Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Tudors

The strength of the show is in the nuanced portrayals of important characters.  Thomas More shows the razor thin line between the thoughtful, principled man of conscience, and the cold ideological executioner.  Catherine of Aragon is all suffering dignity, until those rare moments she shows a sharp cunning.  It is the subtlety of some of these characters that draws me to the show.

Henry VIII is all ego, rage, and frustrated sexuality, but after antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen, he's rather predictable and just a bit uninteresting.  But like a lot of cable television series, it is the season one finale that really sucks me into the show.

Friday, December 19, 2008

"Lisa the Vegetarian"

You don't usually expect to see such a thoughtful episode of a mainstream television show, but this episode of The Simpsons manages to:

--show the moral progression of a vegetarian.
--show the difficulties of being a vegetarian in a meat-eating society.
--savagely mock that meat-eating society.
--end with a message the vegetarians should show tolerance and respect for others, influencing people without badgering them.

It's the sort of episode I can show my kids, an episode not with a trite TV lesson, but an actual lesson.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Richard III

It is a play that largely belongs to the angry, mourning women lamenting their losses at the hands of Richard.  It seems filled with the motif of time periods.  It may be a compromised work; today we don't care for our writers to create their works with concern for the political powers (but then, much of Western civilization's paintings are tainted by power and money too, right?).  A few issues stand out to me.

Obsession with the Shadow Self: Self-Love and Self-Hate
In Richard's first speech, he laments the boredom of the current time period; he'll have nothing to do

"Unless to spy my own shadow in the sun
And descant on my own deformity" (I.ii.26-27)

An odd line, I thought, but probably just a chance for Shakespeare to dig at his villain's (and the current dynastic family's villain's) physical flaws.  But then another line resonated in a similar vein:

"Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass
That I may see my shadow as I pass" (I.ii.262-263).

Suddenly we have a pattern.  Richard twice invokes a desire to examine his own shadow.  Once he muses on examining his own shadow to pass the time, and shortly after discusses examining his shadow through a mirror (taking himself a step away from the actual shadow).  A contrast: the sun, his shadow.  The sun representing, perhaps, God, King, Goodness, the shadow representing all of Richard's flaws.

But Richard is going to perform many dark deeds throughout the play.  This focus on his own shadow (not himself or his deformity, but the shadow of his deformity) on one hand shows a fixation on his own evil.  But on the other hand, it shows a desire to distance himself from this evil.  He doesn't want to look at himself; he only wants to look at his own shadow.  After that, he doesn't even want to look at his shadow; he wants to examine his shadow through a mirror as he walks away from it.

I think this becomes interesting when Richard wakes on the day of the battle, after ghosts have cursed him to despair and death in the night:

"What do I fear?  Myself?  There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here?  No.  Yes, I am.
Then fly.  What, from myself?  Great reason why!
Lest I revenge.  What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore?  For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain.  Yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well.  Fool, do not flatter" (V.iii.183-193)

If there was ever a better written expression for the conflicted self, self-hatred and self-love combined into a self-fear, I haven't read it.  Certainly, shortly after Richard bucks himself up for war by denying his conscience:

"Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls;
Conscience is but a word cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe;
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!" (V.iii.309-312)

But is that conflicted self that lingers with me--objectively illustrated by a desire to examine one's shadow, an act requiring both self-love and self-hate.

Justifying War
We see the Tudor hero Richmond and the Tudor villain Richard inspire their troops with different justifications for war.  Both are familiar.

Good Richmond buoys the troops by claiming they fight for God.

"God and our good cause fight upon our side" (V.iii.241)

"One that hath ever been God's enemy
Then if you fight against God's enemy,
God will in justice ward you as his soldiers" (V.iii.253-255)

"Then in the name of God and all these rights,
Advance your standards, draw your willing swords" (V.iii.263-265)

Written at a time when belief in the divine right of kings was a foundational principle for government, there is sincerity here.  Still, Richmond is making a power play: he's waging a war to remove another king and place the crown on his own head.  He claims, of course, that he fights on God's side, but he's certainly not an objective student of God's will ("God insists I wage a war to make myself King" is hardly convincing).  But then, many killers and warmongers justify their murders and wars by claiming God is on their side.  it is often that in a war, the religious on each side calls on God to justify its own cause.

Evil Richard calls for war by demonizing the enemy and by calling on fears of what will happen if they don't fight and win.

