Facing The Unknown: The Organic Art Of Storytelling

This is an excerpt from a longer piece I wrote exploring my reasons for not answering particular questions I raise in many of my screenplays and why I choose to tell the stories I do in the manner I do. Perhaps some of these thoughts will resonate for others as well while on their own storytelling journeys. 


How do we react when faced with the unknown? When we don’t get the answers we want? Those feelings that stir within us in those moments and the reasons why we feel we need these answers –any answer– even if it’s not a satisfying answer, is of endless fascination to me. Films that traverse a landscape of ambiguity, those which prefer to ask questions they have no intention of answering, these films are often misunderstood but are, in my opinion, a powerfully organic form of storytelling. Perhaps the most organic form of storytelling as they, quite often, are blessed with the capacity to stir our subconscious and set in motion a meaningful journey of discovery.

Of course, there is no singular answer outside of the thoughts, concerns and fears of each audience member themselves. Yet some people will accuse films –those that choose not to answer all posed questions– of robbing the audience, of “withholding” information that they want, that they feel they deserve or need (they, of course, don’t need it at all). Some will denounce these films as cop-outs and turn to accusations of weakness and unfairness, or go so far as to claim that such films are not actually “about” anything at all; they will point fingers and turn outward. Others will embrace this unknown. They will understand that emotionally and spiritually not all stories are about their plot machinations, but the human beings effected by the mere existence of such machinations.

It is exactly the different reactions a film can elicit from its audience that makes a film and its story so powerful, so memorable, and so individually personal. Remember, we can tell all the stories we want, believe a million different things about the world, the universe, but it does not make any of them so. And while our existence is oftentimes wonderful, exciting and joyous, it can also be scary, confusing and seemingly impossible to grasp. So we react in different ways. Some constructive, many destructive. Even if the intent is good. Sometimes we do more damage to one another in reaction to the unknown than the unknown itself could ever do. This is why it is essential to certain stories that particular questions NEVER be answered. The audience MUST take that unknown out with them into the world. To answer those questions would be to betray everything these stories are about, everything they explore. It would be the true meaning of ripping the audience off, of not giving them the opportunity or credit they deserve. It may not be the experience all audience members outwardly or consciously desire, but neither are the emotions and reactions that questions regarding the nature of existence, the vastness of the universe, conjure in us. And yet here we are. We continue to seek answers, to explore both internally and externally. It is what makes us human, what keeps us moving forward, growing, learning.

It is essential.

Henry David Thoreau

I have no desire to make a film whose experience ends when the final credits roll. The film, the story, is a jumping off point, not the be-all and end-all. There’s a quote by Henry David Thoreau that sums up my feelings on this subject perfectly:

“A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”

The same applies to film. Take the questions asked and discuss them, ponder them, come up with your own answers or decide it’s okay not to know. Look inward, be open to whatever thoughts and feelings have been triggered in you and take them out into the world.

I have always felt that a need for answers without a willingness to go on the journey of discovery results in a lack of growth, a lack of true understanding. One can be religious and not be spiritual if one takes the answers given them when they are a child and accepts them as true without asking the necessary questions required in order to understand those answers. We see this not only in religion, but in politics, in race-relations, in our social systems and interactions. It’s everywhere we look, everywhere we turn. And whether it is innate or learned, there are millions of people who simply do not have the desire or willingness to explore for themselves. It is very likely that any film that refuses to wrap itself up in a ribbon of answered questions is not going to be a film for this particular group of people. Unless it elicits a desire heretofore unrealized. However, this type of film will most immediately appeal to those already engaged in the act of exploration, both internal and external. And that is no small part of the human race, I assure you.

