Ego is the enemy of imagination.
December 27, 2008 6:11 PM   Subscribe

"We do not think our way to right action. We act our way to right thinking." David Milch talks to students in USC class Religion, Media and Hollywood. Not for everyone but I find pretty much anything this guy says fascinating. Parts 1 2 3 4 5 6.
posted by Manhasset (19 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
There's also

When in Milch's new series going to be on?
posted by grumblebee at 6:40 PM on December 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

Anyone who uses the term "right thinking" approvingly scares the hell out of me.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:24 PM on December 27, 2008

Chocolate Pickle: I think he probably means it in the Buddhist sense.
posted by Inkoate at 7:36 PM on December 27, 2008

Fantastic lecture. I really like the way he thinks. Thanks for this.
posted by MythMaker at 8:05 PM on December 27, 2008

This Sherwood Oaks lecture is also great but is heavily edited. I really wish they'd post the whole thing.
posted by Manhasset at 8:12 PM on December 27, 2008

Really great links, thanks!

Weird that he's such a great storyteller yet such a mediocre....story teller, but even still its great stuff.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 8:41 PM on December 27, 2008

When in Milch's new series going to be on

We're just going to pretend that "John From Cincinnati" never existed, right?
posted by smackfu at 10:28 PM on December 27, 2008

We're just going to pretend that "John From Cincinnati" never existed, right?

I know I'm in the minority but I think JfC is a masterpiece. I wish they'd given him the full 12 episodes instead of 10 (as the last episode is extremely rushed) but I think it's a brilliant piece of work and one of the most complex tv shows ever made. I didn't care for the show on first watching but Dobbs convinced me to watch it again and I did and loved it. I've watched it twice more since then. I think it really suffers from lengthy breaks between episodes (how I first watched it) as opposed to watching the episodes back to back on dvd.

I remember reading a review when it first aired that said something like, "How could Milch make this *after* Deadwood? Had it come prior, I could understand the growth, but as a later work it seems like a step backward." At the time, I agreed with it. But, after repeated viewings, I think that JfC would not have been possible without DW under Milch's belt.

Though I don't think it's better than Deadwood (which I think is the best tv show ever made), I do think that the writing in it is as strong as anything in DW, at least from a groundbreaking standpoint. I think it is more daring, narratively, than Deadwood--or maybe more accurately that it attacks dramatic tv structures and narrative with the same gusto that Deadwood dealt with complexity of conflict, which is to say as no show before ever had or probably will in the future.
posted by Manhasset at 11:19 PM on December 27, 2008

The quotation in the FPP seems to suggest that this talk is about how useless it is to think before you act. That seems like a silly position to take, so I'd guess the quotation is actually one of those warped oversimplifications that people use to get attention for the other parts of an idea. Tell me, before I spend two hours watching the videos: What are they actually about?
posted by LogicalDash at 11:55 PM on December 27, 2008

I think he probably means it in the Buddhist sense.

My guess is that it's indicative of the banal theological influence of the 12 step fellowships. eg

- Stinking thinking leads to stinking drinking,
- You have a thinking problem, not a drinking problem,
- Your best thinking got you here,
- You need a check-up from the neck up,
- Fake it till you make it,
- Act as if,
- You can act yourself into thinking right easier than you can think yourself into acting right,

etc. etc. etc.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:49 AM on December 28, 2008

The quotation in the FPP seems to suggest that this talk is about how useless it is to think before you act.

Yes, in regards to creativity--writing specifically. Watch the Sherwood Oaks segment (10 minutes). If you don't find anything in it useful, don't bother with anything else in the thread.
posted by Manhasset at 6:14 AM on December 28, 2008

Yes, in regards to creativity--writing specifically.


"In terms of my work I have just come to trust the process of the active imagination. It entails suppression of the Ego. I am able to develop exercises where I can suppress that quickly. I am able to get to the work faster every day. I don’t linger a lot in self-delusory exercises in control – don’t describe too much or even have to have an objective idea of what a scene is about. My only responsibility to an active imagination is to submit myself to a state of being where characters other than I move around and I try to serve that process. I just get to that – I don’t plan scenes. I don’t outline. I feel my way along because I have come to believe everything you believe about writing instead of writing is bullshit. It doesn’t apply. You can make an outline but an outline is not going to work because it doesn’t apply to what is actually written. I am content to work in uncertainty much more than I used to be – content to not know where I am going." [emphasis added.]

I find this interesting, because most of us learned writing in school. And school is so much about a schematic process in which you make outlines and draft from the outlines. (I suspect because it's easier to teach than other methods, not because it's necessarily the best method for all writers.)

I'm not saying it's a wrong way to work. I often work that way myself. I don't believe there's a wrong way to write. But Milch is a great writer and it's interesting to hear that his technique is a 180 from the academic one.

