Movies As Art – The Creative Life

“I always felt like a book is a friend that does what no friend can do; stay quiet when you wanna think.” Charlotte O’Neil, played by Virginia Madson, in The Magic of Belle Isle.

“Most times real life doesn’t measure up to what’s in our heads, but every now and then it comes pretty close.” Monte Wildhorn, played by Morgan Freeman in The Magic of Belle Isle.

Turquoise Water

I love movies where a lost person finds his or her way because they meet a person, or a family who help them see their life in a new way. Maybe I like those kind of movies, because as a child my parents took in people who needed looking after. When I was five, or maybe six, my parents took in an elderly gentleman from our church who was in that situation. He wasn’t senile, but he did need regular meals and companionship, until his children, who lived far away, could decide how to best take care of him. I remember that time as a wonderful rich sojourn. He was kind to my younger brother and me. He told us stories and bought us ice cream. He became a part of our family.

In a way, The Magic of Belle Isle, 2012, directed by Rob Reiner, is very much like that. It’s summer, and Virginia Madsen, who plays Charlotte has brought her three daughters to the small town of Belle Isle Village to live year round. She and her husband are getting a divorce. Morgan Freeman, who plays Monte, a washed up writer and alcoholic, comes to live next door.

Monte hopes to drink the summer away, but little by little he’s drawn into the life of the town and particularly the family next door. He begins to heal from the death of his wife, and he begins to write again.

That in itself would make for a great movie, but what sets this one apart is the dialogue. It’s elevated somehow. The characters sound like regular everyday people in one way, but in another way they construct their sentences to make them sound like poetry. Or maybe it’s more like music. Which is interesting, because music does play a big part in the movie. Charlotte plays her piano nightly, and in Monte’s mind, she’s talking to him through her music. For his part he talks to her through the children’s stories he writes for her youngest daughter. It’s a love story between Charlotte and Monte, but it’s also a love story between Monte and his life.

Finn, the second daughter, asks Monte to be her writing mentor. That helps Monte remember that imagination is, as he tells her, “…The most powerful force ever made available to human kind.” And what is an artist without their muse, and their work? They’re like Monte at the beginning of the movie, a broken down shell of a person who has closed up his imagination.

One of the reasons I love this movie, is because I could relate to Monte’s desire to shut off his feelings. I’m a very sensitive person, and sometimes when bad things happen, the flood of emotions are almost too much. At those times I’m tempted to shut down, and indulge in binge watching TV, or eating, or any number of other, acceptable addictions. Then a movie like this comes along, and I’m reminded that the cure for a wounded heart is to create something beautiful out of the pain.

I highly recommend The Magic of Belle Isle to anyone who has felt overwhelmed by life. I imagine that would be all of us living on this planet.

Butterfly Close up

Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2014

Movies As Art

“We have to make a sustained effort, again and again, to cultivate the positive aspects within us.” ~Dalai Lama

“Peace cannot be kept by force. it can only be achieved by understanding.” –Albert Einstein

“I’m not responsible for what people think, Pat, only for what I am.” –Jim McKay, as played by Gregory Peck in The Big Country

Director's Sky Over the Huachucas

After I wrote last week’s post, about the movie Friendly Persuasion, I was second guessing myself about continuing a series about movies. I don’t know why I always do that. I thought that discussing movies was a silly idea.Then last weekend, my husband and I saw Monuments Men, and I changed my mind. Art is of vital importance to the human race, because it reflects who are. It shows our souls. Movies are a particularly effective art form, because when we see a movie, we we enter the characters lives and feel what they’re feeling. Entering the lives of the characters in a movie can change our perspective.

 So, this week I’ve chosen to write about another movie I love, a pacifistic Western. Maybe you didn’t know there was such a thing. I suggest you check out, The Big Country  1958 with Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carol Baker, Charlton Heston, and Burl Ives. And just like last week’s movie, it’s directed by William Wyler.

