“Never meet your heroes.” It’s a quote that stands out to me as I move along my path as an artist in this life, one that has many dark examples of ringing true. Fame, power, and artistic prowess, these dynamics have the ability to create a cult-like atmosphere around a person.
The person then becomes a persona, fans become a flock, and a hero is born.
Power dynamics create a perfect storm for predatory behavior, the trappings of a public persona can trigger resentment from all sides, and sometimes that central figure has no interest in being a hero. I recall reading about Kurt Cobain lamenting, soon before his suicide, that his shows had become filled with the type of people who used to beat him up in high school. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was playing at the types of parties he wasn’t invited to, and girls who called him queer were pulling up their Nirvana T-shirt to flash him at shows.
Cobain died at the height of his popularity, at a time in which everyone wanted to meet their hero. Cobain often bristled at this construct of himself, the fame had solved nothing that mattered, and perhaps he, too, would offer to never meet your heroes. People wouldn’t love him so much without the guitar in his hand.
Chasing your idols though, is it so wrong?
I spent most of my youth convinced I was going to be a fiction writer. My mother, having come over from Haiti with my father who had to repeat medical school in America to be a doctor, had decided she wanted a college degree as well. She was enrolled right after I was born, which means I spent much of my formative years in a library. Books were a sure way to keep me quiet, and I could be left alone with a book for hours. One of my earliest memories is of walking to the children’s section of a public library in Queens, New York, and realizing that I’d read everything there I wanted to read. In second grade I read every story in the reading workbook by the end of September and was shocked to discover by the end of the year that we hadn’t read every story in class. Some of the best ones were at the end!
I knew then that my reading capacity was abnormal, and probably shouldn’t be mentioned too much.
I loved sports and video games, and eventually, girls, enough to not have being a book nerd be my defining feature. By the time I was ten, I was comfortable reading at a high school senior level, given the fact that I had read every book that had been assigned to my sister during her high school career. Goosebumps is boring, Fear Street was darker, and it was more grown. I liked it.
This got me to Stephen King, the first idol I sought to chase.
My mother, who loathed to spend money, often did not care if I spent seventy dollars buying books from the bookstore. Two dollars worth of candy at the checkout line, nope. The first two hardcover versions of the Dark Tower series though? No problem. My devoutly religious mother didn’t even bother to check the very dark themes from the novels I was procuring and reading voraciously. The Stand was the first thousand-page novel I’d ever conquered, I couldn’t have been older than thirteen, and I lost my mind when I realized it was all interwoven into an even more massive story for The Dark Tower.
I was going to be a fiction writer, I thought, though I told everyone else otherwise.
I’m a first-generation Haitian kid, my father is a literal doctor and most of my aunts are nurses, which means the only successful job is to be a doctor or a lawyer. I have to at least become a man who puts on a nice suit every day and requires a briefcase. Wanting to be an artist would cause chaos, I thought, even at a young age; and during college and afterward, I quickly learned that I was correct. But still, Stephen King understood this plight, his book On Writing is a must-read for any storyteller. And, man, I was chasing my idols.
I have to write a book that would impress Stephen King.
Then the Yankees blew a 3-0 lead in 2004 to the hated Red Sox, and my life was turned upside down. I wasn’t going to watch any sports shows until spring training. It literally took years for me to see the highlights of the Red Sox winning the World Series that year, I was so disgusted by what had occurred. I needed a new hobby.
I was staying up way past my bedtime, unbeknownst to my parents for years, and I stumbled upon Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. I’d missed the first 15 minutes, so I had no context for what was going on. But I was enthralled, I’d never seen a film with so many long takes and such a huge and talented cast, and I thought, oh my God. Somebody had to write this thing.
I’d spent my entire life, up until that point—I was months away from turning 17— repeating the mantra that the book is always better than the movie, and fiction writing was a superior art form. In many ways I feel this is still true when it comes to showcasing the written word, but novels don’t turn into Magnolia. I was like, man, I have to be an artist, like for real. I have to learn in college; I have to find a way to convert my fiction writing skills into that format.
I was chasing my idols, and I had to write a screenplay that would impress Paul Thomas Anderson.
