When I was about 11 years old, I started to learn to play the guitar. I had a music teacher who taught me something very important which has stayed with me ever since. I was at the time very keen to join a band and immediately wanted to play the electric guitar, so I asked my teacher if he would teach me on an electric guitar. He refused to let me do this and insisted that I learn on an acoustic guitar. (He also insisted that I sing straight away.) His reasoning was simple: if I learn to play on the electric, I will be tempted to immediately start using effects and tricks through the amplifier that would deceive me into thinking that I could play the guitar; whereas if I learned to play acoustic first, I would master the instrument and be much better placed to move to the electric from there. In other words, the electric guitar and all its wonderful possibilities might hide the fact that I couldn’t really play the guitar; whereas with the acoustic guitar I would have to truly master the instrument, as I would be exposed and vulnerable. The truth of my ability would be revealed.
He was right, of course. I learned to play the acoustic and then moved on to the electric. Here is an example of the sort of music I used to play in my youth, recently recored using Garageband (Song, vocals and instruments all by me, except the bass guitar which was played by one of my sons):
The ramifications of what he said live on in my filmmaking and my teaching. I believe that a great craftsperson, a great artist, a great scientist or a great whatever is able to express themselves very simply and transparently. The truth that they are trying to convey shines through and they are actually doing very little to get in the way of that truth emerging from their work. There is no pretension, no blustering, no trickery no disguising, no forcing – just pure beauty. Truth and beauty, beauty and truth – are they not the same?
We live, however, in a world that is complex and confusing. There is a lot of pretension, a lot of blustering, a lot of trickery – a lot of noise. In my field of filmmaking and photography, the amazing tools we now have at our disposal give us unprecedented opportunities, but there is a downside, too. The downside is exactly what my guitar teacher feared; a temptation to be distracted by the technology and its possibilities before being able to develop a mastery of the form and a true understanding of what one is trying to express. There are a lot of people who can do wonderful things with visual and aural technology. They can entertain, they can dazzle, they can impress… They can hide. They can hide the truth, they can hide the fact that they have nothing to say or the fact that they don’t know how to say it. They can hide the fact that they cannot really master their medium.
For me, a master always speaks simply, for they have nothing to hide. They lay themselves bare and open, indeed become vulnerable; a real sacrifice. And the truth shines through. I say to my students, if you cannot tell a moving image story using simple cuts, you cannot tell a story. Unfortunately, we have become inundated with visual storytelling that moves so fast, that dazzles. Is this a reflection of a fact that many filmmakers are hiding the fact that if they tried to be simple and transparent, they would reveal an emptiness behind their work? (Remember TS Eliot’s poem about ‘hollow men…’?)
One of our greatest challenges at the moment is how to be simple and independent in an age of abundance and complexity. I have written an article about this in Widescreen entitled Cinema of Poverty: Simplicity and Independence in an Age of Abundance and Complexity. Have a look at it and I hope you enjoy it.