3 'Genius' Artists Who Created Their Best Works by Accident
Last week, I wrote an article about stupid things people do to seem smart, and one of those things was making Franz Kafka references. Anyway, that got me thinking about Kafka, and then I realized that his short story "A Hunger Artist" would make a perfect introduction to my new column.
Yeah, I know. I'm hard to love.
It's OK when I do it, right, guys?
"A Hunger Artist" tells the story of a celebrated performer with a unique talent: He starves himself. Professionally. People come from all around to see him starve until his starving talents fall out of fashion. But even when he's reduced to a forgotten freak show attraction, he continues to practice his craft. Why? Is he a purist dedicated to his art? No. It's because starving is all he knows how to do. It comes to him naturally and he can't do anything else.
Kafka takes all the respect you had for this artist's talent and determination and obliterates it by letting you know that the hunger artist is not a master craftsman. He is not even in control of his art. He was just built in a certain way that allowed him to do something singularly impressive. I have a term for people like that: I call them accidental geniuses. People whose artistic accomplishments can be undeniably impressive, but who deserve less credit because they are not the masters of their design. They are just putting forth a certain sound with the instrument they have been given without any mastery or understanding of how it got there.
I see you skipping the introduction again. You're totally not gonna get the article if you do that.
I take no pleasure in making 14-year-old girls in torn fishnets cry, but Tim Burton belongs on this list, and I can say that as a fan of several of his projects -- or at least portions of many of his projects. Timothy Augustus Hiberias Ignatius Burton was born in 1958 in a cave just outside of Salem, Massachusetts, inhabited by a coven of witches. Actually, none of that is true, although it's likely that Tim claimed as much in a misguided attempt to impress girls when in he was in high school.
"I can also melt Dungeons & Dragons figurines with my mind."
Much has been made of Tim's unusual childhood. Apparently his parents bricked up the windows to his room, so yeah, it's easy to say that he was destined to see things somewhat bleakly. And Tim certainly has a unique voice and vision. It is a good voice. It is a good vision. One that would have made him perfectly suited to direct commercials or design sets. But as an artist who has the capacity to tell a well-constructed, evenly paced story? The closest he's come to that has been on the backs of others.
I would argue that his most successful movie from start to finish would be The Nightmare Before Christmas. As most of you know (from cross-referencing both the table of contents and the index), I wrote about that movie in Cracked's book You Might Be a Zombie. Although Burton produced the movie and it was based on his short story, Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Coraline) directed the movie. Michael McDowell and Caroline Thompson wrote the script. And most importantly, Danny Elfman wrote some of the best songs of his career. All of the emotional content for the love story comes from his lyrics. Without that, the whole movie would fall flat. That component of the story isn't in Burton's book, and the dialogue that precedes the song ("Oh, how I hope my premonition is wrong") ain't cutting it, either.
Beetlejuice is a hodgepodge of great moments most memorable for Michael Keaton's frenetic performance. Jack Nicholson's Joker is the best thing in either of Burton's Batman movies, although, again, Burton deserves credit for the look of the films. How about Edward Scissorhands? Even if you love the movie, you probably think first of the striking visuals or Depp's vulnerability, but the actual story? The only other thing that comes to mind is Anthony Michael Hall doping on 'roids and Winona Ryder losing all sex appeal as a blonde. And that brings us to Dark Shadows, which might be one of the worst movies ever made, bar none.
"This is the film I made to make Pirates of the Caribbean 4 look less awful."
It is purportedly a comedy, but it's made by a man who not only doesn't understand humor, but is clueless about how human emotions work. We're told that Barnabas Collins is a man who was transformed into a vampire by a love-scorned witch. (Burton is worthy of scorn for greenlighting that conceit alone.) But even though Collins is an unwilling vampire, his remorse is miniscule at best. He's no Interview With the Vampire Brad Pitt, ravaged by guilt and living off animals. He's clearly OK with eating people.
So it's a dark comedy, right? The humor can come from him attacking people who really deserve it. That way the audience can get some dark wish fulfillment like we do in Dexter. Nope. Collins attacks all sorts of people, even hippies. (Trust me, I'd love to take solace from the murder of hippies, but the ones in this movie are actually nice, kind people, so he blows that, too.) Any director not raised in a Marquis de Sade playpen would have recognized the problem. Not Burton, who has the capacity to paint a beautiful black sky like few others, but has no control over what planets appear or how they orbit.