There is a saying that bad films are about the A-story and good films are about the B-story. What this means is that it is not the outward “plot machinations” that make a great story, but how the characters within that story are effected by such machinations. Today’s Hollywood, in my opinion, places far too much emphasis –if not all the emphasis– on plot, on the A-story. Character, metaphor and meaning take a backseat or are eliminated altogether. For me, this is the antithesis of great and effective storytelling. It is my belief that the most organic, the most genuine form of storytelling works on the subconscious.

url-4It is a fact that every conscious creature dreams. And as humans, our dreams play the role of working out our fears and concerns, our doubts, questions, joys and desires. But they are never direct. Dreams have their own logic, their own vocabulary, their own essence. They are oftentimes abstract, surreal. They ask to be interpreted. When we don’t understand our dreams, when we can’t remember every moment, every detail, we can still “feel” them; they linger in our guts for days, weeks, years, lifetimes. And there is no single interpretation of any one dream. Yet these dreams are not delivered to us from some outside force attempting to confuse us, alienate us, dissatisfy us. No, they come from within, from our own subconscious, when we sleep, when we are most vulnerable and least-likely to resist. The movie-watching experience is very similar. In a theater, we go so far as to share in a kind of “group-dream.” At home alone, if we give ourselves over to the film, we can be transported from our couches to experience places, people and emotional stimuli as if it were as real to us in that moment as our dreams are when we are dreaming. And each person’s experience and interpretation of that story and its characters are filtered through each participant’s own personal set of experiences, needs, desires, etc. Our subconscious plays a part even when stories come from without. We take them in, internalize them, add them to our collective dream experiences.

A filmmaker’s job is never to mirror reality but to express reality. Films are not made to look real, to lure us into thinking that what we are watching is taking place in the real world, that we are looking through a window at something outside or in the next room. No, we go willingly to a world that has its own rules, its own language, ever-changing and otherworldly, no matter how much we may convince ourselves that it “feels’ real. “Feeling” real and “being” real are two very different animals. Again, dreams are proof enough of that. More times than not, the most profound, most authentic feelings are triggered by the subconscious via abstraction and/or metaphor. How infinitely and gloriously creative our dreams are. Whether one is a great storyteller or a great thinker in life or not, their inner world is as complex and as expressive as any other’s.

At their best, films, like all great art, tap directly into that subconscious. They do this best when they are created out of the subconscious of another. This is why so many films made by committee are often so dissatisfying, so infinitely forgettable. In our deepest recesses, we are natural storytellers. And we receive stories with equal ease. Storytelling has been with us since the dawn of mankind. It is in our DNA. If we embrace the notion that there are truths within our dreams, that our minds and bodies turn naturally and organically toward storytelling, regardless of conscious intent, then we can begin to see why great works of art exist, why film is such a massively popular art form, and why our most cherished works touch us in ways that words often cannot. Music is a perfect example. Often abstract, poetic, sometimes improvisational, almost always, in its best form, deriving more from a feeling than being an intellectual exercise. Why is Salieri so profoundly moved by the works of his contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? It is not the mere mathematical perfection of the notes, but his deep sense and understanding –his feeling— that the music derives from someplace far more penetrating, more enigmatic, more organic. For Salieri, Amadeus is, quite simply, channeling God. And what Salieri felt lo those many years ago, is still being felt today by millions the world over each and every time they allow themselves to embrace and be embraced by Mozart’s works.

So it is with film.

Film can effect us on a level beyond logic. A person must have a need to share an experience with others before forming the words with which to tell it. The emotion, the desire, comes first, before articulation. Any good actor knows this.

url-1From an early age, we seek out storytelling experiences, ask our parents to read us stories, to tell us far-off tales. We yearn for these. We do so because they effect us, they tap into us. Children’s stories are often quite abstract and rich in metaphor. L. Frank Baum’s book THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ has captured the hearts and imaginations of children –and adults– for generations. It does this long before any desire to break it down, to take apart its pieces and study its meaning and power over us, comes into play. The film version of THE WIZARD OF OZ works on the same level. What is it about that film that keeps children and adults coming back? It is rich with metaphor, it finds us through our subconscious and taps into something deeper than words alone could convey. It is, in so many ways, dreamlike.

