Back when I was in high school I had this half-baked idea about making short films centered around music. What I was thinking about were what we’d probably refer to today as “interstitials,” short pieces of no more than a couple of minutes’ length that would go between two other longer forms of entertainment.
Keep in mind that this was more than a decade before MTV and the popularization of music videos. Outside of a few galleries, there were few, if any, media outlets in the late 1960s where you could present this kind of stuff.
A lot of people come to the concept of creative expression late in the game. Rather than being completely driven by some spark of originality, innovation or genius, they express themselves through the available media, whether that means writing, painting, sculpting, photographing or whatever. That is, we—and I am one of those people—make our expressions fit existing formats.
The late “creative paradox” Gordon MacKenzie liked to think that God hands newborns a blank canvas on their way down the birth canal. “When I meet you again on the other end of your life,” He’d say, “I want you to have painted on this canvas what you experienced in life.” Only when we are born, our parents take the blank canvas away and tell us, “You’re too young to know what to do with that. We’ll hold onto it until you’re ready.” But when you reach an age when you’re ready to interpret the world on the canvas, you roll it open and find that society has imprinted a paint-by-numbers template onto which you can only apply prescribed colors in prescribed spaces.
Many of the artists whose work we remember most readily are those who were not content to stay within the lines. They refused to paint what was expected or even to work within a traditional painting or sculpting or other familiar form of expression.
Innovation, entrepreneurship and creating the artistically unexpected never come from repeating established norms. They might be about re-interpreting established norms. But more often than not they’re the result of blazing some new trail in both form and format.
Oh, and my film-based-on-music idea? It turns out I wasn’t that far off, just a little early and perhaps not in the right place. The other night I came across a movie from 1987 that did something close to what I was thinking about ten years earlier. The movie’s called Aria and it’s made up of ten short films by such directors as Robert Altman, Bruce Beresford, Jean-Luc Goddard, Ken Russell and Charles Sturridge. The shorts featured a bunch of European actors I didn’t recognize as well as more familiar faces like Buck Henry, Beverly D'Angelo, Theresa Russell, Anita Morris, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and even the teenage Bridget Fonda and Elizabeth Hurley.
The idea of stringing a series of short films into a single feature length piece wasn’t original, even in 1987. At about the same time Aria was being developed Francis Ford Coppola was putting together New York Stories, a collection of three short films, including one by him and one each from Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, that had nothing more in common than that they all took place in New York.
What’s different about Aria, as the name suggests, is that each of its ten short films is built around a famous operatic aria. Most of the arias are well known enough to be recognized by anyone with a little music knowledge (and exposure to Bugs Bunny cartoons). Though Aria probably wasn’t very successful commercially, it wasn’t because the component films were too artsy or that they required the viewer to know anything about opera. You could float along with the music even if the visual imagery seems a little, well, weird.
Some of Aria’s directors went for modern interpretations of the original opera plots. Others, like Ken Russell—who many of us may remember most for psychedelic fantasies like Tommy and Lisztomania—went for a similarly 1987 version of psychedelia, using the music as a lyrical set-up for some pretty abstract, and now very dated, imagery.
For me, the point of "Aria" is that even as dated as it is there are all kinds of forms of expression. Finding the form that’s right for you isn't easy, especially if you want to go beyond the most familiar formats. The exciting part, though, is that you don't have to be constrained by what is, but rather inspired by what can be.