Category Archives: Creativity and Art

More White Male Protagonists in Scorsese’s Silence

I went to see Martin Scorsese’s Silence the other day and was curious about others’ reactions to it, especially considering the way it discusses Christian faith (and I am a Christian). Reactions to the movie were not hard to find, but scattered among these were many who pointed out Scorsese had made another movie about white male protagonists. And honestly, the movie is about Japan from the point of view of two Jesuit priests–this cannot be denied. However, I think to reduce it to that would overlook some of the value of the movie.

Very often other cultures are only shown in movies through the eyes of someone ‘western,’ and it’s an issue when cultures are portrayed as helpless until some ‘white saviour’ comes along. You can argue Silence avoids this issue by having its protagonists fail in the saviour role they attempt to take on, but let’s leave aside that for the moment. Let’s consider that this was originally a Japanese novel, written by a Japanese man with something to say about how white male protagonists appear from a Japanese point of view.

We should be open to stories from the perspectives of other cultures, but we should also be open to hearing what other cultures tell us about how we comes across to them. What they’re telling us about ourselves.

And I really think Silence is trying to show us ourselves from the perspective of another culture (and yes, I’m including myself in the group addressed because I come from North America and am a Christian, even though I’m female).

You might say, well, this was distorted by the fact it’s Scorsese who does the retelling. And I am sure Scorsese does not tell the story in exactly the same way the author, Shūsaku Endō, would have. However, I personally would have never heard of this story or Endo’s novel without this film. And while watching it I was confronted with the Japanese perspective on these Jesuits who’d come to Japan. And this movie has something to say to people like me, who live comfortably in North America and don’t always realize own our pride. It asks me to re-evaluate myself.

In other words, I’m not entirely sure Scorsese’s direction completely erases or cancels out the novel the movie was based on.

We should listen to what other cultures tell us about themselves, but if we close our ears to what they’re telling us about us, we’re missing the point. We might have very good words to wave the message aside with (‘just another story about white men’), and never hear the message it’s assaulting us with.

So yes, make more stories from the perspective of other cultures about themselves. But at the same time, consider some stories about us ‘North Americans’ are attempting to open our eyes to how we appear to others. Allow ourselves to think about it.

 

Side note(s):

There’s much more to say even about the Japanese perspective represented, as one person never speaks for everyone anyway.

When it comes to Silence‘s deeper messages, especially when it comes to faith, I appreciate some of it with reservations on the rest. I certainly appreciate it as a thought experiment, and the portrayal of one potential personal journey (which glosses over some aspects of reality).

Also, yes, I do go home and research everything I can find about a movie I just saw, or a book I just read, or a speaker I just heard. I hoard information like a miser hoards money. Who doesn’t? 😀

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Is Rebellion Necessary for True Art?

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“Generally speaking, art is an expression of man’s need for an harmonious and complete life, that is to say, his need for those major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him. That is why a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion”

Leon Trotsky

Whoa, here I go quoting Leon Trotsky, of all people! Don’t worry, I haven’t turned into a Marxist/Trotskyist/whatever-type-of-communism-is-currently-fashionable. I’ve always resisted the idea that art is always about rebellion, while at the same time always maintaining that an escape from everyday reality is an important part of enjoying good art or good writing.

But what Trotsky is saying is that this act of escape is, in itself, a rebellion against current realities. I don’t like the idea that all art is rebellion because not everything needs to be rebelled against, or is worth rebelling against. Sometimes the good can be celebrated too. But most art does point to something lacking in the human reality, even if it’s just in a tragic way (like The Great Gatsby – I just watched the new movie version, by the way!)

So can art be an expression of what reality is lacking? Definitely. Does that mean art is rebellious, since it is pointing out the flaws in reality? Well then, maybe there is an aspect of rebellion to all art after all.

Here’s what I believe, in the end. Humanity is looking for a harmonious and complete life. But the barrier to gaining that kind of life is not class divisions, as Trotsky says above, but ourselves. All of our individual stupid shortcomings and flaws, repeated on a grand scale throughout the whole human race, resulting in everything we know is wrong with the world – war, hatred, evil.

