3.36 The Decision

Louis CK, Paul Thomas Anderson, Radiohead and Dave Eggers. What does a comedian, a filmmaker, a group of musicians and a writer have in common? They are all radically different artists but in my opinion, at certain points, have all made a clear decision to push their work to a higher level. There have been many from the past who changed an art form. These people were not only important to me, but I had the privilege of watching their progression. To see the decisions in their work while they were happening.

Everyone that profoundly changes things is first met with either bafflement or rejection. When The Beatles made their decision and released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was like they were singing in another language. But I only know The Beatles in the aftermath, after all the decisions were made and the results evident.

Each of the above artists could have comfortably continued repeating their early successes. Louis CK could have kept telling his absurdist jokes. Anderson could have made a sequel to Boogie Nights. Radiohead could have kept writing catchy pop songs. Eggers could have gotten stuck in a web of his own cleverness. Instead, they decided to throw out the formula they perfected.

I imagine a lot of fear was involved in the process. But for these people, it seems the fear of mediocrity far outweighed the fear of failure. This is fascinating to me because it is easy to look back and understand how a piece of work changed things, not so easy to appreciate it while in progress. The frustration and fear involved must be immense because they have to convince people that what they are doing will work. Sometimes they are not even sure if it will work. But there is no turning back because they could no longer repeat their past work. It’s as though they changed into different people, allowing themselves an openness to evolve.

In the movie Magnolia, there is a sequence where the myriad of characters sing along to a song. And not in an ironic way. In a documentary about the making of the movie, Anderson repeatedly begs his collaborators to trust him, that the sequence will work. The supporters of these artists are essential. The loyal people that follow and trust in the work help establish the means and environment to create the vision. Many different elements have to come together in order for the decision to not only be made, but executed to the extent that it can be translated and communicated to audiences.

The success of Radiohead’s OK Computer confounded all market research. It was a concept album and became even bigger than The Bends. In the documentary, Meeting People is Easy, Thom Yorke talked about the frustrations of what was next. It was too late, they couldn’t turn back, they kept pushing new boundaries and experimenting. Some albums worked, others were stepping stones. But they were no longer the same band that recorded Pablohoney and The Bends.

Anderson made the decision after Punchdrunk Love, which resulted in There Will Be Blood and The Master. Radiohead made the decision after The Bends, which results in OK Computer, Kid A and In Rainbows. Eggers made the decision after You Shall Know Our Velocity!, which resulted in What is the What and A Hologram for the King.

Louis CK is perhaps the most visceral and dramatic of the decision-makers because he is doing it live in front of audiences. After three seasons of his television show Louie, he decided to wait a year before producing season four. “I’m looking back to when I did the first season and the time I took to do the show and decide which directions to go in and I want that back again,” Louis CK said of the hiatus. “I want a little breathing room.” His supporter, the network, is smart enough to allow him this freedom. He could keep churning out new episodes, but he wants the show to evolve and grow. That’s what all these artists have done: not only made the decision, but also continually make more decisions to keep pushing their talents. And we are lucky enough to watch their work unfold as they bring us to new places and creatively challenge us.

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Louis CK

Paul Thomas Anderson

Radiohead

Dave Eggers