Monday, October 23, 2006

The Fate of the Critic
Part Four

The Fate of the Artist
by Eddie Campbell

I think anyone who desires to be an artist of any kind really needs to sit down and watch Fellini's 8 1/2. Perhaps it's not the type of movie you could expect the young and ambitious to understand -- more likely, it's the type of story you could appreciate on the surface, revelling in the textures and techniques of the storytelling itself, while the actual meaning at the heart of the narrative passes through your system undigested. It's not so much that the movie is about anything as hoary and uninspired as getting older or gaining perspective based on age. No, really, it's about something very specific, something extremely private and essentially internal in the act of art itself. That Fellini was able to put it up on the screen without making it seem incredibly self-indulgent and borderline incoherent is a testament to his skill as a filmmaker. But anyone who has ever struggled to create will immediately recognize themselves in the film.

People speak about art as a way of externalizing internal feelings, of attempting to understand previously inexplicable facets of human existence through expression. All well and good, of course, but that's all bullshit. Anyone who sets out with such lofty goals in mind is either doomed to failure or doomed to create intensely mediocre art -- interpreting art is best left to the audience. Creating art is hard work, any kind of art. It requires a formidable investment of craft and inspiration. The meaning that becomes attached to art is only attached after the fact, because good art is invariably, first and foremost, a personal reaction. You can't make any kind of hard-and-fast rules about art, but I'd be willing to bet that anyone throughout history who has ever set out to make good art has begun with something personal and intimate as their starting point -- how else to create the kind of connection that can pull an artist through the hard slog of creation?

Perhaps I'm projecting here. But art is still hard work. And the odd temperament which allows the artist to continue forward in the face of circumstances (because, really, creation is an act of measured futility) is almost impossible to understand, least of all for those actually inside the beast. I remember reading an anecdote of Stephen King's (I can't remember where I came across it, unfortunately) in which he stated that it wasn't until long after the fact that he realized The Shining was about his own writer's block, even though everyone who has read The Shining or seen the movie figures out pretty quick that the story is about writer's block (as well as substance abuse and professional anxiety, two other factors which were much on King's mind at the time). Well, that may seem unusual but it makes perfect sense to me: the artist in the process of creation is slogging through a deep, dark and dank tunnel, and it is only after the fact that he looks around and sees what he has actually accomplished. I can attest to the truth of this description myself.

I imagine it must be even worse for a filmmaker, working in tiny bits and pieces of time, usually filmed out of sequence, piled up in a closet until the time comes to assemble the final product. And then perhaps it's possible to get a clear idea of what is going on, but then, well, it's like a little miracle -- immensely satisfying, like nothing else. At least for a few hours. And then once it's gone and discharged, the hard reality settles in and the artist has an entirely new set of problems to worry about, not to mention the stress involved in having to start something entirely new in the near future.

8 1/2 isn't about writers' block so much as writers' frustration, writers' futility and writers' laziness -- all of those emotions and sensations that might seem inherently strange and slightly removed from the struggles of everyday existence, but are probably the most real and critical sensations in an artist's professional life. Whatever else it may be about (and it is about many things, don't get me wrong), 8 1/2 is about creative ennui. I don't think the phrase "writers' block" really applies, because I really hate that term. Myself, personally, I have rarely felt that I was blocked. What I am more likely to feel is lazy, unmotivated, racked by anxiety or simply exhausted. Not without reason does the movie begin with Marcello Mastroianni at a cushy resort for neurotics -- he's falling apart without inspiration. It's a neat variation of La Dolce Vida. In that film, Mastroianni is a frustrated writer forced into the secondary field of journalism -- undemanding, puerile celebrity gossip journalism, no less -- unable to summon the nerve to actually make a go at his real ambition and driven to dissipation and resentment as a result. In 8 1/2 Mastroianni begins already at the height of his career, already a famous director who has found considerable acclaim, with incredible scrutiny focused on his next project. Where do you go from there? Trying to find inspiration is hard enough, trying to summon up the motivation to work in a gilded cage could be even worse.

Which is essentially where The Fate of the Artist begins, in media res. 8 1/2 begins with Mastroianni fleeing the site of his next great film, an incredibly expensive and comically elaborate science-fiction set covered in actors, crew, producers and press. The Fate of the Artist begins with Eddie Campbell already gone, having exited stage left before the book even begins. Even the picture of Campbell on the book's cover is deceptive, a wooden scaffolding with a picture of Campbell's face, erected to fool the prospective reader into believing that Campbell is in fact present when he is actually gone.

