The Difference Between Expressing Yourself and Being Understood:
Updated: Apr 29, 2022
I am at the time of writing this, deep in post-production on my first feature length film. I probably owe everyone a little bit more context about how it all came about and how it went but I’ll save that for another day. Over the last few months I have gone through a process of critique, sending out the cut in its unfinished state for feedback. I’ve asked for and received more feedback on this film than on any previous effort, and I am not even done yet. It has made me aware of a fundamental creative tension that I think every artist will have to deal with.
What is more important: to accurately express an emotion as you feel it, or to express it in a way that will be understood? This might sound like only a subtle difference at first, but it turns out to be quite significant. I remember the walls of my elementary art classes were covered with the truisms of our day. Color posters reminding one to “just be yourself” and “shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’ll land among the stars,” and so on. I have nothing to dispute with the general consensus that children and beginners of all sorts need prodigious amounts of encouragement and positive reinforcement, but I fear that in artistic pursuits we might never outgrow this elementary view.
My rounds of feedback have taught me that mere self-expression is not always going to be understandable to an audience. Maybe the “just be yourself” platitudes that we were raised with miss the degrees of translation one must undertake to be understood. This introduces a challenge for an artist in a mass medium like film. It may be necessary to sacrifice a little bit of your own experience or your own vision; to alter it in subtle ways for it to be more understandable. There is a balance between this. How much you are willing to change your concept to reach more people, and how much you are resolved to stick to your initial conception regardless of the response you hear? Of course, you can’t just lie down and do every last thing that pops into the head of your viewer, but you might be just as foolish to utterly ignore the reactions you receive.
It may not be clear at first glance how these two things are in tension with one another. We might think the opposite, “the better and more accurately I express my inner state, the more people will understand me. The only difficulty is in execution.” It does not help that what I am suggesting here goes against much of the popular wisdom of our time. Beyond the encouragement we receive as children, many of the larger metanarratives of the day go against my suggestion. We’re told our own perspective is holy, and our intuitions are never wrong. We are in an existential struggle against The Man holding us down. We perceive that we are burdened and held back by voices of authority that want to crush our individuality and our ability to express our inner state. The goal, implicit and explicit, is to free ourselves from the chains of expectation, and to reach a state of self-actualization, where no barrier exists between our goals, our thoughts, and our ability to express ourselves. Sometimes the barriers between us and our goals are external. We might reckon that we have technical, logistical, racial, political, familial, or financial barriers, among others that prevent us from even beginning our quest. In the other case we might have internal, mental barriers such as neurosis, self-doubt, or other anxieties that we first need to overcome in order to reach our ideal state.
The trouble is that we assume, once we overcome these barriers, that our self-expression shall come easily, our vision will speak for itself, and our work will be celebrated simply because it is the representation of our personal victory. We assume that the mere sound of a solitary voice soaring above the rest shall make our imagined audience break out into spontaneous applause. “Just express yourself, and someone out there will understand you.” While this might be true to varying degrees, we damage ourselves with an overly romantic view of this process. That someone, in our heads at least, is ultimately most people, or perhaps more nefariously, the people who matter, not a few scattered individuals.
You might hear many a more seasoned artist lament, “I think if just one person understands me, I’ll be happy.” This is not true. We all desire to be understood universally but our varying levels of success make us settle for what we can get. It is those of us who have strived valiantly only to hear in response a frisson of indifference who utter these words. We know that we want more, or we wanted more long ago, but now, older and wiser, we know that few will understand us, and perhaps that is enough. After many works of personal significance and collective indifference, we perceive that which we did not at the outset: that our idiosyncrasies will alienate as much as they endear.
At this point, I fear I shall be misunderstood unless I make some clarification. I am not suggesting that self-expression is impossible or pointless in art. Rather, up to this point, we have been ignoring a key factor in our work: the act of translation.
Let us imagine for a moment that you are a desert nomad, and you are charged with uniting a group of separated tribes in order to defend your lands against invasion and subjugation. So you concoct a rousing speech, you tie all the histories of your people together in an immaculate metaphor with a beautiful and inspiring vision of the future. You climb the hill overlooking the camp and begin your speech. But there is a problem. None of the tribes speak the same language. The few who understand you are taken by your words and listen intently. But most lose interest in a few minutes and walk away, grumbling to themselves “what was that old nut rambling about anyway?” It may be the case that later, rumors would pass between the groups about the content of your speech. Those who understand it may later tell others how your words painted a bright future, and maybe a few would be convinced, but most would simply dismiss this with a wave of the hand and go about their lives.
In order to be understood, you needed to give your speech in a language that all would understand. But there is a problem with this. Not all the metaphors of your language will translate clearly. It is impossible that your meaning and intent shall be perfectly preserved. Some of these you will have to replace and carefully reword and other parts you may have to abandon wholesale for fear of causing confusion. The more that you know about the universal characteristics of the group, the less you would rely on your more idiosyncratic language to construct your speech.
It is not enough to express ourselves. We must do so in a way that can be understood. These should not be empty words. It will mean a real change in our creative perspective, a change in our priorities, our sensor, our metric of taste. We must think at every turn, that which is clear to us might not be clear to them.
