Archive for March, 2010

Dan Hagi and the Art of the Smile

March 23, 2010

Dan Hagi is a dentist who runs his own successful practice. He was kind enough to help answer some questions I had about dentistry and creativity.

It’s easy to understand why someone might want to go into dentistry for financial reasons — or even a certain level of prestige — but what satisfaction does the job provide on an emotional or creative level? It’s interesting that you talk about creativity because it’s that part of the job that draws me to dentistry. Medicine is much more diagnostic; dentistry has so many different ways of solving problems. It’s still rooted in science, but there is an artistry to getting to the destination. It’s almost as if you’re going through someone’s mind and figuring out what they want and then figuring out how to get there.

What’s an example of the kind of creativity you’re talking about? Take something simple like someone who doesn’t like their smile. It raises questions about what a smile should or shouldn’t be. As dentists, we can almost design a smile, like Da Vinci designed the Mona Lisa. Then there’s a psychological aspect: Figuring out what the patient likes and then helping them to understand what materials are being used and how close you’re likely to be able to get them to the smile they want.

But don’t the vast majority of your cases involve simpler, more rote stuff like cleanings? That’s the day-to-day cleanings and fillings are good, but it’s the stuff that requires stretching the way I think that I really enjoy. But how often do I sit back and plan a case?Almost always. Especially the reconstructive type cases. I take all my records, and I take photographs and models of the jaw and the base and I sit back and I think about what I want to accomplish. It’s almost like planning a journey in a way — one can last as short as a few months and as long as few years. It’s almost like your mind’s eye has to be see the final result and also figure out how to get there. That’s aspect is what I like the best.

Do your dentistry skills crossover into other aspects of your life? In the kitchen. The discipline that I have in the kitchen comes from the same place as my professional meticulousness. A similar kind of thinking applies to both places.

What was the last creative thing you did? It was a dessert I made for my nieces. A maceration of berries with an ad hoc anglaise sauce. It was good. [My brother] Gil enjoyed it.

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Charlie Todd Has A Mission

March 8, 2010

As one of the main dudes behind Improv Everywhere, Charlie Todd helps mastermind large scale public pranks.

He also teaches longform improvisational comedy at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade.

Some of your pranks involve thousands of people. What appeals to you about mass pranks? Aside from sheer numbers, what function do they serve that small scale pranks don’t? The main reason that what we do now involves thousands of people is because the website got popular. We had to get bigger along with it. When I started it in 2001, it was me and one or two friends. That grew into me and a dozen friends. Then that grew exponentially over the years. It was never the idea to do massive participatory events. It’s really exciting to know that I can send one email to a mailing list and have two or three thousand people show up to partake in the event. Part of that thinking involves figuring out if the idea is funniest if thirty people are involved or 3000 people. But I do try to come up with projects that can scale as large as possible. It’s exciting to me have the chance to involve a 15-year-old kid from the Bronx who might not have that kind of opportunity otherwise. And I don’t mean that a 15-year-old kid from the Bronx in particular wouldn’t have the opportunity; No one has the opportunity to do something collaborative in a public space with thousands of other people. To be able to provide that is really fun.

How many of the pranks that you pull are based on your own ideas? Maybe 60% of the projects have been stuff that I’ve come up with pretty much on my own. There’s always a brainstorming process, but it’s not formal. It’s not like the people I work with are comedians working in a writer’s room. We don’t have meetings. We don’t even get together and drink. Not formally anyway. I get a lot of ideas emailed to me by total strangers. 99 out of 100 of those end up not being all that interesting.

Where do your ideas come from? I get a lot of ideas just from being somewhere in the city and seeing something unusual and then visualizing a way to make it funnier or more interesting. For example, I was commuting — this is maybe a year ago — and I had to transfer where the E train meets the V train at 53rd and Lexington. Everyone around me looked miserable. It was so crowded; we were all packed in like cattle. That experience inspired me to do something with the escalators in that particular station. That idea ended up as a prank called “High Five Escalator” where we positioned signs along the escalator and then had them end with a guy high fiving everybody. Or another time I was walking in Manhattan and saw a ledge along the side of a building that I thought was peculiar. It was maybe four feet off the ground. So I got the idea to put to a suicide jumper on that little ledge. I come up with a lot of things just by getting out of my apartment.

What was the best prank someone ever pulled on you? In college I had a pretty elaborate prank played on me. I had an apartment that was pretty close to all the bars in Chapel Hill. This particular year UNC was playing in the NCAA Final Four. On, I can’t remember, I think it was a Thursday or Friday morning, my friend printed up about a thousand posters announcing a party at my apartment. “Free alcohol and live music — Don’t miss the party of the year after the UNC game.” That kind of stuff. The fliers even included my address and a map to how to get there. That same morning, I saw the flyer on my car’s windshield, stuck under the wiper. Of course, I thought my friend was trying to make me think that he put the flyers up all around town. Then I got to school and saw the flyers on every bulletin board and thought, “Oh, he actually did put them up all over town.” The thing I was actually mad about was that I was planning to have about twenty friends over that night to watch the game and I ended up locking my door, turning the lights off, and hoping people didn’t show up.

