The Bear Behind You


I was reading a list of twenty four pieces of advice from Werner Herzog. These tidbits were intended for aspiring filmmakers, so I read them with interest, hoping to glean some useful perspective on how to build a personal philosophy between the realities of my life and the aspirations of my art. 

Somewhere between “it’s worth spending the night in jail to get your shot” and “always carry bolt cutters” I realized this was not the list for me. The more I read, the more I wanted to grab Herzog by the lapels and shake himvigorously while loudly shouting “THIS IS NOT HOW COLLABORATIVE ARTS WORK!!!”

The gist of every piece of advice was that the artist should be singleminded and uncompromising in the pursuit of their vision, risking life and limb and personal reputation for the glory of their art. Very noble, I’m sure. Who doesn’t want to be the wellspring of genius who bends the very fabric of reality with their work? But the reality is that most of us are mediocre paps made of more ambition than talent who really need to undergo about a decade of tedium and craft-work, humbling ourselves at the altar of expertise before we can even claim to have a “vision”, much less a vision worth burning bridges and getting arrested over. There are exceptions to this, of course, but by and large the Mozarts of the world already move in straight lines through this curving, convoluted world and who wouldn’t need twenty four pieces of Hertzogian advice anyway. For the rest of us, where are his suggestions to build a team? To learn from interesting diversions? To look for the best idea whether or not it is their own? To find creative solutions to obstacles? 

I realize that the intent behind many of these missives is to commit to your work and to finish what you start and to take risks, but that isn’t what the words actually say. Instead, it is a list of pithy bumper-sticker quips that will launch another generation of self involved ‘artistes’ into media mill, certain that they alone see clearly in the cultural static of modern life.

“Semantics!” You may argue. “Everybody knows what he means, who cares if it happens to be pithy, too?”  No. Everybody doesn’t know what he means. There will always be people who take the advice at face value and will wonder why the judge has no sympathy for them when their only defense is ‘but it was a perfect shot!’ This is how ‘Midnight Rider’ incidents happen. Bumper sticker advice certainly has its place, but it shouldn’t rely on the audience’s ability to interpret subtext. Just like Yoda’s bad advice of “Do or do not. There is no ‘try.'” is intended to mean that you shouldn’t go into something expecting to fail at it, what it actually says is “if you can’t be a success, then don’t bother”. There’s a pretty big difference between “commit to your attempt” and “don’t try”. How many people have failed to attempt something because ‘there is no try’?

The only piece of Werner’s advice that I ended up writing down was number twenty four: Get used to the bear behind you. The picture accompanying it showed an actual bear behind him, but I’m choosing too believe that actually refers to one’s fears and doubts and the forces of opposition that will always follow anyone engaged in creative pursuits. There will always be something ferocious and wild about creativity. There will always be fear and risk and danger to life and limb and personal reputation (whether you seek it out or not) and it’s worth accepting that pursuit of art will be neither easy nor safe. And there’s always a chance that only one out of every twenty four life lessons will actually pay off in a meaningful way.

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~ by Gwydhar Gebien on May 10, 2017.

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