"There are more valid facts and details in works of art than there are in history books." - Charlie Chaplin
I write this as the holidays are rounding to an end. For many people the holiday season is a time of getting together with family and friends for celebration. I like that part too, but this year and for the last several years I have spent the holidays alone for the most part, pondering past, present and future, global and personal, war and peace, and the world of entertainment and filmmaking and its impact on society. I definitely agree with the people who say art is a reflection of life - from great tragedy to great hope, and of course some or a lot of the mediocre in between.
I have yet to find an age group of people that don't love to watch movies. It's a damned shame that most films made by the big studios are so focused on money (rather than art) that they continue, year after year, to make films for such a very limited demographic - the 18 to 25 year old boys/men. They say those are the people who are spending the money and therefore that's who they're making the movies for. Is it just me, or is that kind of crazy cyclic thinking? Isn't that one of those self-fulfilling prophecies to a great degree? Ah, well all the better for the Independents to gain more leverage over the coming years, or so I hope.
When I keep hearing that the producers are looking to target that same audience, looking to their bottom line, I think about the rest of the world and how much of today's problems seem to stem from the "producers" putting the profit margin first, and to a devastating fault. I think about how my stepmom, a right-wing Republican, told me back when I was a young girl about how a man that invented a car motor that would run on water got squelched by competing businesses. He got on a plane one day, and when the plane landed - well, he never got off. I think about Tesla's towers that were built near the turn of the last century in which the scientist could, it is said, get free energy from the ionosphere - the atmosphere itself, and how when he suddenly died in a hotel room, all his papers and research disappeared, and his beautiful towers destroyed too. I say beautiful, because I did recently see a photograph taken of one of those towers before being destroyed at http://www.jmccanneyscience.com.
I think about Jesus the Christ, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, whistle-blower Karen Silkwood and so many others who left this world under such tragic circumstances. I think about Princess Di, killed in a fishy car accident right after her successful campaign against land mines. (Her next scheduled project was to be to bring attention to the children all over the world in refugee camps, first stop Palestine.)
Of course this list is only a short one. There are many other shining figures in our time and before who were torn from this world by violent deaths, many due to the envy, greed and power plays of others. And I reflect how glad I am that they were here, and that I know about them, and how glad I am too to have seen films about many such characters, both in films based on true stories and in fictional films that have at their heart something to say - something real. These films are art, and these people's lives, they were art too, to me. Each a beautiful symphony, a poem, a dance, a unique and holy fragrance shared by so many.
I think about a voice class I took. The teacher was telling us how there is a lot of money to be made in radio ads, and that a lot of those are political ads. Being the outspoken and often too-passionate-to-be-quite-gracious soul that I am, I blurted out, "I would never take a job that would use my voice to promote a politician or cause I don't believe in." This was followed by silence until one classmate said, "Whatever it takes to feed my family."
I know where she was coming from. You do too. We see it every day, don't we? People putting money first, the ends (such as feeding the family) justifying the means. Please. Hold the phone! Truth, art, standing up for what we believe in (or, at the least, not standing up for what we don't believe in) - don't those things, in a real sense, feed our family? Our little family or big family, if we have one? And the family of humankind.
Is not that what is the true art of the actor, the director, the writer and everyone involved in the art of film - to feed that soul in us which hungers for and is revived and refreshed by truth?
I did some reading over the holidays too, especially about China, and the changes that were wrought in the Chinese Revolution under Mao Tse-Tung (or Zedong as it is often spelled) - the fascinating and wrenching saga of hundreds of millions of people from pre-Revolution corruption and greed with much cruelty, poverty and greed, to the great hopes and almost-happy few years of idealism of Communist China with its very rough edges of slighting what seemed every desire of the individual in order to further the masses, to the return to more dictatorship-like government with its elite and underserved, causing such unrest that the world watch, stunned, at the uprising one day back around 1989 in Tiananmen Square. Life reflecting art, it was to me much like watching a powerful and suspenseful movie and it tore at my heart though I had little knowledge (and still don't) of just what led to that huge demonstration of both college students and populace. It was fascinating to watch those hours - or was it days or weeks? - that even the military police laid down their guns to the protestors. But unlike many movies, no hero flew in to save the day and succor the populace. Interestingly, many news stories even today claim that a number of people were killed at Tiananmen Square, and yet a reporter I listened to recently who was there claims that not one death happened at Tiananmen Square. Not at the actual protest itself. Like the tragic lives of the men and women mentioned above, these lives projected art, poetry, truth, beauty.
