Rethinking The Word ‘Visionary’

It’s been a while since I dipped into the ‘critical’ role. Generally, while I like (and read plenty of) film criticism, I’m less sure of my ability to write it. Also, I’m constantly afraid that it will make me very self-conscious in my own work.

But, I feel like I have to speak but, because something is bugging the shit out of me, and it has to do with the advertising (and to some extent) the fan-boy reception and criticism of Zack Snyder as a ‘VISIONARY.’

Zack, I don’t know you, but I have seen most of your films. I feel that you, Gaspar Noe (Enter The Void), Sophia Coppola (Lost In Translation), Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight), and a few other filmmakers belong to a particular class of artists. You have impressive technical skills, and are trying to embrace bigger themes in your work, while working within a system that seems to actively discourage anything of the sort. That does make you special among many film directors who seem content to waste their talents on complete crap, or try to make a go of it entirely outside the mainstream system.

However, it doesn’t make you a visionary. Because, in order to be a visionary, you have to have a VISION.

What do I mean by this? I mean that, as an artist, you have to reach beyond what we know and accept as part of our consciousness, dig into what’s ‘out there/in there’ – the endless, constantly unfolding universe – and bring back a new paradigm, nugget, something, anything, that suggests a better/newer/alternate way of being, thinking, loving, living, making. In literature and philosophy, think of Ovid, Dante, Blake, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung… more recently, Djuna Barnes, Pynchon, Deleuze, Adrienne Rich, Phillip K. Dick, William Gibson, Samuel Delaney, Elizabeth Hand, Neil Gaiman. In art, think of Picasso, Matisse, Keith Haring, Louise Bourgeois. In music: Dirty Projectors, John Cage, Arvo Part, The Boredoms, Bjork, Bill Laswell’s Last Exit, PJ Harvey…

In film and television: Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, David Lynch, (sometimes) David Cronenberg, Maya Deren, Kieslowski, David Simon, David Chase (what’s with all the Davids?), Hayao Miyazaki, Julie Taymor (sometimes), Wong Kar-Wai…

Feel free to argue with some or all of my choices. Not all of them produced consistently visionary (or even good) work. But what unites them (at least is my mind) is that, regardless of their choice of medium, subject matter, technical acumen, critical reception or box office score, they bring something back from the edges of our existence, and thereby broaden our sense of what’s possible.

Other visionaries: the filmmakers I’ve been meeting this year on the festival circuit. The filmmakers behind Sader Ridge, Found, Channeling, Menschen, Lonely Boy – just to name a few, and just at one festival (the Phoenix Film Festival) – are exploring new places, on budgets that are far less than Zack Snyder’s personal bottled water supply. Are the works technically perfect? No. Who cares? They have the vitality that unites great art, from the shamanic cave paintings at Lescaux to Basquiat to Ralph Ellison to Arvo Part’s Tu Deum.

Being a visionary doesn’t guarantee success – sometimes it means taking years of exploration, exile, scraping by on day jobs, scratching away at ideas, throwing a lot of crap out. It’s risky and maddening and sometimes you’ll die before everyone realizes who amazing you are. But if you want the frontier, to connect with what made you want to do this as a kid – it’s there, waiting for you.

So use this word with care. If you aspire to visionary status, spend some time working in the dark. And bring us back something new.

Beautiful Ruins

A ruin in the making

Yesterday it housed people; today it houses birds and vines.

“What is a ruin but time easing itself of endurance?” – Djuna Barnes

Ruins are fascinating. This is where you begin to see the layers of time working each other. Like the cross-section diagrams that still fascinate me – if you’ve ever read David Macaulay’s books Underground, Cathedral, City, Castle and Unbuilding, then you know what I’m talking about – a ruin reveals the infrastructure behind the skin, the processes behind the world.

In Stewart Brand’s excellent book The Clock of the Long Now: Time And Responsibility, he speaks of the six layers of society, and how each one operates at a different speed. His layers, from fastest to slowest, are art/fashion, commerce, government, religion, culture, nature. You can quibble with his classifications, but it’s not hard to see his logic. The layers are interlocked, each informing the others. When societies function reasonably well, people are able to live decent lives, and feel like they’re contributing to and being supported by the different layers. When societies malfunction (as often happens) – when commerce drives our lives and bends them to its will, or when religious dogmatism stultifies innovation – the resulting friction between layers ruins lives.

Theorists like Deleuze and Guattari, and their latter-day descendant Manuel DeLanda (and predecessors Marx and Smith, to mention a few), go into enormous detail about this. But much of what they have to say may come off as too abstract, until you look at a ruined building, and see the concrete reality. A ruin was once a building, in some ways the perfect handshake between art (fast) and culture (slow). The buildings that survive long enough to be ruins sheltered that which the society that built them valued the most. Cathedrals and pyramids, castles, mansions. It’s not hard to see what will survive this era. The giant concrete and steel edifices of Wall Street will – long after the glass has cracked and the cubicle walls rotted by moss – one day be what factories look like today: shells that once spoke of thunderous activity pursuing what looked like a glorious, permanent future. The ruins were often built by people who could never have afforded to live in them. How many peasants died to put up the walls of Uruk? How many slaves built the turrets in Troy? Whose bones are buried near Macho Picchu? The futures these buildings speak of never came to be.

Often, it’s the art – that most impermanent of things – that tells us the most about who lived and died there. The wall with inscribed/painted stories; the sculptures that adorn the weedy lawn; the adornment on commonplace cups, bowls and tools. The money is now worthless; the laws outmoded; the culture mutated (often to the better, sometimes for the worse) by invasions, migrations, modernization; the gods have been usurped, expunged outright, or re-purposed by the next upstart religion; even the language of the descendants would be unrecognizable to a time traveler from the heyday of the building’s use. What’s left is the bones, and the skin.

But ruins are far from dead. Nature turned railways into gardens long before some real estate developers figured out the trick. The grandchildren of the peasants who lived in fear of the strongmen in the castle use its bricks and stone to build their houses. The cathedral becomes a nightclub. The old factory is now an artists’ colony (and, sadly, soon will be a trendy shopping center). In a ruin you can see the layers of time part like vellum transparencies in an anatomy textbook. You can see possibilities, edges, mortality. You can see the future from the altars they prayed to – and preyed upon from – in the past. You can see threads of hope and resistance, often in the graffiti and in the nooks that the officials didn’t care about. Most of all you can see life continuing to thrive.