A World of Clay Babies
Welcome to the Hammer Party Vol. 9
Welcome to the Hammer Party.
This month I sat down with the Agitator crew to discuss Battles Without Honor and Humanity, as well as Elden Ring, nuclear fallout and a whole lot more. Give it a listen. I also highly recommend you check out at least the first movie in the five-film series, a masterpiece of plot-as-vibes and mid-century Yakuza style.
Thoughts on Writing
A World of Clay Babies
A saying about Hollywood that I may have coined: somebody catches lightning in a bottle, and then all around town people run out and buy empty bottles.
Great art is the parent of bad art. Something shocking and new and bracing will inspire people, and that most of those people will miss what it is about that work that inspired them. They will be unable to recreate the specific and ineffable qualia that makes up the DNA of a work. They will imitate the most obvious features of the thing, taking what was fresh and new and making it rote and predictable.
The fundamental creative mistake is to attempt to replicate the exterior of a work of art instead of replicating the intent and process that led to that work being created. It is seeing your neighbor’s child, wishing to start a family of your own, and going home and shaping a baby out of clay.
When I say that your goal should be to replicate the intent and process, I’m not talking about the minute details of the artist’s creative process, although those can be useful to learn so you can find what works best for you. I’m talking about the motive, craft, inspiration, and condition of the artist.
Was the person you are hoping to imitate create their work by closely imitating someone else? Probably not. So how can you hope to replicate what you love about that work by creating a hollow imitation of it? Was the work that you want to replicate the result of chasing the trend? Or did it create a trend because the artist was mining their own desires, passions, skills and craft to produce something only they can create?
When we start, we all lean towards pastiche. We are learning about ourselves, and our styles and what moves us, and some sort of imitation is inevitable at this stage. But if you do not move on from that, if you don’t broaden your influences until they are a unique reflection of yourself, then you are just making a clay baby.
This isn’t to say that all genre work is hollow, or that you cannot work inside a conventional framework or write something with commercial appeal. You must simply invest your work with something vital and unique. The difference between a living eye and a dead eye is merely a glint, but oh how important that glint is.
This glint is what you must chase. It comes from you, from letting the things that excite you (not what you think you’re supposed to be excited by) motivate and feed your work. The good news is, you already know what that is.
Now, the bad news. Modern capitalism, with its vertical integration and the immense influence executives have over storytelling, leads to more and more clay babies sitting motionless in their cribs. The people in charge know how lifeless their products are, but they are terrified of the process that will lead to the creation of vital works of art, so clay babies are all they can have. The only trick they know to make the clay babies feel alive is to douse them with the blood of a more vital work. They must perform a meat-hook act, taking the art of a more creative age, slitting its throat and catching its blood in a pan.
(Of course most of it spills on the ground anyway.)
This is the irony of companies producing television shows about the making of the Godfather while simultaneously doing everything they can to make sure nothing like it is ever made again.
I do not want to romanticize the past as some wide open age of unfettered creativity. There have always been compromises, concessions to markets, imitation and pastiche. But it is getting worse. We are entering an age of the quantification of storytelling. Streaming services now give notes to television writers based on algorithms and formulas, a complete denial of the inherent, ineffable art at the center of storytelling.
It is no accident that the most creatively successful people working in TV and film are often narcissistic monsters. It’s not that they make better art, it is that they have a (bad) source of strength and techniques that help them resist the industry’s desire to devivify their work. It’s important to understand this: Hollywood doesn’t merely tolerate bad behavior. It actively rewards it.
Is the answer to become a bad person yourself? To never compromise, to scream and shout until you get your way? Of course not. First of all, that kind of narcissism is innate, or at least not self-cultivated, so you’d come up short. And besides, a little commercial success isn’t worth damaging your soul.
So what is the solution? This is something I grapple with a lot. Here’s what I can tell you: you as the creator know what the essential heart of your work is. So only you can know when something will stop that heart from beating. Only you will know what will make your baby clay. That means it’s on you to protect it. Sometimes that means taking a stand. Sometimes that means walking away. It is not easy.
There’s a heuristic I use when I’m confronted with a binary decision about my work. I call it failure mode. Imagine making both choices one by one. But don’t imagine you’re making the right choice. Thinking about how you’ll feel if you make the successful choice is easy - you’ll feel good. You have to imagine how you’ll feel if you are wrong. Role play out how you will feel if whichever choice you make turns out to fail.
So let’s say you are being asked to make a change to a pilot script that might improve your chances of getting it made, but deeply violates your idea of what the show is and what interests you about it. Imagine refusing to make the change, and therefore the show doesn’t get made. Think about how you’d feel. Now imagine that you choose to make the change, to turn your baby into clay, but the show still doesn’t get made. Imagine how you’d feel then. Now which road will you take?
I don’t want to suggest that I am a saint of integrity. I have absolutely compromised, taken shorts, gone for prestige, sold out. I write these newsletters as much to myself as anyone else. Understanding more fully what storytelling is and what it is for is helping me clarify why I write. Having a goal that is process-oriented and achievable is helping me. The good news it, it’s really very simple. Cultivate yourself, be true to yourself, and do not break the dream.
Refilling the Tank: RRR
I saw the epic historical action-drama RRR this weekend. It’s absolutely insane and amazing. I will admit a very limited knowledge of Indian epics, but based on this I’m ready to dive into the genre head-first.
Imagine the heroic bloodshed/dudes rock ethos of John Woo (his Red Cliff is an obvious point of comparison) injected into an epic action drama with operatic emotional arcs, incredible action sequences, a few very fun dance numbers and a whole, whole lot of "fuck whitey."
Okay, party’s over.