In The Big Country, Gregory Peck plays Jim McKay, a sea captain, from Baltimore, who has fallen in love with Carol Baker’s character, Pat Terrill, while she’s back East going to school. She’s the daughter of a rich Texas cattle rancher. The movie begins with Jim’s arrival in the small town near the Terrill ranch, and right away, we know something’s wrong. What we discover is that Jim McKay has landed in the middle of a blood feud between Major Henry Terrill, played by Charles Bickford, and Rufus Hannassey, played by Burl Ives.

The protagonist, Jim McKay is an enigma to everyone. He’s not the typical mysterious stranger coming to town with guns strapped to his hip. No, he’s a man of peace. Throughout the movie, he does things that confound and change almost everyone he meets. In this way, he’s not your typical protagonist. Most of the time it’s the main character that suffers and changes. In this case, because of who McKay is, those around him change for the better. He’s the moral center of the movie.

Not all of the characters change for the better, however. One who doesn’t is Major Terrill. At one point in the movie, he says, “I don’t understand this man, Steve.” Of course he doesn’t understand. him, because he’s convinced that violence is the only way to solve his problems. He’s not alone in this belief. But McKay refuses to play that game, which causes the other characters to do some hard thinking.

There are only two characters who seem to understand him. Julie Maragon, Pat’s friend, and Julie’s former hired hand Ramon. At one point Ramon says of McKay, “A man like that is very rare.”

One incident after another causes Major Terrill’s hired hands to question the fight they’ve been carrying on for so long. First, Jim tries to stop Major Terrill from punishing the Hannassey’s for roughing him up on the road his first day in town. Then he refuses to ride the crazy horse that the hands always put the tenderfoots on. After that he sets out on his own to see the surrounding country, even though he’s been warned, it’s a “big country” and people who’ve lived there all their lives have gotten lost. Of course, being a sea captain, he knows how to navigate through vast areas. All of these incidences lead up to a break between Pat and himself. She idolizes her father, and believes that Jim is a coward, because he shuns violence.

Though McKay is a nonviolent man, he does use violence twice in the movie. The first time is a calculated attempt to get Charlton Heston’s character, Steve Leech to see that violence is not the way to solve problems. He accepts Leech’s offer to fight, but he does it in the middle of the night when there are no witnesses. At the end of the fight he asks Leech, “Now tell me Leech, what did we prove?” That’s a big turning point in the outcome of the movie.

The other time McKay uses violence is at the Hannassey ranch in Blanco Canyon. Julie Maragon, who was the owner of the Big Muddy, until she sold it to McKay, is kidnapped by Buck Hannassey, Rufus’ son. The Maragon ranch has the largest water source in the area, The Big Muddy River. All the area ranchers must water their cattle in the river during the dry season. Terrill has kept the Hannassey cattle from the river.

The object of the kidnapping is two fold, to lure Henry Terrill to the canyon, so Rufus can kill him. The other objective is to force her to sell her ranch to them. McKay attempts to avert violence by promising the Hannassey’s they can have all the water they want. But, Buck, hits Julie when she tries to keep him from shooting McKay. That is the one time, when McKay acts without thinking. He fights Buck Hannassey.

The feud is ended when Rufus sees that McKay’s right, the violence will only escalate and everyone will die. He offers to fight Terrill alone, just the two of them.

The main reason I love this movie, is because of the message behind it. Violence is weakness. McKay is the embodiment of integrity and strength, because he values peace, he knows who he is, and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about him.

We all know the debate that goes on about how violent movies and TV shows cause our children to be violent people. I believe that violent movies and TV shows reflect our cultural attitudes, more than influence them. We value the tough individual who shows little emotion and who gets the job done no matter what. Of course we see violence as a way to solve our problems, because look at how our country was born, with a bloody revolution. Unlike other revolutions, we had some very smart Founding Fathers who managed to create a new kind of government without the aftermath of continued bloodshed. But, throughout the years, we’ve felt pride in the fact that we stood up for our rights and didn’t back down.

The Revolution was more than two-hundred years ago. It’s a new age, and we should know by now that violence isn’t solving our current problems, it’s exacerbating them.

If you question my assertions, take a look at the two movies I’ve suggested so far, Friendly Persuasion, and The Big Country. Have a movie night with your family and friends. Discuss the situations in the movies. What are the different ways the characters deal with the violence around them? How are those situations similar and different than what’s going on in our society today? Does violence perpetuate more violence? What do the characters learn about themselves as they deal with their circumstances?

