Christian Niedan’s History Storytellers — Part Eleven: The Dualist

The eleventh installment of a twelve part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of historians and history-infatuated filmmakers. The series continues with a look at the power of working in tandem and seeking innovation in creative pairs, with an interview with author Joshua Wolf Shenk…

by: Christian Niedan

People can accomplish great things by working together. They can, while laboring in tandem, impact the way our world works, plays, and ultimately inspire others. History is filled with such examples. In 2014, author Joshua Wolf Shenk (who currently serves as Executive & Artistic Director of the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV, and as editor-in-chief of The Believer magazine) chronicled several of them within his book, Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. Among the culture-shaping pairings that Shenk analyzed were John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Vincent and Theo van Gogh, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

In September 2014, I attending an event at NYC’s 92nd Street Y where Shenk sat in conversation with journalist and screenwriter, Mark Boal. Among the anecdotes recounted was Boal’s take on his dynamic with filmmaker and creative partner Kathryn Bigelow while collaborating on the films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. I later followed up with Shenk to discuss his book for a September 2014 interview on my film website, Camera In The Sun, wherein he articulated the chemistry created by the history-making pairs he examines:

Joshua Wolf Shenk: “This quality between people that buoys both up, and allows people to do something beyond what they could do on their own. Which we’re familiar thinking about with Lennon-McCartney or Watson and Crick — sort of these very famous pairs. But the book is about the way that this quality is actually fundamental to the creative process, and shows up in all kinds of spheres across creative fields, in all kinds of manifestations, including very often when one partner is not known to the public. So Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo — we know one, but not the other. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, same deal. Steve Jobs many people think of as a lone genius. But in fact, his creative life was riven with relationships all the way through. So the book is trying to understand this quality, and how creativity emerges from it.

Creativity is fundamentally about the meshing of opposite qualities. In some ways, we’re very familiar with this. For example, a great novel might be from the mystery genre with a high literary quality. Those two things coming together in an unexpected way would be a creative act. But it’s also true that there are ways in which we don’t think about creativity. Because we think about originality, we think about novelty, we think about things being different or strange. We think about Jackson Pollack breaking rules. But we don’t think about the tradition and the form that is underneath that. We don’t think about the way that that work is brought to the market. So we think about the artist, but we don’t think about the art dealer. And that dialogue is often essential to the way creative work happens and is brought into the world.”

On the topic of art, Shenk expounded on his example of the Van Gogh brothers:

Shenk: “Starry Night, to me, was one of the most significant pieces of art in my life. I would go up to the MoMA with my New School ID, that got me in free, just to see Starry Night and stand there looking at it. There’s a scene in a movie I cannot remember, where the early part of the movie is black and white. Then the character sees Starry Night, and the movie comes into color at that moment. I think it’s a metaphor for the way that image reaches out and breathes color, and light, and vitality into so many people. We think of Van Gogh alone on the heath — the romantic image of him as a lone genius — and there’s this sort of darker twin of him as a mad genius. I had known when I started the book that he had a brother named Theo, that he wrote him many letters, and I’d seen Theo described as his supporter. What surprised me is the extent to which they were entwined from the very beginning of Vincent’s career. It’s actually not clear to me that Vincent did not become an artist in the first place in order to stay in a relationship with his brother, who was his last thread before he kind of fell down into true madness. Through the many years that Vincent was struggling with his work, Theo was not only his financial supporter, but was his aesthetic partner, and his sparring partner for a lot of the ideas that they were working out, introducing him to influences. The triumphant conclusion is that by the end, both of them thought that they had co-created the work that bore Vincent’s name, and served in different roles — but very much entwined in work together.

In the early days of their work, when Vincent decided he wanted to be a painter, he was very much isolated, and he had no formal training, and was he was totally cut off. Theo was in the center of the art world. He was a dealer in Paris, and he was exposed to a lot of the stodgy traditions. But he was also mixed up in this vital scene, and Vincent was sending him his work. And for years, and years, and years, Theo was responding to him and saying, more or less, ‘Not yet, but keep trying’, and ‘You should look at this’, and ‘You should try this.’ The most significant thing is encouraging him to check out the Impressionists, and Vincent was very reluctant. He was obsessed with representing the darkness of the peasants, and ‘The Potato Eaters’ was the triumphant piece of that period. That’s what I’m gesturing at — that Theo is holding the standard. It was when Theo began to see that the work was good that they really started to get traction. It was when Vincent came to Paris to join his brother, and was living with him, and met the people that he had access to through his brother — as I say in the book, that’s when Van Gogh really became Van Gogh. Of course, it also went the other way around. Vincent was stirring up all kinds of excitement that Theo then fed off. In some ways, Theo had gotten into art because of his brother’s influence. But that entwined them, and that kind of moving around each other went on from the time they were boys, all the way through Vincent’s death.

You look at the history of virtually every pair I describe, it’s very hard to imagine the work without a relationship. That doesn’t mean they’re not two distinct, significant, idiosyncratic individuals. In fact, one of the things that’s most valuable about a pair as a model — both as a working unit, and as a way to understand creativity — is that it allows us to simultaneously understand the necessity of solitude, and distinctions, and individuals, and the importance of community, and connection, and exchange. Both of those things are really important. We live in this weird world where they’re constantly set in opposition to each other. It’s like ‘The individual is significant’ — ‘No, it’s about the collaboration’. That’s what we learned in high school. It’s like ‘The great man theory’ — ‘No, it’s the culture. Thomas Jefferson. It’s the ferment of that period of intellectual history’. And the pair (both actually in the work that they do, and also as a way of representing the creative process) allows us to see that we do need very special individuals. Vincent van Gogh, he was the kind of character that they broke the mold when they made him. I mean, he’s just a very, very peculiar, driven, intense guy. But it is hard to imagine him doing what he did without his brother.”

Shenk also noted how filmmakers have used creative pairs as their dual muses.

Shenk: “Documentary portraits are one of the best ways into these stories. There’s a movie about Matt Stone and Trey Parker called 6 Days to Air, made by Arthur Bradford. There’s an unbelievable movie called Valentino: The Last Emperor by Matt Tyrnauer. There’s a great documentary film about Marina Abramović called the The Artist is Present. And there’s actually a pretty good movie that’s not yet released about her former partner, Ulay, that he shared with me. That was also very helpful, and kind of deepened my sense of his side of the story.

The world of film and TV is one of the places where collaboration is most prominent. In film, relationships between writers and directors like Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, relationships between directors and cinematographers, directors and editors. There’s a famous relationship between Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. I very briefly talk about Marcia Lucas and George Lucas. It’s one of my favorite examples of the lone genius myth: the way we think about George Lucas having birthed Star Wars from his fevered mind. When in fact, it was deeply collaborative, and his wife played a huge and almost-entirely-unacknowledged role in that work. The Coen Brothers, Matt Stone and Trey Parker — for South Park, and the movies they’ve made, and also Book of Mormon — it goes on and on.

Also, one of the chapters of the book is titled ‘Jokestein and Structureberg’. That comes from some TV writer who told me that it’s a truism in Hollywood that every writing team on a comedy needs a ‘Jokestein’ and a ‘Structureberg’. One is great with lines, and great with unexpected moments. The other is great with form, and story, and sees the big picture. That’s kind of the understanding of how things work best. Mark Boal is a great American filmmaker, and has made two world-changing films with his partner, Kathryn Bigelow. He’s a writer and producer. But she’s also a producer, and primarily the director of the films. It’s a very unusual and dynamic partnership, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that I’m studying.”

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