In my own work, this has meant I have had to accept a certain level of compromise. That is a word we do not like these days. I know reasons why I have cut every scene the way that I have. But my reasoning does not always produce the desired reaction. Yet, if trimming a scene a little tighter than my own taste suggests gets the audience closer to understanding what I am hoping to convey, I won’t feel like I’ll have compromised at all. Part of maturing as a filmmaker is learning that it isn’t about you, it’s about the audience.
As I was thinking about this, I was struck by the thought, what if we took this approach not simply for the final stages of tweaking the edit, but back to the very beginning, back to our very first conception of our idea. Almost nothing would be untouched. This is not to say that one should just make work to please audiences and never challenge them in any way. It is rather to think of the work as ultimately not for myself.
I am beginning to suspect that we do not realize how difficult this is to achieve. It is as though we have been painting self-portraits all along and then we are surprised when we are met by indifference. We want to ask, “didn’t you see the subtle shades of color?” To which they reply, “I guess so, but it’s just another picture of your face.” We don’t mean to be egotistical, but everything that we have learned, everything that has been told to us as encouragement has emphasized nothing but our total self-expression without regard for who is looking or listening. The trouble is, quite simply, that we are weird. We each see something different in the world, perhaps that no one has seen before, and we cannot put it in front of an audience without any context and expect them to understand. But it would not do to simply throw some extra lines of exposition here and there, it would change entirely how we think about a story. We would be creating, not for ourselves and our own gratification, but for everyone else.
Now an innate fear might arise in us almost immediately at this suggestion. That our individuality, the very thing that makes our work unique will be lost if we do this. We might say, “you can’t know what other people like anyway so you better just please yourself.” The expectations of the audience are a moving target, which vary from person to person, across every metric by which you might try to group people together. So I recognize there is real futility in trying to please everyone, but if we just left things here we would be missing the point.
When Peter Jackson adapted The Lord of the Rings for film, we can be thankful that he did not treat Tolkien's opus as a playground for his self-expression. Yet none of this means that he did not trust his own metric of taste. It is just that he understood he was only the messenger of a story larger than himself. He became something less than the material, subservient to the lofty prose on which his films were based. None of Jackson’s previous films would suggest intuitively that he was the perfect fit for Lord of the Rings. Regardless, he valiantly served the story that came to him. His voice and unique perspective, though not at the forefront, make invaluable contributions. Jackson never failed to capture the visceral detail and the true horror of evil. Where a different director might have pulled many of the punches that make the films so engaging, he did not.
Of course, not every story is Lord of the Rings, and nor should it be, but that does not mean that we cannot strive to find both within the world and within ourselves, stories that amount to more than our own personal experience. We can turn our lens outwards, away from our own lives. This will not prevent our voice from coming through. We are still weird, even when serving a story bigger than ourselves. Each individual director will not fail to notice things and fixate on little details that no one else will notice. We needn’t worry so much about our self-expression. We cannot escape ourselves, barring some external circumstance, our voice will always come through our work, precisely because it is ours.
When we think back to our favorite films of childhood we might find that it was precisely those universal stories that inspired us. When we hear a friend lament “they just don’t make good movies anymore,” we suspect that they likewise have such stories in mind. These are films like Jurassic Park, where Spielberg, and all involved, express a palpable love of the material that the audience shares: the simple awe and wonder of seeing dinosaurs come to life. None of the sequels ever captured this feeling or had the same kind of universality.
Now “mature filmmakers” might have tastes more obscure than the likes of Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, we have some handy euphemisms for broader audiences like “appealing to the lowest common denominator,” but this is not what I am suggesting we do. What is it about Lord of the Rings or Jurassic Park that makes these films so memorable after all these years? It is not the low things that are universal but those things that are highest. Yet we scarcely ever strive to capture these things. Perhaps we don’t feel worthy of it, or maybe we’ve stopped believing it.
One of my favorite films from the last decade was Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Yet this is by and large a film that only filmmakers or cinephiles can appreciate. I hope I’m wrong about that, this is only my anecdotal report after all, but there are very few people whom I can talk to The Master about. This is a great shame. We should question what success we will have if a filmmaker as great as PTA can make such a film as The Master and be understood by so few. Do we likewise want to set out on this path? Do we simply demand that audiences understand us and hope they catch up with our taste? We can demand all we like. Most of the audience will leave the theater grumbling “what was that old nut rambling about anyway?”
I hope there are always difficult filmmakers out there, who like PTA, explore the depths of the psyche in ways that few can follow. But I wish there was a film like The Master that I could also watch with my mother. There is something of my grandfather in Freddie Quell, the central character in The Master. Like Freddie, my grandfather wandered for several years in post war America, working odd jobs, getting into fights, getting new jobs, holding them for a couple days. There is much in The Master that is poignant and relatable, and fills a gap in the cultural memory of the early postwar years. But there is much more that holds it at an impenetrable distance. It is not that I wish The Master were a different film, but I cannot help but wonder what such a film would be like if it could be translated into a narrative comprehensible to a wider audience. (I emphasize again, I don’t mean this “appealing to the lowest common denominator” stuff, I mean the opposite.) If we want film to continue to be the influential medium that it has been, we might need more of the latter and less of the former. It is precisely our greatest filmmakers who we need most to make this effort. Francis Ford Coppola once did this and the result was nothing less than The Godfather.