While Franklin is alienating, Composing a Symphony of Pain is accessible. While Franklin is mind-bending, Composing is enlightening. While Franklin at times resembles the work of a demented exploitationist, Composing confirms our suspicions (well, mine at least) that the artists involved aspired to something more than torture-porn. Consequently, the two films viewed together serve as important milestones in the current flow of independent film. I would have to go back Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles’ seminal 1971 Blaxploitation masterpiece) and Baadasssss! (Mario Van Peebles’ 2003 dramatization of his father’s creative process) to come up with such a unique examination of art-as-object vs. art-as-action.
When I say that the creative process set forth in Composing a Symphony of Pain is Zen, I do not use that term lightly. I refer to the words of David Schiller in his popular Little Zen Companion when describing the attitude of Zen artistry:
The painter approaches his canvas as part of his [meditative] practice, ‘empty canvas, blank mind.’ Beauty is secondary consideration, with asymmetry, rather than balance, the aim. And empty space is as real as objects and solids; what is left out is as important as what is left in.
The first stroke is the final stroke; there can be no subsequent correction. Full of silence, timelessness, and transparency, the paintings hint at an absolute reality beyond which nothing can be said. They are, in the words of one Western art historian, ‘ciphers of transcendence.’
To call this process unconventional is an understatement. It is, in fact, the very antithesis of traditional storytelling, a slap in the faces of pretentious online pseudo-mentors who want to impose their own ideas of structure onto the artist. The fact that anyone attempted such an approach to art is audacious. The fact that everyone who participated in Franklin--not just the original six but all who gravitated into their orbit--bought in so willingly is nothing short of miraculous. As such, watching this ragtag band of mad ones go to work is akin to watching cosmic tumblers falling into place. What makes it all the more enjoyable is how cool these people really are, approachable, beautiful nomads with Bedouin souls who make you feel like welcome guests in their home.
Hardened cynics may find this concept rather hippy-dippy. In fact, hollow cinematic moral guardians--the kind that fire-bombed theaters for showing The Last Temptation of Christ--may scoff at the idea of Zen or natural alignment, particularly where it pertains to a film like Franklin. Franklin is a brutal, visceral experience that, as I said in my review of it, one does not so much watch as endure it (you can read my complete review of Franklin here). For those meditative souls oblivious to the sound and the fury of the universe, the idea of such a violent film emerging from shared spiritual vibration may seem incomprehensible. We tend to erroneously think of Zen as peaceful, but it is also a bit like jazz, marked by moments of energy, explosiveness, and improvisation.
I am reminded, in fact, of an experience I had several years ago when my young nephew asked if I would watch a monster trucks video with him. I have no interest in monster trucks, but because it was my nephew, I sat down and watched an extended documentary on Dennis Anderson, the creator and driver of a monster truck called “Grave Digger.” For almost two hours, Anderson takes us behind the scenes, explaining how his truck was built, illustrating the modifications he has made to the engine, and describing the various techniques he uses when driving in Monster Jams. I went into the documentary not giving a shit about monster trucks, but I fell in love with Anderson’s passion and the enthusiastic way he shared it with his audience. He is intensely interested in what he does, and his gusto is contagious, creating in the viewer something akin to euphoria.
Yeah, watching Composing a Symphony of Pain is kind of like that.