I believe Einstein was right when he said, “Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We’ve tried solving problems by being tough and using violence again and again. Maybe it’s time to try something new.

Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2014

What We can Learn from the Movies

“You know what your problem is, it’s that you haven’t seen enough movies – all of life’s problems are answered in the movies.” –Steve Martin

“Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood.” –Walt Disney

“I’m just his father, Eliza, not his conscience. A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans except he lives up to his own conscience.” –Jess Birdwell, as played by Gary Cooper in Friendly Persuasion

Dad Sage for Memorial

I love movies. I admit it, though sometimes it’s hard to justify why. I’m very picky about the movies I watch, because I think there are movies that add something to your life, and some that take away from it.

So much discussion these days centers around the violence in movies and how it affects young people negatively. Yes, that can be true. Anything can be used for good, or ill. Movies are no different. What I want to know is, do you watch what’s popular just because it is popular, or do you pick and choose what you watch carefully? Do you allow your children to watch whatever they want, without being there to help them make sense of what happens in the movie or TV show? Whether we want to admit it or not, we’re affected by what we watch, and we can be affected in positive as well as negative ways. I knew this instinctively, but it always helps when you have a scientific study to back you up.

I get Jurgen Wolff’s daily post, “Time to Write”. On Saturday, he had the perfect Valentines Day article. I was intrigued by the title, “How movies can help prevent divorce (no joke!)” Yay validation! Watching movies can be a positive learning activity. I always knew that, because growing up we’d watch TV and movies as a family and discuss them, but I’ll tell that story later in the post.

This is the statistic from the study Wolff quoted that I loved, “The findings show that an inexpensive, fun, and relatively simple movie-and-talk approach can be just as effective as other more intensive therapist-led methods—reducing the divorce or separation rate from 24 to 11 percent after three years.” The title of the article is, “Divorce Rate Cut in Half for Couples who Discussed Relationship Movies.” Here’s the link to read the article for yourself. They provide lists of movies, and guided discussion questions at: http://www.rochester.edu/news/divorce-rate-cut-in-half-for-couples-who-discussed-relationship-movies/index.html The contact person on the website is: Susan Hagen. You can even become a part of their study.

What I found particularly interesting was what Jurgen Wolff wrote at the end of his post. He said he thought that this method could be particularly helpful in shaping the behavior of children. And that’s the thing I’d like to comment upon.

That’s exactly how I was raised! We didn’t have much money when I was growing up, so TV was a big source of entertainment. We watched all kinds of shows including the news together as a family. As I’ve written before, I’m a Baby Boomer, so we saw many things as they were happening on the news that would be censored or edited today. My parents didn’t have college degrees, but they were open minded and wanted to make sure we had a good foundation about life. To that end, we discussed everything we watched. My dad was big on asking questions about everything. He’d challenge the slant on the news, he’d question documentaries, he observed the behavior of characters in the movies and TV shows we watched. He asked his questions, because he was infinitely curious. Often he’d want to know what we thought, and that would start a discussion. Because of my parents, I learned critical thinking skills. I also learned how to analyze the motivations behind human behavior. What a gift my parents gave me.

In this age when we are all on our separate devices, connecting with our friends, coming together to watch a movie can be a great way to make connections with our family members. To encourage that, starting today, I’m going to suggest movies that I think will be fun for families to share, and that will promote wonderful conversations, and learning experiences.

The first movie I’ll suggest was one of my father’s favorites: Friendly Persuasion, with Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire, released in 1956. It’s about a Quaker family in Indiana in 1862. The Civil War is raging. Their religion teaches that violence and war are not acceptable. The story shows how each member of the family, and wider community responds to the crisis when a battle begins close to home. The oldest son, played by Anthony Perkins, goes against the teachings of his religion, and goes into battle with the militia to protect his family, and his community. He learns a great deal about himself from that experience. The movie is filled with incidents where each family member learns what it means to live a peaceful life. It’s easy to profess beliefs, not always so easy to live up to them. In my opinion, the message of the movie is that outward peace only comes from inner peace.

