Tag Archives: creativity

American Gilgamesh: Shoots with his Right, Heart on his Left.

Have you ever read Preacher? It’s one of those transcendent comics that ran for a few years in the mid-90s. They came in just ahead of the renaissance that brought to the fore the graphic novel, a format, in retrospect, far more natural for these odd ducks. Because they are novels, with all the literary power and capability to impel reflection that word implies; they just happen to have accompanying pictures.

Preacher is a brutal, beautiful, love letter to America, written by an Irishman and drawn by an Englishman. It’s all blood and sinew, the absolute most horrific violence and degradation a very creative pair of minds could conjure, paired without a hint of whiplash to moments so funny you’ll literally have to put the book down. Sometimes they’re even one and the same, and you’ll find yourself in that “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this but DAMN” mode. The characters are that perfect mix of mythic archetypes and detailed characterization that comics are so suited to. The villains are hate-able, the heroes stand tall, but no one is simple, and there’s some sympathy to be found in even the most hateful pieces of excrement (Of which there are plenty.)

More than any of that, though, Preacher is a meditation on America and on being an American. The hero and titular character is named Jesse Custer, a hard-drinking, hard fighting, Southern-born outlaw turned preacher turned outlaw (of a sort) again. Jesse is Clint Eastwood’s frame and laid back, predatory attitude combined with the unwavering justness of Atticus Finch. He’s that sort of violent that we would call psychopathic, if it wasn’t so unerringly directed at people who really–conveniently–deserve it. Jesse is every Western hero stereotype from Odysseus to Shane, rolled into one. He swears a lot, he’s a bit more than arrogant, and he’s always chivalrous to women, if a tad old-fashioned. His very literal Jiminy Cricket is even a spectral John Wayne.

I could spill gallons of virtual ink deconstructing Jesse Custer, or anyone else in the comic’s large, well written cast. What I want to talk about more broadly, however, is Jesse’s role as the dead center, bulls-eye ideal of the American hero. What a beautiful, contradictory, and completely unattainable idea that is.

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The Box

Elaborate wood box Tom Tanaka

In the third season of American television show Breaking Bad, the character of Jesse Pinkman describes a memory of making several boxes in shop class, roughly a decade before. It is a beautiful, understated scene, one of the most well-written in the five year run of a show justly renowned for its writing. It’s so good, in fact, that I feel it properly belongs in literary discussion. Bluntly stated; I have never read, heard, nor otherwise observed, a more perfect metaphor of the self imposed barriers we must overcome to find success as writers. I’d be willing to wager it accurately represents the true toil of any creative field.

Here’s a transcript of the scene. Jesse is in an addiction support group and the group leader asks him what he would do with his life if he could do anything. Jesse initially gives a blase answer about making more money, but the group leader (A recurring, yet never named character; how Poe is that?) pushes him. “Assume money isn’t an issue”, he says, and how many of us have started our own fantasies about passion becoming vocation with those very words?

Jesse: I guess I would make something.
Group Leader: Like what?
Jesse: I don’t know if it even matters, but work with my hands, I guess. Building things, like carpentry, or bricklaying, or something? I took this vo-tech class in high school; woodworking. I took a lot of vo-tech classes, because it was just a big jerk-off. [laughs] But this one time, I had this teacher by the name of Mr. Pike. I guess he was like a Marine or something before he got old. He was hard of hearing. My project for his class was to make this wooden box. You know, like a small… just like a… like a box, you know, to put stuff in. So I wanted to get the thing done as fast as possible. I figured I could cut classes for the rest of the semester and he couldn’t flunk me as long as I, you know, made the thing. So I finished it in a couple days. And it looked pretty lame, but it worked, you know, for putting stuff in or whatnot. So when I showed it to Mr. Pike for my grade he looked at it and said: “Is that the best you can do?” At first I thought to myself, “Hell yeah, bitch. Now give me a D and shut up so I can go blaze one with my boys.” [laughter] I don’t know. Maybe it was the way he said it, but It was like he wasn’t exactly saying it sucked. He was just asking me honestly, “Is that all you got?” And for some reason, I thought to myself: “Yeah, man, I can do better,” so I started from scratch. I made another, then another. And by the end of the semester, by like box number five, I had built this thing. You should have seen it. It was insane. I mean, I built it out of Peruvian walnut with inlaid zebrawood. It was fitted with pegs; no screws. I sanded it for days until it was smooth as glass. Then I rubbed all the wood with tung oil so it was rich and dark. It even smelled good. You know, you put your nose in it and breathed in; it was… it was perfect. Group Leader: What happened to the box?
Jesse: I gave it to my mom.
Group Leader: Nice. You know what I’m gonna say, don’t you? It’s never too late. They have art co-ops that offer classes adult extension programs at the university.
Jesse: You know, I didn’t give the box to my mom. I traded it for an ounce of weed.

[Standard legal stuff: Jesse Pinkman, the group leader, and everything related to Breaking Bad are not in any way mine. This transcript is presented under the fair use doctrine, as material for discussion and analysis.]

What consistently amazes me about this scene, easily my favorite in the show’s entire run, is how succinctly it condenses every single step of not simply the creative process, but also the greater cycle of actually bringing ourselves to engage in any long term creative field. It’s all there: The utter confidence in our own capability to get by with minimal effort. The realization that natural talent doesn’t supersede hard work. The anger at a perceived challenge to our capability, followed later by an existential realization of the challenge actually being what spurred us to excel. It even manages to capture that peculiar feeling of post-partum tragedy, as we come to realize that the work is done and there’s nothing greater to it than what is simply there, nor will there ever be. We sell it for an ounce of weed, as it were. Ideally, that’s when we move on to a new project, but it’s rarely that easy. It’s a predictable, tiered process of emotional highs and lows, and I doubt it’s a coincidence the whole narration is set against the backdrop of a twelve step support group.

It’s also an extremely literary scene. The room these characters occupy is banal, the basement of a never named church. The colors are muted. There’s no real action to speak of, just a group of people sitting in a circle. Even the camerawork is restrained, little more than medium range shots of the performers sitting in their chairs, with the occasional isolated shot of Jesse, emphasizing how distant he has become from the rest of humanity at this point in the show’s run. The actors all do terrific work, but their performances are as low key as the camera’s movement. In the calculus of entertainment this scene literally only has its words to thrive on.

I just deleted nearly half this post, several paragraphs of diversion into the implications of this scene and its accompanying emotional resonance being on television rather than on a page. It was, I realized only in the reading, all written from a defensive posture. Perhaps with a bit of reworking those sorry paragraphs may find new life as a different post, but they’ve no place here. Great work speaks for itself; it doesn’t need any help raising its voice.

Is the scene literature? I don’t know. Compared to the written word, television is an art form in its infancy. We could certainly argue it qualifies as visual literature, but that distinction smacks to me of evasion. It either works, or it does not. It stirs something within you, or it fails to. To me this scene, then, is absolutely literature; even divorced from its accompanying visual element it still bestirs something in me, tapping into a fundamental truth about artistry and craft, and the how the emotional toll of investing all of yourself into something can be worth it only in comparison to the cost to your soul of not doing it.

I consciously chose not to include a video of the scene, because I wanted it judged, as much as possible, solely on its words. ”Sit down at the typewriter and bleed”, exhorted Hemingway, and to me this scene is an arterial spray, saturating the brain and seeping into the bones, even, especially, divorced from its visuals.

So, what do you think?