Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bigger, Faster, Bloodier

Shakespeare at Sloss's production of Macbeth is shaping into one of the best shows I've ever been in. I'm not pulling the weight on this; there are a lot of roles in this show in which someone shows up, says something interesting, and then dies or goes away. I'm one of them. I'm intrigued by the way Shakespeare fills out his stories with lots of richly detailed side characters. An actor seeking monologues could pick from Shakespeare forever without ever touching the famous bits.

Anyway, this production holds me in awe; director Elizabeth Hunter is really mining the ore of the text. And the fight scenes make me cringe in terror. I know they're really dances, but they look so brutal.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

More about Last Temptation

I am oddly fascinated with this article which I found while Googling Last Temptation of Christ. The author, Steven D. Greydanus, seems thoughtful and levelheaded right up until he draws his final conclusions, equating the image of William-Dafoe-as-Jesus kissing Barbary-Hershey-as-Magdalene with the imagery in racist propaganda films, and finds the racist propaganda less objectionable.

"Sometimes it’s possible to prescind from a movie’s offensive use of themes and appreciate its achievements in spite of its moral failings," our reviewer writes. "One can bracket one’s objections to the Marxist propaganda in The Battleship Potemkin, or the racist celebration of the original Ku Klux Klan in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and still value the striking imagery of the famous Odessa Steps sequence from the former, or the groundbreaking editing in the climactic chase scene of the latter.

"But I for one don’t see how it’s possible to bracket all the objections that must be raised to all that is anti-Christian in Last Temptation, and still have anything worthwhile left over to appreciate or enjoy."

Well! I strongly question his use of the phrase Anti-Christian. "Anti-Christian" suggests a deliberate attempt to argue against or belittle Christianity. I don't buy it. The film makes use of fictive paradox to examine the role of Jesus, but while I can't read the minds of the film's creators, the logic of the movie is a validation of Jesus. Even if one does consider it to be blasphemous, though, comparing it to racist propaganda is problematic. The problem with racist propaganda isn't that it takes decent-minded people out of our comfort zones, but that it endorses ideas that are unacceptable if humanity is to thrive. Now, if Christianity is fundamentally true one could argue that blasphemy also endorses ideas that are unacceptable if humanity is to thrive, but exactly what kind of blasphemy is on display here? It's the kind of "blasphemy" that takes pious people out of their comfort zones, but that's not the same as a real attack on the heart and soul of Christianity. The film is not an attack on Jesus as a person or as God Incarnate, but rather a consideration of what Jesus was not, the better to highlight what Jesus was. The complex use of paradox which is essential to Last Temptation is shocking to conventional piety, but the end result of the film, if one takes it on its own terms, is a resounding validation of Jesus. Maybe not a conventionally pious one, but a validation nonetheless. It brought a tear to this Unitarian's eye.

I'm not saying there's no case for a Christian taking offense at this film; it constantly problematizes our understanding of Jesus and his role. But I think folks seized on the wrong parts of the film to worry about. Harry Dean Stanton as Paul has a speech about how the concept of Jesus as Redeemer is relevant regardless of the facts about the person of Jesus... that's probably the part you'd wanna fight with.

I met Randall Wallace, the famously Christian screenwriter, once. He spoke at a seminar about how his screenplay for Braveheart was in large part a free reworking of tales from the Bible, and how his script for We Were Soldiers reworked facts for the benefit of fiction. I asked him how he would approach the task of writing about Jesus; if he would let piety rein in his fictive approach. His reply shook and reconfigured my whole approach to life.

"I think Piety is a bunch of crap," said Randall Wallace.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Second Post of the Day: Last Temptation

This morning I tried to explain to a friend why the end of Last Temptation of Christ was so affecting for me, and failed. She wasn't steeped in Christianity the way I was, so the crucifixion doesn't pack the same inherent wallop for her.

Beyond that wallop (that any Jesus movie would have for me) this movie, through poetic, mystical reinventing of the Jesus narrative, reasserts one of the paradoxes that are central to Christianity. If you think someone is the Messiah who's come to usher in a new world order, and he gets killed, you were wrong and he failed, right? But Christianity takes this apparent defeat and asserts that it is, in fact, a mystic triumph. The mystic tension between common sense and this assertion gives the Crucifixion and resurrection much of its power.

