May 20, 2012

What can Christopher Walken teach you about writing?

There's something dangerous about what's funny. Jarring and disconcerting. 
There is a connection between funny and scary. 
- Christopher Walken

Once upon a time there was Gabriel, who hated mankind and chased Lucifer from Heaven. Lucifer didn’t give two shits about us -- which makes him the more likeable character.

I’m talking about The Prophecy. That’s one movie where Christopher Walken (b. 1943) fully projects what I would call his ‘cold aura.’

Aloofness communicates one of two things: Either a lack of social intelligence or extreme dissatisfaction. With Walken it seems to be something of the latter. It’s in his eyes, that indefinable longing, that distance. Nobody looks heavenward quite like he does.

You know what Walken is? He is a wizard, that’s what. Now, to define a wizard… First and foremost, a wizard – or a witch – and I use these terms rather loosely – is someone who answers the call of the weird.
We’re talking about someone with such incredible focus and such powers of attention that they end up shaping the world around them.

Would you like to have magical powers? Walken enjoys the greatest power of all: being himself.

When you write, when you talk, when you walk your dog, butcher Lady in Red or Chain of Fools at the karaoke bar, unafraid of criticism, when your chattermonkey mind stops tearing you down for a moment and you just flow, that’s you at your wizardly best.

The moment of creation cannot be weighed down by thoughts of the outside world. Alan Moore said that creation is at its purest when you’re not concerned about outcomes or incomes – and your single goal is expression of inner truth, untouched by fear or desire.

Which leads us to…

“No, improvising is wonderful. But, the thing is that you cannot improvise unless you know exactly what you're doing.”

How do you know you’ve mastered something – anything – a craft, or a skill? For some of us, that moment of revelation comes when you see someone younger, someone who lacks experience, wading through a process that is already familiar to you. And making all these glaring mistakes that seem so obvious now.

Philosophical Taoists look for the ‘perfection of the uncarved block,’ a state you can only achieve by unlearning all you have been taught. Willfully.

Someone told me this true story once, which may be apocryphal – it could well be a koan in disguise – but it stuck. Here’s how it goes:

An American engineer retired and moved to Japan so he could live near a famous Zen temple. The temple sat atop a hillock, in the shade of dark-leaved trees. The engineer went up, passing an elderly monk who sat on a low stone wall in deep meditation. Forgetting all about the monk, the engineer entered the temple and what he found inside shocked him.

The place was empty and unfurnished save for two rocks on the floor. Well, this was a letdown, the engineer said to himself. But the Flea of Doubt had already latched on to the back of his mind.

So the engineer returned to the temple the following day. The monk was there again, sitting and meditating, as if he’d never left. As for the temple, it was obviously unchanged. The engineer took a long hard look at the bare walls, then at the rocks, and went home for the day.

On the following morning, he visited the temple again. The elderly monk looked as if he hadn’t budged an inch. The nature and the purpose of that Zen temple were hard for the engineer to comprehend. Still, he felt that he was missing some key piece of the puzzle.

He visited the temple every single day for two weeks. At last, some seed of clarity fell on fertile soil. On the way down, the engineer approached the monk and said,
‘You know, I’ve been coming here for two weeks and I think I’m finally beginning to understand something.’
‘Lucky you,’ said the monk, ‘I’ve been meditating here for thirty years and I understand less and less.’

Going back to the simplicity you’ve lost, to a state where you can act without thinking, is a lot of work.

You’re attached to what you think you know. Sometimes, what you think you know gets in the way. A little knowledge is like a mile-high brick wall – hard to see beyond it. You can tunnel into that wall and come out on the other side, where knowledge no longer blocks your path.

I look for good possibilities in movies. I don't look for perfection.

What’s the worst possible way to calm down a barking dog? Bark back.
What’s the best way to avoid a shark in a pool? Don’t go into the pool.

Pride and Perfectionism are psychopathic twins. They’re the dogs that won’t stop barking, the sharks in your pool, and any other visual metaphor you may want to come up with.

Writing is about choices. Writing a story is like putting money in the bank, except the currency here is time, and the interest you get in return for your continued deposits, well, that’s you getting better with practice.

Unless you let Pride and Perfectionism lord it over you and demand impossible performances. I know that you decided to become a writer because somebody’s voice touched you deeply or proved to you that writing can be a lot of fun. I know that you see writing as something inherently noble. It is.

But we all struggle. We struggle more desperately when we set the bar too high. The first rule of writing should be To thine own self be true.

Let Christopher Walken tell you a little about the relationship between time, practice and your growth as an artist:

I'm a better actor now than I ever was, I wish I could have hurried that up, but there's no way.

 Post-Scriptum: Balls of Fury
That movie sucks camel balls. But you watch BoF and tell me, isn’t Walken the film’s one redeeming feature? The script is awful, nonsensical, rotten with throwaway jokes; it’s predicated upon a blatant disregard for, well, everything. Including character psychology.

Now, to imagine Balls of Fury without Christopher Walken is less appealing to me than spending a whole afternoon pounding bricks to dust for no particular reason.

Walken clothed himself in Feng’s attire and attitude, as if Balls were a much better movie and that, believe me, that is an object lesson. What a consummate professional. Christopher could run rings around everyone else in the cast (especially Dan Fogler) and still he delivered, as if neither the terrible script nor the ludicrous role mattered.

Because it didn’t. Bring the fullness of who you are into everything you do. That is the beginning of charisma. 

Here's Walken capitalizing on his celebrated creepiness - and also subverts what I called the 'cold aura.' The truth is, he projects what he chooses to. 

Three Christopher Walken movies you should watch:
Poolhall Junkies
King of New York
The Deer Hunter

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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