You had to know this one was coming. So much electronic ink has been spilled castigating George Lucas that I don't feel the need to pile on, but no list of accidental geniuses would be complete without him, so let's get to it.
The world is a better place because George Lucas is in it. Quite simply, Star Wars is the most important movie of my life, and George Lucas deserves the lion's share of credit. Star Wars provided all my childhood frames of reference and role models. To this day, I still ask WWHSD? (What Would Han Solo Do?) when presented with decisions. And that's why I laser blast every problem in the face before it has a chance to hurt me.
Cracked editor-in-chief Jack O'Brien, moments after my last performance evaluation. (I may have overreacted slightly on that one.)
Lucas understood the importance of myths in our culture. Science fiction/fantasy works best when it's tied into the strongest tropes, like dark knights, cowboys, Nazis, wizards ... and they're all there in Episode IV. And they all work. And when you bring in a quality writer like Lawrence Kasdan and a director like Irvin Kershner (Episode V), it only gets better.
But when the iconic images fall away, a director still needs to be grounded in the rules of storytelling, and almost all of Lucas' decisions after 1982 confirm a sneaking suspicion that he's lacking in that area. There's simply too many misfires. Even Spielberg half-heartedly sold him out for the clusterfuck of confused storytelling in Indiana Jones IV. And rather than beat up on Lucas for every poor decision he ever made, I'll just leave you with this clip, which I think speaks for itself at indicating that while Lucas has the pieces of greatness within him, he's not the master of their assembly.
Led Zeppelin might be the greatest rock band ever, and Robert Plant is definitely one of the most important and influential rock singers of all time. And yet he tops our list as the quintessential accidental genius. Maybe the best way to explain how is to compare him with his band mates.
For example, he looks the least convincing in a spacesuit.
Prior to Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were both successful, sought-after studio musicians, steeped in training and capable of playing in a multitude of styles. Jimmy Page was also the lead guitarist of the Yardbirds -- a band whose lead guitarist slot has also been filled by guitar greats Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Beyond mere musicianship, both men possessed diverse songwriting chops. Jimmy Page penned the music to the paint-peeling "Immigrant Song" and the ballad-like "The Rain Song." Not to be outdone, John Paul Jones wrote the music to "Black Dog" and "All of My Love." Lastly, while drummer John Bonham didn't have Page and Jones' studio credentials, you'd be hard-pressed to find any best-drummers compilation lists where he's not in the top five. The point is, you can see each of these men playing in other bands, tweaking their playing and doing whatever they need to do based on circumstance.
But Plant's time in Zep was more about Plant simply being Plant. And lucky for us, because all those magic ingredients above probably wouldn't have amounted to greatness unless Page had asked some dimwitted lunatic from West Bromwich to howl above the din. Robert Plant's contributions to Zep are a monumental achievement. There is no modern rock vocal without him. But he's still an accidental genius.
"Get on with it, d-bag."
First off, Plant's not much of a songwriter, never really drafting much in the way of actual music during Zeppelin or after. He's also not much of a lyricist. Has he written some of the most important rock lyrics of all time? He sure has. Are they awful? They sure are. For the most part, Plant lyrics are a confused lot of Tolkien-based stream-of-consciousness pretense that sound great as long as you don't think about them. References to suns that refuse to shine and lands of ice and snow. Big, bold, stupid lyrics that are awesome, but not created by a master craftsman so much as spewed by a halfwit who would have never risen above the role of dungeon master under different circumstances. Don't bother trying to figure out what a stairway to heaven is or what that bustle in the hedgerow might be. Your investigations will not be rewarded.
And frankly, he's not the greatest singer either on a purely technical level. Even at the time of the 1976 concert film The Song Remains the Same (from the '73 tour), he couldn't cop his "Ramble On" vocals, delivering them instead as a half-assed pseudo-Elvis. And then there are those rumors that he employed Alvin and the Chipmunks-esque technology to hit some high notes on the albums. If you listen to the end of the Song Remains the Same album, there certainly appears to be truth to that.
So yes, Plant deserves his legend status in the same way that a meteor flaming out of control across the sky before crashing down to Earth with tremendous impact deserves notoriety. Not so much for what it has done as for what it is.
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