Monday, August 01, 2005

Reason to Believe

Been a while, kids. Sorry. I just scrambled to finish a promo for my company in which I take samples of our earlier military brain-washing films and synch them up to pseudofunky techno music to advertise for future clients. Consequently, my obsession with archival footage and subliminal fast-cuts has made this demo subversively good. To the point where it truly belies the quality of the product it pitches. Most of our films are a bunch of guys in matching uniforms sitting around a table saying things like, "XO, get the fit-reps and our Class III AT/FP training done stat, our we're gonna have serious trouble if the CNC puddle-jumps the QRF after the "fast Charlie" pulls his rojors."

Always followed by ...

"Yes, sir."

In my demo version, this same movie comes across as, let's say, borderline Bruckheimer. We got night vision! We got flying ... things! We got lasers! We got dead people! We got badass sound effects! Amp it all up with a shamefully potent dose of jingoistic symbol-mongering, and ... there ya go!

Now understand: the whole enterprise is less fraudulent than you think. All our stuff trains military people to avoid the clusterfucks for which they are so often berated on the front pages. The officer class in the Pentagon is actually a fairly progressive group of people who loved working under Bill Clinton because they got to tell him what to do. They hate Bush becuase his aim is political while theirs is strictly strategic. Plus, most officers have seen a good number of Presidents and will out-live the current one -- so their perspective is less encumbered by political reality. True, they spawn freaky shit like DARPA -- which, if memory serves, is currently working on a project to kill the enemy through telepathy or nanotechnological killer robots that fit comfortably inside a hydrogen molecule. So we stay away from that shit. We're not into recruiting either. Or administration propaganda. But my are we patriotic.

The Clean House

Saw this with the cast last Wednesday evening. I remember a friend at Woolly slipping me a manuscript version last year and loving it then. For some blessed reason, Rhul's playful insertion of supertitles aligned nobly with the "foreign movie" motif being discussed by the characters -- instead of being the kind of pomo overlay that objectifies the characters because it can't handle real human emotion without mocking it. So when we see a title saying "They fall in love" and then "They fall in love some more," it amplifies and celebrates the characters feelings instead of commodifying them or making them ironic. Rock on.

But what I love about the play is that it offers a course for its characters that acknowledges their obsessive nature without chaining them to it -- they aren't reduced to a few cruel tics or left to drool on themselves like lobotomized animals. No. They're high strung and out of control, but they're matched by characters who are equally vivid because of their passion. The story is about how the high-strung group comes to understand and join the passionate group. And in this progression, the author thankfully resists pathologizing passion or elevating neurosis. In short, Ruhl offers an ideal for human relationships that cruises through Albee territory while offering the suggestion that we don't have to be stuck there. Thank. Christ.

So yes. Me likey.

Spectacle v. the Circus

H offers and interesting query: "When does impossibilty [of the Rivera variety] become spectacle? Where does theatre end, and the circus begin?"

When effects are offered for their momentary, transient thrill (or to wake up an audience before intermission) -- when, in short, they are their own reward, we've got the circus. When effects amplify (or grow out of) the plot, characters, and theme, we've got theatre. Same could be said for movies, of course. But theatre needs to err towards the spectacular for reasons that have nothing to do with the competing all-you-can-eat buffet of flashy escapism offered by television and movies. And circuses.

Theatre is polysensual, to offer a pretentious term. You use eyes and ears, but also your skin, your nose, and your mouth. It's also three-dimensional and context-bound (most literally: in terms of time and place). Now, HD3D will be in your living room before you retire, so even when that proprietary distinction goes digital, you'll still have this medium that requires a community of strangers to occupy the same room for three hours. Burnt to its essentials, theatre doesn't seem to stand a chance -- unless the stories are likewise bound to these essentials. Novels fail upon adaptation to the screen because the singular joy of psychological insight can't be translated to the other medium. Film is image and audio-based. Prose is language-based. And theatre is time/space based. Some productions get a little obnoxious in their forthright declarations "THIS IS A LIVE HUMAN BEING YOU'RE WATCHING MASTURBATE! A LIVE HUMAN I TELL YOU!" -- and making theatricality itself the subject is a fun easy-out that every new playwright tries ONCE, thinking it's the greatest innovation in the world.* But the rest of us should just thank Pirandello and move on. I guess the difference is this: don't smash down the fourth wall, just remind the audience that the fourth wall is right behind them. And the other three are being shared, too.

Now, we forget these distinctions when we try to wedge theatre into some historical schema. Elitists think humanity is degenerating, ergo: people evacuate the theatre because there's no fire. Were a fire to actually break out, these drool-encrusted plebeians would stay and gawk because that's all they want from the media. So the snobs think. Conservatives and postmodernists think humanity is progressing (kind of), ergo: culture abandons theatre for the same reason it abandoned the barter system. Capitalism delivered a superior, digital discourse which must be better because it's making more money. So the rest of the country thinks.