In this movie, though, Jesus escapes from the cross. He has the obvious reason for doing so (getting crucified sucks) and lives a normal life, until his apostles return to blast Jesus for selling out humanity and his divine destiny. So Jesus goes back in time and returns to the cross. Jesus's last words on the cross are typically translated "It is finished" (at least in my faith tradition) but this film rejects that resigned-sounding translation in favor of the appropriately buoyant "It is accomplished!" And William Dafoe's triumphant grin is heartbreaking. I can't imagine any film asserting the triumph of the Cross with more power.

Admittedly lots of the film is a talky cinematic essay on Jesus rather than a compelling narrative, but I'm glad I watched it.

Kerns and Gallowglasses

I'm really excited about Macbeth at Sloss. Although my experience of the whole show is really patchy because I'm in so few scenes, what I've seen so far is smart, tight, carefully constructed and potent theatre. I'm delighted to be leaving town on an up note.

My part is still listed as Caithness, even though all of Caithness's lines have been cut or redistributed and I'm now playing the First Sargent. I only have one speech, but it's a fun, meaty, gritty speech. My character describes, and celebrates, the scene of battle which he's come to recount for the King; I celebrate, dissemble, and try to get my tale out before my copious wounds knock me down. It's fun! I'm playing someone whose warlike attitude is far removed from mine. His gung-ho "Put me in, coach" sensibility is an interesting thing for a timid mouse like me to explore.

In other news: just as I dig deeper into M. John Harrison's writings (I've started reading The Pastel City, his first Viroconium novel), he takes his blog offline. Boo!

I'm wearing a shirt that I took out of storage and washed recently. It smells like sour milk. This seems representative of my lifestyle in a way I can't quite explicate.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Plimpton Pixels

Yesterday I read something about how George Plimpton was the spokescelebrity for Mattel's Intellivision game system, way back when. I actually remember this. I didn't know who George was (My age was in the single digits) but I found the idea of a smart person talking up video game systems oddly compelling.

What if other game systems had responded by hiring their own public intellectual spokespersons? Susan Sontag rhapsodizing about the visceral eroticism of Odyssey 2, Marshall McLuhan raving about Atari's reprogramming of our concept of visual space. I think this could make for a funny sketch, but ideas are a nickel a dozen; someone's got to develop and concretize an idea for it to bear fruit. I don't have time to develop this notion so I thought I'd leave it here for anyone to steal. If the other folks in my improv/comedy performance group read my blog they might be able to build on this idea, but they don't read my blog so we'll miss this opportunity. That'll larn 'em! Next time read my blog, suckers!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Out of Viroconium

In This Interview oddball fantasy/SF writer M. John Harrison says:

"My feeling about escapist fiction has softened a little down the years but it has never really changed. I think it's undignified to read for the purposes of escape. After you grow up, you should start reading for other purposes. You should have a more complicated relationship with fiction than simple entrancement. If you read for escape you will never try to change your life, or anyone else's. It's a politically barren act, if nothing else. The overuse of imaginative fiction enables people to avoid the knowledge that they are actually alive. (In fact, various evasions, various kinds of fantasy, seem to me to be a kind of bad politics in themselves, the default politics of the day, through which we maintain our Western illusions of freedom and choice.)"

He has put his finger on one of the greatest problems I've had in my life. Once Harrison's words would have filled me with panicked resentment. Until a few years ago I engaged entertainment for two reasons: One was to learn how to function as an entertainer myself, but the main one was to replace the scary real world with a soothing artificial world. I watched The Neverending Story and dreamed of finding a book that would whisk me away to a colorful world of bald princesses, flying dogs and comfortable Messianic status for myself. I once said to a friend "Oz is better than real life," and I said it without irony.

Now I try to engage life in an active and expansive way instead of the timid and closed-off approach I've always had. The unpredictability and unfolding immanence of life is a pleasure to me where once it was a terror. Improv has a lot to do with this, but my engagement with Harrison's work has clarified the importance of fiction as fiction, rather than replacement reality. Thanks, M. John.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I feel a bit guilty. During a girlfriend-mandated apartment cleaning session this weekend I tossed out 4 beer bottles I'd been planning to recycle. Weariness overrode my eco-friendly intent. I'm a bit ambivalent about going green; mostly I want to save the biosphere, but part of me is attracted to the idea of letting the Earth join its barren peers in the Guild of Planets. Uh, anyway, I've decided to compensate by grabbing, rinsing and recycling every bottle I find in front of my apartment building from now on (sadly, there's usually a stray bottle or two out there...)

