What makes a great movie—one you enjoy watching and want to see again? Is it budget, special effects, star power? If it were any of these things, then every big budget movie would be a hit and would be remembered for years. Fact is, plenty of movies made with endless resources are simply not pleasant to watch and are forgotten as soon as the publicity machine is turned off. They lack something simple and elemental. I call it the "spark of life".
The spark of life is what animates every great work of art in any medium. It's hard to describe exactly what it is, but you either got it or you don't.
The spark of life is an emotional connection you make with your audience. It is a simple observation of humanity, tinged with irony, that teaches us something about our own life. The whole purpose of art is to convey these messages. If these messages are compelling, the artwork sings. If these messages are missing or lifeless, the artwork is dead in the water.
In any medium, you have thousands of competent technicians but only a few great artists. The artists are those who can look beyond the technical aspects of their craft to what the audience is actually experiencing. There are plenty of musicians who can string notes together, plenty of painters who can render a scene and plenty of people who know the techniques of film, but most of them just don't get what the audience is seeing. The audience doesn't care about technicals. It wants to connect emotionally with a human character or situation and learn something about themselves in the process.
I went to a big-budget superhero movie a couple of nights ago: Iron Man 3. On the surface, it was just an attempt to capitalize on the success of the previous two movies. The special effects were over the top. The credits included hundreds of technicians and a few highly paid movie stars. The plot was absurd and full of internal inconsistencies—yet I thoroughly enjoyed myself!
What I went to see were the quirks, defects and chutzpah of Tony Stark. Like the rest of the audience, I see in him some of myself. Tony and his personal humor are all that matters. I don't care about the special effects. They are just a vehicle that let's Robert Downey do his thing. His character brings the spark of life to the movie.
What gives life to a movie are the little ironic nuances of the character and script, not the monsters or explosions. In Ironman 3, there are too many of these clever observations to name (and it would be a spoiler if I told them to you). A character says or does something ironic and unexpected yet totally human and authentic. We laugh because we understand this element in ourselves. Those moments are what make the movie. Those are the things I take with me out of the theater. I leave behind the plot, the special effects and all the defects of the film.
Technicians and investors can't grasp these human moments. If the movie doesn't work they think, "We need more explosions!" Business people think that if you have a problem, you just need to throw more money at it, but art doesn't work that way. Art is an intimate observation of humanity that has nothing to do with budget.
A thousand people may be involved in the special effects of a movie, but creating ironic human observations is a private effort involving, at most, two or three people. If you have too many cooks in the kitchen, it becomes a committee, which inevitably kills the spark. In the case of a movie, you have an actor, director and maybe a scriptwriter working together to create an ironic nuance. In most other works of art, you have only one artist in charge. Individuals and partnerships can build nuances; committees can't.
Committee and teams can create special effects extravaganzas, no problem. They just carve up the work into smaller units and farm them out. Many a big-budget movie has failed because it consisted only of special effects designed by a committee. It lacks the core human observations that power the whole thing. This essential humanity is something fragile that committees can't put together.
Most individual artists can't do it either. In music, for example, there are countless great technicians and virtuosos, capable of working with instruments and putting musical elements together, but there are few great storytellers, capable of connecting with the audience. You listen to the work of the technicians and it seems to have all the basic elements of good music, but it lacks human life. In focusing on their instruments, the technicians have lost touch with what the audience is experiencing. In certain sense, most professional musicians lose their hearing. They don't hear their music as the audience does, and no amount of resources or technical skill will give them this gift.
Many musicians hit the sweet spot by chance. These are known as "One Hit Wonders". They produce one memorable song, and on the strength of that song they are given all the resources they could want to product another, but they can't do it. They never understood the spark they were dealing with, so they can't reproduce it.
In any medium, there are only a few great artists who understand what gives their work life and who reproduce it year after year. Only a tiny subset of artists can see what the audience does and understand what the audience needs. It is such a simple skill, yet it is a fragile gift that is easily lost.
Much of this skill lies in the strength of knowing that special effects don't matter. Budget and publicity don't matter. It is the message that matters. What matters is capturing a quirky, essential and authentic little element of humanity and playing it back for the audience.
An interview with Glenn Campbell regarding his new book, The Case Against Marriage. This is the original English version of an interview conducted by email with a Turkish publication, Kültür Mafyasi (Cultural Mafia) in Feb. 2013 (published in March) shortly after the release of the Turkish edition. I don't speak Turkish, so I don't know what was actually printed, and I have edited this version slightly to correct some minor errors. ~Glenn Campbell, 5/2/13.
