally polymorphic but thematically unified. It contains, to name a few of the writing modes off the top of my head: 1. The author directly addressing the reader 2. Several different interweaving love stories with plots and sex and all that. 3. Essays on kitsch – the emotional kind. 4. An essay on words the couples in the story shared, or thought they were sharing; “words misunderstood” 5. Lots of Czech/Soviet history; a quick biography of the plight of Stalin’s son, how the Czechs tore down all the street names during the Russian takeover in ‘68, so the invaders would be lost, and the unexpected result of the Russians renaming everything with Soviet names. 6. Philosophical meanderings on lightness and weight. This collage of perspectives, this broken-open method of writing, of really - investigating these people and how they came to think of the world as they do is endlessly inspiring to me.
Here is a quote form his book “Testaments Betrayed” that I kept on my script binder during shooting (I know, I know - pretentious! Pretentious!!)
“Kitsch-making (the urge to generalize and sentimentalize) is not the personal defect of some American professor or any one person, it is a seduction that comes out of the collective unconscious; a command from the metaphysical prompter; a perennial social imperative, a force. That force is aimed not at art alone but primarily at reality itself… it throws a veil of commonplaces over the present moment in or that the face of the real will disappear.”
"Let's be Cruel" "Never Work"
OK, for those who have seen the film, the graffiti you see Oliver doing is, to me, influenced by the humorous political graffiti that was part of the riots and general upheaval of the May 68 riots in Paris. When I was writing his character, it helped me understand him to say to myself, “Ok, he’s seen that graffiti, and the graffiti they do in a Godard film like One Plus One so that’s what he thinks he’s doing when he’s out on the street. It seems maybe obvious, and definitely a small point, but it actually told me a ton about him. For those who are interested in more of this, there is a beautiful new book documenting the posters and graffiti of this moment. Its title is taken from one of the posters (of someone throwing a brick – see below) “The Beauty Is In The Streets.”
I found this too.
And if you don't know about the Situationists, it would be very funny if you learned about them via this blog that comes to you via Focus Features which is part of NBCUniversal which is part of Comcast!
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006
I really like to be influenced by things that are not of the same category as what I’m making; so, music is a great influence on writing and filmmaking because it’s a different form, and the influence has its own immediate creative transformation – I want my film to feel like Rainy Day Women sounds, or, I want my shooting style to be as concrete and specific as early William Carlos Williams poems. This kind of translation just helps me, excites me, and doesn’t make me feel pinned down by that which is inspiring me. Michael Pollan’s book traces the history and politics of what we eat, and the stories we tell ourselves about what we eat. He tells a very complicated history in a very simple way with a deep, social commitment to communicating with EVERYBODY HE CAN. This was inspiring to Beginners, and relates more than you might think; as love and sex and desire are the turf of Beginners, Pollan is writing about a similarly internal/personal world – eating. He’s talking very concretely, more like a reporter than a theorist about how chemicals and fertilizers and farming practices alter the construction of the food we’re eating, and how our mediated world has given us (often incorrect) stories about fat and animals and corn and health and so on. It’s another way of talking about how the internal is social, how what happens inside of ourselves is deeply influenced by the chapters of history that lead up to our eating our corn-byproduct-infused meal! But mostly, his writing style is so clear and has such a sense of ease, humble and direct. His use of repetition, always bringing the story back to concrete observed moments, his deep desire to share this story and make things clear was like a bell I could tune myself to. Reading a little Pollan before I wrote or thought about my film just put me in the mood to try to embrace the audience as a I tried to talk about all the complications of love and sex and relationships in a time like 1955, or 1938, or 1978, or 2003, or now.
For those who have seen the film, yes, this is really a photo my parents had in our house. It was always kept in my mother’s kitchen and therefore I always associate it with her. It also reminds me of my mom because she did love daisies, she did wear them in her hair on her wedding day in 1955, and yes, as a kid I did think that was my hand giving her the daisies. But I believe this is in fact the little arm of the photographer Dorthea Lange’s son giving her daisies, as sometimes I see this photo titled “Mother’s Day.” If you don’t know her name, you’ve still seen her work, documenting the plight of the migrant workers during the Depression, the Japanese sent to internment camps during World War II, and in general trying to give some kind of representation and voice to the dispossessed. A mission my mother could definitely relate to. My real father was the director of the Oakland Museum of Art, home of the Lange archive, so their paths must have crossed in the 1950s. Whenever I see the end of the film and this photo pops up, it does give me a start, it does really feel so intimate to me. For a while I named the character based on my mother Dorthea, but she ended up being called Georgia, after Georgia O’Keeffe, another artist my mom liked.
So yes, 8 ½ was one of the first films I saw in art school, the film that really blew my mind, hit something in me, seemed so wild and free and brave I fell in love with it. While making Beginners (and having a wee life crisis about who I was) I did kind of back through all my first loves, for a minute forgetting any shame about loving something that’s become kind of a cliché. It is all too easy and cliché for a director to say he loves 8 ½ – but who cares, I do love this film, it did shape me, it is genius. Especially as this film is about memory, and a writer/director really trying to figure out his life, his traps – this film became so important again. And then there’s just Fellini himself! His writing about filmmaking! So generous to the plight of the director, so permissive to all the space you need to write and direct. At least in writing and interviews, he’s such a pleasant guy to be around. Take this for example…
“Everything that happens during its (the film’s) conception, or while preparations are being made for takes or cutting, is useful to a film. There really are no unimportant elements. Everything is important. There are no ideal conditions for the making of a film, or rather, conditions are always ideal, since they are what definitively allows the film to be made as is. The illness of an actress, which makes it necessary to replace her, a refusal from the producer, an accident that holds up work – all these are not obstacles but elements in themselves, from which a film is made. What exists in the end takes over from what might have existed. It isn’t just that the unexpected is part of the journey; it is, in fact, the journey itself. The only thing that matters is the inner open-mindedness of the director. Making a film doesn’t mean trying to make reality fit in with preconceived ideas; it means being ready for anything that may happen.” – Fellini.
Dear Lord that’s so good, no? I love that quote and that guy. When he starts his army, I’m signing up.
I’ll save you some time here, go to 3:50 at this link, maybe a little earlier to set it up. What a dear man.
Fellini talks more about making obstacles his friends.
The White Album
This essay is basically a portrait of 1968 and 1969, and the personal/cultural destabilization that Didion experienced in that time. She loosely explores how during these years she (and everyone?) became unmoored from the narratives that usually tie our lives together. It’s a story about how stories can’t contain life/culture/people’s identities. The structure of the essay is deeply heterogeneous: the important and the seemingly inconsequential are put on the same level, highly personal information and journalistic reporting are not differentiated, the personal and social are interwoven, thoughts that are worked through and fragments are given the same validity. All this encourages an aliveness of thought that eats away at the solidity of the conceptual blocks we’ve made of “1968,” “Joan Didion,” “The Doors,” “The Black Panthers,” “The Manson Family.” The constant use of interruption, swift changes of thought direction, all the different kinds of material in this essay seem her attempts to include or at least throw an acknowledging wave to all that we don’t know, all that can't be contained, and all that contradicts the singleness of her own narrative. Her thinking is always prodding at how the meanings we build up around moments in culture and their major players are often, usually, simplified fictions – even the stories we create about revolution. Her rigorous looseness was one of the things that made me think maybe I could make a film with this kind of heterogeneous quality. Maybe a portrait could be built on this kind of foundation; that you can’t really contain or fully understand the person you're making a portrait of, and that's great. The diversity of thinking and writing that she puts into the same space (it does feel more like a space than a narrative line) bound together not by sameness but by surprise and difference – I found that thrilling and true to life.