As adults, our subconscious has no less need for such storytelling, yet we find ourselves searching for the kinds of stories that reflect our lives now, our adult fears and longings. And yet, too many films today are not willing to engage the adult subconscious from an adult perspective.

At the end of the day, for me, success as a writer and filmmaker comes from eliciting a response as a result of stirring the subconscious –before the conscious mind steps in and enacts its need to decipher, to find an articulated meaning. I see my job as the former. And I see the audience’s job as the latter. Quite simply put, as an artist, any film I make or script I write must be in the service of that experience.

Facing The Unknown: The Organic Art Of Storytelling

Santorum & The Evil That Men Do

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” –Blaise Pascal.

It seems almost daily that I read another comment or another statement steeped in fear and hatred uttered from the lips of Rick Santorum, self-proclaimed Christian and American moralist. I do, thankfully, realize that Santorum does not represent all of Christianity and its followers, but he does represent a portion of them. Keep in mind, though he is currently at the bottom of the heap, he is still, as of this writing, a GOP presidential candidate in a playing field whittled down to four contenders. This means there is a large enough portion of Americans who share his views, his intolerances, his fears, misunderstandings and judgements of things that, well, any good Christian would normally leave up to God and not assume upon themselves.

Sadly, as Mr. Pascal once pointed out in the above quote, religion has spurned some of the most vile hatred and suffering known to man. And I think it’s rather easy to assess by the goings-on in the world today, that some things have not changed. Unfortunately for any forward-thinking individuals, men like Rick Santorum represent a part of society terrified of change. And, one could easily come to such a conclusion, of themselves.

Part of me feels sorry for men and women such as these since their lives appear to be made up largely of running away and holding on to the past with such desperation as to exhaust themselves of all humanity. Ironic, given that they claim to represent the most compassionate and forgiving of all beings. But this is in words only. Actions tell a very different story. The pain and suffering brought on by men like Rick Santorum is immeasurable, and it is considerable. Make no mistake, lives will be lost while others trampled. All in the name of one who is no longer here to protect his good name and teachings.

The bright side to all of this is that at least Santorum’s particular brand of bigotry is now out there for all to see. And those easily swayed toward his proclaimed “solutions” are no longer hidden from public view to boil and swell beneath the surface. They are out there where we can confront them, and ourselves, in the bright light of day. Good things will come from this in the bigger picture. It’s a step forward. Like a detoxing of the American psyche. We may feel a bit ill while we’re going through it, but hopefully we will come out the other side healthier and happier. If we choose to tackle it.

As for how we got where we are in the first place, well, history is full of men like Santorum. Perhaps the recent study published in the latest issue of Psychological Science explains part of it.

“Despite their important implications for interpersonal behaviors and relations, cognitive abilities have been largely ignored as explanations of prejudice. We proposed and tested mediation models in which lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice, an effect mediated through the endorsement of right-wing ideologies (social conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism) and low levels of contact with out-groups. In an analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative United Kingdom data sets (N = 15,874), we found that lower general intelligence (g) in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology. A secondary analysis of a U.S. data set confirmed a predictive effect of poor abstract-reasoning skills on antihomosexual prejudice, a relation partially mediated by both authoritarianism and low levels of intergroup contact. All analyses controlled for education and socioeconomic status. Our results suggest that cognitive abilities play a critical, albeit underappreciated, role in prejudice. Consequently, we recommend a heightened focus on cognitive ability in research on prejudice and a better integration of cognitive ability into prejudice models.”

As one who does not believe in God in a traditional sense (therefore a heathen and going to hell in the minds of many), I have always assumed that it took a level of non-thinking to allow oneself to so completely abandon reason and take the words and teachings of the bible and, not only accept them as literal, but to allow oneself to become swayed by the interpretations of such texts by those with ulterior motives. However, I do not believe all who believe in God to be less educated or less intelligent than those who do not. But there is a certain ilk that have always been ready to take to the streets to express their intolerance of others; those who would kill, maim and damage their fellow man in the name of their God. A God of love? A God of vengeance? Which is it, then?

