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Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13
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Tim § Sooo / 2014-08-21 18:23:13

The student
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Anisse Gross had a long, thoughtful conversation with Francis Ford Coppola. Two parts stuck out at me. The first comes here—after he’s had a huge success with The Godfather and its sequel, then gone hugely into debt with One from the Heart, then spent a decade (!) paying off that debt, and then finally:

Rumpus: When you returned, you developed a new set of rules for your filmmaking process – that they be based on your own original screenplays, involve a personal component, and be self-financed. How did you arrive at this set of rules and what have been its challenges and rewards?

Coppola: I wanted a clean slate so I decided to embark on a series of “student films” for myself to begin anew. I thought, “How do you be like a student?” Easy, you have no money. If you have no money to pay for everything, that’s when things get interesting. The films I make now have to be inexpensive enough that I can finance them myself. This was how I made a new beginning for myself. There’s a scene in a Kurosawa movie where they get this guy, and they practically kill him, and he’s in a box. He just has this knife, and these leaves are blowing, and he throws the knife and tries to get the knife to go through a leaf, and that’s how he builds himself up. I had to do that: be broken in a box and have a second life. To do that I needed to be a student. I thought I should try to make movies with nothing. No money, just whatever I have. [...]

The second part comes here, at the very end:

Rumpus: Are you afraid of dying?

Coppola: I have no fear of death whatsoever. I used to do a little experiment for the fun of it in my elevator here, when I go down to the first floor. I can control the elevator so when I go in, I shut out the lights and I’m in total darkness. I think, when I get to the first floor that I’m going to be dead. As I go down, I think, I had such an interesting life, I got to be a movie director, have a wife and children, had so much fun with them, got to be in the wine business, go through everything, and as I’m lost in all these interesting thoughts, the door opens on the first floor and I’m not dead. I walk out.

Sometimes I’ll do something similar with crosswalks. As I cross, I match my pace to the orange numbers counting down and I pretend that when they reach zero, when I reach the curb, I’ll die. I think this version might be even more potent than Coppola’s because you’re walking, not waiting—you move forward to confront the idea. But any sort of exercise like this can be really healthy and helpful, I think. It’s amazing how much you can realize about your own life, about what you care about and what you don’t, in 10 or 15 seconds.

There’s lots more in the interview. Well worth a read this weekend.

2 comments

Sharat B. says…

I wonder, however, if fear of death is such a bad thing that we need these methods to cure us of it. A fear of death seems to be the great motivator for anybody to do anything. If I had all the time in the world, why would I get started on a project now?

I think the idea your and Coppola’s exercises work on is our fear of dying before having done something worthwhile. It’s weighing the value of your life, and trying to understand that the commonplace things, such as marriage, having kids, etc., are worth their weight in gold. Dunno, maybe that’s just my take on it.

A fear of death seems to be the great motivator for anybody to do anything.

I think there’s a difference between a fear of death and a healthy awareness that it’s coming. In the Mahabharat there’s a famous exchange between Yuddhistir and a forest crane-spirit, who is actually his father (Yamaraj the god of Death & Duty) in disguise. The forest spirit has apparently just killed Yuddhistir’s four brothers, b/c they refused to answer his questions before drinking from his lake. Yuddhistir must now answer the questions correctly in order to save his own life. The penultimate question is, “What is the most amazing thing about this world?” to which the Yuddhistir replies, “Day after day countless people die. Yet the living act as if they will live forever. O Lord, what can be a greater wonder?”

I have a similar exercise, and to me the point of it is not to feel satisfied of complacent with what I have done thus far, but to practice feeling detached and fearless and faithful should I be forced to abandon the attempt. I.e. I would prefer to go ‘gently into that dark night,’ precisely b/c I believe it is not simply a dark night. I’ve also been influenced by the story of Solon & Croesus in Herodotus: a life can’t be measured as happy without taking the measure of its ending, and a death in fear is not happy.

(The final question is one that every now and then my mother and I would repeat to each other, jokingly, as an alternative answer to “what’s new?” or “what’s in the news?”: “This world full of ignorance is like a pan. The sun is fire, the days and nights are fuel. The months and the seasons constitute the wooden ladle. Time is the cook that is cooking all creatures in that pan (with such aids); this is the news.” It’s sort of an interesting perspective on journalism, reminiscent of Thoreau. After successfully answering all the questions, the Yaksha offers to revive one of the brothers. Yuddhistir chooses one of the twins–I can’t remember if it’s Nakul or Sahadev–and the Yaksha asks why he chose a half brother instead of his full brothers.Yuddhistir replies that since his own mother would have one surviving son through him, his stepmother Maadri should also have one. The Yaksha is pleased with his answer and at this point he reveals himself to be Yamaraj and revives all four brothers.)

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