Sunday, April 12, 2015

Josh, the Manipulator

On a scale of "One" to "Manipulative Psychopath," I'd say I score a little higher than average. Take, for example, this photograph I made of a couple kids playing on opposite ends of a stringa moment I captured on November 27th of 2005, in Huaraz, Peru.


Pretty cool picture, right? A moment of childhood innocence, presided over by a statue of Saint Matthewwhich might be said to represent age, history, art, or even the Catholic Church. 

There's a beauty to the picture, and a power to this fraction-of-a-moment. 

The only problem is that this moment didn't actually ever exist. 

I'm not just saying this in the sense where no photographic image ever presents either the whole reality of a moment, or even the photographer's perception of that moment (since the film or sensor used are in a different place than the photographer's eye, and capture different information). 

No, this moment didn't exist because I actually created it by splicing two pictures together in photoshop. I'd taken several images of the two children playing, but most of them were out of focus, so I'd kept just two. One of them had both of the children fully in frame, but with the statue's head cut off. The other had the statue fully in frame, but with one of the children cut out. 

I never really liked either picture, so a couple days ago I removed the girl-in-red from the picture with the intact statue, then cut in the picture of the two kids from the decapitated-saint picture. I mucked about with the exposure to make them match, tweaked the background a little, and removed a visually-distracting wire that was hanging from the hole over the statue. I then merged the two layers, doctored the levels, and cropped the photograph to a more aesthetically-pleasing composition. 

I did a pretty good job, I think—you'd have to really know what you were looking at to be able to tell the difference—but that doesn't change the fact that this is not actually a photograph of a moment. It's a photograph of two different moments, mashed together with technology. 

So what, though?

I started this post with a lie about the image, but it was a teeny-tiny little lie, after all, and the sort of lie you're used to. You're aware you've probably never seen an image of a celebrity that hasn't been significantly re-touched in some way. You know that it's not just your film-professional Facebook friends who are carefully curating, editing, and re-touching the photographic story-of-their-lives to make it seem like they've got things all together. 

You're aware, too, of the anxiety-inducing effect of all this, and how it's all a big, fat, stinking corporate charade we're agreeing to maintain, just for the Emperor's-New-Clothes solidarity of it. 

The problem, as I see it, is that some of us do it more than others. Some are better at it.

And as a writer and a visual artist, I do believe I am at a bit of an unfair advantage. I'm not a full-on scheming, lying psychopath, but I do spend quite a bit of time constructing a dishonest narrative-of-my-life for public consumption.

So I'd like to take a moment to deconstruct a few things.

First, the photograph(s) of the kids at the cathedral... of that perfect little moment.

Here's the truth:

I actually had a touch of altitude sickness, that day. What's more, although I was on vacation and the pictures I chose to share were all well-composed and bright and happy, I wasn't. My most important human relationship wasn't going particularly well—was perhaps even then lethally infected with the pathogens that would kill it. I was feeling frustrated with my inability to get the shot I wanted, guilty over the mistakes I'd made in my relationship, and afraid of the future. 

Most of that was buried deep, though. On the surface, I was enjoying a happy-time jaunt through the land of my childhood, the most beautiful country in the world. I was taking perfectly-composed shots that would demonstrate both the superiority of my photographic skills, and the (obvious) fact that my life was better and more interesting than yours.

Fair enough. We've all done it. 
But let's get a bit more current.

A few days ago, I posted a link on Facebook to a website listing 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee in 2015, with a tag-line about how I get to go to two of these for free. One for a short film I wrote (TWO FOR TEA - Cucalorus, Official Selection), and another for a feature-length screenplay I wrote (GINSENG - Nashville, Screenwriting Competition Finalist). 

As with the photograph, my gloating little post omits a number of important facts:
  1. TWO FOR TEA has played a number of great festivals (and will play more, including RiverRun the next two weekends), but it has also been rejected by all the major festivals. Competition for these festivals is insane (Sundance, for example, picks a mere sixty-ish short films out of over eight thousand submissions) so there's no real shame in not making the crapshoot-cut. But there is a little shame, and you certainly don't hear me crowing about those rejections. Or the rejections from a number of small festivals that also haven't wanted us our short film.
  2. Our latest TWO FOR TEA rejecters weren't content with a generic "no-but-don't-take-it-personally-because-maybe-it-just-didn't-fit-our-programming-needs," they also took it upon themselves to tell us all the things they didn't like about it. 
  3. My GINSENG script is a finalist in the thriller/horror category at Nashville, yes, but there are seven other finalists in that category I'll have to find-and-kill if I want to win (although if they do posthumous prizes, I may be poop-outta-luck, anyways), and there are ten other categories as well, before I'd win that Grand Prize. It's a small competition (only a couple thousand entries), so while it's cool that my script made the top 50-ish scripts... it's still a crapshoot, and nothing that anyone in the actual business of making films actually cares about. 
  4. I entered several other scripts in the Nashville competition, and they didn't even make it past the first round.
  5. In fact, the majority of what I hear regarding my work is that it's not good enough. Rejection, rejection, rejection. For my screenplays, my short stories, and my novels. Yesterday, in fact, yet another literary agent got back to me about my latest book: Not Interested
  6. I deal with depression. And sometimes, I don't deal with it. Sometimes it just sits there on my shoulders, bonking me on the forehead with a big, gray mallet. Forever.
  7. I get overwhelmed and discouraged, and wonder if it's even worth it. And even though I don't really care about "stuff" and "money," I still sometimes look around at the stuff other people buy with the money I don't have, and I think how much better it would be to just get some 9-5 for the rest of my life, and stop venturing endlessly out into the unknown—into terrain absolutely peppered with rejection, rejection, and more rejection.
This might sound like I'm whining

I do know how great I have it, though. And I know the importance of being grateful for what I do have, and of focusing on my successesnot my failures. 

But on the off chance that you are a person who, like me, tends to look at the publicly-displayed personae of others as a metric against which to measure yourself, I wanted to add my voice to all the other voices out there trying to remind you that nobody presents the entire picture. 

We're all fighting a hard battle, and we're all both winners and losers, at the same time. So don't be afraid to share your failures, too.

We're in this together.

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