Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 137: The Craftsmen

It's said that if you want to know what a city used to look like simply "Look up". Most urban change comes at the street level and often the second floor and above do not alter for decades, sometimes even centuries.

Oh there are cosmetic changes to be sure. But often just lifting your eyes a little will give you a glimpse of how the world looked in a bygone era.

A couple of years ago, while shooting a series pilot in Paris, it struck me that virtually every one of our locations was surrounded by a landscape of incredible craftsmanship.

Classical statuary adorned ordinary apartment blocks. There were oak staircases with flowers and cherubs carved into every foot of the banisters. Windows were etched or gilded and signage bore the unmistakable trademarks of the Art Nouveaux or Deco periods.


You quickly realized that there was a time when the city was teeming with artists and artisans skilled at sculpture and stone-cutting. There were carpenters, metal workers and glaziers who not only embodied the skills of their present day descendants but practiced a level of craftsmanship seldom seen anymore. And many painters whose masterpieces now fill museums paid the rent by painting signs.

I began to wonder what happened to them all. Did the need for what they did gradually decline as economies or public taste demanded leaner, more functional construction? Or did some societal version of Photoshop transform work that required time and talent into something virtually anybody could do?

You could ask similar questions about the film business and any new TV season. To be sure there are always fine examples of originality and well conceived and executed projects. But there's also a creeping sameness. Reboots and sequels in film. Revivals of old concepts as well as continued incarnations of doctors, lawyers, cops and dysfunctional comedic families on TV.

60 or 100

Often original ideas are disguised as familiar products merely because that makes them easier for somebody to sell. Maybe it does. But you have to wonder if greater success might have come to those willing to stand slightly apart from the crowd.

One afternoon last summer, I glanced at a multiplex marquee advertising "Sex and the City 2", "Toy Story 3", "The A-Team" and "The Last Airbender". The last had been savaged by critics pointing out that M. Night Shamalan had once again failed to live up to his initial creative promise. I recall thinking, "Well, at least he's TRYING."

The realities of the business and our own desires to make sure the mortgage gets paid mean that fewer of us than might wish are building pre-fab shows instead of using our craftsmanship to create something unique and original and perhaps lasting.

I'm not sure if that's just the way things are or the way we allow them to be because it's easier to follow the path of least resistance. Carving little cherubs in granite is really hard work that might never get noticed.

But taking the easy road didn't result in "The Sopranos", "Deadwood", "The Wire" or "Breaking Bad". The craftsmanship of "Mad Men", "Terriers" or "Sherlock" is visible in virtually every moment of their running times.

So you know we haven't lost the skill. But somehow many of us seem to have lost the desire.

Maybe what follows will inspire you to change that.

Lift up your eyes. And Enjoy Your Sunday.


John McFetridge said...

So true.

This reminds me of the scene in Breaking Away when the dad tells the son about being a stone mason and working on the buildings that became the college and how the son should go there and the son says going to college isn't important to him and the dad says, "It is to me."

But maybe the, "college or bust," attitude we all accepted so readily wasn't the right one....

Catherine Lee, Dock Systems said...

About the last airbender. I took my kids to watch it since we are familiar with the animated series. Except for being too dark for a children's movie, I think its well done. It captured the animated version very well and my kids loved it.

Anonymous said...

Hi folks, here’s the latest video from Danny, another one about master craftsmen: