Seasonality & Competition

[note: I began this post a month or two ago, in the deep dark of winter. All the snow is melting outside as I get around to finishing it. Which actually perfectly demonstrates the point below.]

I just spoke with a younger friend who recently graduated from college and is living the bi-coastal film production dream, crewing on features in LA and NYC and experiencing all of the drama and romance of that nomadic, intense lifestyle, working back-to-back-to-back on project after project, powering the Dream Factory with her ambition and 20-something energy.

Meanwhile, here in Minnesota, things have slowed down a great deal for winter. It hasn’t even been a particularly severe winter so far, and yet with sunset at 4:45 pm and generally cold, gray weather, staying cozy indoors and reading books is far more inviting than any kind of productivity or active recreation I can imagine.

Older film people in Minnesota still talk wistfully about the ’90s as a time of excitement and action, when a lot of money was flowing through the production community – commercials, feature films and music videos were all getting made here on a regular basis, enough to steadily employ hundreds of professional grips, gaffers, production managers, PAs. These days only a fraction of that level of activity remains.

It seems like there’s a persistent dream or aspiration to reclaim some of that action – to lure those productions and clients back to Minnesota, to convince them that this is still a thriving hub of, not great cinema perhaps, but at least large scale moving-image-making.

Personally, I don’t wish for those days to return. Jobs are good, generally speaking, and “creative” jobs contribute to a certain sense of socioeconomic well-being at least one step further up Maslow’s hierarchy. But I think the level of activity required to sustain year-round filmmaking is antithetical to the seasonal lifestyle we have here, one of our great cultural values.

Things slow down in the winter. People go indoors. It’s a time of hibernation and regeneration. It’s perhaps not impossible to keep up the same pace of productivity as during the summers, when there’s still light in the sky until almost 10 pm, but maintaining that pace seems unnatural, unhealthy. Obsessive-Compulsive, even.

A lot of the discussion about the film business, whether on a community or a personal level, comes around to the question of “How to be Competitive” – how to become competitive, how to remain competitive, how to regain competitiveness when it is judged to be flagging.

There may be something diametrically opposed, mutually exclusive even, about a cycle of seasons and the idea of incessant competition. A farmer can’t plant seeds when the ground is frozen. If he found a way to do it anyway, it wouldn’t help the crop yield the next year… it would just be wasted, futile effort. Perhaps s/he could remain competitive through a long winter by tuning up the farm machinery, um… training for springtime? Sit-ups and wind-sprints? Farm yoga?

Or perhaps the spirit should be allowed to slow down at the dark time of year, draw closer to family, meditate, dream. You can’t compete against winter any more than you can compete against the inevitability of death (though medical science is frantically trying). But of course you can try, you can certainly worry that the farmer up the road is tuning up his machinery to outcompete you in the spring, while you read a book.

I have read that traditionally, the cultures of Northern climates promote thrift and saving for a rainy (or snowy) day, whereas Mediterranean climates cultivate more of a day-to-day, relaxed and year-round rhythm of work and rest. Siestas in the hot part of the day and so forth. I certainly don’t think that there’s anything wrong with either of these approaches to life.

But perhaps one of the big challenges we face as a species, in these times of global commerce and culture, is that we’re susceptible to being influenced by the worst of both worlds, in the name of Capitalist competition. We can convince ourselves (some of us can, anyway) to work tirelessly day and night as we once did to bring in the harvest before the frost – but the frost doesn’t bring repose as it once did, we’re supposed to work right through that too.

In the film world and in the art world, among the successful professionals I see, the expectation is for constant, prolific work, output, availability. They are not just competitive fields, their competitive aspect is glorified, venerated. The winners are the tireless, the superhuman.

Maybe it’s just my farming genes (I’ve never done a day of farming but I’m only a generation removed from farm life), but in my experience a true creative process, at least on an individual level, necessarily cycles through periods of activity and rest. They don’t exactly match the seasons but they behave similarly, a few months of inspiration and output, a few months of consideration and input. Reaping and sowing.

The net result seems to be that I’m uncompetitive, and, as I look around, that we’re uncompetitive – Minnesota. We slow down in the winter, however much we claim to want to fight it. Those willing to go go go leave for the coasts, bringing their harvest ethic to the temperate climate where they will find the ceaseless competition they’re looking for.

So be it. It doesn’t mean that the work is better, or that the art is better – just that there’s more of it. And there will always be more work, just as the days in Minnesota will get longer and longer… till they start getting shorter, and we begin our seasonal trip back towards rest and quiet and cold up here in the North once again.

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