But historical speculation aside, we run into a fuckload of cross-media friction along the way. Rosencrantz & Gildenstern Are Dead was an absolute failure as a film because the whole frickin' play was about the locus of backstage v. centerstage action. And there will always be some jackass Jane Austen purist who can't abide Emma Thompson's negligent exclusion of some crucial passage from the book.

Even in non-fiction: the cross-media friction has doubled-back on itself. Time was, print journalism was yellow and not to be trusted. Then TV took the mantle of national discourse and kicked it even lower. Until TV proved likewise corruptible and print jockeyed back to a respectible position on the information highway. I think the return was prompted by the proliferation of the internet (which is still a mostly print-based medium) and the honest desire to hold information sources static and accountable. No one could possibly enumerate the sundry lies churned out by a day's worth of FOX News. And that's the point. Murdoch knows that TV is a transient, giddy medium with a weak tether to permanent record. TV celebrates the removal of context for total subjectivist control -- it's its greatest gift to the viewer.

With print, you can't write a lie without willfully sending out a permanent copy in black and white for millions of people to save as irrefutable evidence. The recent scandals surrounding plagiarism and source-faking shouldn't diminish our faith in print, it should make us thankful that there's still a medium capable of self-scrutiny and justice. Could you imagine if every damn falsehood tossed out by the Bush Administration and its constituent televisual media drones were to be investigated? Nevermind the volume of falsehoods, it's the pace at which they come out that makes such watchdogging impossible.

More to the point: televisual accountability, in any real sense, is impossible because it amounts to a rational retro-fit for an irrational medium. You can't hold an image accountable for anything -- buried in the act of visual perception is a willful surrender to subjectivism. Language, syntax, logic ... these require a democracy of symbol-makers, with each member active in the defense of rational discourse. Pictures may speak a thousand words, but it's all at once. And rarely do those thousand words line up into a whole argument.

Anyway, that's the slacker MacLuhan/Postman/Chomsky way of explaining it w/r/t other cross-media comparisons. My only point is that I don't think you can evaluate theatre on some ascending axis for the evolution of media. Rarely has the migration to a new domiant medium resulted in the complete transcendence of its predocessor.** Each medium has its own essentials, its own benefits and liabilities. We'll make more progress, artistically, when we view media through a nominal (not hierarchical) schema. Because the space between the sympathetic magic of ancient Greece and the pomo hyper-realism of 21st century America is not just history taking its course. Or blind positivism. Or neo-Hegelian determinism. Innovation radiates through history in a geometric pattern, not a strict linear one.

Given this, we can evaluate the gradual exodus away from theatre in a more honest (and, I think, more encouraging) context. People didn't just leave theatre for cheap thrills down the street. They left because they learned how to read and write. Because music and politics and religion could be enjoyed and examined exclusively -- and were better for it. Because some stories are just cooler on the movie screen. Because the internet brings people closer to a democratic, interactive community of thought. Because the printing press gave us a tangible document of those thoughts -- all innovations that supplant a previously exclusive function of live theatre, without completely transcending it.

Take heart, kids. All this really means is that live theatre rests at the core of the history of human discourse. Something of the seminal magic remains. We just need to find it instead of bitching about our imaginary competition.

*Consequently, fledgling screenwriters tend to hate Charlie Kauffman more than they admire him. That he was able to hoodwink a studio into buying his noxiously self-referential Adaptation was an insult to anyone who dabbled in solipsistic bullshit to finish an overdue essay in undergrad, but wisely abandonned it out of courtesy for the audience. Everyone has a play about playwriting, a movie about movie-making, a painting about painting, etc, etc. Some people have more than one! But like the senseless infinity of two mirrors facing each other ... these works bear the illusion of depth only.

**And rarely has the true predocessor been correctly identified. Boleslavsky's Acting: The First Six Lessons comes to mind. In it, he tries to comfort his fictional everystudent (the "Creature") by explaining the benefits of film without really easing her specific axieties about an image-based medium. He's essentially less perceptive than the make-believe protege he's constructed.


Anonymous said...

It's been a week about APPLES for me. Saw "Clean House," and also sing its praises as do you. Which made me think about the other side of the continuum - how "small" can a playwright's gesture be and still qualify as "spectacle?" So the two "unmarried" women in the husband's life bite sensuously and deliriously into fresh-picked apples, tossing the bitten apples into the sea...and those bitten carcasses fall onto the abandoned wife's pristine white carpet of her living room---did the sound of apple carcasses ever resonate so loudly as that moment observed by the lonely wife as the half-eaten apples hit her sterile turf? And while the final image of the husband dragging a 20 foot yew tree into the living room might qualify as the recognizable "spectacle of the evening," I posit that the emotional-laden apples may be what remain in our memories of this work 10 years from now.