What are we supposed to think when Rick Santorum tells you that contraception is “not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”?

How things are supposed to be. If Mr. Santorum believes this, then he is free to refrain from the use of such tools and activities. But when he believes his beliefs should be law… This should be of great concern. Santorum warns of fascism and socialism and why you should be afraid… But nothing endangers freedom more than men and women who think like Rick Santorum. His beliefs suggest the ultimate form of fascism.

When Rick Santorum tells you what marriage is, he presents it as fact, as indisputable evidence.

“Marriage is what marriage is. Marriage was around before government said what it was. It’s like going out and saying, ‘That tree is a car.’ Well, the tree’s not a car. A tree’s a tree. Marriage is marriage.” 

“It’s like handing up this and saying this glass of water is a glass of beer. Well you can call it a glass of beer, it’s not a glass of beer, it’s a glass of water. And water is what water is. Marriage is what marriage is.” 

“I can call this napkin a paper towel, but it is a napkin. Why? Because it is, what it is.” 

But what Santorum is really saying is that this is what marriage is for Rick Santorum. And therefore it should be for all others. By law. Like it or not, there are those who do not share and were not raised with Mr. Santorum’s limited definition. And we are Americans, no more or less so than he is. Just as Santorum’s God is not everybody’s God, Rick Satorum’s definitions and interpretations are not everyone’s. Nor should they be. That would be similar to asking a nation to publicly mourn the death of their beloved leader, Kim Jong Il, even if they did not, in fact, love him or mourn his loss. And then imprison those who did not either mourn publicly or mourn sincerely. Is that the America Santorum’s followers envision? Because if it’s not, then they best rethink their stance and support of such an individual. Or is that low IQ getting in the way of reasoned thought again?

“[Marriage] is an intrinsic good … we extend certain privileges to people who do that because we want to encourage that behavior. Two people who may like each other or may love each other who are same-sex, is that a special relationship? Yes it is, but it is not the same relationship that benefits society like a marriage between a man and a woman.” 

What he means is that such a relationship does not benefit Rick Santorum. I’ll tell you right now that he does not speak for me. Same sex marriages have benefitted me in my life and my world, the kind of society I want to live in. And it damn well benefits same-sex couples who are (guess what?) members of this society. Again, what doesn’t benefit Rick should not benefit anyone in Santorum’s world view.

“Whether it’s polygamy, whether it’s adultery, whether it’s sodomy, all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.” 

Once again, these may be things that Rick Santorum chooses not to engage in, but he is not in a position (no pun intended) –and it is the point of this write-up that he should not be– to tell others what sexual activities they should or should not be doing where two consenting adults are concerned. But Santorum’s answer to that would be:

“If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.” 

The truth is that consensual sex in the home does NOT make polygamy or bigamy or incest legal. It DOES, however, allow one (or two or three or four…) to engage in certain sexual activities that some other folks may find startling, offensive and even a little off-putting. It seems, however, that even a healthy and imaginative sex life is off-putting to Mr. Santorum. When you allow a man like this to tell you what you can and can’t do in bed… But Mr. Santorum disagrees:

“The idea is that the state doesn’t have rights to limit individuals’ wants and passions — I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire. And we’re seeing it in our society.” 

The world Rick Santorum envisions has more in common with the Crusades than it does with the teachings of Christ. And like many other religious zealots before him, Santorum will fight to ensure HIS way of life at the exclusion of all others:

“The battle we’re engaged in right now on same-sex marriage, ultimately that is the very foundation of our country, the family, what the family structure is going to look like. I’ll die on that hill fighting.” 