Friendly Persuasion was nominated for six Academy Awards, two for director/producer William Wyler, one for best screenplay by Michael Wilson. Though, ironically at the time, Wilson was blacklisted and so couldn’t receive the award or even have his name appear in the list of nominees. And one nomination for Anthony Perkins for Best Supporting Actor. In this day and age, when so many of us are tired of war, and long for peace, this movie could present a way to examine how to bring that peace about.

If you choose to watch this movie with your family, you could begin your discussion with the various characters and how they react or respond to the situations in which they find themselves. For example, in one scene the mother, played by Dorothy McGuire, tries to talk her son out of going to fight with the militia. She wants him to embrace peace, but in a very subtle way, she’s coercing her son to choose the path she wants him to take. Another character, who is a Quaker, professes to love peace, but when his barn is burned down by Confederate soldiers, he willingly and angrily  picks up a gun to go fight, and condemns Gary Cooper’s character for not doing so. The movie is full of those kinds of teachable moments. And think how much fun it will be to have an old fashioned movie night with your family.

I’d love to hear how it goes.

Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2014

Creating is an Inner Journey

“Traveler, there is no path, the path must be forged as you walk.” -Poet Antonio Machado

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” -Stephen King

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”-Somerset Maugham

“A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.” -Albert Camus

Cochise College Roses

So do you do what I do, read books that speak to your inner struggles? It’s one of my favorite personal growth tools, so, I don’t know why I’m surprised when I get an insight from a book that metaphorically fell off the shelf and hit me on the head.

Last week I read The War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. by Steven Pressfield and the week before that I read Daring Greatly by Dr. Brené Brown. Of course, they each spoke to the exact issues I’ve been mulling over for quite some time.

In The War of Art, Pressfield writes about the struggles creatives face when our inner voice calls to us to write that manuscript, design that building or paint that painting but we fail to do it. He calls it resistance, others call it their inner critic, and some call it laziness. Brené Brown suggests that shame plays a big part of our resistance to be our true selves.

Whatever it is, I know exactly what it feels like, because most of my life, I’ve been doing battle with it. At a fairly early age, some part of me knew that if I was going to accomplish anything, I was going to have to learn to love and respect myself first. If I didn’t I’d be just a complaining lump of human misery my entire life. That definitely didn’t feel good. So, learning self-love was the first thing I set out to do.

Along the way I always sought ways to be creative. That just felt like a good place to begin. Fortunately I found my muse, as Pressfield calls our co-creating companion. Her voice was that quiet inner voice that encouraged me to keep trying to discover who I am and why I’m here.

It was the muse’s voice that told me to join my college acting troupe, where I’d learn essential lessons for life; one of the most valuable was self-confidence. Before I became an actress, I felt shame whenever I made any kind of mistake. In the theatre, mistakes happen during a performance, but you go on with the play no matter what. In most cases, the audience doesn’t know you messed up. They’re too involved in the magic of the play. The day I understood that, was a great day!

Keeping a journal is another tool I use. It’s no coincidence that I began keeping a journal at almost the exact same time I began my life in the theatre. They worked in perfect harmony helping me let go of having to be perfect.

Sharing my struggles with my fellow artists has been another wonderful tool. I’ve found that each person has to forge their own way to self-love. Some have a harder time than others. Each artist is on a separate path, but we can support each other along the way.

Now, after all these years, I’m much more comfortable with who I am, and my creative process. I learned one of the great lessons Pressfield expounds upon in his book. To be a professional in any line of work, you have to overcome resistance and commit to doing that work every single day. When I read that section of his book, it was like graduation day. I’d found that path for myself and begun to do it all on my own.

What I’ve learned is that writing every day, gives me a reason to get up in the morning. Now instead of lists running through my head upon waking, I have ideas for what I plan to write that day. I have to say, that’s much nicer than waking up to the list of what I need to accomplish.

Waking up with lists in my head makes me feel anxious. It’s as if some cosmic list keeper is judging me if I don’t accomplish everything I have planned to do that day.

Waking up with ideas for writing projects is comforting. The muse is trusting me to share her insights with the world. I’m grateful for every step of my journey that led me to her.

Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2014