TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE

July 23, 2005.

When you’re an artist (or pursuing any profession for that matter) trying to hear your own voice, the process is not unlike a toddler taking her first steps. You have in your ears the babble of the world around you- all the coochy-cooing and come-hereing of those more powerful and authoritative than you. While that patch of sunlight looks awfully inviting and you just want to toddle over and play, others are urging you to follow in their footsteps, to walk in the same direction they have gone. And so you turn your head back and forth, reaching for the sunlight, but bending to their wishes.

I will never forget the feeling of stepping out on my own with an unconventional stage production. I knew well the path others had trod. I understood the expectations inherent in directing that particular work. Yet my own voice had reached a pitch that would not be muffled or silenced. It said, “come to this patch of sunlight and play.” But it wasn’t a naive sort of play. It was fearsome, overwhelming, frustrating and risky. Even I didn’t know what I would find when I got there. Even I walked in to the rehearsal space unsure of my objective. But my voice emerged in the midst of chaos. When I trusted it, I discovered what I was seeking.

The difficulties didn’t end with rehearsal. I watched as, during each and every performance, at least one audience member, sometimes more, walked out of the show before it was over. I didn’t feel angry or guilty over their decision. I didn’t feel I owed them anything or that they owed me. I simply watched them go and wondered why we didn’t hear the same voice. And to those who remained, who understood, I was grateful.

It was with great anticipation yesterday that I caught an opening-night screening of Gus Van Sant’s film Last Days. The indie theater was full of avid, intelligent film buffs. They knew what they were getting into. Yet by the end of the film exactly half the audience was gone. Van Sant’s film is a fictional work inspired by the last days of Kurt Cobain. Maybe the audience expected a VH1 experience but ironically it was the teenagers with their long chains and blue Mohawks who stayed. I heard them asking each other about it as they left. “Yes,” said the Mohawk guy. “I really enjoyed it.”

The thing to know about Gus Van Sant is that he marches to his own drummer. After the success of Goodwill Hunting he no longer needed to work for money so he turned instead to small projects that ignited his passion, like Gerry and Elephant. He embraces a method that stands apart and observes, as objectively as possible, the reality and banality of a situation. His characters inhabit a world where they are transient, even unimportant. The real character is nature. One shot depicts the Kurt character rushing through a patch of sun-dappled leaves. The camera doesn’t follow him but instead remains on the leaves- quivering, dancing and, finally, resting. And Van Sant’s sound design muffles the dialogue to bring to the forefront the breeze, the sloshing mud, the lapping waves and the thundering waterfall. Van Sant drains out all of the emotion and spectacle and melodrama one might associate with the death of a rock-god. Instead we are allowed to watch as a young man pours his cereal, swims in a lake, converses with a salesman, writes some lyrics, cooks macaroni, plays his guitar and thus fulfills his last days.

By abandoning traditional narratives, Van Sant enables the audience to experience its own response to the situation. Nothing on the screen is telling us how to feel and so we are free to lie our heads back on the seats, to listen to the waves and meditate on the human condition. We ask, “What would I do if I were lost in the desert? What would I think about? How would I come to terms with my mortality?” We ask, “Why did those kids kills their classmates? How can we prevent violence? Why did that person escape?” In essence, we view a Van Sant film to learn about ourselves, to hear our own voice. With each person that walked out last night, I felt a twinge of sympathy for Van Sant. I hear you, I wanted to say to the filmmaker. And in hearing you, I am learning to hear myself.

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