The Sticking Place

Since the year 2000, work on two (unplanned) trilogies.

First: an investigation – via a film, an individual, and an event – into American politics and culture during tumultuous 1968. Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler’s fiction/non-fiction hybrid, was shot in Chicago that summer, shortly after Peter Whitehead, in New York making his film The Fall, had spent time at Columbia University during student protests, when for a week a thousand people barricaded themselves inside five campus buildings. Each of these three will eventually yield both written and audio/visual components.

Second: film craft. On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director, a collection of pedagogic writings by Alexander Mackendrick, accompanied by an educational audio/visual project (here) and several other books (in progress), including a study of Mackendrick’s teaching career at the California Institute of the Arts. A Guide for the Perplexed, an interview book with Werner Herzog detailing each and every one of his films (beginning 1957, through to 2013), his handful of published works, and other adventures. Lessons with Kiarostami documents a series of workshops led by Abbas Kiarostami and was published alongside several volumes of his original and selected/adapted poetry. Mackendrick’s writings tackle craft, structure and precision, Herzog aims his attention at the value of perseverance and what he calls “agitation of the mind,” while Kiarostami focuses on the expression of poetry, on the potency of reading between the lines, on the search for the enigmatic. An appreciation of all three is a requirement of the competent filmmaker and storyteller. Without precision, formlessness ensues. Without perseverance, little is accomplished. Without poetry, craft is just nuts and bolts. Think carefully before you speak, be forceful enough so people hear what you have to say, and express only those ideas most meaningful to you. The challenges can be invigorating. If Herzog is a self-proclaimed soldier of cinema, Mackendrick is a mechanic and Kiarostami a monk. Different approaches to the world and to filmmaking, different traits at play, but those that may profitably be drawn together, resulting in things new and worthwhile. What binds this idiosyncratic trio, what is always in evidence, is an implacable commitment to creative adventuring and belief in the primacy of the audience.

Other projects: research and translations for Cassavetes on Cassavetes, assisting George Stevens Jr. on two volumes (here and here) of interviews drawn from the archives of the American Film Institute, editing three collections for the University Press of Mississippi’s Conversations with Filmmakers series, a book and audio/visual project about production sound mixer Chris Newman, a book and audio/visual project about historian and curator Amos Vogel (also assisting with the 2005 and 2019 reissues of his 1974 classic Film as a Subversive Art), an unfinished interview with Errol Morris (in this book), and an essay about Maurice Stein and Larry Miller’s 1970 publication Blueprint for Counter Education (details here). This is my always stimulating day job. The publishing venture. Books here and here. Whether words or sounds/images, much of all this work involves some level of copyediting, side by side with accumulating and shaping the material in the first place (and often a dash of translation). A series of puzzles. Cracking the code. The study of style guides.

pDo nothing on anyone else’s terms (“Act first to desire your own good opinion” – so said the Stoics). Note Emerson. Ignore those who insist it can’t be done a certain way. Be fearful of nothing, don’t take criticism of your work personally and never doubt your abilities (plenty of people will do that for you). Self-pity is bad, victimhood is corrosive. Be invaluable to those around you. Play to your strengths (where can a useful contribution be made?). Remember what Werner Herzog said about money: it’s cowardly and stupid, slow and unimaginative. Free yourself from the control of others (wait for no one) and chase what you want (never knock just once). Nothing worth anything comes easy. Don’t spread yourself too thin. “Live to the point of tears” (turn away from anything not challenging, exciting). Let he who has never sinned… Guard against “experts.” Reuse your work (birdstone) and know your tools. Autodidactism is good and never-ending (learn to do it all yourself). Our most valuable commodity is time (cherish convenience). “Only the exhaustive is truly interesting” (superficiality is dishonourable). Delay gratification. Hard work, the only substitute for intelligence, does not go unrewarded. Never fold when you can check (keep open your options). Reliability and consistency are crucial. Stay away from institutions or accept the inevitable (decide which side you’re on). Maintain momentum. Earn the respect of those you respect. Common courtesy, please. Learn it all on the job. Bluster is rarely good (remain undercover: stillness, solitude). Search for fierce creativity, for those collaborators able to switch you on, then hold them close. The answer is often right under your nose. Every project has a natural life. Avoid safe. Leave your sense of entitlement at the door (play low-status, stop talking about yourself, listen instead). If not now, when? “Schlafen kannst Du, wenn Du tot bist.” Swallow your pride. No one likes a moaner. Invest in the open-ended. Boredom is fine so long as there is something new to seize upon. Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. “Independence” is a state of mind. Process not product. Leave the ignorant to themselves. There is very often not better, only different. If you give, give unconditionally. “Credit you give yourself is not worth having” (avoid: narcissism). Walk the desert, wherever you are. Politics is half the battle (“Indicate you heard me”). Dignity matters. Go for the low-hanging fruit last. All life is problem-solving (and don’t make your problems other people’s). Be respectful of gatekeepers. With scant concern can come liberation. Hold yourself to the highest of standards. Know thy limitations (and when to disengage). Come to terms with the truth. Don’t use “myself” when “me” will do just fine. Try not to die like a dog. Live up to your myth. Frame adversity as a challenge. NO (“like”) HEDGING. Create your own rigorous learning environment. Don’t be so easily pleased. Enjoy the abyss. Get more exercise. Stop mumbling. Take the path of unlimited opportunity. Don’t quit those piano lessons. And screw your courage to the sticking place. Keep moving. I’ll see you at the barricades.