Sometimes we need an escape from this kind of petty reality. Sometimes we need to use art to point it the bad stuff. Either way, creativity and artistic production is important for humanity.

 

 

What do you think – does art have to have an aspect of rebellion to it? What should art rebel against?
On a related note – ‘Something Like Friendship,’ Chapter 5 of my Why Polly? serialized novel comes out today! Click here to check it out. Or you can read Chapter 1 free here.

 

 

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Creativity is the Residue of Time Wasted

quotables buttonCreativity is the residue of time wasted.

– Albert Einstein*

Sometimes time wasted is just time wasted. And sometimes time wasted ends up being creativity.

Why is this? Well, creativity is a funny thing. You don’t always know where you’re going to end up when you start. You might find yourself in a lot of dead ends before you get somewhere interesting. And so your endless scribbling at your desk, or your doodling, or your songwriting might look a lot like time wasted to everyone else.

This is the difficult thing about creativity, and it’s part of the reason the arts are called both a ‘waste of time and money’ AND essential to humanity. The process for creating art is not standard in the way the scientific method is standard. A lot of what’s produced might looked like garbage, or time wasted. And throwing money at the arts does not necessarily equal creativity (in a neat, positively correlated way, I mean), which frustrates a lot of goal-driven people.

But then, every once in a while, you do get mind-blowing stuff. Which reminds everyone, once again, to give creative people the space they need to create.

For creators, this means learning the balance between wasting time and being productive… gaining an instinct for knowing when to stop doodling and start painting, or stop researching and start writing, or whatever. Sometimes a dead-end is fun and endless entertaining (like writing the missing scenes to Jane Austen’s novels). Which sometimes means you should stick that in your ‘leisure’ time slot instead of your ‘working’ slot.

I, by no means, have figured this out yet. Have you?

 

*The internet attributes this quote to Albert Einstein. We all know how accurate the internet is 🙂

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Polly Full-Part1 facebookLooking for some creative fiction? Try Why Polly? and be swept away into a fantasy adventure!

 

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A Call to Creativity

What, no power tools? Those humans were crazy {PD}

What do the pyramids, the MineCraft Earth, and my short stories all have in common? Hopefully they’re not all insane projects, though piling virtual block on top of virtual block inside a video game is only slightly weirder than piling actually physical blocks into a tall, pointy shape. They’re all made by people, of course. They’re all attempts by people to shape the world around them – some of them with more of a point than others, of course (whether my short stories have a point, I’ll leave to the reader to judge). But it illustrates a natural human drive that people have displayed throughout history, one mark of what it means to be humans. We feel like we have to create. We have to produce something, even if it’s just stacking enough Oreos on top of each other until the tower is high enough to get into the Guinness World Book of Records.

This is what draws me, and probably many other writers, to writing. Because you can create to the extent your creative mind will let you. You can design worlds totally different than this one, and you can produce door-stopper novels that strongly indicate you’ve done something in your life. But you don’t realize how strong this drive is until you really think about it. How many hours of free labour have been poured in Wikipedia, do you think? Or the sprawling world of TVtropes? Or even the internet itself – a whole new frontier for virtual creation?

I had a history prof who once built his own Messerschmitt airplane out of scrap metal in his backyard, which is a highly cool project, but also somewhat useless when you think about it. In the first place, Messerschmitts have already been invented, and are way out of date, and in the second place, one built out of scrap metal won’t even fly (even though he did actually mix up jet fuel for it at one point). So why on earth would anyone put in the hours and hours of manpower to piece one together by hand? One reason is, probably, just to prove he could do it. Another, to have a Messerschmitt in his backyard. And another, to show the limits of human ability are not as narrow as we sometimes think – we can piece together amazing stuff if we try. (And if you don’t believe I’ve had a prof who actually did this, check out the article here).

