When Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score, The Rite of Spring, premiered in Paris in 1913, its powerful, tumultuous and dissonant celebration of pagan sensuality was met with a stunned and horrified reaction from the audience. Polite silence rapidly transformed into a near-riot of booing, hissing and projectiles aimed at the stage. Today, this jarring and cathartic score is considered to be one of the great masterworks of twentieth century music, and is met with appreciative applause from audiences all over the world.
In 1979 Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam War movie, was nominated in the Best Picture category of the Academy Awards. It lost out, though, to Kramer vs. Kramer, a well-acted, competently written, and ultimately forgettable divorce drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. For anybody looking for a thoughtful, balanced film about an intelligent family dealing with the complications and stresses of a modern relationship, Robert Benton’s film is well worth checking out. Coppola’s film, on the other hand, is a sprawling, flawed masterpiece. It is long, self-indulgent and violent, almost hallucinogenically intense in parts, filled with phantasmagoric imagery, and all but ruined in its final quarter by an amazingly weird and (for me) almost unwatchable performance from Marlon Brando. It is also the best film ever made about the madness of that war, and is generally considered to be amongst the greatest and most influential American films of all time. A little more than a quarter century later, Apocalypse Now is still a film that causes interested discussion amongst movie buffs (and, really, who isn’t a movie buff?), whilst Kramer vs. Kramer is rarely ever mentioned.
Stravinsky and Coppola were inspired artists, able to follow their creative visions into new territories, and emerge with vital, unsettling works of art that defied the expectations of audiences and critics. I think each of us should take some inspiration from these stories into our own lives. As we follow our own creative paths, try new things, explore new areas within our own minds and lives, and illuminate those areas for others to see, we should be prepared for some catcalls, a certain amount of indifference, ridicule, even hostility. Just as Stravinsky’s audience had certain expectations about what constitutes appropriate music for the concert hall, and the members of the Academy in 1979 had an overly conservative idea of what makes a great film, so too our friends, relatives and acquaintances likely have preconceived ideas about who we are and what to expect from us. As the above instances show, defying these expectations is not a sure-fire recipe for instant accolades. People don’t like to be challenged or confused. Challenge and confusion, though, is a part of what makes the world a strange and wonderful place, and it is up to each of us, in whatever way is most appropriate, to rattle the cage a bit, at least every once in awhile. At worst, we won’t become stale and boring. At best, history may even vindicate us. You never know.