April 20, 2016KR BlogBlogWriting

The Best Light Is Brief

Earlier this month, I volunteered for the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF), which is how I came to manage the passholder line for a weekend showing of The Adderall Diaries starring James Franco as author Stephen Elliott. I was armed with a lime-colored volunteer t-shirt, a clicker to count patrons, and a series of signs that progressed from green to yellow to red to indicate passholder capacity, which we reached in what seemed like record time. As the first round of moviegoers streamed in to find seats, I spent the remainder of my shift trying to soothe the overflow patrons who worried they wouldn’t make it into the theater.

I’ll be honest: I haven’t read Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries, and the film wasn’t on my list of screenings to check out at the festival. (While Variety called the film “jumbled, affected” and “pain-ridden but peculiarly passionless,” my avoidance had more to do with the fact that I try to see films at CIFF that aren’t likely to be easily accessible elsewhere.) But there’s no denying that this was a popular film on that day I volunteered. As I corralled my ever-growing passholder line, I couldn’t help but note that all these people were queuing up to watch a film about a writer, of all things.

Even if I skipped The Adderall Diaries, my film festival experience wasn’t lacking in the literary department. The quirky, feminist Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts, a Norwegian film adapted from Gunnhild Oyehaug’s novel Wait, Blink, features several writer characters. Twenty-three-year-old poet Sigrid falls for author Kare, a man two decades her senior whose latest novel’s title translates, basically, to Come. (The film’s portrayal of insufferable, egotistical Kare, and his subsequent takedown, will be satisfying for any woman who’s found herself in conversation with a patronizing male author.) And then there’s Agnes, a lapsed writer who published a short story collection in her youth but has since come to regret the life decisions she made during the height of her artistic efforts.

Literary ambitions are portrayed more subtly in Chucks, an Austrian film surrounding troubled Mae who grieves the loss of her brother while developing a romantic relationship with an AIDS patient. While Mae’s interest in writing is not at the center of this film, it courses just beneath the surface to ultimately reveal how she has matured and gained emotional and artistic autonomy.

Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts and Chucks aside, the CIFF film that I most connected to as a writer wasn’t about writing at all. Instead, it was the documentary An Art that Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell. Purcell is known in part for photographing the collections of natural history museums, which means this film is a cinematic treasure trove of skulls, shells, birds, and bones. Purcell also collects and photographs found items—her studio is a beautiful mess of decayed and rusted-out objects—and she has authored or co-authored multiple books. “I wanted to be a writer,” she says when referencing the beginning of her career, “to have that wide-angle view.” But photography is the medium that ultimately chose her.

Purcell’s experience as an artist and photographer resonates with my writerly sensibilities. Here, she comments on the ephemeral nature of photography and how multiple attempts are needed to create a single picture. “The best light is brief,” she explains. “When you take a number of photographs, there’s only one or two, in my mind, that ever really work. It’s as if the right tone has been struck between the subject and the light.”

In this way, I recall my older stories and novel drafts, and how these failed efforts led to the far smaller body of work I’m satisfied with. I think about my stories or essays that started out as one thing only to transform into something else during the writing process. One minute, I’m watching a crowd queue up to see Franco in The Adderall Diaries, and the next, I’m contemplating the elusive, wild process of artistic creation.

Most of all, I’m thinking about what Purcell had to say in An Art that Nature Makes when she considers how her photographs often take on a life of their own: “The picture,” she says, “has gone beyond my plans for it.”

The best light may be brief, but when it appears, the artist abandons herself to it—to let it take her where she was meant to go.