The Bigger Picture: The Paradox of Poverty

Written by The Bigger Picture

85073915There is a sentiment, shared by many followers of great art, that monetary success strips an artist of his inspiration. It is the idea that once the artist has little left to prove, the quality of his work will take a dive and said artist will be a shell of his former self. In popular culture, it’s the idea behind “keeping it real.”

This is somewhat shortsighted.

There are several major cinematic examples people like to toss out. Lucas and Coppola often come to mind. After all, these two cinematic luminaries have their own empires but have done little of relevance within the past 20 years or so. When they have attempted to work, their films have been largely panned by most discerning viewers.

It makes sense to think that the success and money went to their heads, and that they lost touch with the common man. Take George Lucas, who was notoriously shy and quiet as a young man. I can relate to this, having spent most of my young life with the same temperament. Often, when someone is quiet it means that his mind is speaking louder than his mouth. Lucas proved this to be true, as his early characters exhibit his great understanding of our humanity.

Francis Ford Coppola mentored George Lucas. Throughout the 1970s, Coppola made a string of four absolutely incredible films. Three of these are considered among the greatest of all time, and the one that isn’t usually mentioned (The Conversation) just might be his greatest work. After Apocalypse Now, something happened to Francis Ford Coppola and he never again produced films with the same brilliance.

There is a lesser-known example of a filmmaker who has failed to live up to his early success: Roland Joffé had one of the best debuts of any filmmaker I can think of. His first two films, The Killing Fields and The Mission, gathered him Best Director nominations at the Academy Awards. The Mission won the coveted Palm d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival. After The Mission, Joffé virtually disappeared from cinematic relevance. The most well-known film he is responsible for since is the Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter, a film known primarily for its dismal failure. The only memory I have of this movie is from high school, when we tricked our substitute teacher into showing us that version instead of the less graphic version on the syllabus.

Think about these examples using the common belief that success has a way of clouding the artist’s creative mind. It is true that many an artist has started out his career from a point of poverty and has been driven by the feeling that he has something to prove. My theory doesn’t deny this, but rather uses this fairly accurate stereotype in a slightly different way.

Artists always work from a place of need. It is the lack that drives them to create. My point is that it is shortsighted to think that monetary success can fill all the holes in the artist’s heart. There is always something more to be proven, no matter how much success one attains. An artist can create something that is financially successful, but may still find areas of his life to be lacking.

I have often pondered the careers of the three filmmakers previously mentioned. All three tipped the scales in their early years, perhaps to the point in which they have difficulty finding enough weight to balance them from their current position. It is fine to wonder why these men seem to have lost their ability to create cinematic magic, but ultimately it is spoiled to criticize and artist for not reclaiming his early greatness.

I don’t wish to say that impoverished conditions aren’t a good incubator for artists — I actually feel very strongly that this difficult economic period will do great things for our general artistic consciousness. What I hope you get from this is that artists feel the need to create something to fill the hole in their own lives. Art, even in its most globally successful forms, is a very personal experience for the creator. It is possible for a filmmaker to be successful and still retain this need to fill the void.

Perhaps George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola did become victims of their own success. Nobody can really know what went on in their minds. Certainly their contemporary, Martin Scorsese, has seen little to no dip in quality throughout his career. He hasn’t achieved the kind of monetary success Lucas and Coppola enjoy, but he has definitely reached the point where expectations are high for every new release.

When I look at the current crop of filmmakers, I wonder who will be the Lucas and who will be the Scorsese in the bigger picture. Christopher Nolan, one of my favorite modern filmmakers, certainly has the option to go in either direction. Nolan is a brainy filmmaker, like Lucas, with a quiet personality and a nose for smart blockbusters. Unlike Lucas, he seems to prioritize his smaller films ahead of the big-budget action he has proven himself capable of handling. This will likely keep him from getting too boxed in by his own success.

To the artists out there, I say this: You haven’t set out to make money. If you want to get rich, you’re better off working for a financial institution (well…maybe not). The chances of success are minimal, and even if you do make it, you’d better hope you have enough in the tank to keep it going. We are all creators because it’s the most natural thing for us to do with our lives, and because we feel unhappy with our present state. Just remember that success is not the cure-all for your woes, and if you truly want to create something of importance, you will embrace your dissatisfaction and do something with it.

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