"A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways,
A scum of Britains and base lackey peasants,
Whom their o'ercloyed country vomits forth
To desperate ventures and assured destruction.
You sleeping safe, they bring you unrest;
You having lands, and blest with beauteous wives
They would distrain the one, distain the other." (V.iii.317-323)

"Shall these enjoy our lands?  Lie with our wives?
Ravish our daughters?" (V.iii.337-338)

Richard dehumanizes the enemy, and calls upon fears of what this monstrous enemy will do to the good people's peaceful homes.  They, then, become just warriors: they are merely defending peace by waging war.  Earlier, Richmond makes a similar claim:

"To reap the harvest of perpetual peace
by this one bloody trial of sharp war" (V.iii.15-16)

Of course, perpetual war can be justified by these claims.

Syntax and Ambiguity

"Now is the winter of our discontent" (I.i.1)

In isolation, the wonderful first line has clear meaning: the bad time is now.  But that line is part of a clause:

"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York" (I.i.1-2)

This clause also has a clear meaning: the bad time is now over.

The beauty of the syntax also finds meaning in the speaker.  For Richard, the "glorious summer" is his own "winter of [...] discontent:" he's not happy.  And as the play is about to detail Richard's rise to power, it is also going to detail England's "winter of our discontent" which is, in Richard's time, occurring now.  The play is the winter of discontent, even if the clause means the winter of discontent (which includes a long civil war) is over.

The syntax is genius.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Joker (2)

The Joker in The Dark Knight reminds me of Dostoevsky's underground man in Notes from the Underground.  The underground man declares that sometimes one wants two and two to equal five, that a person can take pleasure even in a toothache.  He asserts that humans don't behave according to reason, that our behaviors and our motivations are often irrational.  And the Joker wants chaos, anarchy, anything but a plan.  He seems to take pleasure in his own pain, and he takes pleasure in the entirely irrational.

But it's more than that: at an aesthetic level, Heath Ledger's twitchiness seems to me a physical representation of the underground man's writing style.  The sharp bursts, the halting movements, the dark laughter, the sneering, the cynicism in the stare, in the comedy.  It's all unexpected exploding, chasing down tangents, a bitter mockery.

Then there are the political overtones, which were not perhaps so ham-fisted as they seemed to me (waiting months to see the movie and thus hearing others talk about it).  Briefly, the film tells us this: Terrorists are illogical and lack motivations; they only want destruction.  The only way to defeat them is to sink to their level, and thus all the excesses of the war on terror are justified, including torture, illegal spying, and lying to the public.

To fit this theme, nothing is truly known about the Joker's past and background--he has no origin story (he keeps lying about his scars).  His motivations are not practical (he burns a giant wad of cash) but based on a psychotic love of disaster, destruction, anarchy, and chaos.  He makes demands and targets defenseless civilians and institutions (like hospitals).  He also achieves his ends by not valuing his own life; he regularly behaves with suicidal recklessness, daring death.

I'll be rewatching the Michael Keaton Batman soon to re-appreciate Jack Nicholson's Joker.  I realize I probably haven't seen the movie in over a decade; however, I watched it so many times when I was a kid that several lines and images are still ingrained in my memory.

As I've been reflecting on Nicholson's Joker, I've thought how at the end, he becomes something more like Ledger's Joker.  Throughout the film he's a clever, scheming, smooth-talking Joker. But in the big tower scene, he becomes completely unhinged in a very hilarious way.  He starts pulling out silly gags when Batman beats on him (like putting on glasses and asking whether Batman would really hit a man with glasses).  He laughs maniacally as he hangs on the verge of death.  He becomes a silly, giggly, irrational mess: his voice and his facial expressions are all over the place: unpredictable, unexpected, chaotic.

addendum: I just rewatched Batman; sadly for my tainted memory, the late '80s were not exactly a zenith for film-making.

Nicholson's Joker is goofier throughout than I remembered: he's always laughing, giggling, cackling.  He's frequently doing silly gags, and his outbursts are always unpredictable.  But something distinguishes him from Ledger's Joker: rhythm.  Nicholson is often dancing about the screen, clownishly prancing to music (he frequently brings music with him).  There's a rhythmic performance to his movements, whereas Ledger's movements are herky-jerky, unbalanced, twittery.  Though while the music and dancing in Batman give the Joker a greater sense of control, it also somehow foils or grounds the Joker's erratic behavior.  It's controlled mayhem.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Playing the Joker

I've learned that being a parent means you still get to watch all the movies, you just have to wait about six months.