It was interesting to me about how Mao did not create a place or space for artists, actors and "intellectuals" during his reign. I first read about this in the book YOU CAN GET THERE FROM HERE by Shirley MacLaine. She and a contingent of about a dozen other women from the U.S. were given an invitation to visit Red China in the mid-70s, back when Mao was either still alive or not long dead and huge photos of him still appeared near-omniscient across the China that MacLaine and her team saw. This was when few Westerners traveled very far within its borders. Her group included a 4-woman camera crew to make a documentary of her trip and they were escorted to see "Communism in action." The women were profoundly moved by their experiences there. One particularly poignant episode was their visit to a school for young children, where there was one teacher for every three children, and where the children were treated before their eyes with much warmth, caring and touching. And the children were being taught to share and seemed very happy indeed. All twelve American women were profoundly touched and began to question whether China really didn't have some answers. Well, to give them and China credit, what they did see, to a great extent was indeed awe-inspiring. Unfortunately it was what they did not, and were not allowed to see that changes the picture significantly.
One woman in the group that spent that month or two in China, a Texan (who was a bit of a redneck) came back and, according to Shirley, began lecturing on her visit to China. Her goal? Apparently to let people know that Mao was "saying the same thing as Jesus Christ." Clearly this woman, Pat, didn't have a clue about what Mao had actually done in China - and neither did I until I began reading another book (which I have not quite yet finished) written by a Chinese woman who lived in China with parents that were "local" top Communist Party officials until she was in her late teens. She lives in the West now. The book is titled WILD SWANS and autobiographical about three generations of women of Jung's family beginning well before the Chinese Revolution and before her grandmother became a concubine. One of the best and most informative historical novels I have ever read - and so much is revealed in this book I don't think I would even want to know what was left out.
It didn't take me too long into reading WILD SWANS before I realized exactly what happened with Shirley and her gang: they had the wool pulled over their eyes, and big-time. They were shown only what looked "picture perfect" and (of course) kept totally in the dark about the downsides of what was happening there. Ironically, while they were there to make a documentary of what was the truth of what was going on in China, they were shown a movie by the "producers" over there, with something a whole lot less than the "whole" truth, and left feeling enchanted, bewildered and - well, let's call a spade a spade - totally duped. Art? Maybe. What I'd call "bad art" though.
Shirley MacLaine did try very hard to speak to the Chinese about where art and literature fit into their society. She discovered it had actually no priority at all - the result being that it was pretty much nonexistent. Her questions were evaded and her requests to speak to government officials on this topic were declined. I learned from Jung Chang's book, WILD SWANS, that there was a very big reason that Mao did not allow room for art in his China. It was because through art and literature comes individual expression - and people (God forbid) thinking for themselves. For the steely control he demanded of his reign, the truth that would have been appropriated by art and literature would have toppled his sand castle, and he knew it.
Such is the power is what we are shown, what we show, and what we are allowed to see. Like Ed Johnston said at the end of my CLOSE SHOTS interview with him last September, "Be truthful, be truthful, be truthful," I find myself crying the same slogan. To myself and to others - to actors, screenwriters, directors, producers as well as everyone everywhere. In the truth is the magic, and - even in tragedy - the beauty. Wouldn't you say? Good old CHARLIE CHAPLIN gave us a lot of truth. I think that I'll make that one of my first New Year's resolutions for this year - to make a point to watch some of his great films. He made those films a long time ago. I believe it is because of that truth that they are amazingly speaking even truths of our day.
Thanks for reading my - once again lengthy - ramblings here, Dear Reader. Here's wishing you and yours - and everybody else - the very Best for the New Year! I'll leave you with a few more delectable quotes from the great CHARLIE CHAPLIN:
"The basic essential of a great actor is that he loves himself in acting."
"Life is a tragedy when seen close up, but a comedy in long-shot."
"You have to believe in yourself. That's the secret. Even when I was in the orphanage, when I was roaming the street trying to find enough to eat, even then I thought of myself as the greatest actor in the world."
"Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself."
Ain't Charlie a great example of actors and acting as a healing art? Let there be art - and let there be Comedy! Until next time,
Michele Déradune is a single mom, film actress and voice talent represented by CIAO! TALENTS. Michele played Mel, the cheating wife of the judge, in the Texas-based SNAKE TALES, directed by Francesca Talenti, and which was awarded "Best Independent Film Comedy" at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Summer 2001. You can check learn more about Michele and check out her online video and voice demos by following links at her personal website: www.Deradune.com.