Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Five Extraordinarily Creative Communities, But Maybe Six

Shakespeare, Ellington, Disney, Apocalypse Now, English at SUNY Buffalo, Mana Contemporary (?)

I was thinking about Apocalypse Now, an extraordinary film, as I often do. But not about the film itself, rather about how it was made, the production spread halfway across the Western Hemisphere (Hollywood to the Philippines), several years, a typhoon, a heart attack, and miles and miles of footage – well, not miles and miles, but you get the idea. Basically, Coppola was riding herd on a small town of talented people devoted to making this one film.

From there my mind drifted to the Department of English at SUNY Buffalo in its glory years, then to Duke Ellington, Shakespeare, and Disney – the glory years of the five early features, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. Extraordinarily creative communities all, organized at different times and places and to different ends. Now there’s Mana Contemporary, right here in my own backyard, a unique for-profit non-profit art complex on the West Side of Jersey City. In this context it’s a question mark: Will it spawn an extraordinarily creative community??

Let’s start with Ellington and work our way through the list and back to Mana.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington was an American composer and bandleader whose career spanned the middle half of the 20th Century. During the latter part of that period he maintained his band at a financial loss. It was his instrument and he needed it as such; by that time his royalty income was sufficient to cover his costs.

First, Ellington did not write music in the abstract. He wrote specifically for the personnel in his band at the time. When the personnel changed, he changed the arrangements if needed. The band’s roster was unusually stable. Harry Carney, his baritone sax player, stayed with him for his entire career. Other key musicians had long tenures – Cootie Williams and Rex Stewart on trumpet; Juan Tizol and Sam Nanton on trombone; Sam Woodyard on drums; Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, and Barney Bigard on woodwinds, and many others. And then there’s his alter ego, Billy Strayhorn, who contributed much of the band’s repertoire – including its theme song, “Take the A Train” – once he joined up in 1939.

Ellington was open to ideas from his men. Many of the lines and riffs, not to mention a tune or three, in his music came from them. So many, in fact, that when Lincoln Collier published his Ellington biography in 1987 he decided to cast doubt on Duke’s genius because of that. He was right to emphasize Ellington’s permeability to ideas from those very talented musicians he gathered specifically for that reason, but as for genius, who knows what THAT is, anyhow? Keeping those folks together and pointed in the same direction was no small task. Surely we must give Ellington credit for having the good taste needed to dream it up, and for having the wile and guile needed to pull it off.

The fact is we have been so besotted with the Romantic idea of the genius as a solitary creative figure pissing in the wind of stale bourgeois conformity that we have no effective way of talking about how people work together in groups. And that’s what Ellington’s band was, a very creative group, with Ellington as cat-herder in chief and front man.

William Shakespeare

And I’ll bet Shakespeare was much the same. Of course we don’t know much about the man, so little in fact that nominating others for the honor of having written those plays has been a minor academic sport for over a century. But, like Ellington, he didn’t write in a vacuum, he didn’t write for some distant audience. He wrote for a specific company, his company. He knew who would speak those lines, what resources of gait, gesture and posture, of facial expression and vocal nuance – a raise of the brow, the twitch of a lip, a stutter coughed up on the fly – they commanded. Did they suggest lines to him? I wouldn’t be surprised. Did he accept their suggestions? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Did they get pissed-off at him for hogging the credit? I suppose, but they’re the ones who took the bows, no?

Just as we know little about the man, we know little about the process by which his plays came to be published in the form we have them – two different sets of texts, most plays in two different versions, some with significant differences between the two versions. Were they based strictly on Shakespeare’s original scripts or did they reflect improvisations and inspirations that happened in performance? We don’t know. But I rather suspect that Shakespeare’s working methods were more like Ellington’s than our prejudices in these matters can accommodate.

So, Ellington and Shakespeare, individual men who surrounded themselves with bands of brothers, channeling and shaping their creativity so they spoke with one voice.

Walt Disney

That, according to his biographers, such as Neal Gabbler and especially Michael Barrier, is how it went with Uncle Walt as well. His brother Roy handled the business side of the company and Walt was the creative magus. While he did animate and worked the camera very early in his career, that had ended by the early to mid- 1920s. But he remained deeply involved in the production of each cartoon.

He looked at everything – character models, background, storyboards, test animations – and tweaked it and corrected it. He would often act out parts in production meetings. When he finally decided to go ahead with Snow White he gathered a group of 30 or 40 people on one of the sound stages and acted out the whole story, voicing every role, over the next couple of hours. Alas, we have no record of that session beyond the fact that it happened. For what it’s worth, he was the voice of Mickey Mouse until 1947.

It’s absolutely clear that he couldn’t have made those films – and here I’m thinking specifically of those five early feature-length animations – without a very large number of very creative people. But those movies couldn’t have existed without Walt corralling all those wild creative horses (and without Roy pointing to the bottom line to keep Walt himself in line).