I was extremely excited to see The Dark Knight for one reason: Heath Ledger playing the Joker. I love to watch Jack Nicholson, and appreciated his Joker in Batman, and I loved Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (the film left me in uncontrolled, sobbing, hide-in-the-bathroom tears). So after months of know people were raving about Ledger's performance (while taking deliberate care not to read about why they were raving), I spent much of the movie just waiting for the Joker's scenes (in Slings & Arrows, Geoffrey Tennant tells the young actor playing Hamlet that it's all about the soliloquies: it's what people are there to see, and if he can nail those, the dialogue is easy. And indeed, it was just before a soliloquy that the critic in the audience grins and readies his pen). So if I say the Joker's scenes stole the movie, that may be a slanted perspective (or it may be the white, purple, red, and green contrasted so much with the black and orange that dominated the rest of the film).

I think both Ledger and Nicholson played the part with restraint, but a very different type of restraint. Nicholson's Joker is cool, smooth, his movements controlled. Ledger's Joker is twitchy. A twitchy restrained chaos: head hunched and twisted, hands in motion, halting spasms, a voice almost whiny even as it is both comical and frightening. Both played a character that could make any movements at any moment, that could perform any sort of chaotic, irrational, senseless action--but that for the most part didn't. Ledger's Joker is more unhinged. I don't know which I enjoyed more--Ledger's Joker is a little more fun, but Nicholson's Joker is...well...Nicholson. I don't know--I should probably rewatch Batman before commenting more.

There's just a chance that neither was actually as good as Cesar Romero. The problem for Romero is that he was a Joker stuck in a Gotham just as colorful and silly as him, a foil to a campy Batman. Imagine taking Romero's Joker out of the campy Gotham, and sticking him in Tim Burton's Batman or Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Romero's Joker would have been the real chaotic contrast to Michael Keaton's or Christian Bale's Batman.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Acting and the Creative Act

A contrapuntal essay

In "The Existential Clown" in The Atlantic, James Parker writes about actor Jim Carrey as an artist, whose films show a consistency of vision:

"Jim Carrey will loom large in our shattered posterity, I believe, because his filmography amounts to a uniquely sustained engagement with the problem of the self."

I might take this in a few different directions. In emails with my friend Rob (a writer and proponent of Auteur Theory) we have discussed whether an actor can really be an auteur, who really controls the vision of a film or films, who should, differences in stage and film, that sort of thing. But there are other directions, including artistic intent. If Carrey did not play roles in these films as part of a larger artistic vision, if indeed his primary goal is to make people laugh and he doesn't bother with anything remotely approaching "a uniquely sustained engagement with the problem of the self," then can his filmography really amount to this? Can we the viewers (or just Parker) examine the ouevre for its results, without bothering with the intentions of the comic actor? Or maybe we could look about and find other actors who, in their acting alone separate from writing or directing, show a consistency of character, theme, explorative subject (John Wayne comes to mind). Or we could be more subjective: are there certain actors you follow in the same way you might follow a writer, a director, a musician? Does having a "favorite actor" mean quite the same thing as having a "favorite writer"? And how is it different?

I like all these lines of inquiry, but I'm interested in reflecting on acting as a creative act. When I speak of a Shakespearean production, I would tend to refer to "Actor A's Character" rather than "Director B's Play" (for example, to me this is "Gibson's Hamlet," not "Zeffirelli's Hamlet"). It is the actor who interprets and creates the character. If I see a film or stage version, it is not the choices of the director I will relish, but the choices of the actor. Of course the actor is not independent: he/she relies on the initial creation of character and words by Shakespeare, as well as the vision and support of a director. But what artist can work in isolation with total freedom from interference or influence? A writer does not invent the language he/she works in, even if he/she invents his/her own version of it.

But let's move to television. David Chase created The Sopranos, but I think it was really Tony Gandolfini who created Tony Soprano. Certainly Chase invented him, but it was Gandolfini who gave him life, who gave him shape, who thrusts Tony Soprano into my consciousness. Gandolfini is a creative agent. Gandolfini is the artist who passed a character from the realm of imagination into...well, my imagination (when I started watching the DVDs I did have dreams about him). Could another actor have done so? Maybe. Maybe not. But I want to credit the actor for making the character what he is, and I do believe it is the actor as creative agent that reached me.

That's not to say that's always the case. Larry David is probably more responsible than Jason Alexander for the genius of George Costanza, but Michael Richards is largely the creator of Kramer.