You also teach improv comedy. Does performing a prank feel at all different from improvising comedy? There’s some skill overlap but ultimately I regret including the word “Improv” in the name because we get people commenting on YouTube that “This is clearly not improv; This was planned; You’re idiots.” That’s pretty annoying. But even if we have carefully planned out what we do — and sometimes we even have a script — you can never plan for how people will react. People are always variable. You have to be able to react to them in the moment. Aside from that, the skills of not breaking character, keeping a straight face, being able to improvise dialog — those are applicable to pranks and improv.

What was the last creative thing you did? Last night I was in Baltimore and there was a police officer at the bar where my friends and I were hanging out. I had to creatively figure out how to discretely take a photo of him. I wanted it because he reminded me of my favorite tv show, The Wire. I ended up getting a nice photo. It made for a great Tweet.

David Lynch Goes Deep

March 1, 2010

David Lynch is an award-winning director. He’s big into Transcendental Meditation.

Do you think there are differences between the quality of art you made before you started meditating and after? And by quality, I don’t mean good or bad, but more something like inherent attributes. That’s a real good question. I think that I see a difference of finding the thing more easily. It was more difficult before and now it’s more easy. And in working I had more fear and anxieties and, you know, negative things swimming in me that affected the doing of things. I felt weak. I didn’t have so much self-assuredness. Then when I started meditating I felt more freedom. And they say that the heavy weight of negativity starts lifting away when you start infusing this expanding consciousness. Infusing energy and happiness and love and all these things from within, negativity lifts. I always say negativity cramps the flow of creativity. It’s really true. Things just flow more and you enjoy the making of things way more. And it’s just like kind of like a dance. It’s real great when that happens.

So there was no change in terms of subject matter? Everything you do — when you finish one thing and do another, they’re different. But I always say it’s the ideas that come. The ideas are everything and the way you translate them gets better. It gets better.

I also have a question that might be too abstract for a good answer but– I want to say more about the other thing.

Yeah. Do it to it. Another thing that’s so important: this thing of intuition. There’s plenty of supercreative people that don’t meditate, but you just get more of that and more fun in the doing and have less of the anxiety and fears and the other things that stop a lot of fun and a lot of creativity. This thing of intuition grows. A kind of knowingness. I always say that’s the number one tool of the artist: Knowing when something isn’t correct and knowing how to make it correct is super important. It works in music, in painting, in cinema. It works in business. When you transcend, you dive into that ocean of knowingness. It’s an ocean of happiness; an ocean of creativity. It’s the ocean of the infinite. All these things are infinite there.

But the way people talk about transcendental meditation relies on all these metaphors and analogies and similes. Stuff like, “Your mind is like an ocean and all the activity seems to be at the top but there’s a vast space underneath.” But aren’t these metaphors inadequate descriptions of the experience of meditation? And if that’s so, has meditation changed the way you think about concepts like metaphor and analogy? That’s a real good question. There is a huge problem because quantum physics and mathematics and all these things are objective sciences and Maharishi’s science of consciousness is a subjective science. The word “transcending” — there’s not an intellectual thing that you can say that gives that experience. So I always say that it’s a unique experience. The word “unique” should be saved for the experience of transcending. People don’t really know the word bliss. Bliss is more than the happiness that you get from buying a brand new car, for instance. Bliss is like the happiness of when you fall in love with someone and that person loves you back. That’s closest to this extreme happiness and flow of love that is transcending. That’s close. Maharishi used tons and tons of analogies to try and get people to catch enough of an idea of the thing so that they’d say, “Oh, I want to experience that.” But nothing takes the place of the actual experience. Analogies and things still come and you use those from time to time to try and explain the thing but it’s abstract. The transcendent is the most abstract level of existence there is. It’s the source of thought. Total abstraction. It’s the source of a star, the source of a tree. Everything that is a thing has emerged from this field. It’s incredible and you can experience it and then you know what it is.

Do you ever try to relate the abstract feeling of transcending through your own work? Not exactly. No. I don’t think I’ve ever set out to do a thing, except maybe in commercials. But sometimes I catch ideas and I fall in love with them and then later on I kind of discover what it is. It’s a reverse kind of thing. I haven’t ever, you know, set out to make a film. Right now I’m working on a documentary of the Maharishi and the knowledge that he brought out and that will be a huge challenge because these things are abstract. To try to show them visually or with sound is gonna be something.

What’s the last creative thing you did? Let’s see. Well, I did three things yesterday. I haven’t done anything creative this morning. It’s still early. I’m just getting to it. But yesterday I wrote some lyrics. I’m working on a photograph of a Country and Western singer named Billy Swan. And I’m working with wood. I’m making a cabinet.