Another thing Laurie has done to bring me up to par with everybody else: she gave me a coffee machine. The distinction between my old coffee lifestyle (wake up, eat breakfast, clean and groom, drive to work, log in and THEN have some coffee) versus having coffee (made to my specifications) first thing, changes the entire chemistry of my day.

We saw Glengarry Glen Ross at Playhouse. Good stuff, and Mr. Goldstein was the standout (no, I'm not just saying that cuz he's a reader). My only quibbles are that some actors were playing with fine-grained naturalism while others were working a near-kabuki style, which made it a bit stylisticly uneven, and the jury-rigged seating made it hard to see a lot of the action. It was a bit like radio theatre for the first act, which I kind of enjoyed but I bet other folks didn't.

Laurie and I also tried out a card game called Once Upon A Time, which is a storytelling game. I suspect the mechanics of this game could be pillaged for improv formats. I'll have to try it out with my improv crew.

Anyway, Laurie is awesome. Every home should have one.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Stuffs

I've been checking plays out from the library. I wanna see Beth Henley and Timberlake Wertenbaker plays. I'm just sayin'.

Anyway, Laurie shows up this afternoon. Fun will commence! There's been a big buildup since I've been trying to clean my apartment to the point that it will pass Professor Laurie's exam. I anticipate maybe a B-, maybe a C+. At least after this I'll be able to downshift the cleaning from a nightly desperate mad dash to a more measured pace.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

How 2 act guud wif arren wite master clas

Last night I rehearsed my monologue in The Scottish Play. The director chastized my "atrocious english accent." Per her orders I switched to using my own accent (whatever that is) and my performance seemed to gain in honesty and expression, just because I wasn't doing a plummy "Shakespherian" voice. Funny Voice Syndrome always bugs me in others, although I'm guilty of it myself. Or as Jane Bowles put it in Two Serious Ladies, "It is against my entire code, but then, I have never even begun to use my code, although I judge everything by it."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

No Time

Darn it, I don't have time for a real post. Behind at work. Busy every nite too, rehearsing the Scottish Play and cleaning my apartment for Laurie's impending visit.

I'll do a linkpost instead of a thinkpost today: an archive of an old zine broadside called Cheap Truth, written more or less by Bruce Sterling from 1983-1986.
It aspired to edge-cutting and is now a delightful nostalgia tonic for kids like me who grew up SF nerds in the Eighties, even if we weren't reading the books in discussion.


CHEAP TRUTH! It's so cyberpunk. I'd actually like to talk about it, but I won't becuz NO TIME.

Friday, April 11, 2008

You gonna argue or fish?

I was scanning an online story about a new inspirational book. The article-though not necessarily the book itself-refers to the importance of "fulfilling childhood dreams".

My childhood dream was to be a fisherman. Childrens' book illustrator Richard Scarey drew fisherman cats in yellow rain slickers that looked cheerful, sitting on their boats and fishing. It looked like an idyllic lifestyle to my four-year-old self. I told everybody how I was gonna be a fisherman.

Do I have to be a fisherman now? If I don't, have I turned my back on my childhood dreams?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Nostalgia Without Pleasure

Thumbing through a high school yearbook the other night, I was struck by how many attractive kids there were in my graduating class. Many of them weren't particularly well known, and certainly weren't the acclaimed beautiful people of the school; just a lot of pretty young women and handsome young men who never plugged into whatever social mechanism it is that turns some kids into the beauties and hunks of the school. Who knows why?

With some of those kids I vaguely remembered talking to them once or twice... I think a lot of people put out feelers to see if I'd be their friend, and I was too clueless and socially inept to even realize it was happening. I had important Dragonlance novels to read, vital Roger Dean coffee table books to study... who had time for new friends?

Moreover I think I was too cliquish. I really believed that if you weren't a card-carrying member of the Dungeons and Dragons table in the lunchroom, the prayer group that met Friday mornings, or the forensics team, then relations between us could never, and maybe should never, flourish. What was I thinking?

