SELFIE By Bill Collage
A nice-sized oil painting of George Washington hangs directly across the room from my writing desk. Darren Aronofsky gave it to me as a gift upon the completion of the first draft of the script for The General — which is a portrait of America’s pre-eminent founding father during our country’s darkest hour: August – December, 1776.
The painting is most likely one of the 1000s of reproductions of Gilbert Stewart’s famed 1796 portrait The Athenaeum, which hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Stewart and his disciples reportedly sold them for about $100 a piece, back in the day.
As one can easily imagine, portrait painting was big business for artists back then. Before the camera’s invention. Not only because monied folk would commission paintings of themselves or their families… but because the idiom served a public need: portraits were visual markers of those who led nations and created history. Portraits depicted kings, queens, generals and presidents; portrayed the leaders of religion, science, industry, sport and culture.
The camera democratized the genre. In the 150 years since the collodion process replaced the daguerreotype, photographs have become our preferred medium of self-expression. Today, Instagram has about 90 million users who post 40 million pictures a day. And while gustatory indulgences and wish-youwere-here landscapes hold the creative interests of the app’s shooters, the dominant subject remains: people.
Self-preservation and self-presentation seem to drive the impulses behind the explosion of digital portraiture. We want to belong to a group, yet we desperately want to be recognized as individuals. On one hand, we enter our existence into the digital annals through images, data and opinions with the freedom to self-style ourselves and our timelines as we please — and on the other, we hope that our visions of others and ourselves are worthy of acknowledgement, approval and commentary.
I know I seek that type of connection. Not with postings on Facebook or Instagram, but through writing movies. Now granted, my artistic genre of choice takes much longer to develop than a photograph. And when a filmed creation does finally come into focus in theaters, it bares the signatures of literally dozens of other collaborators: director, producer, editor, actors and myriad technical folks, all of whom stamp a screenwriter’s template with their own creative imprint.
But connecting with others through portraits (in my case, of people long past) is still something I love attempting. For me, the endeavor of portraying someone’s life — or an aspect of their life — begins as an exercise of my own curiosity… and then arcs into what I hope will be an informative and inspirational experience for others.
For example, I’m hardly the first writer to take a stab at authoring an exploration of the life of George Washington. I literally have a shelf of books about the guy. But Adam Cooper (my writing partner of 23 years) and I centered on the idea of depicting Washington as a liminal figure, caught in a harrowing threshold moment of our nation’s existence. We wanted to paint that portrait of him: the profile where The General changed from a wealthy landowner leading an army of rebels with nothing to lose, into an American charged with defending his country’s very existence against utterly impossible odds.
Liminality also underscored our approach on the life of Moses (which Sir Ridley Scott will be directing with Christian Bale in the title role). Our script depicted the man during a state of enormous personal transition — intellectually and emotionally — set against the seismic uprooting of a people who had been enslaved for 400 years. Change was everywhere. Nothing was easy. And like Washington, Moses’s faith in God and courage in his convictions and belief in a better tomorrow touched us as writers so deeply, that we simply had to create the portraits of them.
It comes down to a fascinating reality: portraits allow the input of the creator, the subject and the viewer to coexist. It’s a harmony that rarely occurs elsewhere in the creative world. Exegesis comes from within, but also from outside.
And to me, that’s why portraiture continues to be vital, despite the more abstract artistic movements which occasionally come in and out of vogue. Portraits — whether they be paintings, photographs, books or films — simultaneously allow the representation and inclusion of something into the art form which doesn’t always exist in other modes of expression: humanity.
So in a way, every portrait has a piece of us in it.
Every portrait is a selfie.