“Never meet your heroes,” though, right? I’ve met directors I really admired, who made art that moved me, who proved to be vapid and shallow. A-List rappers who invite you into the office. I’ve seen real-life Grammys right up close, who try to pay the producer I was working with 300 bucks for a beat that costs 5K—then dump him when he relented, even though he and his partner would get up a 2 a.m. because they got a call that the boss was in the studio, and he needed some beats ASAP. Worked with a friend who spent years of his life trying to get to an A-list actor who does superhero films, because he’d love the indie dramedy my friend wrote. My friend randomly receives a few emails a year about this script, because this actor had gone on record in an interview about how much he loved it. My friend chased this idol for years, and while his personal unravelings weren’t about this chase, the chase embodied how lost he was.
If the actor really wanted the script he would go get it, if he wanted the writer he could find him, but my friend chased his idol. Still hasn’t met his hero.
And still, I hold onto the idea that every script I write, no matter the style or genre, has to impress Paul Thomas Anderson.
One of my other idols, Kanye West, a man who has been engaged in a years-long process of forcing countless people to regret idolizing him, has also been enamored by PTA’s work. As recently as last year, a drunken Kanye, unaware of who actually directed There Will Be Blood, tells a rapt group of people who’d never seen the film that: “... you have to understand, YOUR BROTHER IS NOT YOUR BROTHER.”
The moment in which Daniel Plainview has this realization is not clear to the audience on first viewing—he is silent and brooding in the ocean, staring at the man claiming to be his brother—and you realize later this was the moment he had decided he was going to kill this man for that lie.
PTA enjoys these silent moments that aren’t clear until another viewing: Mark Walhberg’s character disassociating while a coked-out Alfred Molina sings “Jesse’s Girl,” Adam Sandler staring at a piano that inexplicable appears outside his job; Amy Adams, pregnant and being perceived as completely naked by Joaquin Phoenix’s character in The Master, as she realizes there is something deeply wrong with the man they’ve let into their sacred space.
While all of these films hold a special place for me, I wouldn’t even be writing films without Magnolia. Mind you, Inherent Vice is still my favorite PTA film. It’s a story about perpetual chasing, always looking, constantly in search of. It’s about being an artist, being a human, and being alive.
In the open, Doc Sportello, played by Phoenix, simply turns over and sees that his long lost love has suddenly appeared in his room. Like a ghost, dressed in a way he’s never seen her before. She tells him she’s in trouble, real trouble, and she has to get away. He sees her off, watching her taxi go, and his brow furrows. Something strange is happening, something isn’t quite right. He spends the entire film chasing her, asking for her, and he’s always one step behind. He fantasizes about the times they had together, where she would run off wild and delirious, and he’d have to grab her hand and pull her back with him like you would a child. Always chasing her. Eventually, just like at the start, she just appears to him; naked, filled with lust, eager to bait him into a sexual encounter. He obliges, angrily, and the encounter is intense but brief; his lover looks back at him, deeply satisfied, as he grumbles: “This don’t mean we’re back together.” She smiles. “Of course not.” Earlier, she’d said the same thing to him.
The film ends in a peculiar scene that looks nothing like the rest of the film. The pair are close together in the back of a taxi, and Shasta looks up at him, love in her eyes, happy that now they can really be together. For the first time, we see Doc feature disdain for his on-again/off-again flame; she’s cramping his style. She’s clingy. He’s unsure of her. But there’s a flash that catches his eyes, and he forgets about that.
Was there something there? Is there something more? Should we go on another chase?
Is chasing your idols all that bad? I don’t know. Paul Thomas Anderson writes everything he directs, why would he want to direct something a no-name like me wrote? This isn’t the music business, we can’t just hop in the studio and feature on a song together.
Shasta says, “They told me I was precious cargo that couldn’t be insured because of inherent vice.” When Doc asks her what that means, she says she doesn’t know.
"Inherent vice" is a maritime insurance term, that asserts the insurance company is not liable for the product if it was faulty by design. Glass shatters, chocolate melts, it’s an inherent design flaw.
Chasing your idols is supposed to be faulty by design, but it’s gotten me quite far. Always being in search of, always staying curious, looking for that next glimmer in the distance, this is the way of the artist. It’s a tenet you follow even when it isn’t for art.
It’s a way of life.
Everyone says, never meet your heroes, but I don’t know. The chase kind of sounds like fun.
*Feature Photo: Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice