At the beginning of every self-proclaimed “epic novel” in the Captain Underpants series, two fourth graders named George Beard and Harold Hutchins present a crudely constructed comic book that explains their previous adventures and the origin of their mean school principal-turned-accidental-superhero, Captain Underpants.
In their comics, words are constantly misspelled, character models are drawn inconsistently, and none of the panels ever line up properly. And yet–reading these books as a fourth grader myself–I thought they were perfect. Back in 1997 when the series’ author, Dav Pilkey, published The Adventures of Captain Underpants, educators and librarians lost their minds, citing obscene content and miseducation that would make their students less intelligent and more naughty. But I thought to myself then (and I still think to myself now) that there was no other way it could have been done.
I read a lot of other books growing up: I was raised on Magic Tree House, got hooked on Animorphs, and collected Goosebumps books like crazy. But Captain Underpants remained my favorite. Though I didn’t know it yet, reading Dav Pilkey’s epic novels was the first time I learned that storytelling is just as much about the telling of the story as it is about the story being told.
I’ve always considered myself a storyteller. I know that sounds a lot like a cop-out way of saying I write, play music, and help out in film productions without the responsibility of having to take on the title of “author”, “musician”, or “filmmaker” just yet. But in all sincerity, I really feel as if I was born to become a storyteller. My mind looks for a story, or at least a sense of progression, in everything I see–be it a painting, a list of songs, or even the lines and patterns forever immortalized in blocks of marble.
So from my experiences with George and Harold I springboarded off into dreams of becoming an author myself. I drew my own comics about anthropomorphic fruits and wrote short stories about a roast chicken coming back to life, demanding to be eaten. In high school, my career path shifted: I joined an amateur cover band with a few of my friends and won a battle of the bands competition with songs by Franz Ferdinand, U2, and Rage Against the Machine.
But upon entering college, my career path shifted again when I discovered and really fell in love with film. It was a sucker punch that I wasn’t prepared for–and wasn’t prepared to let go of.
What is it about film that grabs me so much?
Backtrack to my grade school days: when I first started writing my own stories, I was surprised and challenged by how many things I had to take into account before putting words down onto the page (setting, point of view, character, language, etc.). I had to balance all these different impulses within me to produce something coherent. In a manner of speaking, when it comes to writing, I see myself as director, editor, cinematographer, actor, production designer, and sound engineer all at the same time. Even until today, writing continues to force me to collaborate with myself.
This sense of collaboration, of balance, of group puzzle-solving, also struck me when I first started playing music in high school. I still remember the exact moment when the band got together for the first time (I believe we played The All-American Rejects’s “Dirty Little Secret”), and I had an out-of-body experience: I looked at the four of us, each on different instruments, making wildly different sounds–but creating one unified piece of music together. That’s what got me.
And when I saw firsthand just how many people have to be involved in the creation of one short film, I was instantly mesmerized. There are so many more people on set than the finished product leads you to believe. And these are people who all speak totally different technical languages. In contrast, all writers can more or less draw from the same set of terms in order to critique each other’s work; all musicians have to be familiar with the very basics of rhythm, beat, scales, and other terms I won’t even pretend to fully understand.
But to call every single member of a film’s production crew a “filmmaker” is pretty much just lumping each of them under a vague umbrella term. A production crew is made up of people with extremely different skills and different titles. They don’t do what the other people on their team do. Even a director (while primarily responsible for his or her team’s synergy) can’t take command of every single role at the same time. Film by its very nature depends on collaboration. By extension, it depends on mutual trust. I would go so far as saying that I consider film the ultimate collaborative art.
(My friend made an interesting argument for video game development as the ultimate collaborative art. It’s a sound argument, but that’s another topic for another time.)
There was never really one movie that catalyzed my turning into a film lover. But I remember one day when someone pointed out to me how the music being played during the opening credits sequence of The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) set the tone for all the other elements of filmmaking to come into play. As opposed to using some stereotypical early-2000s college/millennial song, composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross use a track entitled “Hand Covers Bruise”–it’s nothing more than a few notes on a piano underscored by electronic buzzing and deep bass notes.
And immediately, the scene transforms: the cinematography from Jeff Cronenweth suddenly becomes chilly and foreboding, Fincher’s direction becomes distant yet intimate, and Jesse Eisenberg’s performance becomes one of insecurity and loathing. Seriously, try playing any other song over the scene, and it completely changes. This was when I really thought to myself: all these filmmakers involved are really just storytellers coming together to share to each other how they would tell the story. And when they all come up with a unified vision, you’ll believe miracles can happen.
But after some time of being in the company of fellow film enthusiasts and filmmakers, I began to realize that there had to be more to my idea of this art form than just the image of people coming together to create things. There had to be a deeper reason for it. (Apologies in advance, since this next section may come off as very academic.)
The film organization I joined in college centers itself around what we call three core competencies: film appreciation, film critique, and film production. The issue with these facets that many of us began to notice was that film appreciation was being too easily equated with “watching movies”; critique with “talking about movies”; and production with “making movies”. So I opted to switch things up a little and aimed each of the core competencies at values to be gained: (1) film appreciation led to openness, (2) film critique led to respect, and (3) film production led to collaboration.
(1) From my perspective, openness can be gained through film appreciation when you begin to see the contexts in which a film is made. It’s easy to enjoy a movie solely for its entertainment value or aesthetic quality (neither of these things taken by themselves is bad, of course). But when you go beyond what’s on the surface and start looking for the end which all this entertainment aims to arrive at, or the deeper meaning or emotion that these aesthetic qualities point to, film can change. When you start thinking about the customs and cultures that exist in the countries of origin of foreign films, or the unique personal background of a filmmaker, film transforms into an extension–an expression–of these things.
My favorite examples for developing openness through film appreciation are horror movies. I know a few people who really can’t take horror, and that’s perfectly fine. It took me a very long time before I could understand how people could enjoy deliberately subjecting themselves to fear. And as I started watching more horror movies by myself, I began to understand that they are, at their very heart, just stories about fear. They’re still products of collaboration among filmmakers, but they use film’s elements (especially editing and sound) in different ways to achieve a different effect. Appreciating that helped me see yet another way of telling a story, and made me more game to check out different genres of film.
(2) I believe proper film critique can lead to respect because film reviews should always aim to be constructive. Not only should a moviegoer be able to decide on what movie to watch based on reviews, but the filmmakers themselves whose work is being critiqued should have an idea of what to stop doing, start doing, and continue doing after reading a review. It is a critic’s responsibility to have enough respect to put time and thought into evaluating the filmmakers’ product in a more-or-less objective fashion. Even if a critic hates a movie, he or she still shouldn’t be reduced to insults and name-calling. Even artists who fail deserve to really know why they did. A bad decision is usually a result of good intentions.
For example, my own personal, completely subjective pick for favorite film ever is Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989). It’s the movie that has affected me and continues to affect me the most out of everything I’ve seen–but I will be the first to say that it is flawed. One of its bigger flaws is its depiction of adults as extremely strict and harsh. (I know that the story of Dead Poets Society is set in the 1950s, but I still don’t consider that enough of an excuse for the near-caricatures that some of these characters become). But I firmly believe that this kind of imperfection was deemed a good idea during pre-production because it would help us sympathize more with the students.
(3) I’ve spoken enough about collaboration and film production as a process of mutual trust. But just to go a little further, I also believe that film production can help inspire a more collaborative work model in general. The great thing about film for me is that rarely can anyone make it on their own. Every single person on a production team has to give their all for any chance of their film to become as successful as possible. Every single person is just as important as everyone else. Additionally, a constant check-and-balance is required in order to ensure that the team’s vision stays unified all the way through to post-production, marketing, and release. Lord knows how much some of our leaders need to know this.
Through all these things–storytelling, the core competencies, respect, openness, and collaboration–the experience of watching a film has become transcendental for me. Going to the movies or watching a television show has become something of a spiritual experience because all these ideas I have of film have combined (like a little production team in my head) and have helped make each viewing experience richer. To squeeze in another example: watching an episode of Breaking Bad (Vince Gilligan, 2008-2013) has become an examination of my own response to violence and amorality. I know that that sounds boring and un-fun, but it’s preeetty fun for me.
Film has helped me find a place in life. It has helped me define my role in relation to other people. As sentimental and cheesy as that sounds, I believe it to be true. I recognize that a group unified is capable of creating something greater than themselves. I recognize that I am just as fundamentally important as other people. Film has helped me see that my way of telling the story is only ever one side of it all.
While my ultimate dream is to become a screenwriter or to become a recognized film critic, the underlying intention there is to help others through film and to develop in others the values that film continues to teach me. But the difficulty is art’s perceived impracticality (especially in a third world country like the Philippines) and the lack of proper support it’s given to truly flourish. Still, I remain firm in my belief that art can cross boundaries and bridge gaps. Art may not directly change the world, but it can change people. I’ve forgotten where I got this quote, but I still stand by it: “great art takes what we already know and makes us feel it.”
To end, I will leave the floor to the late film critic Roger Ebert, who has already said everything that I’ve ever wanted to say, but much more succinctly: “[T]he motion picture […] is the art form that creates more empathy than any other. It creates our ability to step out of our own shoes. One of the marks of civilization is to be able to somehow step outside your own mind and your own experience, and understand what it is like to be a person of another race, another age, another gender, another nationality; to have different physical capabilities, to have different beliefs.
“And when I go to the movies–for two hours at least–I have an out-of-the-body experience. If the movie is working for me, to some degree I am that person on the screen[…]. I am having vicariously an experience that happened to someone else, and that makes me a better person, or it can make me a better person. And I sincerely believe that to see good films, and to see important films is one of the most profoundly civilizing experiences that we can have as people.”
In short, I just I really, really, really love movies. Welcome to my blog!