The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"It's A Wonderful Life"

"When thought objects vanish, the thinking-subject vanishes, as when the mind vanishes, objects vanish.
Things are
objects because of the subject; the mind is such because of things.
Understand the
relativity of these two and the basic reality: the unity of emptiness.
In this
Emptiness the two are indistinguishable and each contains in itself the whole world.
If you do not discriminate between
coarse and fine you will not be tempted to prejudice and opinion."
--  Hsin Hsin Ming

“I'm very glad that you found inspiration at your conference, Steve, and learned from it. I was wondering though, to what degree must art truly arise from self-expression? From what I understand, Frank Capra didn't really have a positive view of humanity, but made the classic "Its a Wonderful Life" because that's what was paid to direct. If he didn't believe in the message, how could the film have touched so many people, and achieved the status of classic?”

This question was interesting, because there are so many examples of artists living unhappy lives and creating optimistic, upbeat work…or being nice folks (Steven King, anyone?) and creating downbeat, violent, terrifying work, and so many other combinations.

In the martial arts, there are people who can create kinetic masterpieces while terrified or angry, or dancers who can portray purity of essence while despoiling their personal lives.

My comments about the nature of art, and the path of the artist, deny none of these things.  The suggestion is that the way of deepening your art is the path of Self-discovery.  Absent that, what you have is a sharpening of craft.  Even the “mere” use of craft, however, implies a deeply held aesthetic sense, a refinement of your sense of what goes together, what fits, what makes a pleasant (or unpleasant) harmony or disharmony.

Remember: Capra didn’t WRITE it’s a wonderful life.  He was not the creator of the concept.  This might or might not be relevant, depending on the degree of his contribution to the finished product.  The script is attributed to Philip Van Doren and Frances Goodrich.  It is possible that Capra “merely” shot what was on the paper.  Even if this is true, however, every performance and the composition of every shot, as well as scene lengths and pacing and far more, had to reflect Capra’s aesthetic.

If he spoke the truth (and I have no reason to call him a liar) then I would say that he was of two minds.  He was, in essence, an optimist, one who sees the infinite potential of human beings, and then became somewhat embittered by our inability to hold that energetic, to rise to our full potential.  Many cynics started out as optimists…once they see the violence and horror lurking in the shadows, that very optimism can turn against them, and throw them into very depressive states.

“Can’t you see what the world can be!” they scream.  “Why is everything crap!”   Of course, everything ISN’T crap, and never was.  This is their lack of a balanced perspective.  Remember, I can’t read his mind, but given that caveat, I would say that saw the light, and was baffled and disheartened by the darkness.  How could WW2’s horrors take place in a world ruled by a loving God?  For someone stuck in the Newtonian world-view, trapped by the need to believe in Black and White, who believe that humans were once angels who have now fallen into hell, this world can be a place of endless disappointment.

I far prefer the idea that we are rising up from the purely reflexive, animal instincts.  That those instincts are not “bad”—they helped us to survive.  But that we have the opportunity to climb to a higher place, to see much further, to join with spirit. 

As we deepen our meditative or prayer practice, as we seek to connect our art more fully with our life, we walk this path. There are other paths, certainly.  Perhaps Capra walked one of those.  I cannot say.  All I can say with honesty is that the path of Self-discovery is a valid one, for the artist, or the person committed to living an authentic life.  I do not, and have never, said it is the only path.

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