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now differs from our other cases so far because they were all ongoing concerns – Ellington, Shakespeare, and Disney. Francis Ford Coppola is himself an ongoing concern, and he certainly had and has a small group of trusted associates he works with from one project to the next, but films these days – after the old studio system was killed in the late 1950s – are organized as independent business entities. Some films may be quite small, but Apocalypse Now was a large production. It started with a script John Milius had written years before. And some of that script actually did make it onto the screen, e.g. the famous helicopter attack sequence.

But the ending was unsuited for Coppola’s purpose. Still he had no choice but to start shooting. So this large film lurched into production without a complete script. Coppola kept a copy of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with him and drew inspiration from it. The scene where the Chief gets speared is right out of the book, though structurally displaced, and Brando’s phrase “the horror, the horror!” is from Conrad. The scene at the end where the caribao is sacrificed was a gift from the Philippines. The sacrifice was a real ritual, not something staged with actors and props. That footage is thus more or less documentary in kind. When Brando finally arrived on set he was overweight, so ways had to be figured out to disguise the bloat. Nor was he at all sure he even wanted to play the part, despite his handsome fee. One of the pivotal scenes in the film, the sampan massacre, was scripted by Walter Murch (personal communication) when Coppola was back in San Francisco recovering from a typhoon that had wrecked the production. Murch was otherwise doing sound and cutting film, not script-writing or doctoring.

Yet somehow Coppola – who’d mortgaged his house to raise the money – managed to pull it off. They shipped seven tons, which equates to 235 miles of footage (Walter Murch, personal communication) back to San Francisco and cut a film out of it, two films, actually, Apocalypse Now, and Apocalypse Now, Redux, and there’s another somewhat longer version or so floating around in the cinematic ether.

But how’d this all happen? We don’t know. Coppala’s wife, Eleanor, put together a documentary. Various accounts of this and that have been given here and there. So we have pieces of the history, and more are available for the interviewing. In the end, though, we don’t know how to think about these things, intense extended interactions within a relatively small group that manage to birth magnificent art.

Department of English, State University of New York at Buffalo, the 70s

Bruce Jackson’s told the basic story of the department’s glory days, and I’ve recounted my version in the last of my series of posts on the MacArthur Fellows Program. I don’t have much to add to those accounts. It was a large department, 75 faculty or so, to which we must also add the graduate and undergraduate students and a stream of visitors who came for varying amounts of time, a day or two or a year. Robert Creeley was there, John Barth, Dwight McDonald, Leslie Fiedler, and others. Critics, poets, scholars, journalists, were all there. The four-hour department meetings were a drag, but that was a small price to pay for all the horsepower.

In this particular context, however, I would emphasize two things: 1) David Hays figures centrally in my own story. He wasn’t a member of the English Department, however. He was in Linguistics (and had founded the department). The department was thus open to the outside, to the world. How can a search for the truth be conducted any other way? 2) The department is an ongoing concern. It still exists, but not like it was for that decade, roughly in the 1970s. Where did it come from and just where did it go?

Mana Contemporary

That brings us to Mana Contemporary, an arts complex on the west side of Jersey City, which is, in turn, a mid-sized city (c. 250K people) on the west bank of the Hudson River across from Lower Manhattan. New York City has long held claim to being the world’s most creative city, and, while those bragging rights are growing a bit strained, it’s still a force to be reckoned with. Mana’s located in old warehouses, at this point roughly 2 million square feet.

I don’t know how that space is currently deployed. I’m sure that much of it is yet undeveloped. Of the developed areas, I’d assume a significant portion is used for fine-art storage, a profit-making business, and another large portion is for studios. They’re rented out at market rates, which are, of course, lower than similar footage would be in Manhattan. The rest includes a dance studio, exhibition spaces, a café, there’s now a screen printing operation, arts supplies, frame shop, a sculpture garden, a small foundation or two, and more this and that.

So we have a mixture of profit and non-profit enterprises assembled in the same space, with more facilities to come, more studios, an auditorium, and so forth. And a lot of very talented people walking the halls.

What’s it all going to become?

We don’t know. Three of the other communities we’ve looked at were assembled by and around individuals: Ellington, Shakespeare, and Disney. A fourth individual, Coppola, assembled a temporary community for the purpose of making a film, Apocalypse Now. The fifth case, English at SUNY Buffalo, is a happy decade in the life of an ongoing academic concern. It wasn’t dominated by any single individual, but Al Cook did the original hiring that set things in motion. He had no particular vision in mind, just get the best people and let them figure it out.

Mana Contemporary is yet a different configuration, and we don’t know what will come of it. I assume that any artist who can pay the rent can take a studio there. But the place has a vibe, an ambiance, and that will certainly influence the artists. There’s a café where people can meet and talk over food, always important. I don’t know how much of that goes on.

A critical mass of creative people may already be there, and more will be arriving in the next few years. But they’ve not been assembled with an eye to doing something, not even something as loose as even a very free-wheeling academic department. After all, the existing faculty had some say in new hires, and they picked the graduate students. You couldn’t just show up and rent an office.

Will Mana go nuclear? Something could well happen, perhaps even several or many somethings, that would get various groups to work together to make something – groups, that is, beyond the group that’s putting it all together. But we don’t know and can’t predict what will happen.

We live in interesting times.

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