The Artiste and the Soldier Should Be Friends

Among the regulars on the right-wing discussion board where I provided some of the loyal opposition, no group was held in greater contempt than college students studying the fine arts. They were godless, self-indulgent, pampered parasites. The men wore women’s underwear; the women, who wore none, had boyfriends and parents arrested on false rape charges. Everyone celebrated Kwaanza. If a high-school education sufficed to make an artist out of Don Knotts, the conventional wisdom held, it should suffice for everyone.

Be all that as it may, today’s New York Times carries a story about an NYU film student who did a undisputably good deed for an Iraq War veteran, and perhaps for veterans in general. Since losing his leg to a roadside bomb in 2006, former U.S. Army sergeant Matthew Pennington had been experiencing some of the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, including spells of hypervigilance, depression and rage. Dissatisfied with the medication prescribed by the VA doctors, he turned to booze. It was “in an alcohol-fueled fit of despair,” reports the Times, that Pennington “drove his car into a brick wall, emerging so dazed that he thought he was back in Iraq.”

Just as Pennington was bottoming out, it so happened that an NYU director-in-training named Nicholas Brennan was coming to the “stinging realization” that he “couldn’t honestly count a single member of the U.S. military as a close friend.” Brennan reached out, befriending vets in bars and hospitals. Once he’d won their confidence, Brennan began picking their brains. It was the stories of the challenges they faced in re-entering civilian life, most of all, that intrigued, moved and finally inspired him. He decided to re-tell these stories “in a way that would hopefully enable civilians like myself to learn more about the lives of young veterans while also inspiring those veterans with a story that was ultimately about hope.”

Toward the realization of this new goal, Brennan dedicated his senior project, a 15-minute film on a former Marine celebrating his first “Alive Day,” or anniversary of his wounding. He e-mailed a general casting call, which reached Pennington through a friend. Recognizing his own life in the story as Brennan outlined it, Pennington wrote back describing his injuries, adding that they’d “resulted in a personality change for the far worse.” Not only did performing for Brennan bring Pennington out of his shell, as he’d hoped it would, it helped him confront certain unpleasant facts:

In the final scene of the 15-minute film, titled “A Marine’s Guide to Fishing,” Connor sits on a pier at sunset, his prosthetic by his side, decompressing after a violent flashback in front of his co-workers. His boss, a Vietnam veteran, counsels him to take his time, but leaves with a gentle warning: “You stay out here too long, you’ll never get back.”

“That rang right home to me,” Mr. Pennington said in his Texas twang. “I said, ‘Well, dang, that’s what I’m doing.’ ”

A Marine’s Guide to Fishing has a website of its own, where visitors can order DVDs. Judging by the two-minute trailer, it’s a good’un. Brennan chose his location well: a New England fishing village, where the light is gentle. For a rookie, Pennington gives a good performance. He’s a natural scowler — no mean accomplishment — and his eyes wear that indescribable look unique to combat veterans. No actor could put it on without having seen the elephant up close; more than anything, it makes his character instantly credible.

So far, the making of the film seems to have enriched everyone involved. Brennan, whose press kit lists him as a graduate, walked off with the GI Film Festival’s Best Picture Award. Pennington, who recently renewed his marriage vows, now reads textbooks on acting and is considering joining a local theater group. (One suspects he’s already got better chops than Audie Murphy ever had.) Just goes to show you that the pussy liberal artiste and the rugged military type — like the farmer and the cowman — should be friends.

Turns out bridges are already under construction! The soldierly and artistic Delta Bravo Sierra has linked me to his site!

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  • Frank Weathers

    Good post Max, and thank you for sharing it.

    Many Marines I have known over the years have been great artists, and I mean across the spectrum too. This idea that you are only “one thing,” and that thing being a stereotype of what you happen to be doing for a living, is a fallacy. In fact, since it sort of stems from some version of the truth, it is a heresy. A heresy that doesn’t factor in the full spectrum of the human beings experience, but instead attempts to pigeon hole folks as widgets.

  • jkm

    I agree with Frank, and celebrate this post—and the true account behind it—as testament to the power of story to smack down stereotypes every time. Inside every person, packed down and ready to spring out, is a story that defies preconceptions, a story that is so unexpected that it can only be grace. I think that’s why Jesus told so many stories, and why he began so many life-changing encounters by asking people “What’s up with you?” Stereotypes and false divisions can only persist among the incurious.

