Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Come, breathe close with me."

Originally uploaded by yasmin the storyteller.
I throw some questions to the floor:

Artists have been painting flowers since Man first put stick to sand, so why was Vincent Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" the most expensive painting in the world in the late 80's?

Fruits have been the subject for still life since Man put brush to canvas, so why are Paul Cezanne's fruits still the subject of art study today in the 21st century?

Between Van Gogh's flowers, Cezanne's fruits, Turner's infernal ships, Gauguin's buck naked Tahitian wenches, and Henry Moore's sculpture of Mother and Child, we may now have before us a lesson to be learnt:

You have to get personal with your art.

There's much to be learnt from the technique of the masters of course – we'd be foolish not to stand on the shoulders of the giants – but if we're to make a mark in this ocean of artistry, we have to get personal with the work we produce.

As I quoted in an earlier posting once before:

"Don't dare to be different, dare to be yourself – if that doesn't make you different then something is wrong. " – Laura Baker

At the risk of sounding shamelessly boastful, allow me to use my own work to illustrate a point.

Recently, beyond my wildest dreams, my little film "Sepet" received the Best Asian Film award at the 18th Tokyo International Film Festival. And before that, the Grand Prix du Jury at a festival in Paris.

In both cases, I asked the directors of the respective festivals more or less the same question: "How on earth did a small, teenage inter-racial love story from Malaysia beat all those deep art films from other parts of the world?"

Their answers, like the question that was asked, were more or less the same. "I've never seen a love story like that before."

"What do you mean?" I protested on both counts. "Haven't you seen Mira Nair's 'Mississippi Massala'? Or Stanley Kramer's 'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner', Henry King's 'Love Is A Many Splendored Thing', Joshua Logan's 'Sayonara', and in recent times, Marc Forster's 'Monster's Ball'?"

"Yes, yes," they replied impatiently, probably half suspecting that I was merely fishing for compliments, "Yes, but theirs were all very different from one another, just as your film is different from theirs."

Interesting find this, I thought to myself. So the more personal I get, the more universal the appeal. And if I throw into the mix enough flavours from my own personal little world, I get trophies from as far afield as France and Japan.

Ali Mohamed, the Chairman of Leo Burnett Kuala Lumpur, my professional partner and soulmate, put it in a simple yet most telling way.

"Min, people just want to see a piece of your soul. Every soul is unique and interesting in its own way. Artists who are true to themselves will inevitably bare a piece of their soul, and in the end, this is what people want to see. Derivative work can dazzle some people for a while, but in the end, will get tiresome. Why waste time on the derivative when you can savour the original?"

Poets, of course, have a genius for moving us by baring their souls.

"The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was.
Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.
They're in each other all along." – Jelaluddin Rumi

That was written in 1246. Think of it. 1246! A totally personal observation from an Afghan, and yet still so resonant with the basic human desire to find love that it hurts even today in 2005.

"Love is so short, forgetting is so long." – Pablo Neruda

Written in 1923, by the man when he was only 19! (Makes you spit, doesn't it?) How heartfelt it was; how heartbroken he must have been. You can't fake something like that.

In her brief but deeply insightful poem, Italian writer Patrizia Cavalli pretty much summed up our need to look into the soul of the artist. And indeed the soul of anyone we wish to get close to.

"Far from kingdoms
how steady is the room!
Come, breathe close with me
so I may discover the sweetness
of many imperfections, some missing tooth,
some extra wrinkle, and your body
worn out slightly by carelessnesses."

She wants to see your scars. She wants to touch your stretch marks. Maybe even kiss that big hairy mole under your left armpit.

She wants to see your pain and the depths of your desolation, along with your pleasures and the heights of your hopes. How touching. How forgiving. How unlike advertising, the industry I'm in, where, more often than not, you'll find a bunch of extremely unimaginative, physically imperfect people sitting around a table looking at talent tapes, in search of the so-called perfect smile, perfect skin and perfect body.

How dull.