Living in Oblivion of the Deferred Dream of a Raisin in the Sun

raisin.jpg

I know it may seem like I’ve been slacking, because I haven’t posted that much lately. The truth is I have done a ton of writing these last few weeks, but I can’t bring myself to post most of it. I spend hours writing this stuff, and then when I read over it, it all sounds like a bunch of negative, whiny bullshit. And I don’t feel like putting that sort of shit into the universe right now—especially the long-winded diatribes I’ve been pounding out on the keyboard. There’s too much negative bullshit out there at this moment in time, and the last thing I want to do is contribute more of it to the collective consciousness. But at the same time, I do have some crap clogging my mind, and it all seems to be weighing me down.

I got an email today from the Philadelphia Film Festival that very politely said, “After much consideration we have determined that we are unable to present Black Santa’s Revenge as part of this year’s festival.” So that was that—another rejection. These things used to sting. I used to take them personally. I would want to know why whatever it was that I was seeking acceptance for had been rejected, whether it was a script or a film or a book proposal or the affection of another. But there isn’t much a sting anymore. Now there is just a weariness. Lorraine Hansberry wrote, “Weariness has, in fact, won in this room. Everything has been polished, washed, sat on, used, scrubbed too often. All pretenses but living itself have long since vanished from the very atmosphere of this room.” I can’t help but wonder if a person can be described the same way, because I’ve been feeling a lot like the room she described.

Last night I went out to a special double feature screening of two films by Tom DiCillo, who was in town to present both films and participate in a Q&A. I don’t expect that many of you to know who DiCillo is, as he’s not one of those indie filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch or Spike Lee, whose name carries a certain weight. But he has made some great movies. My personal favorite—and one of the two that was screening—is 1995’s Living in Oblivion, starring Steve Buscemi as an independent filmmaker dealing with every possible mishap that can go wrong on a set. This is a brilliant film that is absolutely hilarious and so honest in its portrayal of what it is like to make an indie film that the laughter it inspires is often bittersweet and painful.

living-in-oblivion.jpgEven though I had never met DiCillo, through Living in Oblivion, I felt some sort of kinship with him. It was as if he was veteran of a war I had fought myself, and that gave me—as well as other struggling filmmakers, I’m sure—a sense of camaraderie that can only be known by those who have fought the good fight that is making a movie.

When I found out DiCillo was coming to town, I had a geeky fanboy moment, because he is a filmmaker that I have long wanted to meet. At the suggestion of Steve Herring, the man who organized the event with DiCillo, I went on to Tom’s website and began reading in earnest the painful trials and tribulations he had endured with his latest film, Delirious. Rather than poorly recount what he so eloquently—and hilariously—chronicles, I simply encourage everyone to check out his site, and read about the nightmare of making Delirious, which was the other film screening, and an amazing film. But being an amazing film was not enough to keep it from earning a mere $200,000 during its initial theatrical run. This is all part of what Tom talks about on his site, so again, I will let you read it there, rather than have me not do it justice.

Because I was hoping to cover the event with DiCillo for Willamette Week, the paper I used to work for, I emailed him a few questions, to pick his brain about making movies, and the current state of affairs in independent film. He was gracious enough to answer, and I thought I would share part of his responses, as it relates to what I’m going through, and what seems to be dragging me down.

My first question dealt with the difficulty of making a movie, especially an independent film that is limited in what it can do by virtue of the fact that is has less money. DiCillo’s film Living in Oblivion is hands down one of the best depictions of the indie filmmaking process, and there have been other great films about the making of movies, ranging from Fellini’s brilliant 8 ½ to the documentary Hearts of Darkness about the making of Apocalypse Now. At the same time, in my estimation, the two best films that convey what it is like to make a movie are Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, neither of which have anything to do with filmmaking at all. This is something I try to discuss with every filmmaker I can, to see what their feelings on the subject are. This is what DiCillo had to say:

“I hadn’t really thought of either of those Herzog films (both big influences on me) as analogies for the filmmaking process. But now that you’ve pointed my brain in that direction I’m having an instantaneous acid trip freak out. The madness!! The pain! The effort! The agony!! The monkeys!!!

“I have upon occasion compared directing a film to dragging a freight train up a muddy hill by a piece of string. Certainly there is a connection there to Fitzcarraldo—only in my experience whenever I turn around to yell encouragement to those supposedly helping me, I find them all sitting in the cars laughing, smoking crack and reading Entertainment Weekly.

“Making a film—any film—requires gargantuan willpower, determination, physical strength and most importantly the ability to absorb the psychological snakebites that lunge out at any moment. I have found lately that it is this last thing that depresses me the most. Sure, the technical and financial struggles are hard but few people talk about the difficulties of dealing with Human Beings in this business. Most troubling are the moments when you need someone to watch your back, to take at least one-tenth of the emotional risk you took in making the film and you discover that they are too frightened to do so, or worse, don’t care to do so. And when these People are in positions where their actions have direct impact on the fate of your film, their cowardice and indifference can have devastating effects.”

Okay, go back and read that last paragraph again, but keep in mind that we can substitute making a film with pretty much anything. What DiCillo is talking about is relevant to so many things in life—as well as life in general—that it is a bit painful to think about for any length of time. But what he has said in a way far better than I could have expressed, is what I’ve been dealing with quite a bit lately. It is one thing to have your life fall apart on account of your own cowardice and indifference, but when the fear and apathy of others causes your train to go off the tracks, it is especially painful to view the wreckage. And sometimes the train of your life doesn’t even go off the tracks, but instead remains stuck at the station. But either way, you are having trouble getting to where it is you are going.

This is what I’ve been thinking about. This is what has been keeping me up at night. I look at a director like Tom DiCillo, who has made good films, but is still a victim of the Hollywood machine, and I can’t help but wonder what the hell it is that I’m doing. There was a time in my life when all I wanted to do was be a writer and a filmmaker. Well, I am both of those things, and I realize now that when I rubbed the magic lantern and asked the genie for my wishes, I should have been a bit more specific, because neither is panning out the way I had thought.

Don’t get me wrong, because I’m very thankful for what I have and what I have accomplished; but if you had told me ten years ago that I would get to a point in my life where I had made a film, but I was still broke and not sure how the bills were getting paid next month, I’d say you were full of shit. And if you told me that I would make four films, be a published writer, and still be so poor that I can’t pay attention, I’d really say you were full of shit. But here I am. And I realize that wanting something, and even busting your ass to get it, is not any sort of guarantee that things will work out. And I’m feeling a lot like that room Lorraine Hansberry described—a description that comes from her play, A Raisin in the Sun. And that got me to thinking about something Langston Hughes wrote:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

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