Q: What did your own marriage teach you?
A: My marriage and divorce were incredibly painful, but in retrospect it was a valuable experience. It was like living through a war. It got my life focused in a way that war often does. You could say that before marriage I was a child who lacked direction, and after marriage I was a grown-up who knew a lot more about who he was and what he wanted to do with his life. I have about ten unwritten books inside me that are inspired by the things I learned during my marriage and divorce, so I can’t say that the experience was all bad. It gave me inspiration and made me who I am today!
The most important things I learned concerned boundaries. There are natural borders between people, and when you cross them you get in trouble. For example, when you try to help someone solve a problem that they really should be solving themselves, you are crossing a boundary and both of you are going to be hurt by it. The danger is the person begins to become dependent on you and loses their motivation to solve their own problems.
I think that’s the key issue in the marriage debate: Where should those personal boundaries be? How far should you go in merging with someone you love, and where should you stop?
Can you describe more about what a “boundary” is.
I think a natural boundary is managing your own finances. You go to work, earn money; the money goes into a bank account and you pay bills with it. As I see it, each person is responsible for balancing their own budget and deciding how to spend their own money. This is the main boundary that marriage erases. As soon as you are married, the financial boundaries between the two of you vanish, at least in the eyes of the law. You no longer manage you own checkbook. You have to negotiate with someone else even when spending the money that you earned.
As far as the law is concerned, marriage has nothing to do with love. It is a merging of the finances of two people into a single corporate entity. You find at the time of divorce that this is mainly what legal marriage is—a financial partnership. The main challenge of divorce is how to disentangle these merged finances, which is much harder than merging them.
I say this financial merge is a violation of the natural and healthy boundaries between people. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you should combine your bank account with theirs.
Have you been thinking on this subject before you went through the marriage and divorce process. What caused you to think on marriage?
Before I got married, I really had no strong feelings about marriage one way or the other. I thought it was a silly social convention that wouldn’t really change anything. I knew there was nothing magical about the ceremony, but I didn’t anticipate how marriage itself would actually make the relationship worse. I certainly would not have written a book about marriage before I was married, because I had no experience. It would be like writing a book about France when you have never been to France.
How did you develop the idea of writing a book?
I was studying Family Court in Las Vegas, which is the place you go to get a divorce. After my own divorce case was over, I continued to visit the courthouse because it was fascinating entertainment to see other people’s divorces in action. I was seeing all the same dramas played out over and over, and I began to see the common threads in every divorce. It may sound silly, but the root cause of divorce is marriage! People go into marriage with delusional beliefs, with totally unrealistic expectations, and sooner or later you have to pay the price for that.
I began to see that the problem in my own divorce wasn’t just a bad marriage or a crazy spouse, but my own delusions going into marriage. I began to see that whole institution of marriage was fundamentally flawed. Once it became clear in my own mind what those flaws were, a book seemed the natural way to express them.
You’re putting love and marriage in the same category in the book and evaluate them together. Isn’t it unfair to love?
I certainly didn’t intend to! I consider love and marriage to be two completely separate things. I am not arguing against love, only against the this public social and legal contract—marriage—which I think gets in the way of love. If you really love somebody, they your love alone should keep you together. Why should you have to announce anything to the world? Why does it matter what you aunts and uncles and parents and siblings think? You are the one who has to live in this relationship, so you and your partner should be the sole moderators of it. Every day you decide anew what your relationship is. You shouldn’t have to declare it for a whole lifetime.
It seems so simple: If you love someone and get along with them, then you are going to stay together. If love fades or you start having conflicts, you pull apart until you can solve those conflicts. What is wrong with that? The problem with marriage is that it forces you to be together when you shouldn’t be. It erases too many boundaries between you—mainly the financial ones—so you don’t have the opportunity to pull back and renegotiate when you need to.
True love should not have to be publicly declared. True love can exist only when it is freely decided, day by day. If you try to cage love, try to mount it on your wall, then you are going to kill it.
You’ve been observing the cases of Family Court in Las Vegas for years. Is there any interesting story that you would like to share with us? For instance, could you tell us about the most problematic divorce or the funniest one that you have encountered with so far?
Well, there are always funny stories about the trivial things people fight about in court, like pets or children’s toys, but I was never interested in those stories. What was most interesting to me is how the basic patterns of divorce are so often the same. You can’t predict exactly what divorcing couples will fight about, but you can predict that they will fight about something. Most of the terms of the divorce may be decided, but when there is only one little issue left, that’s when they dig in for a battle. It’s like they don’t want to let go.
