Daddy, What is Success?
I recently read Accidental Genius, the newly released John Cassavetes biography by Marshall Fine, author of the Peckinpah bio, Bloody Sam. Accidental Genius is thorough, respectful of its subject, and inspirational for anyone working in the arts. It is also a love story describing the deeply felt bond and professional relationship between Cassavetes and his wife, superb actress Gena Rowlands.
Cassavetes, arguably, was the father of American independent film, but as the title suggests, he didn’t mean to be. His first film grew out of a need to provide a workshop for actors who were unsatisfied, as he was, with the constraints of conventional film and theater. As his career progressed, he continued to finance and make films outside the studio system, even venturing into the risky world of self-distribution. With the exception of A Woman Under the Influence, his (and Rowlands’s) masterpiece, his pictures did not make money. Yet, by most people’s standards, he lived a pretty great life. He made the kinds of movies he wanted to make, his family never suffered financially, he had many lifelong friends, he managed to maintain a healthy and loving marriage, and when the curtian fell he had left behind a lasting body of work. Not a bad legacy.
In America, artists are often put in the uncomfortable position of discussing their box office receipts, record sales, and Bookscan numbers rather than the work itself. The implication is that a book or movie that does not “win the race” is some kind of failure. (I don’t know why the weekend opening numbers are printed in the Arts sections of newspapers, when they should be printed, if at all, in Business.) I was on a panel once with a novelist who bragged to the audience about his ranking on the New York Times Bestseller list, and, in the same sentence, described his recently purchased yacht. A writer friend who had witnessed this later said to me, “He doesn’t get it. This is a competition. But it’s not that kind of competition.”
To my knowledge, extraordinary crime novelists like James Sallis and Daniel Woodrell do not have the wherewithall to purchase yachts. They are working artists, focused on writing good books. The numbers are only important in that healthy sales make their publishers happy and afford these writers the opportunity to continue to do the work that they love to do. I have no doubt that, one hundred years from now, people will still be reading the Lew Griffin books or Winter’s Bone, and watching films like Faces, Husbands, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. So on what level are people like Sallis, Woodrell, and John Cassavetes not a success?