Angry and obsessed: the Baker/Boyle story

Portland filmmaker Kelley Baker's been dogging the trail of radical writer Kay Boyle for almost 30 years. Sometimes, persistence pays off

Kay Boyle in her Paris writing room, 1930s

Kay Boyle in her Paris writing room, 1930s

The other day my friend Kelley Baker tossed out a quote from the late Pauline Kael.

Kelley, a wise and irreverent soul who calls himself The Angry Filmmaker, and Kael, the legendary movie critic for the glory-days New Yorker magazine whose breathless enthusiasms for and against had an entire generation of film buffs and aspiring critics panting in anticipation of her latest proclamation, are a good match.

For almost 30 years Baker, the Portland independent filmmaker, has been on the intellectual and emotional trail of the radical American writer Kay Boyle, and at long last his feature-length film “Dangerous: Kay Boyle” is almost done. And Kael, though she was always on the lookout for fresh talent and would trumpet it unabashedly when she believed she’d found it, also believed the talent she trumpeted should be rigorously formed.

Persistence, skill, style, giving a damn: on those matters, Baker and Kael – and, for that matter, Boyle, whom S.I. Hayakawa, who as university president fired her from San Francisco State during the troubles of the late 1960s, once called “the most dangerous woman in America” – are in agreement.

So what did Kael write that caught Kelley’s eye? “It seems that many of the young who don’t wait for others to call them artists, but simply announce that they are, don’t have the patience to create art.”

Kelley Baker

Kelley Baker

Wow. True or false? Do we draw a line between people who act like artists and people who are artists? Posers and the real deal? Talent at self-promotion, and talent at actual creation? Do we – should we – rely on gatekeepers to tell us what is and isn’t art? And what does such a distinction mean in a city like Portland, which is heavily populated both with craft-obsessed artists and their presumed opposite, activity-based artists – the many who believe the true pulse of their art is in the exploration, not the result?

Partly, the impatience Kael talks about is simply a factor of being young. And, often, headstrong. Both can be drawbacks, but both can also be advantages. And sometimes, no matter what age, self-assertion is just embedded in a person’s DNA. Boyle, who died in 1992 at age 90, wrote about 40 books and was a friend of major figures ranging from James Joyce to William Carlos Williams. She was also adamantly acerbic and fiercely political, spending a month in prison, at age 66, for leading a sit-in at a military induction center. San Francisco State’s president (and later U.S. senator) fired her after she shouted him out during a ’60s campus protest as “Hayakawa-Eichmann.” He later reinstated her. Kelley quotes the writer Janet Flanner: “It’s no good asking Kay Boyle what she thought, because she would tell you.”

People who’ve gone through the battles can be impatient about the impatience of people who haven’t. Sometimes they have a point. I’ve talked with working artist/teachers in Portland and San Francisco who’ve despaired that their studio students won’t learn how to draw because they don’t think it’s important. Part of announcing one’s self as an artist is simply the act of self-creation: If I say it, I will be it. Many of those young self-proclaimed artists will drop away as they get older and the road gets tougher. Some will stick at it, and learn, and grow. Talent is huge. But so is determination. Baker’s a good example. In the years he’s been pursuing the Kay Boyle story he’s also made a trio of independent feature films (“Bird Dog,” “The Gas Café,” “Kicking Bird”), worked as sound designer on features such as “My Own Private Idaho,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Far From Heaven,” and “The Adventures of Mark Twain” for directors Gus Van Sant, Todd Haines and Will Vinton, and done a lot of shorter work of his own. He also spends a lot of time on the road, taking his gospel of small-budget filmmaking to universities and art centers across the country. His talent’s been obvious for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of other people I wouldn’t have bet money on when they were starting out who’ve stuck with it, broadened, deepened, and become serious artists. You can guess. But you never can tell.

So, I understand what Kael’s talking about. We live in a world of empty boasts and failed, sometimes self-aborted, dreams. And the increasingly chilly economic realities of the artistic life almost demand that actors, writers, painters, dancers, and other people living by their creative wits promote themselves. If you’re to survive in the economic Darwinism of the 21st century, a certain amount of self-hype goes with the territory.

But I’ve also learned, while making judgments, to be provisional. The world’s constantly shifting, and here at ArtsWatch, we try to keep our balance as we surf the shifting tectonic plates. Maybe that young artist with the radically different approach is just looking at the tremors from a different position.

On the other hand, I like craft. And I like artists who are in it for the long haul. A while back Baker, a compulsive quote-tosser, tossed out one of his own. “I believe that the young filmmaker who started making this film bit off more than he could chew,” he said. “I also believe that the filmmaker who is finishing this film is a better filmmaker because of experience gained over the years.”

I can’t wait to see “Dangerous: Kay Boyle.” In due time.

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“Dangerous: Kay Boyle – The Film” has a Facebook page, here.

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