Rick Santorum is too mired in his own fears, fear of change, fear of reality, fear of difference, fear of things he wasn’t taught, fear of things he doesn’t understand, fear of the dark and the unknown. And it has turned him into a man mired in hatred and intolerance.

“You can say I’m a hater. But I would argue I’m a lover. I’m a lover of traditional families and of the right of children to have a mother and father. … Isn’t that the ultimate homeland security, standing up and defending marriage?” 

Marriage, he fails to point out, as Rick Santorum sees it. And Santorum’s “logic” is no better than claiming the KKK doesn’t hate blacks, they simply love white supremacy. No, even science, the ground beneath his own two feet, the air he breathes, and the very planet he lives on is not enough to convince Mr. Santorum that the world may not always be the way he wants it to be. The way he so clearly needs it to be.

“I’ve never supported even the hoax of global warming.”

In Rick Santorum’s world, there are no other valid points of view, no other opinions of note, no other interpretations than his own. Rick Santorum would fight to make his beliefs your beliefs. All the while pointing out the dangers of others. And if he gets his way, when the time comes and he has passed from this world, you will mourn his death. Whether you want to or not.

Santorum & The Evil That Men Do

Justice in California, For A Change…

“A federal judge in San Francisco decided today that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry, striking down Proposition 8, the voter approved ballot measure that banned same-sex unions.”

It’s about time. I keep hearing the same misguided argument that marriage is a religious union between a man and a woman.

Perhaps for some.

But this is America where freedom of religion is a right. So, firstly, not everyone subscribes to the same religion or interpretation of religion.

Second, who says marriage is only a religious union? Are Atheists not allowed to marry? I wasn’t raised with the notion that marriage was a religious union and I’m an American. Does that mean those married by a justice of the peace and not a priest or a rabbi or some other religious figure are not truly married? C’mon, people. You may have your preferences, but stop deciding the definition of marriage for all people. THAT, my friend, is NOT American.

Third, there’s the argument that a child should be raised by a male and a female, a mother and a father. Okay, so what about gay couples that don’t want children? Or what about heterosexual single parents? If one dies or goes off to war and is not present for the child’s developmental years… Should that marriage be annulled? Are those kids in horrible danger of becoming deviants? Or perverts? Should the surviving parent have their child or children taken away?

Fourth, there’s the argument that all gay couples want is what is already offered through civil unions. By what if what they want is to be equal? What if what they want is to be able to express their love for one another through an institution and ritual that they were taught is what one does when one is in love. They get “married.” What if one person’s definition of marriage, like one’s definition of Christianity, Judaism, Democracy, etc., is different from someone else’s?

No, for America to work, for it to be the land of the free, all people must be treated equal. They must have equal rights. And in order to achieve that, we must have tolerance and understanding.

Then there’s the lovely notion that gays getting married tarnishes the very institution of marriage itself. Really? I know and have seen quite a few heterosexual couples that don’t do much justice to, or seem to display an overwhelming respect for, the institution of marriage. It’s on a couple by couple basis. By the same token, I know a number of gay marriages that I, as a heterosexual, hope to someday be able to emulate in both commitment, communication and expression of love and understanding.

We should all be so blessed.

Justice in California, For A Change…

In God We Trust. Or Else. You Listening, Tiger?

Wasn’t it George Orwell who said, “As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents”?

While folks like Sarah Palin and the staff of Fox News spend much of their time screaming threats of Socialism at their more left-leaning fellow Americans, it seems the hardcore religious right are becoming a more visible entity in this country. I don’t remember there being TV news channels back in the day that were grossly committed to espousing and dignifying the misguided efforts and beliefs of this very odd faction of human beings.

As Obama and his supporters (and many of his critics) try and make changes to benefit the daily lives of Americans, offer them choices, enhance equality and freedom, we still hear the loud, frightened cries of those who have not even yet managed to bring themselves to embrace the notion of evolution. They’re still working on the universe was created in a week” plan. No wonder the Bush Administration and many of its political predecessors had so much trouble planning ahead and projecting into the future. Everything worth accomplishing should and could be done in a week! Mission accomplished anyone?

