It’s January 2015, and as happens, I’m in Europe, as I’d been 51 years ago. Back then I’d just begun filmmaking, having made a first film in Cassina Amata, near Milano, back in January of 1963, and another in Autumn of the same year, in Salzburg, Austria. Later on in 1964, in Mexico and the US I shot 3 more short films. It set a pace which would be repeated the next 51 years (so far). My output, compared to most of my peers, has been large, whatever you do or don’t think of the quality. 38 long films and as many short works in that half-century. Almost all, as way back then, on nearly nothing money-wise. And now, looking backwards through time’s telescope, I find myself wondering if it was worth doing or not. Second guessing the past, which I suppose is the prescription for the fabled “mid-life crisis.”
I am pretty constantly told that I’ve been lucky, persistent, whatever word one wishes to use, in that I’ve done what I wanted to do, which I’m told is more than most people do. And that is true, though I think everyone does what they want to do, within the strictures of their particular lives. If they work a dull 9-5 job, strapped to some institution, they do so because they want to – for the money, the benefits, the insurance, whatever it is they find important enough to sign up for, or just to “fit in” and go along with what their peers find acceptable and proper. To claim to wish to be doing something else is a kind of inner lie: everyone does precisely what they want to do given their vision of their choices. And I have done the same, no different. Though, of course, there is a price: my choices in doing what I wanted to do, given the options, proscribed many things others might find intolerable. I have lived my 71 years with no medical insurance; I have never owned a home; I am ineligible for Social Security and have no pension. And for much of my life financially I have lived below (often well below) the officially defined poverty line. Not that in the usual sense I was “poor,” as poverty is as much a state of mind as it is a financial reality. These things, and some I don’t feel at liberty to reveal, have drawn a very real line around my life, just as the choices of others have done to theirs. We all do exactly what we “want” to do given the worlds we live in.
And so, as with many others as they arrive at this stage of life – “the ending” as it were – I find myself pondering whether those long years ago, I made “the right” choices. Though in my case I hardly feel like I “made a choice” in the sense of deciding to become a filmmaker as a “career.” That I most simply did not do; instead it just happened – I never consciously decided I would become or wanted to become a filmmaker. It just started, and I continued, despite the reality that I virtually never made any money from it, and nearly always spent my own money in some manner or another to do the work. What was a vaguely conscious choice was to accept that whether I liked it or not, I was some kind of “artist” and that I didn’t really have much choice in that: it was like a virus living inside me, and it did what it wanted, never mind what I might have thought of it. And, though very young, I could foresee that there would be a kind of social cost attached to this compulsion – most certainly I could not and would not have a so-called “normal” life. Nor, as the years demonstrated, did I actually want such a “normal” life. I did have my opportunities along the way to grab onto such a life, and always declined – consciously, knowing exactly where it was likely to lead. I have no complaints.
And yet, I now ponder at 71, as if in a rather belated mid-life crisis, whether 52 years of making films was a worthwhile endeavor. Even making good ones – which a decent number of people, from critics to simple spectators, assert mine are. Viewing it all from my perspective I feel it is and was all rather unimportant; that filmmaking, or “art” making is no more important that being a decent baker or brick-layer or car mechanic. It is something one does, and there is nothing glamorous or romantic about it. It is just a job, and in my case a very poorly paid one. Even if it is the job one wanted or chose to do. I’ve had this ambivalence regarding filmmaking for some decades now, or even from the beginning. I never wanted to be famous, nor its companion, wealthy. Rather the opposite. And yet filmmaking is, like more or less all media, from writing to painting to television and films, self-amplifying, and certainly to my experience the people involved in them are mostly rather full of themselves on just how ever so important what they do is, and they have an eager public happy to support that idea. Celebrity in my view is a disease, personal and social. It damages all those involved in its manufacture and its playing out on the social stage. In my life I have tried as best I can to avoid it, while at the same time not going into hiding. Though, frankly, the temptation to simply disappear is increasingly present – as if life won’t shortly provide that all on its own, whatever I do.
In my erstwhile career as a filmmaker I have, by some measures, been “successful.” My work is often praised by critics. I have received various grants and fellowships and honors, some of which are supposedly highly prized in the narrow confines of the arts world – the kinds of things some people place in frames in their offices, and which I tend to toss in the garbage. I’ve been regularly invited to festivals and conferences, with an airfare and a few days in a hotel attached. And here and there, in the form of “prizes,” I’ve even gotten a dollop of money. Flip-side is that more or less never have I been paid what would be the usual going rate, where ever I was, for the work I do. And most often I’ve not been paid at all, except long after the fact, when I am reduced to burning, peddling, and posting DVDs for sale. It is a kind of schizophrenic social position, in which one is celebrated for a certain talent, and if one plays the art-world game properly, one might be rather arbitrarily rewarded – say with a McArthur “genius” grant. For most of my peers, anywhere in the arts/cultural world, the final reward, and for the most part a destructive one, is to land a teaching position somewhere – a situation that seems to leech the energy and drive of most who take it, as well as produce, to my eyes, a toxic dependency on certain cultural attitudes and values deeply embedded in the academic world. I find most academic “art” tepid, fashionable, and empty. And so this little life-saver ring seems by and large to be an illusion, drowning most of those who grab it. I suspect in the complex weave of our socio-political world this is in some way rather deliberate.
On the other hand, at least in my case and those of others I know, one is continually reminded that deep down one is essentially regarded as worthless – to say, not worth paying a living wage. Dancing on this social tight-rope is not quite the fun some imagine, and I have seen many of my peers take a tumble from it, sometimes fatally. As a group, artists seem to have a high suicide rate, whether in the direct manner of a bullet in the head, or the slower one of self-poisoning with drugs &/or alcohol. Our society seems to take great pleasure in this phenomenon, as evidenced by the tabloids at the super-market checkout, or the clucking of more rarified cultural sorts over the premature demise of this or that artist or actor.
And so, in this twilight stage of my life as a filmmaker and a conscious being, I do in fact wonder about it, and whether it was a reasonable life or not. As I study our current reality, and fully acknowledge the grim forecasts of some owing to global warming, our technological prowess, over-population, and the myriad imminent self-made catastrophes about to descend on us, I do in truth recoil from the world I live in. It is a world dominated by the harsh drumbeat of capitalism, with its incessant demand for growth, profit, insidiously implanting its ideological poisons on a global basis. Stepping outside its framework, it is transparently a prescription for catastrophe, not in some distant tomorrow, but here and now. It is just that being in its midst, for most people this is not possible to see and those who do see and speak of it are regarded as hysterics, fringe outsiders, conspiracy theorists, and other such dismissive labels. I’m one of them. (See this.)
In light of this perception it is hard to think that a life of making films (and little paintings, and verbal scribbles) amounts to much, aside from adding to the Everest of flying photons and variable Hz signals that constitute our environment of 24/7 noise. That my particular photons have some little unique markers doesn’t really make them different than the others, and in any case, if I do a modest statistical analysis, those I make are all but totally ignored in the larger spectra. The solace of quoting Samuel Beckett, “I can’t go on; I must go on,” is rather thin gruel on which to live. Especially when I am quite aware that I am already tumbling in an avalanche of our own contrivance, one rapidly sending our little global nest into a state in which our dumb species will exhibit its worst traits rather than its best. The Four Horsemen have already arrived – it is just that we, collectively, choose not to see them.