By David E. Ford Jr.
Photo by Jason Smith

To be an artist, the first thing you have to learn is to accept criticism.”
—Kimberly Peirce
AB'90

Some questions between a student and a teacher can never be fully resolved. But if they’re lucky, the problems themselves may spur decades of shared inquiry and growth.

That’s why it felt like the seamless continuation of a classroom exchange when the acclaimed filmmaker Kimberly Peirce, AB’90, returned to the University of Chicago recently.

She came for a public discussion with students and one of her former teachers, Lauren Berlant, the George M. Pullman Professor of English Language and Literature. It was in Berlant’s “Feminist Theory, Feminist Practice” class that Peirce developed adventurous ways of thinking about creativity, art, and identity — a path that Peirce has continued to follow as writer and director of the feature films Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Stop-Loss (2008).

Peirce said although at the time her years at UChicago didn’t seem like the most practical artistic training, “in retrospect it was perfect.”

“Prof. Berlant’s classes, among others, steeped me in culture, art and history, which were a necessary foundation for writing and directing,” Peirce said. “As they taught me to be critical they helped me to understand how to look at my work clearly — the successes and failures — and learn from them so I could improve on them, something which is so essential in any art and especially in making movies.”

Even 24 years after teaching Peirce, Berlant recalled her “opinionated and slightly impatient” approach to theory. “But when it came to encountering art, she was astonishing in her eye for detail and narrative insight,” Berlant said.

Classics lead to contemporary breakthroughs

After receiving her AB in English at UChicago, Peirce pursued an MFA in filmmaking at Columbia University. But she emphasized to the students that a grounding in Aristotle is as helpful as any technical training in learning to tell a story.

“If you want to go into film or drama, I would [suggest you] go back and read the Poetics, Peirce said.

As Peirce and Berlant discussed Peirce’s films, the relationship between Aristotle’s work and Peirce’s view of what makes dramatic narrative work became increasingly clear. Peirce compared the task of a modern filmmaker to that of Shakespeare, noting that she too “works in a popular medium and [has] to keep the audience satisfied.” As Berlant observed, for Peirce’s films, this has meant being aware of “the relationship between realism and entertainment,” and figuring out “how to tell a story about something real.”

Peirce is drawn to stories anchored in real-life situations. Her debut feature, Boys Don’t Cry, dramatizes the true story of Brandon Teena, a transgendered boy in Nebraska who was raped and murdered when the men in his community discovered that he was biologically female. Yet she stressed that “there is no ‘story’ until someone tells it.” Her artistic process involves extensive interviews and research to uncover the essence of the story as it might have happened, but that’s just the first step.

“Then I shape a dramatic narrative that uses many actual details from the story as well as details that I may have made up to capture and depict the essence of the story and the character,” Peirce said. “I want the viewer to know and feel the story as I have come to know and feel it.”

She recalled that when she was working on a script of the story as her master’s thesis at Columbia, she found that the Brandon character seemed to have two sets of desires — regarding sexual preference, he wanted to be with girls romantically and sexually, and regarding his gender identity, he wanted (mostly) to live as a boy. A screenwriting professor said Peirce was being too influenced by “reality,” and insisted that Peirce change the script so that Brandon had only one need, because “a great protagonist has one fundamental desire that drives him through the whole story.”

Peirce said she eventually realized that reality and great dramatic structure were not necessarily at odds in the story. Brandon’s underlying fundamental need was to get love — that’s what drove him and drove the story. So Peirce was able to shape a character with one fundamental need, as her teacher had urged her to do, without sacrificing that character’s specificity.

Learning to accept criticism

In her second feature film Stop-Loss, Peirce again had to balance her attraction to stories grounded in real life with the demands of popular dramatic form. In this case the story focused on the lives of soldiers, including her own brother, who served in the war in Iraq only to be forcibly called back into service under the auspices of the government’s stop-loss program.

Throughout the conversation, Peirce injected snippets of advice for aspiring artists in the audience. “To be an artist, the first thing you have to learn is to accept criticism,” she said. That goes with the territory of taking intellectual risks, whether in scholarship or in filmmaking, Berlant observed. “When you’re experimental, mostly you fail,” Berlant said.

But it wasn’t all gloomy predictions. When an audience member asked Peirce at what point she began to feel validated as an artist, the filmmaker replied that validation comes when “you sit down and make the art and when it works and it takes hold of you.” At such times, she said, “you will feel as good being creative as you’re ever going to feel in your life.”

Originally published on November 7, 2011.