Like Milch, I've believed for a long time that ego is the enemy of art. When I work in the theatre as a director, much of what I do attempts to stamp out ego. By which I mean that my job, as I see it, it to tell a story. It's not to promote myself. If the audience leaves saying, "That director made some really interesting choices," I feel like I've failed. If they think about me at all, I've failed. If they say, "the dad reminded me of my dad" or "I was so sad when the sister died," I've succeeded.

I continually axe cool ideas -- often to the chagrin of the actors -- because they are cool. I don't want the audience to leave thinking, "Wow! That was so cool how they created a dragon on stage!" I want them to think, "I was terrified when that dragon appeared!" Doing this is an affront to ego. Ego wants you to show off your cool ideas so that people will know how smart you are. But "how smart you are" isn't part of the story. I want -- as much as is possible -- the audience to focus 100% on the story.
posted by grumblebee at 6:37 AM on December 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

I've believed for a long time that ego is the enemy of art

Ego is the enemy, full stop.
posted by Grangousier at 7:24 AM on December 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

grumblebee - thanks for that recap. I hope that's how he meant it. Why aren't you in charge of more movies? So very tired of sitting through long complex action/effect scenes that go on for-effing-ever because they cost so much money and time they powers that be feel they need all that story-free screen time.

The whole act-thinking thing as discussed by people about people often raises my hackles because of animals. No idea what/if/how much they think, but I can promise you that you can teach the average mammal to handle situations in a way that is different than their original impulse to act. Of course, they don't have ego in the self-image way that we do... and I don't think our furry friends review what actions they just took and think up a construction to explain what they just did that happens so fast they can fool themselves.

Which brings me to my real point which is I wonder how he wrote this lecture? Gotta think there's a little ego in this whole concept. Not in a bad way.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:42 AM on December 28, 2008

Which brings me to my real point which is I wonder how he wrote this lecture? Gotta think there's a little ego in this whole concept. Not in a bad way.

I can't speak for him, but as someone with similar views, I would say that it's impossible to totally banish ego. It's a goal (and a constant battle). It's an aesthetic that you can strive for and, generally, the closer you get, the better.

For me, when it because a clear aesthetic -- which is to say a "rule system" -- it became much easier. By which I mean that at one point, when I was younger, I felt that "cool stuff that showed me off as a director" was bad for the art, but I still wanted to insert it, because I liked the strokes I got from it. But when I really became committed to pure storytelling (it's now almost a religion with me), I pretty much stopped feeling that way. It's now easy to axe the cools stuff, because it feels so clearly to me like singing off key.

Where ego is more likely to be a problem for me these days is fear. Sometimes I'm not as daring as I should be because I'm afraid to look silly. So I have to keep telling myself, "Whether or not I look silly is immaterial. It's not about me. It's about the story."
posted by grumblebee at 3:00 PM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, I said not in a bad way and probably should have been more clear - There's the sin of pride and then there's the aspect of all that where you want to do thing right thing and be the good one and those goals on your part can have a tremendous benefit for me. Like if you invite me over for dinner I'd just a soon have something you took some extra care with.

What it really comes down to, I think, is trouble where the ego is serving an inflated image.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:55 PM on December 28, 2008

Lesser Shrew, I think there's another complication when it comes to the arts: if you're a storyteller of my bent (and maybe of Milch's bent) you do want to stop your ego from inserting gratuitous elements that serve you rather than the story.

On the other hand, you want the story to have a strong point-of-view. You want it to seem alive and human, not cold and mechanical. You want it to have a coherent "style." But The only human "energy" (point-of-view, style, etc.) you can put into it is your own. So when I say that my goal is to suppress my ego, I mean that in a limited sense. I certainly don't mean that I shouldn't put any of my personality into my stories. That would be as fatal as just serving my ego. It would be a different kind of fatal, but a death is a death.

What I find is that I have to filter the story through my own sensibilities. Or, if you like, I have to filter my sensibilities through the story. The key is that every time I make a decision, I have to ask myself if it serves the story. The story is the root. If it serves the story AND serves it in a way that adds my personal style, that's fine and maybe even for the best. (Also, if the parts of me that I'm inserting are self-aggrandizing, apologizing or defensive, that's a bad sign. It's more likely they're well suited to the story if they're honest, open and vulnerable.)

If I can think of two ways to tell a part of the story: one that injects some of me in it and one that doesn't, I can only choose the me version if it is the better of the two, from the point of view of telling the story. In other words, if the me version adds some spice but is more confusing than the non-me version, I'd go with the latter.

Most important, when I talk about putting myself in the story, it has to be subtle. The audience should NOT think about me. (The story isn't about me.) They should just feel like the story has a coherent point-of-view.
posted by grumblebee at 8:27 PM on December 28, 2008

grumblebee, I'm curious what you thought of John from Cincinnati.
posted by Manhasset at 8:42 PM on December 28, 2008

I enjoyed it and was baffled by parts of it. I didn't like it as much as I liked "Deadwood," but I didn't hate it the way many people did.
posted by grumblebee at 5:33 AM on December 29, 2008

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