The great mystery to me was why divorces are always so nasty. Why can’t people just graciously give up and move on? I think the answer is that people are still attached to each other at a primitive emotional level—or at least one party is still attached—and fighting over something trivial is a way to keep the relationship going. That’s why some ex-spouses become stalkers. The relationship has failed, but they are still emotionally attached, in the deepest part of the brain, and can’t let go.
While your marriage lasted for 6 years, the divorce process lasted for 8 years. What was the reason for the extension on divorce, was it the system or was it about your relationship?
The actual legal divorce took about a year—that is, from the time I stopped living in the home until the time the marriage was legally ended. Most of this was my own reluctance to seek divorce. I tried every conceivable solution to try to save my marriage. Once I decided divorce was unavoidable, it took about six months to go through the legal process.
When I say the divorce process lasted 8 years, I am referring to all the complications and continuing financial entanglements mainly involving children. I have no children of my own, but I had taken on a parental role with my wife’s children, and I felt that I could not completely abandon them. As every divorced parent knows, you are never really divorced if you have children together. I was able to cut my financial ties with my ex-wife only after the last child left her home.
Do you have married friends that you keep in touch with?
Oh, sure, plenty of my friends are married, some of them very happily. I certainly don’t try to push my opinions on them, and I am not saying these people should get divorced. Once you are married, you have to deal with the situation you have, and as long as it is working there is no need to change.
My only advice for married people is that if you ever do get a divorce, do it fast. Don’t drag it out like I did. No one benefits from that.
Let’s assume that I am about to get married in couple of months, what would you suggest me?
I have never been successful in dissuading someone from getting married who had already announced their plans to the world. At that point, they are already committed. I think my book is more for people who haven’t committed to it yet.
If you have already announced your marriage, the only thing I can do is urge caution on those additional commitments that seem to follow shortly after marriage, mainly real estate, debt and children. Marriage alone is relatively harmless and reversible, but people don’t feel they can stop with that. Soon they are committed to a 20-year mortgage and a 20-plus year commitment to raising children. Those are the things that really trap you.
You don’t have a settled life. How does Glenn Campbell live?
Someday I hope to make a living with my writing, but for now I work mainly as a long-distance driver in the U.S. I have no stable home but travel continuously, staying at motels and hostels. Everything I own fits in a small suitcase and a backpack. I write on my laptop wherever I happen to be. It is a lifestyle I enjoy, because it keeps my life efficient and gives me a lot of time to think and write, but this certainly wouldn’t be possible if I was married.
I am grateful, in a sense, that divorce took everything away from me, because it gave me a chance to re-invent my life from scratch. It is like starting over as a 21-year-old again, except that I am a lot wiser and more experienced this time around.
You started a research on UFOs in 1990, quit your job in 1993 and settled in the town of Rachel in the deserts of Nevada. You uncovered a military base where there was high-tech war weapons like robotic aircrafts as a result of your investigation in “Area 51” where there were rumours of UFOs passing by. How was this experience for you? What did you learn from this period?
This was back before I was married. I become interested in UFOs, and Area 51 was supposedly a place where you could see them on a regular basis. I moved to this remote desert area and set myself up as a researcher and guide. I gained a lot of media attention and became a little famous as an expert on the base.
The trouble is, the UFOs never performed for me. When other people looked at a light in the sky and saw a UFO, I would see a military aircraft or something else that could be explained. I must have been giving off too much negative psychic energy, and the aliens stayed away from me! So I never got any closer to the solving the UFO mystery, but my experience in Nevada was educational in many other ways. I learned a lot about human psychology, government and media. I never met an alien, but I met a lot of interesting humans.
Do you believe in UFOs?
I neither believe nor disbelieve. I am agnostic. The only thing I believe with confidence is that aliens are not relevant to our life on Earth. If aliens exist and have visited Earth, at least they are keeping a low profile. They aren’t interfering in our lives in any obvious way, which is all you can expect from responsible aliens. Until they decide to show themselves, I am going to conduct my life as though they didn’t exist. I think this is another boundary issue, like marriage. We shouldn’t expect aliens to help us with our problems. Any problems on this planet were created by us, and only we can solve them.
In fact, you could say people getting married are like people looking up at the sky for flying saucers. Both expect this magical force to come down and save them. The reality is, no one can save you. If your life lack meaning, marriage won’t give it meaning. It will only make your life more complicated.