Soderberg on Creativity, Movies, and Cinema

Something I have always found inspiring is the short acceptance speech made by Steven Soderberg in 2001, when he collected an Oscar for directing Traffic.

What I want to say is, I want to thank anyone who spends part of their day creating.  I don’t care if its a book, a film, a painting, a dance, a piece of theatre, a piece of music… anybody who spends part of their day sharing their experience with us, I think this world would be unlivable without art, and I thank you…

I watched this with some friends who were all interested in film.  In fact, we saw it on a large video projector, having just watched some of the Oscar nominated films for that year.  They now all work in the creative industries in some way, so I wonder if they remember Soderberg’s speech too?  I, for one, have never forgotten the tribute to people who spend “part of their day creating”.  Thet were the words that inspired me during the early days and late nights working with Fifty Nine Productions.  It is also the motivating sentiment behind my work promoting controversial creative writing at English PEN.  I am surprised it has taken me until now to make a note of Soderberg’s words on this blog.

The prompt to do so was watching another speech by Soderberg.  He gave a fascinating keynote address at the San Francisco Film Festival in April.  The video on Vimeo, and there is a transcript.

In the speech, Soderberg gives another passionate defence of spending money on art, even when the world is in turmoil.  And he also makes an interesting distinction between ‘cinema’ and ‘movies’, related to the idea of an individual’s creativity.

First of all, is there a difference between cinema and movies? Yeah. If I were on Team America, I’d say “Fuck yeah!” [laughter]  The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with the where the screen is, if it’s in your bedroom, your iPad—it doesn’t even really have to be a movie: it could be a commercial, it could be something on YouTube. Cinema is a specificity of vision, it’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.

This is an important distinction.  First, gives equal billing to amateur art (and its sibling, crowd-sourced, pro-am art) which the technology enables in many truly delightful ways.

Second, it is also a critique of much commercial art.  Soderberg is obviously concerned with film, but I think that the same distinction could be made between, say, ‘literature’ and ‘books’.

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