And so what we have is an autobiographical story in which the subject -- ostensibly the first-person narrator -- does not actually appear. This inversion is actually the first of many throughout the book -- a comic book that purports to not be a comic book, a graphic novel told through text and photography, an extended narrative composed of little jumpy bits and pieces, scraps and scribbles in a dozen different modes. In form it is slightly incongruous, if not totally at odds with Campbell's overall output. But for years Campbell has been fighting Sisyphian battles against the forces of orthodoxy, arguing against "conventional wisdom" insomuch as it applies to the strange world of comics. As his daughter Hayley says during the course of the investigation: "[Once] you start operating with your own dictionary you find yourself moving, an inch at a time, beyond communication with your fellow peeps."

Campbell has always been such a confident and prolific artist that the gaps in his output have been more revealing than the long periods of tireless consistency. Bringing his own Eddie Campbell Comics imprint to an end after the conclusion of Bacchus and the ambitious overreach of Egomania magazine seems, in retrospect, a singularly jarring and unexpected climax. Now it makes sense, as does his spending a year to illustrate a Batman graphic novel and doing fill-in issues of Captain America somewhere in between.

It shouldn't have been such a surprise. After the Snooter was about nothing so much as the sensation of mid-life crisis. But The Fate of the Artist is not really about the same kind of crisis, at least not in the same way. An artist doesn't have to be in mid-life to reach a crisis (although it helps); many artists exist in a perpetual state of crisis. Campbell relates the artistic crisis to his age by way of ossification: he has reached a point where his life and way he lives it has grown increasingly static and controlled. An artist needs to be able to define their own surroundings to some degree in order to live a productive existence, but Campbell is seen taking things to an almost pathological degree. Those familiar with his (blasphemous) thoughts on cutting up books to create the most organized reference file possible will not be surprised by the odd manner in which he micromanages his CD collection. As someone who runs my own kingdom of clutter in as -- shall we say? -- eclectic a manner as possible, I can definitely relate.

As in 8 1/2, Campbell's relationship to the women in his life assumes a position of central importance. An artist never ceases to be an artist, and by necessity the bulk of their existence revolves around creating as easy a context for their art as possible. All of which is incredibly difficult for the people around him, who are not objects to be arranged and rearranged at the whims of the great auteur. My favorite scene in 8 1/2, and by extension one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema, takes place towards the end of the movie, a dream sequence in which Mastroianni is surrounded by all the women in his life -- his mother, his wife, his family and lovers and even slim acquaintances. All are arrayed around him, willing to cede to his every whim, his concubines assembled for his pleasure and his family devoted to his care, all intensely happy and almost religiously ecstatic to be granted the privilege of serving him. It's a grotesquely chauvinistic image, but that doesn't mean it isn't also essentially correct. The image of Campbell in The Fate of the Artist, although much less majestic in design, matches Fellini's conception of the artist as petit bourgeois dictator -- he is a distracted by the degree to which the world around him does not agree with his desires, and in many ways actively stymies his ambitions of peace and order. The smallest irritation is continually seen to blossom into an incredible frustration, a sign of an inner ability to comprehend an essentially chaotic life. The women around him, meanwhile, are continually frustrated by his growing inability to tolerate deviations from his "standard" reality.

So what is left, then? The Fate of the Artist leaves Campbell's story unfinished. There is no conclusion. Ultimately, Campbell does not succeed in escaping to a desert island, he's still left on the (slightly less desert) island of New Zealand. The image of God scrawled on a napkin which begins the story appears periodically throughout, but the question as to whether Campbell ever achieves anything remotely close to the desired state of grace is still open. Perhaps the only grace open to Campbell at this late stage is to be relieved of the necessity to define his existence. The way out is through. Mastroianni in 8 1/2 is, of course, left on the precipice of this anxiety, and even with his skill Campbell is unable to make the transformation clear; the book leaves us with a strong implication, but the future is still opaque. The creative ennui is still palpable, but there is at least the understanding that further inaction would be fatal. Although seen from that angle The Fate of the Artist presents us with a protagonist in a holding pattern, still merely on the cusp of epiphany, there is a great sense of potential energy in the book's final pages. It seems as if even Campbell himself has grown frustrated by his indolence: shit or get off the pot. Thus, we are ultimately left with the knowledge that the actual fate of the artist is simple: the artist either creates or he doesn't. It's a remarkably effective binary system. Anything else is sophistry. Perhaps he will, perhaps he won't, but continuing to muddle his way through the middle is just lazy.

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