Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

An objection to my latest essay on Spike Lee

Dear Hannah,

My editor (God bless him) has rejected the last essay on the grounds that I was unfair to Spike Lee.  The fact that Spike Lee is unfair to everyone else is absolutely beside the point if my editor was right; and since I believe a sense of fairness is what separates men like me from Mr. Lee, I've decided to give him something of an apology.


The point in dispute was that I judged the man's talent on the basis of Chiraq alone.  I've only seen Chiraq and I only plan to see Chiraq because Chiraq made it impossible for me to want to see anything else that he made.  But your mother insists that Crooklyn and Malcolm X were good films (whatever her word is worth here), and she said it on the same day that I saw M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit, which wasn't only less good than his masterpieces like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but a regrettable film in general.

Of course I'd forgotten the sad fact of aging artists; that almost every brilliant person who ever lived has created something very bad before making something good, and then went onto make something very good before making something very bad.  In a certain sense we're almost happy that Kurt Cobain blew his brains out before he became an aging Robert Plant.  Only our artists can take the greatest things we know and inseparably associate them with the worst.  That Led Zeppelin continued making anything after releasing Kashmir is something bordering on tragedy.  Now children are just as likely to hear some of their least inspired songs on the radio as hearing any of their best. An artist's worst enemy is probably himself -- aside from the sudden excesses of a successful career.

Were it not known for the accidents improperly known as untimely deaths, aging might have forced us to admit that bad things almost always follow excellent things; and most usually in a way that's harmful to our pride, and even more destructive to our trust.  We can believe in almost anything but men; and beyond this we can expect from almost anyone but the most creative artists.  Geniuses are in many respects almost accidents, and the element of surprise is tempered by our disappointed expectations. In almost everything there is a balance, and for everything we receive, there is something to be lost. The moment they make us feel a certain way we expect them to do it again; and when they fail to do it again, we blame them instead of ourselves for not achieving what even the artists believe to be the impossible*.

Whether this truth is applicable to Mr. Lee is a matter of conjecture, since at this moment it's impossible for me to confirm the quality of his earlier films.  But if it's true that he was a decent director before being a terrible director then I owe him an apology -- not only because I assumed he was always a terrible director, but more importantly out of pity for his becoming a terrible director.  The only greater tragedy here is that he was never an excellent moralist; and if I withhold a portion of my accusations about his talents, I continue to stand by my assertions about his being a horrible person.

Your father,
-J

*An artist's best works are almost always an accident, which is why so many people refer to the accidents as inspiration.  Anyone who's ever written anything phenomenal has the haunting feeling that he couldn't do it again if he tried; and the helpless sensation that the best works are behind him is something experienced by most of our artists, excluding the delusional. CS Lewis (among countless others) went through a particularly miserable period right before he wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, believing not only that his best writing was behind him, but that nobody was interested in hearing anything he had to say.  I go through the sensation weekly -- right before I write something I didn't plan on writing that I fall in love with.  Almost nobody knows when God has put him out to pasture.  All he knows is that he wants to create -- and that he'll keep wanting to create something beautiful until the day that he dies.

I almost never plan on writing the things I write, and the things I plan on writing are almost never written.  Real creativity is a cruel talent -- if it can even be called a talent.  It can be prepared for with study but rarely summoned.  We wait and wait for lightning to strike us, and the more earnestly we wait the less likely we are to do anything.  And then when we stop waiting we create the things we would never have expected.  It's been said that surprises make us happier, since we never planned on enjoying them.  But how horrible is it to wait on the inconceivable?    

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