One of the greatest conduits for explaining creativity remains, interestingly enough, creativity itself. Although every writer, artist, thinker, dancer, actor, director, and other assorted innovators each nurture their own unique process to get the job done, at least a few commonalities exist. The more cinematically inclined might very well find the following films — even those depicting fields beyond their expertise – relatable to at least some degree.
8 1/2 (1963) dir. Frederico Fellini
Inspired by the director's own struggles with creative block, this seminal, influential masterpiece explores one of the most stressful facets of the entire process. Here, a filmmaker begins succumbing to the frustrating reality of constipated innovation when his science-fiction project stumbles. Oneiric visuals pass in and out of actuality, reflecting the overwhelming mental haze that comes when one's creative process abruptly pauses and hinders productivity for an unknown period of time — not to mention how personal issues often end up exacerbated as a result.
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) dir. Carol Reed
Creative types these days still have to deal with employers, marketers, and distributors who enjoy meddling in their visions, frequently to disastrous ends. So they can fully relate to this partly fictional account of Michelangelo's very real Renaissance woe. The Agony and the Ecstasy adapts the story of his work on the Sistine Chapel and the volatile patronage of Pope Julius II. Like the title states, their relationship mirrors the same emotions experienced when one throws himself into a potentially game-changing project requiring passion, concentration, and a hefty time investment … then watches it all end up dismantled and overanalyzed.
Tampopo (1985) dir. Juzo Itami
Poor widowed Tampopo only wants to run a fine little ramen stand supporting her and her beloved little son. Unfortunately, she also happens to completely suck at all things culinary. A pair of truck drivers who happen across her stand attempt a veritable Cinderella story as they embark on a whimsical, lighthearted romp to whip up a far more appetizing recipe. It's more fun than heart-wrenchingly, movingly insightful, but still enjoyable viewing all the same, particularly the hilariously bizarre parallel vignettes satirizing both Japanese and foodie cultures.
Barton Fink (1991) dir. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
The eponymous author, a renowned Broadway playwright, winds up on an assignment in Hollywood penning movies about wrestling. Unfamiliar with the new medium, format, and surrounding culture — which he worries might separate him from the more salt-of-the-earth element that so fascinates him — Barton Fink descends into a nasty period of writer's block. Although some of the Coen Brothers' trademark wit and humor wrench things up to a beautifully over-the-top level, their depictions of imagination tug-of-war and mental blockage might very well seem eerily on the mark to many creative types.
La belle noiseuse (1991) dir. Jacques Rivette
Honore de Balzac's "The Unknown Masterpiece" serves as the rather loose inspiration for a Cannes Grand Prix winner about an older painter who ekes out a quiet life with his wife, who once worked as his model. When a new muse and her artist lover (a man much younger than his creative mentor) happen into their lives, the humble home springs forth a wellspring of ideas and passion. The more youthful model's presence encourages the completion of La belle noiseuse, a painting shelved when the aging man lost his will to complete it. While the film unfolds, viewers end up treated to deep analysis of protagonist Edouard Frenhofer's own personal reawakening.
El Sol del Membrillo (1992) dir. Victor Erice
Known also as Dream of Light or Quince Tree of the Sun to international audiences, El Sol del Membrillo concerns a painter (Antonio Lopez Garcia, as himself) and his persistent failure to relay the true beauty of a quince tree he once planted. In the backyard it sits, tormenting him with its lusty leaves and flirtatious fruit. And no matter how skilled he may prove with a paintbrush or other subject matter, he just can't seem to capture his taunting muse on canvas. It's a beautiful work regarding the pain of never living up to one's own creative expectations, no matter how much pining, passion, and time go into a project.
Noises Off! (1992) dir. Peter Bogdanovich
Fans of breakneck, screwball comedies and showbiz deconstructions must absolutely pick up Noises Off!, which focuses on everything that can and will go wrong backstage — and how these incidents can impact productions right as they happen in front of a live auditorium audience. Creative individuals who must work with others know firsthand how the process can result in almost as much discord as it does harmony. No movie does it better than this hilarious send-up where a dysfunctional theater troupe starts crumbling for multiple reasons, but has to wipe up the hilarious mess before hitting the stage lest it ultimately muss their show.
Adaptation. (2002) dir. Spike Jonze
Adaptation. began life as Charlie Kaufman's attempt to write a screenplay based on Susan Orlean's novel The Orchid Thief, but ended up an engaging metacommentary on the nature of inspiration. At the center sits a pair of twins (named after the screenwriter himself), one working on an adaptation of The Orchid Thief (See? Meta!), the other pooping out cliche Hollywood fare, earning, of course, far more money in the process. The persistent debate over selling out and making a living or staying true to one's artistic inclinations factors quite heavily into this dissection, obviously.
American Splendor (2003) dir. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Underground comics sensation Harvey Pekar found his writerly niche chronicling the mundane minutia of his file-clerk life, pairing up with numerous artists for straightforward, frequently insightful stories. Part biopic, part documentary, the film named after his most popular series digs into the creative process of this fantastic figure. Many stereotypes regarding how great authors (and, of course, others in artistic industries) conduct their personal and professional business end up entirely shattered with its protagonist's earnest — albeit cantankerous — approach and everyday background.
Synecdoche, New York (2008) dir. Charlie Kaufman
Once again, the brilliant Charlie Kaufman dissects all the intricacies of creativity with stark-raving clarity, this time stepping into the director's chair. Synecdoche, New York's intensity unapologetically reflects the ugly, obsessively isolationist component that so often torments great innovators. And, of course, their loved ones. With a postmodern deftness, he traces the trajectory of creative torment and passion's darker corners.