I was perusing the trades (that’s slang for entertainment industry trade papers) recently in an effort to live vicariously through the people who actually do what I just imagine doing for a living, and I came across an article by Peter Bart (former Editor-in-Chief at Variety) regarding The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and his foray into the world of film directing (the dickishly titled “Memo to Jon Stewart: Stick with Your Day Job Behind the Desk”).
You can read the article if you like, but the general idea is that Peter Bart spends 600 words essentially just shitting on Stewart’s desire to sit in the director’s chair. How does Peter Bart justify his Debbie Dickhead attitude toward Jon Stewart’s project? Well, Bart points out, Bob Dyaln was a celebrity who directed a movie…and it was bad! Not convinced? Well, Bart says, Madonna was a celebrity who directed a movie…and it was also bad!
So just to recap: because Bob Dylan made a bad movie in 1978, no one should try to direct a movie ever again. Got it. And obviously this has everything to do with the fact that Dylan and Madonna were already established stars that tried to transition into directing, and nothing to do with the fact that they were just bad directors (the Dylan film’s final cut clocked in at OVER four hours long, but yeah, I’m sure it was only a flop because he was a celebrity trying to direct). Double got it.
Bart goes on to reference successful directors (Clooney, Sean Penn, Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Elia Kazan, and Francis Coppola) who didn’t release their best work until later on in their directorial careers, and whose first projects either weren’t well-received or just weren’t that good. Basically Bart’s message is if you haven’t already done something, you shouldn’t do it.
Petey, ol’ buddy ol’ pal, if that list of directors had followed your supremely bad logic, then yes we never would’ve had to suffer through their less-than-perfect directorial debuts…but are you really saying you’d sacrifice film masterworks like Coppola’s The Godfather or Scorsese’s The Departed along with a host of other great movies just because you didn’t think Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind did as well as it could’ve at the box office? The simple fact of the matter is that ANY good director only became good because they had the strength of mind to overcome ignorant, shortsighted advice like Peter Bart’s. You can’t make a great movie without making your first movie (although if Mr. Bart knows a secret way to circumvent that system, I’m sure there are studio executives that would love to know).
Jon Stewart has been hosting The Daily Show for over 14 years, and his MTV show an extra six years before that. That’s two decades of doing essentially the exact same job, so if anyone’s earned the right to try their hand at something new, it’s Jon Stewart. And Peter Bart is right: Stewart’s directorial debut may well be a terrible movie — and worse, it may not make a ton of money at the box office.
Stewart is fortunate to be amongst the smallest percentile of people who actually have access to the resources needed to direct a major motion picture, and if it’s what he wants to do, why shouldn’t he?
“BUT HE COULD FAIL!”
If he does fail, who cares? If there’s one thing the film industry has proven over the years, it’s that Hollywood is going to release terrible movies regardless of whatever factors are in play (do you have your tickets for Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups 2 yet? I know I don’t!), what does it matter if just one of those failed movies is directed by Jon Stewart or not? Bart also goes out of his way to condescendingly imply that Stewart and his team neither know how to make movies or interact with actors. To quote: “The trouble with making movies is that, while it looks easy, it is in fact a very exacting discipline.” First of all, who said making movies looks easy? Dude, you’re talking to 30-year industry vet Jon Stewart and his team, not an elementary school classroom on career day, I think they know what they’re getting in to — probably even better than most other first-time directors.
I’m sure Peter Bart is a tolerable enough person in real life, and I don’t think his ultimate intent is to be needlessly mean (his article is lightly peppered with half-compliments like “You’re very good at what you do, Jon, but are you really prepared to take another hiatus after your first picture bombs?” and the dickishly-phrased “I like you the way you are, Jon. I hope you stay that way.”), but that doesn’t make the candor, arrogance and overall jackassery with which he writes this article any more acceptable.
Sure, I could take this fight below the belt by bringing up the fact that Peter Bart’s best years were 30-50 years ago (his heyday has a studio exec was in the 1960s and ‘70s before he became an editor at Variety in the ‘80s), how he’s out of touch with modern filmmaking, or his borderline racist comments — “The imprisonment in Iran of a journalist named Maziar Bahari…no, not Joy Behar” (was he waiting for a rimshot on that one?) and “We’ve all visited Iran once in ‘Argo,’ but I’m not sure many of us are up for a return trip”. But personally attacking an octogenarian man I’ve never met just to feel better about myself doesn’t address the heart of the issue: that Peter Bart is only ignorantly giving voice to something that we all think at one time or another.
Any time you have the desire to create or try something new, there is almost always an opposite inner voice telling you not to. Telling you that you’re not good enough, not smart enough, not capable enough. That you are not enough. Physicist Isaac Newton would probably define that voice as the equal and opposite reaction to your desire to do something positive or expand yourself. A book called The War of Art (a terrific book that everyone should read at least once) would probably define that voice as “The Resistance” — the innate pessimism that wants to keep you from living up to your potential or utilizing your gifts. No matter what you want to call it, it doesn’t change what it is: wrong. Whether it’s psychological physics, The Resistance, or Peter Bart; that voice of negativity, the one that tells you can’t can’t do something or be something or create something, is wrong. There is too much beauty and wonder and art in the world for anyone to possibly believe otherwise. You were built to be a creature of creativity, a purveyor of positivity, a generator of artistry and anyone or anything that tells you otherwise is either misinformed, ignorant, or both.
Failure is a natural — albeit brutal — part of life, but if you let failure (or the risk of failure) define who you are or what you do, you’ll spend your entire life trapped in a cage of your own making. A cage of inaction and impotence (and not the sort that Viagra can fix). Peter Bart himself belies the fallacy of his own logic by pointing out that some of our greatest film directors only got to that point because they were brave or bullheaded enough to trudge through some initial failures. Indeed those great directors could only become great directors because of failure.
I’ve written a lot about the benefits of failure — as have many other, much more qualified and intelligent authors (I highly recommend Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide for a brilliant, more comprehensive take on the subject) — so I’ll keep this column’s epilogue simple: Peter, get a hobby. You spent years as a successful movie overseer at an executive level, wikipedia tells me you’ve written several books, and it’s clear you still have passions left to express — all I ask is that you direct those passions and skills at creating something useful or positive. Or at the very least abstain from shooting down the passions of others. The world has plenty of self-generating negativity already, so if you’re just here to add to that cacophony, then pipe the eff down. The rest of us are trying to listen to something more worthwhile.
As Kermit put it, “I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it.
It’s something that I’m supposed to be.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.”
Jon, I hope you do well in your new endeavors…but even if you don’t, I hope you’re always trying to change and challenge yourself for the better — both professionally and personally. Because if you don’t, you risk ending up like Peter Bart. Who’s kind of a dick.
Play on, Mr. Stewart.
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