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From Nothing, Something

by on October 16, 2012
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Tim Cawley’s documentary about creators is an illuminating and often mesmerizing portrait of the act of making something from nothing.

The 16 people interviewed – which includes three pairs who work together – are sculptors, choreographers, cancer researchers, songwriters, writers, chefs and more. While their disciplines sprawl the gamut of human endeavor, what ties them together is their all-consuming drive to create something new and different that the world has never experienced before.

It’s an avalanche of information and perspectives crammed into a 79-minute run time – too much, in fact. Part of me wishes Cawley’s movie was longer, but I think the better approach would have been to focus on the five or so subjects with the most compelling stories.

Watching it, I found the focus on several of the creators totally absorbing. Chief among them was novelist Tom Perrotta, who still hadn’t published his first book before 30 – the age at which he’d promised to try something else – but finally caught Hollywood’s attention with his novels “Election” and “Little Children.”

“A certain idea grabs hold of you, and you have to write that one. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to disappoint somebody else or scare somebody else,” he says of his creative process.

I also adored Perrotta’s description of his inability to take the advice of his own teachers to write first drafts quickly and fix them up later. It just didn’t work for his style. “I write the way a snail makes a shell. I just secrete a little bit and live inside it.”

Artist Huma Bhabha, who makes jaw-dropping works of art in seemingly every visual medium, talks about how working in a taxidermist’s shop at a young age helped her see the way objects and even body parts can be stitched together in bizarrely alluring ways.

Steve Breen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, offers some wry observations on creating a hybrid of art and journalism on a daily deadline. In one bit he shows his editor a fantastic idea to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the American invasion of Afghanistan … except it turns out he has the dates wrong and has to whip together a backup idea at (literally) the last minute.

Indie rocker Sara Quin speaks jealously of how effortless songwriting is for her twin sister, the other half of their band Tegan & Sara, but we get the sense that her immersive method is what works for her.

Neville Page, a creature designer who sculpts – mostly digitally these days – disturbing organisms for the movies talks movingly about the day he realized he was doing the job he always dreamed of.

Other figures, though, are less insightful. Some of that is due to their own inability to communicate the nature of their genius, like composer Jay Greenberg, who began writing great symphonies while still a teenager. Watching the awkward, isolated young man – a fast-walking bundle of tics and nervous glances — we get the sense that he lives inside a world of music that he emerges from only reluctantly to engage others.

Comedienne Maria Bamford scrunches her face up like she’s in pain, and we get the feeling that she’s performing for us rather than talking to us.

Others, though, just aren’t that interesting and Cawley should have made the choice to excise them. Fashion designers Alexa Adams and Flora Gill are never really able to communicate anything beyond that they both grew up loving clothes. Choreographer Keith Young admits he got into dance because of all the pretty girls, and that’s pretty much the only interesting thing we learn about him.

Chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger seem like really engaging people, but they end up talking about the idea of food rather than the act of creating and eating it. The fault in this case lies in Cawley’s interviewing method, not the subjects.

“From Something, Nothing” is a worthy film for those who want to get inside the heads of people who innovate. But it would have been stronger by glimpsing into fewer skulls.

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