“The chief enemy of creativity,” Pablo Picasso once said, “is good sense.”
He might have added that it doesn’t get on so well with healthy living or emotional well-being either. The birth pangs of art have been a staple of the examined life since humans began examining it. Vincent van Gogh lost an ear in such a pursuit. Syd Barrett lost his mind. Ernest Hemingway lost his life.
Such torment has been catnip for film personalities, from John Garfield’s “Humoresque” in 1946 to “8 1/2,” “Amadeus” and “Black Swan.” The idea of artists grappling with the pain and delusions of their fragile psyches has been as encoded in the cinematic DNA as clinical madness has been in the real genome.
But directors seem especially preoccupied with the subject lately. Visit your local movie theater this fall and you might think you mistakenly walked into the office of the Juilliard psychologist.
Popping up everywhere are movies about people buckling under their own artistic weight — the kind that comes with being a certain type of jazz musician (“Whiplash”), actor (“Birdman”), novelist (“Listen Up Philip”), painter (Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner”), actor again (Chris Rock’s upcoming “Top Five,”) concert pianist (the Ethan Hawke-directed fall-festival documentary smash “Seymour”), actor once more (Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria”), rock singer (the Michael Fassbender-starring “Frank”), documentary filmmaker (Noah Baumbach’s upcoming “While We’re Young”) and actor again (Al Pacino’s “The Humbling”).
The disciplines vary; the personalities run the gamut. Yet all of these movies rest on one key dramatic idea: being a creative person is really, really hard.
In an age when iPhones have created armies of Annie Leibovitzes and anyone with a Typepad account is instantly a writer, stories about artistic struggle are on everyone’s minds a little more, including directors.
Or maybe some creative people just don’t want to stretch too far.
“The truth is that filmmakers like me can’t always step out of our own lives,” said “Listen Up Philip” director Alex Ross Perry, not really joking.
“Philip,” currently in theaters, is about a writer (Jason Schwartzman) at war with himself and the world around him, a man of the belief that normal behavior is incompatible with great art. It ups the ante by putting him in a relationship with a photographer (Elisabeth Moss) who has her own issues working with other people. Though the film is about a novelist, a photographer and the novelist’s self-centered literary mentor, Perry wrote it as a cloak for his own dilemmas — not out of laziness or solipsism but because he found something compelling in the idea that for him, as for his characters, the collaborative stage of the artistic process can be a challenge.
“As I’m writing a script I think, Writing is fun,” Perry said. “And wouldn’t it be easier if the creative output was entirely about me sitting here working by myself.”
Of course, plenty of artists can go mad that way too.
If that were me
For the purveyors of screen entertainment, creative achievement is a juicy hanging fastball. We tend to romanticize it even as we privately believe we could pull it off too, if only inspiration would be kind enough to strike or time and circumstance generous enough to allow.
That gives artist characters an appealing on-screen tension. Movies about creative sorts simultaneously hold a kind of romance and relatability. Watching Michael Keaton’s Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson struggle in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman” to mount a play and restore the luster to his reputation, we think — as we did observing Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido Anselmi pulling at a similar existential yoke in “8 1/2″ — how uncommonly thrilling it must be for someone to have all this artistic capital to spend. Then we let our mind wander to how we might spend it better.
Creativity is also something that plays into our sense — heightened in this go-go, Fomo world — that someone else is having it a lot easier than we are, a spiritual escapist fantasy of sorts. Sure, it can’t be easy to master Shakespeare, as Al Pacino’s actor character must do in “The Humbling,” Barry Levinson’s upcoming film about a stage actor possibly losing his mind. (“The fear of being judged against others who’ve come before is very powerful,” Pacino said, referring both to his character and to his own turns playing the Bard.) But compared to finding a babysitter or making a mortgage payment, the inconvenience quotient is low.
Needless to say, stories about these topics also come with built-in drama. In “Whiplash,” Miles Teller plays a jazz drummer who believes his hands must literally bleed if he’s to become the next Charlie Parker — a self-flagellating perfectionism reinforced by his abusive teacher (J.K. Simmons), who likes to say that “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” Sparks fly before anyone’s lit a match.
But just to be sure, the director, Damien Chazelle, offers some heavy stakes — Teller’s Andrew Neyman character tosses away a promising romantic relationship to commit fully to drumming.
“A lot of movies about artists are set up like sports movies, where they build to a big victory and the artist achieves their art like the athlete wins the big game, which is by learning how to balance their life at the end,” Chazelle said. “And, really, if someone is throwing themselves into their art in that way their personal life will probably suffer and vice versa. It can’t always be one happy package. That’s what I wanted to show.”
That doesn’t mean depicting creative torment is easy. Almost by definition, artistic breakthroughs happen out of sight of the human eye and thus out of view of the camera lens. For all the write-what-you-know appeal of movies about artists, depicting one in the throes of struggle is — fittingly — hard work. There’s barely a film about a writer that doesn’t contain a scene of him or her ruminating at a typewriter or computer screen — and, just as reliably, leaving us to wonder what on Earth is going through their minds.
Leigh’s sprawling “Mr. Turner” centers on the 19th century artist J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), an irascible talent whose unconventional landscape paintings heralded an era of Abstract art, though not before he dealt with pretty concrete personal problems.