Thursday, February 21, 2008

At Oscar Time, Let Us Remember What Started It All

Feb. 21, 2008--Art is about externalizing internal patterns such as a stored memorization of times we once knew. To make the dream come true and show it as great as it appeared in the artist's mind, with all its charm, exciting vagueness and mystery is a feat in itself. "...with what real feeling, and anxiety, and suffering do we experience joy, and sorrow and alarm in our dreams!"

Few understood this and lived a life of preserving memories better than D.W. Griffith, the Father of Film.

"What a grand invention it would be if someone could make a magic box in which we could store the precious moments of our lives and keep them with us, and later on, in dark hours, could open this box and receive for at least a few moments, a breath of its stored memory."

...They did, of course, and the "magic box" allowed him to make his dream come true. We all have such a magic box where every element that makes us dream is stored. For the mystic artist, it is a treasure trove of discoveries from which to create.

When I first came to New York City in 1991, I read a story about D.W. Griffith (the Father of Film). It was about the time when he first came to New York City in 1906 as a starving actor. Just newly wed, he worked odd jobs (to eat) like scraping rust from the iron supports in the new subway for $2.25 per day! When I first got here, myself, it was much the same for me. I was full of creative energy, always writing something new - always new projects on the burner.

That particular story led me to walk through Manhattan, retracing the footsteps of Griffith in order to understand my own destiny. That particular story - with D.W.'s words, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford and the somewhat removed Chaplin - I sensed a familiar connection. It was no coincidence that upon my arrival in New York, I found myself wandering about between Fifth Avenue and Union Square quite often - Eleven East (a brownstone between 5th Avenue and Union Square) was where the "American Mutoscope and Biography Company" had been. That's the place where it all began.

Then I proceeded on to the big library where the paintings of the Astors are hung, only to discover later that had been the next place D.W. Griffith went when he began researching The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance - his two greatest films. He and his wife studied the history of America and even copied soldiers' diaries and letters. So, all his life to that point was preparing him to become a great storyteller in film - one of the first. And every morning, he awoke feeling that he was a "failure." In his early thirties, he was poor and married. "The writer in him clung to his craft, but the mature man knew that other action was necessary." I thought it must have been an exciting illumination to D.W. when he finally realized he was destined to be a pioneer and was doing things that had not ever been done before.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Paparazzi - For Good or Evil

Feb. 6, 2008--You'd have to have been living under a rock for the past few years to be unaware of the crazed lifestyle of the rich and famous and the ruthless pursuit of them by the ever-growing swarms of paparazzi. Most clear thinking individuals are dismayed by the behavior of both celebrities and their so-called photographers; however, what they do has become a big part of our culture and it's worth a moment or two to consider possible solutions to this ever-growing problem - that is, a heightened public awareness and consumption of 'a whole lotta nothin' worth mentioning.'

These flash-bulb-fests, after all, take the focus away from the art and artist and place it squarely on minutiae. The result: our airwaves are increasingly disseminating every petty detail of the lives of celebrities, most of whom are only 'famous for being famous,' and actually contribute nothing of any value to our culture. So, little by little, our standards as a society are lowered and we end up further degrading our values while lacking a sense of priorities in the way we live. (Remember that great line in "Broadcast News" speaking of the devil: '...he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance... Just a tiny bit.') It's not the paparazzo's fault; it's up to us not to dip into the dumpster for our entertainment.

Paparazzi - celebrity photographers - have been around ever since there have been movie stars. But the word itself originated from the surname of such a photographer in Federico Fellini's La dolce vita (1960), after the name of a hotelkeeper in George Gissing's By the Ionian Sea (1901), read by Fellini. One of the characters in the film is a news photographer named Paparazzo. In his book Word and Phrase Origins, author Robert Hendrickson writes that Fellini took the name from an Italian dialect word for a particularly noisy, buzzing mosquito. The character, Paparazzo, the news photographer, is the origin of the word used in many languages (normally in the plural, paparazzi) to describe intrusive photographers.

Since WWII, celebrity photographers have been helping to exacerbate the limelight of movie stars and the like; however, in modern times, their presence has become a double-edged sword for the stars. A small minority of them are able to use the publicity they know they're going to get in productive ways and learn to become masters at manipulating the press for their own good or for a cause in which they believe; but most remain clueless and misguided and, poorly advised by their publicists, end up becoming victims of the press. And, of course, there are the shameless red carpet poseurs and shady characters with less than fifteen minutes of fame (or imagined fame) that court the cameras to feed their own egomania - no matter how ridiculous it makes them appear.

Being photographed is the price one pays for celebrity, but some tabloids take things too far. The new paparazzo has become pushy and dangerous. Some observers blamed them for the death of Princess Diana who was killed in 1997 in a high-speed car accident in France, while being pursued by paparazzi. Actress Reese Witherspoon said she first noticed the aggressive shooters in 2001. "I have no less than six photographers every day on me," Witherspoon said. "They are in rapid pursuit. We've had to move houses, we moved schools and we sell our vehicles every two months," she said. "Even then, they seem to get the car information from the dealership. They have networks that are like spider webs."

There was a time when photographing important people and events was a respectable art. In the "golden age" of photojournalism (1930s-1950s), some magazines and newspapers built their huge readerships and reputations largely on their use of photography, and some photographers achieved celebrity status. Their photographs became respectable works of art; since the late 1970s, photojournalism and documentary photography have increasingly been accorded a place in art galleries alongside fine art photography. (Life, one of America's most popular weekly magazines from 1936 through the early 1970s, was filled with photographs reproduced beautifully on oversize 11×14-inch pages, using fine engraving screens, high-quality inks, and glossy paper.) Of course, back then, they took pictures of important events and people and I doubt that anyone of that era could fathom how much a paparazzo in the 21st century would be paid for a photograph of a celebrity slurping a frappaccino at Starbuck's.

But what about celebrities finding creative ways to use their fame for productive purposes? A great example comes to mind: when John Lennon and Yoko Ono used their celebrity and the paparazzi to publicize their bed-ins for peace during the Vietnam War. When they were married, they knew the press would follow them everywhere, so rather than honeymooning on a tropical isle, they decided to use their fame for a good cause. Naïve as it may have been, Lennon truly believed he was following a Gandhian philosophy of nonviolent protest and was only too happy to make an ass of himself and his wife in public by inviting the press in their room to photograph them in their pajamas in bed to broadcast their campaign to help stop the war. Their simple message: "Give Peace a Chance." Nevermind the dirty-minded spoilers who falsely reported that John and Yoko were having sex in front of the cameras. They were sincere, young, fresh and driven. All told, it had a positive effect on the public and opened up a new dialogue about the war; and they felt it was time well spent.

I'd like to imagine that one day some of the attention hungry spoiled brat celebrities will follow Lennon's example and use their fame for a good cause. I can only hope some of the clueless selfish celebrities who are hounded by paparazzi will become as creative and begin to use their fame for something other than the continual self-aggrandizing and perpetuating of the myth of their own greatness.