The Red Shoes and The Power and Pitfalls of Artistic Obsession

The Red Shoes and The Power and Pitfalls of Artistic Obsession

Today, we will talk about one of the most necessary and the most dangerous ingredients in a creative career.

Last weekend was my favorite weekend of the year. It is always my favorite weekend of the year. Not that there is anything particularly special about those calendar dates. Rather, the week/weekend is special because it was time for my absolute favorite annual pilgrimage to Hollywood for the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. True, the word “pilgrimage” might be a tad extreme considering that the event takes place exactly a 15-minute drive from my house. And the level of effort on my part requires little more than wearing my best tracksuit, putting on a comfortable pair of shoes, and being willing to queue up in standby lines for extended periods of time.

In return, TCM serves up one of the greatest collections of films on the big screen imaginable over a four-day period. A sampling of some of the greatest movies ever made on the big screen the way they were intended. Many of the screenings are accompanied by Q&A sessions with industry luminaries and often the stars of the films themselves. This year, for example, I got the great pleasure of seeing Ann-Margret speak live before a screening of Bye Bye Birdie in IMAX. Add that one to your bucket list if you get a chance.

Which films they are going to show changes from year to year. And with several films running concurrently throughout multiple sessions a day, it’s impossible to see them all. So, I never know what films exactly I’m going to see until I get there. This year, I saw about nine films in all. All amazing. But, in a completely random twist of fate, and relevant to our discussion today, I found that I had inadvertently been drawn to films with a similar theme.

Three films in particular fit that bill. Milos Foreman’s 1984 Amadeus, about the legendary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his relationship with the far less legendary Salieri. All About Eve (1950), with Bette Davis turning in one of the most famous on-screen performances of all time as a Broadway diva and her all too attentive mentee. And Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes, with Moira Shearer playing an elite ballerina being pushed to the highest level of success by a Svengali-like theater producer. 

The films have several surprising similarities. They all take place in the entertainment business. They all focus on performers and the trials and tribulations of stardom. But, most pressingly, each has a running theme of obsession. Mozart’s obsession with artistic perfection and Salieri’s obsession with Mozart. Bette Davis’ Margo’s obsession with protecting her stardom and Anne Baxter’s Anne’s obsession with taking her throne. And, most of all, the trio of obsessed characters in The Red Shoes. The composer obsessed with his music. The starlet obsessed with dance. And the impresario obsessed with turning the starlet into his own personal vision of greatness.

The Red Shoes draws its title from the ballet the characters are performing in the movie. The stage play concerns a pair of red ballet shoes. When the wearer first puts them on, they have the power to magically transform her into a great dancer. But the price of that greatness is that she can never stop dancing, eventually becoming prisoner to that greatness. There are elements in the film and in the ballet within the film that overlap. So, I won’t go into the plot more, as I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. If you haven’t seen it, or it’s been a while, I highly recommend you watch it. If, for nothing else, just to see the amazing Technicolor cinematography by the legendary Jack Cardiff.

All three films, especially The Red Shoes, touch on one of the most difficult questions I always wrestle with as an artist. I have found that a certain level of obsession is absolutely necessary for me to reach my artistic goals. I’ve gone through periods where I treated my career as something on autopilot as well as periods where I couldn’t sleep at night because my mind wouldn’t stop generating pathways to improve my craft (or my business). Objectively speaking, during those times of intense obsession is when I have made my best work and my highest profit margins. But, not surprisingly, those times of artistic obsession have also come at the expense of other areas of my life. By definition, it’s hard to obsess over more than one thing at a time. So some things, and some people, are going to end up getting left behind. And regardless of one’s success, the artist must ask themselves whether or not it is worth the costs.

It’s not an easy answer. That is why it’s a chronic one that has plagued me since I first decided to make my passion into my career. If you give yourself over fully to your art, how can you give adequate time to everything else? And, if you hold something back and don’t give everything over to your art, how can you expect to reach your highest level of potential? The answer, I suppose, is different for everyone. But it is a question that everyone must ask.

I remember back in the day job days. My fellow cubicle prisoners would sit around using buzzwords like “work-life balance.” Seeing as though I hated my job, the question always seems like a silly one to me. Why on Earth would you have trouble balancing your work and your life when your job sucks? It’s easy, put as little energy into your job as possible and get as much out of life as you can. Of course, I could only feel that way because my day job meant little more to me than a paycheck. It was actively depressing for me to spend one iota of extra brain power concerning myself with my day job. It was painful because I knew that every second I spent there was a second away from my life’s purpose. Naturally, those who saw that cubicle job as their sole aspiration would feel differently. But for me, the job itself meant nothing, and thus, there was little mental energy in need of balancing.

On the flip side, being an artist is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s the only thing that’s ever given me a reason to wake up in the morning. It’s fundamental to how I understand the world. So, it’s no surprise that it occupies so much of my waking mental energy and that very few moments pass during the day (or night) without it being the primary thing on my mind. This obsession has helped me to succeed in my career. But it has hurt me in other areas of life. 

Is it worth the tradeoff? How obsessed is too obsessed? Is it even possible to moderate obsession? Or, by definition, is it something beyond our control? Can we achieve work-life balance in a career that demands of us 24/7 365 dedication simply to compete?

A few years ago, two great filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, died on the same day. I called my friend Deland to talk about the strange serendipity of the timing and we got to talking about each of the filmmakers' legacies. Deland said something interesting which has always stuck with me. He said he felt like Antonioni had the better career, but that Bergman had the better life. He felt like Antonioni had achieved more with his obsession on film, but that Bergman had lived a more well-rounded existence. Now, whether or not that is true, I have no idea. That’s not the point of the story. The point is that it got me thinking about the larger question. How do we separate our artistic success from our “life” success? How obsessed is it safe to be before we run the risk of missing out on other joys life has to offer? And is it possible to get the benefit of putting on the magical red shoes without having our greatest blessing become our greatest curse?

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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