And maybe we get back to the old problem of Jack Nicholson's Randle Patrick McMurphy against Ken Kesey's Randle Patrick McMurphy. They're not quite the same McMurphy, are they? I don't think Milos Forman made a different McMurphy. And while I can have serious discussion about the differences between the film and novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I cannot really articulate why Nicholson's portrayal of McMurphy is not quite the McMurphy of the book. I can only say that Nicholson is a great actor, an artist, a dominant presence that makes a character his own. Simply by having Nicholas play McMurphy, McMurphy becomes something other than what he was in the text (of course, right? He's an aesthetic creation, and so that aesthetic in words on a page is different than an actor on a screen. That's not what I want to address here; I'm still asserting that Nicholson created a character).

So maybe I'm only thinking of the brilliant actors here (but, in the same way proponents of Auteur Theory mainly think of the brilliant directors). What of the average actors? What of the lousy actors?

But let me raise a problem (and suggest this whole line of inquiry is either pointless or impossible). I love the film The Aviator for its portrayal of character; I thought Leonardo DiCaprio was brilliant (I'm rather interested in OCD). One scene in particular lingers with me: Hughes is in a restroom, and he doesn't want to touch the door to get out, so he quietly waits until somebody else enters the restroom so that he can leave without touching the door.

The scene is wonderful: I recall the quiet and the focus. But whom do I really credit for the scene? Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, director Martin Scorcese, or writer John Logan? And this may also get at why I can't quite accept Auteur Theory. I think it likely the scene worked so well because actor, director, writer, and even a host of others contributing to the creation of the scene made it work. A singular, controlling vision? That doesn't matter; what matters is the resulting scene, a scene with many contributors to its brilliance (though perhaps Auteur Theory is a way to understand an ouevre, not a particular film or a particular scene).

I'm interested in the ways that an actor creates. I'm interested in the way an actor can be an artist. I'm interested in why different people watch things and what they're looking for when they watch. And I'm interested in how we talk about these things.

Let me finish by noting that in some ways, the subject of acting and the theater haunts my dreams. I have recurring dreams (nightmares, I suppose) about somehow making a mistake and ruining a stage show. In particular, I sometimes dream that I'm in a play, and perhaps I don't know my lines, perhaps I don't know the blocking, or often it's more serious: I don't know what character I'm playing, or I don't even know what play I'm in. In my dreams, I often find myself on stage in front of people with other performers, not knowing what I'm supposed to be doing and aware that I'm ruining everything. Please, try that on Freud.

(These contrapuntal essays are taking a distinct shape toward a) rambling directionlessly and b) asking a bunch of questions I'm not bothering to answer (I really hate the latter trend in my writing and will work toward toning it down). What I'm finding in these essays, however, is that it is not the result that makes it contrapuntal, but my mindset whiile writing. I'm willing to ramble and raise questions and lose focus. It's a method, a way of thinking, and thus the writing and thinking goes where I don't expect when I begin)

Friday, December 05, 2008

The first stanza of "v."

"Next millennium you'll have to search quite hard
to find my slab behind the family dead,
butcher, publican, and baker, now me, bard
adding poetry to their beef, beer, and bread."

Tony Harrison's "v." contains 112 four line stanzas.  When I come back to the poem, I'm struck by how succinctly the first stanza reveals the major subjects of the rest of the long poem.

One of the elements of the poem is the pit underneath the cemetery, a "rabblement of bone and rot,/ shored slack, crushed shale, smashed prop."  This pit is a part of the discussion of the process of nature making "coal, that began, with no man here at all,/as 300 million-year-old plant debris."  It is in the creation of this coal that the "v." represents victory "For vast, slow, coal-creating forces that hew the body's seams to get the soul."  The useless dead bodies, through hundreds of millions of years, are turned into something useful (in fact, coal is warming the poet's home at the end of the poem).  It is a long process, requiring time.    And the first line of the poem subtly puts us into the the mindset of long periods of times with the reference to "millennium."

The poem is partly about the poet's relationship with his family, which is also about his relationship to class.  And so his "slab behind the family dead" puts us into that context.  The poet will share memories of his father, and wrestle internally with his class and the relationship of poetry to class.

The sounds in the next two lines are harsh but alliterative; they share similar sounds, but they share harsh beginnings and endings that require distinct pronunciations.  The key words in the third line are the job titles (and job titles, we find, are listed on the gravestones in the cemetery): butcher, publican, baker, bard.  the fourth line features nouns that are produced by those workers described in line three: poetry, beef, beer, and bread.  It's also worth noting the simple words beef, beer, and bread also seem to connote the food for working class people: simple, hearty, affordable.   Beer has class associations, and beef and bread are food provided for us by a "butcher" or a "baker."

