Life ain’t a track meet . . .

…it’s a marathon
F*** the cemetary
That a n***** get buried on.

-Ice Cube, “You Can Do It”

Last Fall, my wife ran her first of several 5K races. This year, she ran her first 10K, and then pulled me into her obsession, as I joined her for a few 5K’s, a 10K, and a sprint triathlon. I’m certainly no triathlete, but I’m proud to say that I’ve held my own in this recent re-discovery of measured athleticism.

This is probably basic common sense to most of you, but the most integral part of long-distance exercise seems to be the relationship between heart rate and breathing. If you can keep your brain stocked up on blood and oxygen via your heart and your lungs, you can do anything for any given amount of time, at least in my experience. Again, common sense dictates that working with big gulps of breath for short bursts of speed and long stretches of resting is probably an inefficient path to long-term goals. It all comes down to pacing.

“Pace” is a term I’ve become intimately familiar with only this year.

In the past, I’ve felt overwhelmingly guilty for not being the obsessive, starving artist, afraid that I should have been rejecting social interaction and entertainment in exchange for concentrated suffering and sacrifice. Even after producing a feature film and directing another in a three year period, I often feel guilty that I don’t jilt my wife, my dog, and my family in the greater pursuit of storytelling. Maybe it’s my old age, my years numbering at a ripe 27, but I’ve recently been hit by the idea that the key to achievement is pace…. striking the balance between life and work, without pitting them against one another.

I might be bearing too much soul here, but let’s be honest. No filmmaker can cheat and get away with it. Orson Welles cheated, somehow directing an undisputed masterpiece of cinema at age 25. His early career was a burst of incredible creativity and masterful work. But he didn’t get away with it. Sure, we see late gems like Touch of Evil, The Trial, and F for Fake, but then look at the last twenty years of his career, as struggled to retroactively atone for his own excesses.

Coppola cheated. Seriously, the Godfather films and Apocalypse Now, plus the highly regarded Conversation, all within ten years? Yet again, a big start to the race doesn’t always result in an equitable finish. Coppola nearly went bankrupt a handful of times, eventually leveraging his sprawling saga to keep his head above water, leaving a path of destruction wherever he went. Steven Spielberg cheated, perhaps, but I’m probably the most generous person I know when it comes to his resume. The most consistently quality directors seem to be firmly entrenched in either a studio system – you could name Hawks and Hitchcock – or a self-imposed structure of pacing… The Coen Brothers, Christopher Nolan, and Steven Soderburgh, whose second published book of journals is even named “Getting Away With It”. (Don’t let that fool you… Soderburgh had an early career crisis that resulted in Schizopolis and his creative rebirth with Out of Sight. It’s only since that he’s maintained a freakish output full of rabbit trails and artistic “breathers”.)

This is starting to sound like the rationalization of a deluded, nickel-and-dime, micro-budget filmmaker. I am fully aware of that. I’m also fully aware that societal conditions and, in some cases, good or bad fortune pull more weight in cinematic careers than any individual decision-making. In fact, my point isn’t really about one’s (read: my) directorial career. It’s more about the lifestyle lesson I mentioned earlier, and it’s as much about storytelling.

In this analogy, let’s have blood play the part of substance (or, “life”) and oxygen play the part of plot (or, “work”). Really, that’s what it’s all about, right? Blood carries the vitamins and oxygen fuels the guidance. Many of my favorite films maintain that balance of keeping plot rhythmically progressing while a steady heartbeat provides an emotional core.

Take a look at one of the most fast-paced films of all time, Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. The film rockets along, as we become embroiled not only in the relationship of the two leads, but also the wrongful accusation case at the heart of the story. By the film’s end, we don’t even realize how emotionally involved we’ve become. The same can be said for Billy Wilder’s latter-day screwball comedy One Two Three, which builds each scene on top of the next, the plot changing every moment until we’re left shell-shocked, ruminating a post-World War II satire.

I’ve babbled plenty of times about both The Departed and The Dark Knight, two crime films that open strong with a simple set-up – the criminal dancing around the hero – and layer on story and character with every scene, inhaling and exhaling so rapidly and effectively that by film’s end, you are absolutely transplanted into this new world.

The same could be said for chase films, like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Thirty Nine Steps. There’s very little slow burn or slow build in these films. They hit the ground running and deftly maintain a brisk pace until the bitter end.

I suppose the mature thing would be to admit that there are plenty of different ways to get things done. Some of us are sprinters, killing ourselves in spurts and taking long stretches of relaxation. Let’s let the story equivalent of the sprinter be a Kubrick film, specifically Full Metal Jacket. Film Nerds favorite Inglourious Basterds might fall into this category, too.

Rest assured, however, that you can’t sprint the duration of the race. No one can. Intensity only goes so far before it has to be supplemented by rest… forcefully, or of one’s choosing. The same goes for stories. A story that’s all heart is going to feel overwrought, and a film that’s all momentum is going to leave us disengaged. It seems that in life, things take a break even if we’re not planning on it. Sometimes your heart gives out if you’ve pushed it too hard, if you haven’t let in enough air, if you haven’t been breathing. As I move into my late twenties, and as I attempt to maintain a healthy pace and balance in guiding a feature film to its completion, I come to suspect more than ever that if you don’t stop to smell the roses, you might just collapse face-first into the thorns.

What are your favorite fast-paced films? Mine…

1.) Raiders of the Lost Ark

2.) The Dark Knight

3.) The Thirty Nine Steps

4.) One Two Three

5.) The Departed

I’d also recommend this episode of the great movie podcast, All Movie Talk (RIP)….