In film school they get to you imagine a scenario in which you suddenly find yourself in an elevator with (insert powerful Hollywood producer here – Scott Rudin for the sake of topicality at time of writing, some other rich white male in ten years) and you have the duration of the elevator ride (usually estimated at a generous thirty seconds) to convince this person that you have an idea for a movie that is worth making. Usually this process involves shoehorning whatever idea you have into a comparison between two or more other movies that have recently made money or won Oscars or hopefully both (i.e. : “It’s like The King’s Speech meets Transformers meets Anchorman, but with a twist that makes The Usual Suspects look like Pretty In Pink!“).
I’ve never been good at doing this and it’s amazing how thoroughly you can be indoctrinated to believe that the inability to describe something important to you in thirty seconds is a failure on your part. How do you describe art in thirty seconds, and if you can describe it in thirty seconds, what sort of effect is it really having on you? I’ve been struggling a lot with this lately as I’ve been writing grants (effectively a 5-page written extension of The Elevator Pitch), and my friend Evan’s been going through the same thing trying to raise money for his film: how do you describe a film that you hope to affect people on a multitude of sensory levels with simply a few choice words?
David Foster Wallace on being asked to describe his writing in a compartmentalized sound-bite:
“Going to readings…afterwards there’s usually a Q & A, which it’s very difficult to get out of – I’ve tried all kinds of things. And many of the questions have this kind of belligerence about them: “Did you think that this ending was weak?” And part of you goes: “Well why don’t you and I go have supper and we’ll talk about this?” You don’t just come at somebody with a question like that.”
It was easier to write grants when I wasn’t so far removed from university, to be honest. I don’t think anyone (least of all professors) will disagree that the majority of liberal arts education involves a lot of ultimately pointless pontification (or rather, the point of the pontification is the pontification itself). I concede that this education’s chosen workload, this endless stream of research papers (that usually involve summarizing someone else’s ideas, of course, it being more or less universally and quite condescendingly assumed that an undergraduate is by definition incapable of having an original or interesting thought), assignments whose value is inexorably tied to the number of words used to make the argument, forcing people to stretch and to stretch and to stretch is all in service of achieving a certain intellectual flexibility (see what I did there?), the development of one’s ability to think critically about the world. This is, I think it’s safe to assume, tremendously useful, especially in service of politics and social science. But what of art? How can you use language to articulate the intention of that which was created to transcend language?
Look, I have to leave it there before this gets into the nature of criticism and whether it’s at all necessary. That could be the subject of an anthology, and I’d have to find an angle that wouldn’t simultaneously demean a lot of really smart people whom I respect. But I will say that I think one of the principle challenges of making art in a post-post-modern world is trying to forget about criticism altogether, avoiding the crippling self-awareness involved with thinking endlessly about how something is going to be “read.” If you need evidence of this, just watch the entirety of the classic David Foster Wallace interview with Charlie Rose I pulled that quotation from.
The image posted with this article is from Elevator To The Gallows which you should track down and watch if you get the chance 🙂
Until next time.
Dylan – Edmonton, AB