    Luke’s account of the journey to Emmaus is the quintessential textbook for evangelization/conversion/farmer-cowman-icebreaking by means of storytelling and storylistening. There’s much of it in the story behind A Marine’s Guide to Fishing, including how one moment of insight (“That rang home to me,” “They recognized Him in the breaking of the bread”) can turn a journey or a life completely around.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    I don’t know if it’s the actual studying of fine arts that is a problem. It’s more that one has to make a living, and so many artists (I’ll include writers) seem to think that the world owes them a living for it. I don’t know what’s going on with federal grants now, but I’ve seen some crazy stuff over the years that was paid for by taxpayers that mostly were offended by it and would not consider it art. You want to be a starving artist? Fine. But if nobody wants what you are selling, learn to pull shots at Starbucks. (At least bilking people out of $5 for a coffee is not as heinous as taking them to the bank for all their worth.) I think that is probably what has a lot of conservatives upset. If we could all get paid for doing what we want to, or are talented at, it would be sweet. I think your film maker’s story is great and worthwhile. But then I’ve seen a bunch of crap over the years too. I’m not totally against tax money for the arts, but who gets to hand out the checks? You want to be an artist or writer for a living but nobody will pay you enough to live on? Try going for a grant before the first Tuesday in November, just to be safe.

    Or you can put up a paypal button and beg. I hear that works.

  • jkm

    Oh, Holly in Nebraska, I will buy you a $5 cup of coffee if you can cite me evidence that any artist anywhere (and I’ll include writers) ever took anyone to the bank for all they’re worth. (Except maybe con artists, like Bernie Madoff.) According to even the most conservative estimates, we taxpayers receive a 9-to-1 return on federal spending on the arts, when you factor in the countless jobs generated by nonprofit arts organizations and the income taxes paid by those talented artists who do indeed deserve, as does the barista, to make a living for their work. Federal grants require a minimum one-to-one match, so this activity leverages funding from state, local, and most of all the private sector, making it highly unlikely that funds are being awarded on the whim of one crazy person. Of course, the evaluation of art is highly subjective—like judging ice skating, or picking a spouse—so there will be some decisions not universally applauded. And public funding of the arts should certainly be debated, preferably with as much light as heat. But all artists are not slackers defiling crucifixes and whining that they’re not paid enough for doing it, any more than all conservatives are ignorant, cultureless rubes whose taste is all in their mouths.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    jkm- You misunderstood me, and that was my fault. I just assume sometimes people know what I am thinking. I was referring to Max’s mortgage jobs as being more heinous that barista work. I had previously read his Christmas piece and was thinking of it at the time.

    Talented artists do not DESERVE to make a living if nobody wants their art, just as the barista doesn’t DESERVE to make a living if nobody wants coffee.

    I’ve seen too many crappy statues outside of public libraries not to think that the cultural elite have lost all sense. I recently read of a statue of JPII that was placed in a Roman train station. Most everyone agreed it was ugly as sin and didn’t look a thing like him. The artist responded that it was not supposed to be representational. If I commissioned someone to do my portrait, I would expect that at least my mother would be able to recognize me. Fortunately, the statue was free. Max is right. You sometimes get what you pay for.
    Link for article on statue:

  • Sarah

    I really don’t know what this post has to do with Max, Starbucks baristas, “entitled” Liberal Arts Students, or mortgage companies at all, Holly, though you seem to.

    I’m not a fan of modern or now, “post-modern” art as it is generally known. To me, most art today is more about the artist than the one viewing the art, and I think objectively, that makes it poor art.

    However, modern art and contemporary art are two different things. We need the writers, the painters, the videographers, the musicians, at least as much as we need an overpriced latte. Arguably, we need it as much as we need a lot of the things people deem “necessary.” Any given year, I spend far more on books or music than I do on clothes. I’d rather buy my clothes at consignment stores than pass up a limited edition hard cover, most of the time, and my life is better for it.

    You’re right that not everyone deserves money for any given product, art included. But art is a profession necessary to our culture. But if no one ever got paid for their art, who would aspire to be an artist?

    No one here is talking about giving money to artists who don’t deserve it except you, because I’m pretty sure Brennan wouldn’t fall into the undeserving category. But then, he didn’t even do it for monetary gain.

  • Sarah

    I meant, most MODERN art is more about the artist than the one viewing the art. To unpack that a little, I mean a) Modern art is but a genre; b) Modern art needs too much explanation, as it is often only understood by the artist himself. Of course, art throughout history has had hidden meaning and symbolism. But if you have to go to certain lengths to explain what it means, it doesn’t mean anything.

  • Damon

    This is an great article. Well written. Well thought. Congratulations. I hope it gets wide exposure. It certainly will from “this” artist/soldier.