And it's hard not to see the strong contrast between "poetry" and "beef, beer, and bread."  The sounds themselves are different: three single-syllable words, beginning with "b" and also ending with a consonant, against "poetry."  The different sounds remind us in the major difference: beef, beer, and bread are tangible and useful.  They provide something for people.  We can consume them.  What's poetry to that?  Hollow and empty.  "Poetry" can sound grand, but when you set poetry next to "beef, beer, and bread," it becomes nothingness both of sound and content.

And Harrison seems to recognize that; after all, later the skinhead voice tells him "it's not poetry we need in this class war."  Poetry is ultimately ineffectual.  The poem is partly about class and material conditions, about poverty and social place.  The beef, beer, and bread can provide something concrete and useful; poetry is air.  So in the first stanza, "now me, bard/adding poetry" to those useful consumables, comes off as sort of silly, frivolous.  But "poet" will be the label on Harrison's gravestone.

Perhaps we as readers don't see the deprecation there.  After all, would a poet minimize the use of poetry within a poem?  And would we as readers, obviously seeing some value in poetry since we are reading it, perhaps consider poetry loftier, nobler, more meaningful than the rougher, more common "beef, beer, and bread"?  Maybe.  But the material conditions of poetry are emphasized in the poem's final line, where Harrison's epitaph tells viewer that if they want to seek where poetry comes from, they should "find the beef, the beer, the bread, then look behind."  This last stanza again reminds us of the pit under the graveyard (evoking the process of turning decay into something useful), and then tells us the poetry comes from those tangible products, those useful edibles, food and drink.

It is, then, lines three and four of the poem that really bring us our subject.  Harrison names job titles (mostly working class job titles, put into the context of time and death), and then identifies the tangible material "stuff" produced by those doing the jobs (the nouns are, in my opinion, critical, as they require us to focus on the material "stuff").  But most importantly, he immediately places the role of poetry into this discussion.  The poem explores the relationship of language and class (the skinhead's shouting would not be the same without the cursing), but more specifically the relationship of poetry to class, to social change, to our real lives.  Harrison tells the skinhead voice that he writes poetry to give the lower class "a hearing," to "give some higher meaning to your scrawl."  The skinhead not only points out that such an effort really gives nothing to those people, but is not even in the language of those people ("Can't you speak/the language that yer mam spoke").  They talk about the cursing, Harrison telling the voice his mother didn't talk like him, and the voice responding "She didn't understand yer fucking 'art'!/She thought yer fucking poetry obscene!"  

The poem is about other things: the versus, the united, and all that.  But central is poetry, language, class.  Harrison doesn't suggest there is a simply relationship here, but he is, at any rate, exploring that relationship, and he shows us this from the first stanza.

favorite poetry (without comment)

My three favorite poems are John Milton's Paradise Lost, Tony Harrison's "v.", and Sylvia Plath's "Daddy."  My favorite poetry collections are Ted Hughes' Crow and Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Monday, December 01, 2008

Imagination and Art

In an interview in the Star Tribune, Gregory Maguire says of his Oz,

"It is so real in my imagination that I could go Google Oz with it just like Google Earth. I can zone in to any little corner and find something fascinating. The place feels so real, with its own history and population, its peculiar strains of beliefs and imagination and social progress. It's the vehicle that has allowed me to open up the most far-seeing apparatus of my imagination."

I too have the ability to conceive in my imagination entirely new worlds.  Since childhood I've imagined vivid, detailed worlds, thriving in my mind, rich with imaginative, created reality.  My obsessive-compulsiveness also leads me to imagine all sorts of scenarios occurring in my life, all sorts of situations, all sorts of fantasies, hopeful or frightening or tedious.  In my mind, all sorts of events and places and people have existed, created but not real.

And I don't assume I'm special in this way: I think many, if not most, if not all, of us are capable of creating worlds in our minds.  Of imagining that which is not with rich detail.

What I lack, and what most people lack, is the aesthetic ability to express my created worlds to others.  I may be able to convey what I imagine, but not with eloquence or beauty or real art.  I cannot express it well in fiction or poetry, nor do I have much ability with visual art.  I don't believe I have aesthetic ability (though maybe someday I will find it, I don't know).  I can create worlds in my mind, but I cannot artfully give my world to you.

And this is what separates a writer's imagination from a non-writer's imagination (I imagine).  It is not the ability to create, but the ability to aesthetically express that creation to others.

(And in my opinion, anyway, Gregory Maguire does have that ability to aesthetically express his created world).