Earlier this week I saw Alan Turing ("The Lovesong of the Electric Bear at PTP) bite into a cyanide-laced apple, ending his life, as the British government persecuted him for his homosexuality (even though he received highest war honors for inventing what would eventually become the computer -- can anyone look at Bill Gates' logo for MacIntosh the same way once they know of Turing's tortured, lonely demise?!) And more than a few times in this area we have seen the time-travel apple of "Arcadia" morph from casual snack in one century into an offering of love and self-awakening in a subsequent century.

Now, arcticactor, I know you are going to say I confuse symbolism and stage business with with "spectacle," but I humbly submit that the genius of a playwright is the ability to imbue a simple object with the mythic and and the "spectacle" quality without the "Ben Hur" budget to make such an impression.

If one can count on having the budget of an Arena Stage to mount "spectacle," that is one thing. But since most innovative work relies on the small theatre to develop the work, I applaud the inventivenss of the playwright who can achieve mythic spectacle with mere fruit. By the way, any oranges in the play you've written?


arcticactor said...


Well put -- but I actually wasn't going to throw any kind of spectacle statement your way to refute it. I agree about the apples!

No oranges. But mango. Yes, mango.


H said...

Yes, when all else fails, blame capitalism. I actually agree with you here, but feel there is also a piece missing. It is the intrinsic safety of movie going that also keeps audience attendance so high. That is on what movie industries capitalize. It cannot be price, at least not anymore. Between tickets and popcorn, it is pricey . No, it is the sheer safety and predictability that sways the audience. Movie makers now capitalize on that, just as theatre practitioners did before the advent of the big screen (a la Rockettes). Targeting audiences has become so easy it is almost tedious. The teen romance, the horror, the action adventure, the romantic comedy…blah, blah, blah. The audience gets to sit in complete darkness, with no intermission where one might have to interact with others. The sound is so loud that it will cover most sneezes and coughs (theatre's ultimate criticism). The actors cannot hear you and their performance will never, ever change. You can go back and quote the lines with them, you can mimic them to your friends the next day and they will understand exactly what the reference means because they saw the exact same thing. Theatre and film are in no competition at all. It is downright sad when theatre even tries to mimic film (Billy Elliot, the musical…opening on the West End shortly). Lastly, a lot of theatre has decided not to give in to the biggest safety net of all…the happy ending. Many an artistic ending to a film has been relegated to the special features menu on the DVD, because audiences were unhappy when things were not tied up at the end of their 2 hours. Thank goodness that, as you said, in the theatre “Something of the seminal magic remains”. I do enjoy it so.

And speaking of magic. The Clean House…rhythm, what amazing rhythm. Truly wonderful.


Anonymous said...

to H

BILLY ELLIOT- directed by theatre and film guy Stephen Daldry and written by theatre and film guy Lee Hall with music by burgeoning theatre and erstwhile film guy Elton John- opened to nearly universal acclaim on the West End two-ish months ago.

The NYTimes reported that it probably wouldn't come to NY or the States- despite the raves and notices claiming it to be "the greatest British musical of all time"- because it's too "British."

Some might say it won't come because it's a serious-minded and moving musical that deals with Thatcher's trampling of the mine workers union...a mite close to our Fortune 500 friendly administration's policies for much comfort.

H- do you think it's AS sad when a play or a musical is made into a film?

arcticactor said...

I know the anonymous commment was directed to H, but if I might slide in on the sidelines: I happen to believe it's AS sad when a play is made into a film. I think the rules we've been tossing about to distinguish theatre from film are transitive operations, logically. The best plays resist translation -- the way a painting of "David" can't match the sculpture itself. Translation from pre-filmic stories makes some sense ... if only because the new medium wasn't available for comparison at the time. But when Margulies' "Dinner with Friends" hopped to an HBO movie with nary a word changed, I have to wonder why he chose to make it a play in the first place. I'm not in the mood to call such easy translation harmful to contemporary theatre ... just disappointing.

H said...

Yes, I do feel that it is as sad. The first example that comes to mind is Closer. Closer lost a lot when it went to film, and as was mentioned in this post, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern made much less of an impact in its film guise, even with some tremendous actors playing the roles. The same is to be said for Wit, which was expertly done on film, but lacked the raw vulnerability that the stage production had. That is what is usually lost. The electric live moment that these pieces on stage have, that they have been written with, is what is lacking. I meant no disrespect to Billy Elliot. I thought the film really poignant. Oops about the show's opening date (I guess I have not been reading the Guardian for quite some time.)


amy said...

I'm curious to hear everyone's thoughts on the film version of "Angels in America"...?