In our industrialized world, we have lost some of the creativity that comes with handcrafting. The majority of us don’t have to produce our own fashions, and regularly churn out artisanal bread. But the benefit of our modern world is that our technology frees us up to pursue creative ideas that actually jive with our interests. Throughout history, people such as Marx have lamented the effect of industry on human ambition, but people have also started movements that react against it. I love hearing about the Arts and Crafts movement in England, because some of their handcrafted designs are so neat (like this table, and this ‘Dragon’s blood’ red lacquered dresser). And today, this handcrafted movement has been strengthened by the internet – check out Etsy, and the hundreds and hundreds of sewing blogs. The act of creation is not dead yet. And more than that, people now have new ways of showing off their creations to one another.

Unfortunately, the modern world comes with its own distractions, which is why I waste far too much time on the internet and TV, when I could be writing. So this post is not only a celebrating of the amazing reach of human creativity, it is a call to action. Our society has probably the greatest amount of leisure time of any society ever. What are you doing with that time? How many of us are ignoring our drive to create something?

Go out and do something cool. Don’t worry about exactly how it will benefit the modern world – after all, we all agree the pyramids are great, even though we don’t use them for anything. I mean, don’t worry about it too much, though try to pursue something that’s a little less of a waste of time than watching TV 24 hours a day. The thing with creating (especially creating art) is that you can’t always foresee how it will impact the world, but it could be in ways you never imagined. So take a movement and listen to that drive to create.

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Filed under Creativity and Art, On Writing

No Such Thing as Creativity

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

According to this article in Slate, a wave of critics are asserting there never was any such thing as creativity, genius or innovation, and that everything new is merely a recreation of what came before. As a person who’s always stood behind the ‘nothing new under the sun’ concept, this sounds appealing to me. I know for myself, when creating a new piece of fiction, that I would never be able to do it without having read other people’s fiction first (if only to learn what not to do, but more often to discover what worked in other contexts). Does this make me hopelessly derivative? Should I only be declared a ‘genius’ if all my ideas about writing appeared out of nowhere, unannounced, in my head?

But in reality, I think creativity lies somewhere in between the extremes of ‘thought up the idea completely on my own’ and ‘my idea isn’t new because it owes so much to everyone who came before me.’ Because when you look at the world today, it obviously isn’t the same world as when the writer of Ecclesiastes lived, or when Homer lived, or whoever. I think the essence of creativity is to take what isn’t new, and combine them in fresh ways.

So is there hope I will someday be declared a genius? Personally, I don’t feel like a fountain of genius, but I still have this urge to recombine, re-imagine, and recreate what I see in the world around me. It’s something I can’t stop doing, whether that would qualify as ‘genius’ or ‘hopelessly derivative.’ My only hope is that my perspective will someday bring some kind of fresh look to the same tired old world under the sun. And maybe that is creativity.

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Broken Genius: True Art is Flawed

Art

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Well, that’s pretty obvious, you might say. Nothing in this world is perfect, so why should we expect any piece of art to be? Yet you point out faults in something that everyone accepts as ‘genius,’ and people wonder who you are to criticize the work of such a great artist. This is despite the fact that some flaws in great works of art are so glaringly obvious you can’t help but point them out. Pointing them out doesn’t mean it isn’t a great work of art, or that you think you’re better than whoever made the work. It’s just facing up to the fact that every work is going to have faults in it, no matter how ‘genius,’ and that the true measure of a work is how well it overcomes its own defects.