So while the shouts of “Socialism!” and “Totalitarianism!” persist, we move slowly away from an administration that restricted human freedoms by passing a law that would allow individuals to be placed under arrest with no charges officially filed or rights allowed. And those arrests and subsequent imprisonments were proclaimed “indefinite.” That same administration led us into a preemptive attack on another country for the first time in American history. But unlike Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, our leaders did so with full knowledge and intent, disregarding the recommendations of the United Nations, who, it turns out, were correct in their assessment of the situation in Iraq. And through all of this, the Bush Administration found every possible way to overturn any criticism that their particular brand of torture was inhuman. They insisted it was not only legal, but necessary. And when faced with legal implications, they actually tried to redefine torture itself so that they could legally continue in their God-mandated actions.

I wonder what Jesus would think about all of this?

It seems odd to me that so many of these Bush supporters and Palin supporters are actually running around in fear of totalitarianism, fascism and big government under the Obama Administration. Especially considering that the Bush Administration and many Republican administrations before (though Clinton can be lumped in here to an extent, as well) catered grotesquely to the massive corporations that have, in essence, become the government of the United States (and, perhaps, the rest of the world). The very fears these people are now espousing and their accompanying accusations were actually flourishing as a reality under their own God-approved world leaders.

There has been few things in my lifetime that seemed more moralistically damaged than the Bush Administration. They not only diminished our hundreds-year struggle to make and keep America “The Land Of The Free,” but they did it under the name of God and Christianity. There is nothing more offensive to my understanding of Jesus and God–any God–than the actions of the Bush Administration and the current portion of Americans still engaged in these beliefs.

Understand, this is not a Democrat versus Republican issue. Nor is it an anti-religion issue. This is an argument between a group of people who believe in true freedom and equality –regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation– and a group of people who believe in those things with a set of parenthesis attached. It seems that simply claiming to be a good Christian is enough to justify almost any act of brutality or injustice so long as you can connect it to your religious beliefs and convince yourself that you are on the side of “right.” That you are “chosen” or “saved.” What a terrifying notion. This faith-based bit of simple-mindedness has brought us such God-approved events as the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. It seems that only in retrospect can the public at large recognize the atrocities committed in the name of the Lord.

But what is one to expect from a belief system that suggests believers will go to heaven, while the rest of humanity will spend an eternity in hell? Is this what the universe has been boiled down to in the glorious and creative minds of the human race?

A few weeks back, I wrote a short piece on Dick Cheney and the Bush Administration’s torture policies and I held them up against some of the insightful and thoughtful teachings of Gandhi. One very angry woman wrote to me proclaiming “You’re obviously NOT a Christian man!” I wondered what gave me away? My quoting Gandhi or my not endorsing torture?

Today, Fox News’ Brit Hume commented on golfer Tiger Woods’ one chance to save himself, not only from his current public scandal, but from the very fiery depths of hell itself:

“The extent to which he can recover seems to me depends on his faith. He is said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. My message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.”

Tiger has spoken openly in the past about his religious beliefs:

“I practice meditation. That is something that I do, that my mum taught me over the years. We also have a thing we do every year, where we go to temple together. In the Buddhist religion you have to work for it yourself, internally, in order to achieve anything in life and set up the next life. It is all about what you do and you get out of it what you put into it.”

Clearly the words of a blasphemer.

I wonder how many Americans are out there right now commenting not so much on Mr. Woods’ all-too human difficulties and challenges, but on the indisputable “fact” that he may well rot in hell. He doesn’t need a therapist. He needs to have faith. Not in himself, but in another. And if he does so, he can finally realize that he is not only above the law, but the rest of humanity.

In God We Trust. Or Else. You Listening, Tiger?