* * *

Speaking of what people were thinking in school, I had a teacher named Mr. Smith who taught Freshman world history. He looked rather like Dan Quayle. He took an interest in me and I in him. I don't remember much about these classes, but they satisfied my curiosity about other lands and my desire to, well, exercise my brain a bit. I think he stayed pretty close to the textbook, but had a speaking style I found engaging. I remember a couple of things about his class, though, that struck me oddly at the time and irk me now.

Uno: He skipped the chapter in our textbook about African history. He explained this by saying that Africa hasn't contributed enough to the world to be worth studying. !!! Africa contributed THE HUMAN RACE to the world. Maybe it hasn't contributed much stuff that Honkies named Smith can appreciate, but that's all the more reason to learn about Africa. Now I wanna find Mr. Smith and graft an African ceremonial mask to his face.

Dos: There were a couple paragraphs in our textbook about Buddhism. Mr. Smith devoted a day's class to "debunking" Buddhism by showing how, on the basis of the potted explanation of Buddhism our book offered, Buddhism was bogus. Weelll... any religion can be made to look silly if you come to it from the outside and take a reductionist approach. Smith and I were both outspoken Christians, and he loaned me a tract that I thought was pretty cool at the time. It might have been a genuinely intellectually stimulating class if a whimsical Buddhist could have offered a counterpoint by taking that tract to task.


This ties in to a recurring concern for me lately; what lessons did I actually learn, and from whom? These are the crap lessons I remember Smith teaching; what else did I pick up from him? I have a lot of bad ideas in my head, and lately I find myself wondering: how much of this did I learn as a youngster, and how did I learn it? How much of it was me misunderstanding what people tried to pass no to me, as opposed to people just misteaching me? I recall a church camp where they got all the boys in an auditorium so a woman could tell us all about what women want from men. I remember paying close attention but I don't remember what she told us. There's a lot of stuff like that in my past. How much of what's right and wrong about me comes from these lessons that I've conciously forgotten? Who taught me what?

I had at least one wonderful teacher whom I should write about later...

Monday, April 07, 2008

Theatre Yappin'

Thinking about theatre a bit.

1. I could write a quite critical review of a show I saw over the weekend, but I won't because I have too many personal ties to the show. This is why theatre critics shouldn't be chummy with the theatre crowd; it won't do to pull one's punches on behalf of one's buddies. OTOH critics should also be astute and knowledgeable about theatre, which is hardly characteristic of B'ham's arbiters of taste at the Birmingham News.

2. Rehearsing Macbeth at Sloss Furnace is one of the most remarkable theatrical gigs I've ever had. In one scene Banquo speaks about how birds residing in the castle are good omens... as we rehearse in the great pavilion that is our playing space, birds actually swoop through the rafters.

3. Our slim and sexy costume designer and her slim and sexy friends dropped by to show our slim and sexy director what our slim-and-sexy-person-centric costumes will look like. Those of us who are not slim and sexy (me) will look very bad indeed in these costumes. Are they just unaware that there are fat folks in the show, or are they trying to shame us for the sin of obesity? I'm an American, for crying out loud; I'm supposed to be fat!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

FYI

Someone from Jamaica just googled across my blog while searching for "Dog blood tea." I don't know, and I don't want to know.

Edit: actually I did want to know. A little Google-fu shows that there's a "Dog's Blood Berry" in Jamaica, from which tea can be made with no harm to canines. Phew!

Narration Nation

The other night I called Laurie as she chilled in a hotel prior to one of them fancy scientist things she's always zipping around to. Over the phone she narrated the unfolding of dopey "reality" shows as she watched, then got bored with that and hopped over to a cheezy movie, which she also began describing in cackling detail. I have never, ever heard her sound as gleeful as she did narrating an old superhero movie. Maybe I should dress up as a superhero next time I see her.

My parents tell me that a friend of theirs is awfully nervous. This friend teaches at a Baptist-affiliated college. Very heavy conservative religious expectations in the air, right? And her husband is on a reality show over in Cali or somewhere. And the producers of the show are trying to railroad him into having a fake gay tryst with another dude on the show. It probably wouldn't be a problem if the show were unabashedly a drama, but since it presents itself as "reality" the woman is living with the fear that everyone in town will think her husband is publicly cheating on her with another guy. Then the show ends, he comes home... and will they be able to hold their heads up at the next Wednesday night potluck? Oh, reality TV! I guess it's the perfect entertainment for Neo-Con America. That and those Saw movies.