Here’s the quote that started me on this train of thought. Jan Swafford is talking about he loves Mozart’s The Magic Flute despite its flaws – a piece of music I know nothing about, but his main thought is pretty applicable anywhere:

 “When I first heard the opera in my mid-20s, I hadn’t yet learned, among many other things, that the greatest art is not necessarily the most perfect. Bach wrote tremendous vocal music but was strangely oblivious to the fact that singers have to breathe. He wrote vocal lines as if they were for violin. The finale of Beethoven’s Ninth is clunky and episodic in its form—enough so that Beethoven talked about replacing it. Shakespeare is notoriously weak in dramatic construction and often didn’t know when to shut up. I once sat through a reading of The Tempest with a playwright who bitched all the way through, saying that Shakespeare isn’t any good because his dramatic arc is so bad. Today I’d argue that among other things a great work is one that has the power to make its faults, even the obvious ones, irrelevant to the experience of the work.” (Slate)

Don’t even start me on Shakespeare! His plots drive me up the wall, because they are so contrived and unrealistic. Yet it’s true, no matter how much I complain about him, there’s something in Romeo and Juliet, and even Hamlet, that draws me in. I don’t know what it is, because I’ve never experienced star-crossed love, or being told by a ghost to avenge my father. I guess it’s just that in his endless lines of iambic pentameter, there is a gem or two of a line that perfectly encapsulates a human experience. I complain about him because so often people present his works as if they’re genius, and don’t have any flaws. But there’s still something to Shakespeare, despite his flaws.

(Truly, every time I read Romeo and Juliet I get this urge to fix it by re-writing it, but you’d have to be a pretty brave author to try to re-write Shakespeare.)

Another ‘classic’ I recently read is Dracula. Reading classics is a supposed to be a good thing, so I added it to my reading list. And I found it vastly entertaining – despite hating most of the characters, laughing at the ridiculousness of the plot, and being irritated at the immense number of inspirational speeches sprinkled throughout. The work as a whole was engaging. On a more individual level, well, it didn’t stand up to scrutiny. You’ve got several cardboard stereotypes for characters, such as the brave hero (Jonathan Harker), the devoted lover (Arthur Holmwood – I was suspicious of his devotion at first, but no, he was actually that true and devoted for all three hundred and thirty-six pages), and the pinnacle of American manhood stereotypes (Quincey Morris – oh, I hoped he’d spent more time in the novel doing the stereotypical American hero things, but he really was a rather minor character). Oh, and a ‘Dutch’ professor that talks far too much in a difficult accent, and does the typical mentor thing of requiring characters to do dangerous deeds without providing any preparatory information whatsoever. The female characters are so absolutely helpless, though Mina Harker is slightly better than Lucy. No one tells anyone else anything until it’s too late, because they’re all afraid other people’s nerves can’t handle the truth. The men don’t tell the women, because the women are fragile creatures, of course. The women don’t tell the men, because they don’t want the men to worry about them (and the men have so much stress already, the poor things!) So the vampire can run around doing what he wishes for half the novel, just because communication is so bad. Yet the novel is still regarded as a classic. And I was certainly entertained by it – almost too entertained, because you think of classics as dull, difficult things to read.

My last example: Pygmalion, or as its better known in its musical version, My Fair Lady. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it (the movie version, with Audrey Hepburn), because I didn’t understand it. The ending was so open-ended. The actual written play, by Bernard Shaw, is even worse, ending-wise at least. It was only later that I re-watched and was entranced by the power of the characters, Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins, and realized there couldn’t be any realistic happy ending. To do so would be to destroy the vibrancy of either one of the other of the characters. To be open-ended, as the movie is, is the best way to leave the characters in my opinion, because you know their story will go on as long as their life without ever truly resolving itself. You know, kind of like real life.

I could go on, include my favourite topics such as Lord of the Rings and Jane Austen, and argue that they overcome weak characterization (a complaint about Lord of the Rings) or a lack of exciting narrative events (a charge levelled at Jane Austen). But I’ll leave that for now. I’m sure you could list a whole ton of works you love despite glaring faults. In fact, feel free to discuss them below.

In the end, I think we have here what may be the source of disagreement over classic works, and why some people can’t understand why something is considered ‘classic.’ (There certainly are some I can’t understand.)

If you hate a work, its flaws are all you can see, and you can’t get past them.

If you love a work, it could be more flawed than it already is, and you’d still love it anyway.

Because maybe true art is something that has the power to speak to your soul in spite of its flaws, not something that lacks them.

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