Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Gazing Into the Depths

Now that it’s finished, I look at “The Tolltaker” and ask myself: is it any good?

I think I’m the last person to be able to judge that. I’m much too close to it. I know every frame, and every flaw announces itself to me with the subtlety and finesse of a fog horn.

I hope it’s good. If “goodness” equals dedication and hard work – not to mention sacrifice, particularly of money – then “The Tolltaker” is superb. But of course, life isn’t fair that way. Nor should it be. I’m sure people put a lot of time and effort – not to mention expense – into Battlefield Earth. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

If goodness equals sincerity, then I believe the Tolltaker wins points. This is a story I honestly wanted to see told. Why? As I’ve said before, the setting and circumstances remind me of growing up myself in the Philadelphia area in the 1970’s. For that reason I tried to pack it with as many “cultural markers” as I could.

But beyond that, I really felt for the character of Bobby. I sympathize with a confused and anxious boy, an outsider, wounded by life at an early age, and endowed with sad wisdom as a result.

There are so many books I read when I was a kid that were about some youthful hero stumbling into a fantastic – or terrifying – alternate world. I guess Alice in Wonderland was the first of this type written. The first of the modern era, anyway. Heroes have been venturing into the netherworld for various reasons since the very dawn of story telling.

Am I over-thinking it? Am I making connections and deriving levels of meaning that others just don’t see? I know how easy it is for an artist to go into obsessive detail about his own work, in the mistaken belief that others share his enthusiasm with this new creation. I’ve got to stay on the look-out for that tendency in myself.

I think I must have watched Tolltaker at least 500 times so far. Even so, I’m still making discoveries in it. Levels of meaning that could be inferred. I ask myself: did I put that there? Did I know I put that there? Did I know the reason?

Not consciously. But then story-telling isn’t entirely a conscious process. The wellsprings of inspiration are in the unconscious, which is why sometimes a story will pop up fully-formed into a writer’s mind. According to Jim Sneddon, that’s how the Tolltaker novel came to him. The unconscious has already been working on it, putting it together below the notice of the conscious mind, and by the time the writer goes looking for the story – sitting down to actually write it – the unconscious mind hands it over, practically ready for the type-setter.

And what are these “wellsprings of inspiration,” really? It feels like it’s almost coming from somewhere outside my mind. That, I understand, is a common phenomenon, and psychologists have talked and written about it often. You should read William James’ book Varieties of Religious Experience for an eye-opening description of inspiration – both divine and otherwise – from a psychological perspective. It’s one of the definitive works on the subject.

Carl Jung has proven tremendously helpful in shedding some light on this question. I remember reading his books on archetypes and the collective unconscious (which, of course, is the title of his most famous book), and gobbling each one up greedily. The insights were like little bits of light, little bits of fresh air, and I eagerly followed from one to the next. The result, I believe, has given me an understanding of stories that’s both universal and personal.

Of course, to palliate anyone who’s rolling his/her eyes right now, I have to say that I absolutely don’t consider myself a master story-teller. The Tolltaker doesn’t provide evidence of that, and, besides, it was based on a book written by someone else.

But I do believe I have an understanding of story-telling and story arcs that’s both intuitive and intellectual. Or at least I’m starting to. I can watch a movie, say it’s terrific, and understand – both on an intellectual and intuitive level – why I feel that way.

That’s a long way from saying that I’m capable myself of producing something that meets those lofty standards. But I’m learning, and each time out, I hope to do better. In my perfect future, I’ll look back at this, my first film (but hopefully not my last) and shake my head in embarrassment at how rough it is.

That’s something to shoot for, right?

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