When we think of the word “genius”, the idea of a prodigy or a naturally talented genius is generally what pops into mind first. A gifted person who bursts onto the scene and rethinks everything we’d previously known.
People like Quentin Tarantino, a video store clerk whose first movie spawned an entire sub-genre of American filmmaking. Or Stephen Curry whose three-point shooting has revolutionized basketball’s approach to defense, ball movement, and almost all aspects of the game.
These are people who possess an almost supernatural ability, and while almost everyone wants to be a part of that rarified group, for most it seems a desperate ideal.These people are known in academia as “the naturals”.
Luckily, there’s another group of genius, one whose journey is albeit much longer and tortured. They are what Dr. Galenson, the author of Old Masters and Young Geniuses, describes as “the experimentalists”.
On February 18th, 2016, Alejandro Iñárritu, the director of The Revenant completed a feat rarely seen in cinema: he won his second academy award for best director and became only the third person to win the award in back to back years.
From a distance, Alejandro would appear to be a natural, someone who was born with the gift of filmmaking. But a closer look shows a tinkerer, an experimentalist, a person who’d painstakingly struggled to unlock his own genius.
Iñárritu wasn’t making films as a child like Spielberg or working in video store like Tarantino. In fact, his story didn’t even start in film. His first real job came as the host of a rock radio station in Mexico.
Iñárritu was already thinking about narrative, though. He would piece together rock songs that, as he described it, would form a loose narrative arc.
The Finder and the Seeker
With the natural, Galenson describes the process, as “finding rather than seeking”. The natural has an idea that they’ve set out and are fixated on overturning structure. The artistic process for a natural is bringing to life a preconceived notion. Perhaps the most iconic example would be Picasso.
The story goes that at the age of 13, Pablo’s father, a professor of fine arts, realized Pablo had already surpassed his skill and retired from painting. By the age of of 28, Pablo overturned the art world with his dynamic personality and creation of cubism, a pretty impressive resume for someone not even 30.
Iñárritu is no Picasso though, not because Iñárritu lacks Pablo’s talent, but rather Iñárritu’s process was radically different. Iñárritu and other experimentalists don’t come onto the scene, with a predefined vision. Their process is much more fluid and takes much longer. Glenn describes it as the experimentalists seeking inspiration, always chasing a forever moving landscape. Trial and error creates their genius.
The Long Road
By 37, Iñárritu hadn’t even made his first feature film. He’d toiled away in the 90’s by making short films and commercials in Mexico. Most people today would see that as a story of a failure or someone simply destined for mediocrity. Today we’re so overexposed to naturals or people who pretend to be that success later in life is perceived as a heavy compromise.
Through these menial jobs, Alejandro was picking up subtle tips. From his work as a DJ he learned about sound and narrative. To this day he credits music as being a larger influence on him as an artist than film itself. With his work directing commercials, he’d picked up his writing partner, Guillermo Arriaga. They would later collaborate on his first three films.
We can see the elements of an experimentalist coming together. Someone who dabbled, and was slowly crafting his style. But even by the time he created his first film Amores Perros in 2000, he was still truly at the beginning of his journey.
The experimentalist must walk a long road. Although a cliche, what often separates them from ordinary artists and performers is their perseverance. For 10 years before his first film Amores Perros, Iñárritu made short films and commercials. If his perseverance hadn’t been so fervent, he would likely still be in his home country making small productions.
Crafting a Style
Iñárritu’s early films, including Amores Perros, are known as “hyperlink cinema”. A term popularized by Roger Ebert, whose main conceit is that the story is multilinear with characters intersecting and their perspectives overlapping. Think of the movie Crash but much better. Iñárritu perfected that style over three films in six years.
Like any good experimentalist, through the three movies he grew in scale and ambition. While his first movie was very localized and small, by Babel, his third film, he was spanning continents through the scope of his storytelling.
Similar to many experimentalists, Iñárritu’s goal is always shifting. In his later movies we can see a divergence, towards first person storytelling and folklore.
With Birdman and the Revenant, his latest movies, there’s an emphasis on music setting the tone and being a character within the film. Without the tinkering, Iñárritu did in his early days as a DJ crafting narrative music, we wouldn’t have the operatic music of the Revenant or the eclectic jazz that sets the tone of Birdman.
In case you haven’t watched all of Iñárritu’s work, I suggest you close this article and turn on any one of them.
Quantifying the Two Types
As we discussed earlier,an experimentalist’s trial-and-error process leads them to peak much later than the naturalist. Glenson quantified this by looking at perhaps two of the most important painters of the 20th century, Cézanne and Picasso. Glenson looked at their artwork and different periods in their life to see how much the art sold for.
The delineation is clear. With Picasso we can see that his highest selling artwork came around 26–30. He faces a sharp drop off later in life as he focused on sculptures and imitations of older great painters.
For Cézanne, we see the opposite trend. His artwork shows two peaks: one in his forties and another later in life in his sixties. These periods mark when Cézanne, focused on his impressionist artwork and the end of his life work, which is said to have inspired cubism and Picasso.
The Paperback Genius
If we left off here, the experimentalist doesn’t sound like they’ve had too rough a journey. Simply someone, who goes through a trial-and-error process and is able to unleash their genius.
They don’t have a clearly defined vision at the onset, but who wouldn’t want to sign up for this if, at the end of the road, there were two Oscars waiting for you?
But the pain of the experimentalist extends beyond years of toiling away at their art. There are evident drawbacks with the experimentalist. One trait that frequently came up in Professor Glenson’s studies was stubbornness.
For someone who’s committed to their art for many years with little success, stubbornness is often a necessity. What distinguishes a middle-aged experimentalist from the ordinary is often the unwavering commitment to a vision or an ideal.
People who’ve worked with Alejandro Iñárritu have often cited his genius, but what’s also evident is his stubbornness. I recall watching a behind-the-scenes video of Iñárritu making Babel. It was amazing to me that for a mundane shot of traffic that only appeared for a few moments in Babel, he was willing to get into a prolonged fight with the Japanese police.
Alejandro was willing to stop traffic for hours for a few moments of film. In a time when collaboration, “good feelings” and agreeableness are valued over independent thought, it’s refreshing to watch someone with such an independent streak.
Along with the difficult personality, we often see that the experimentalist is frequently undervalued. They don’t have quite the gusto or striking vision that the naturalist possess and up close they can appear middle-aged and normal. And it’s not just society that undervalues their contribution; they often undervalue themselves.
Being perfectionists, they often struggle with leaving a project alone or accepting it as it is. Cézanne was known to throw out his own art or leave it on the lawn. He was often so dissatisfied with it that people wouldn’t see it for years. Luckily for us, Iñárritu doesn’t have quite the same problem.
In our culture of immediacy and social media that we live in, it would appear that the experimentalist is a fading idea. Who has time to wait 15 plus years to achieve success, when a YouTube star appears everyday? But there’s never been a time like the present, that we’ve needed this type of mastery.
People who are stubborn, and persistent. Those willing to put in the time for mastery. The experimentalist certainly has a more arduous road, but its fulfilling in its own right and a necessity for the culture.