Thursday, January 29, 2009

Play, Right?

Just FYI, I've decided that as long as I'm not gainfully employed I should write a play. I'm just making a public announcement about it so I can't back down from it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Second Post of the Day

Best wishes to Andy, who per his blog is suffering from back trouble. Get well soon, Andy!

Transcription (From Memory)

Page: You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. I'm Susan Page, filling in for Diane, and our topic today is harsh interrogation tactics which the Bush administration has approved and defended, but which President Obama seeks to end. Our guests are Mike Posner, President of Human Rights First; Jess Bravin, reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and Mark Thiessen, former speechwriter for President Bush. Mike, what's the story on harsh interrogation?

Mike: The Greatest Generation had a strict anti-torture policy, and they beat the Axis. We have a pro-torture policy, and we can't beat a bunch of scruffy cave dwellers.

Mark: We don't define it as torture if it works. Our interrogators tried going by the book and got diddly, but with harsh interrogation techniques we got info on all kinds of evil, and used that info to stop attacks on Americans.

Page: Such as?

Mark: Al-Quaida was totally gonna go ape all over us, but we got the info and stopped it.

Mike: Can you back that up with specifics?

Mark: I'm afraid I can't reveal the kind of high-level secrets that only speechwriters are privy to.

Jess: You know, I sat in on some Army interrogation training, and the by-the-book tactics aren't softball at all. They push people pretty far.

Mark: Nah, I've seen it. It's totally vanilla.

Mike: Vanilla?

Page: Let's take some calls. Hello Fred, you're on the air.

Fred: I'm a psychologist so I know what I'm talking about when I say that in Vietnam we learned that you do ANYTHING to get the information. You can't have your hands tied. You do whatever it takes to get the information. I can't tell you how many times I had to tie a guy up, slap him around, and press my genitals to his sweating, bristly face, just to get information out of him.

Mike: So those were the interrogation tactics used in Vietnam?

Fred: They were my tactics, and I find they're just as applicable to therapy.

Page: Really.

Fred: I've turned many a troubled teen around.

Mike: Say, didn't we lose in Vietnam?

Fred: Who's we, white man? Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Mihn! He taught us how to win!

Page: And that's about enough of Fred. Here's Becky from Nashville on line 2.

Becky: Speaking as President and Founder of the Nashville branch of the Daddy Touched Me And I Liked It Society, I believe real American Christian Men are tough. and in my White Christian McMansion with Thomas Kinkade prints on the wall, tough means being strong enough to put panties on the head of a guy who's been tied to a bedframe.

Mark: Now you're talkin'.

Becky: Don't forget, Jesus was a torturer!

Jess: Actually Jesus was tortured, not a torturer.

Becky: Are you saying Jesus was a terrorist?

Jess: No, the Romans thought he was a terrorist, so they tortured him on a false pretext.

Becky: That never happens I'm not listening LA LA LA. If you drew a Venn Diagram of "People Who Get Tortured" and "Terrorists" it would show a total overlap. We are an exceptional, moral, blessed nation, and that means we can do anything we want without jeapordizing our exceptional, moral, blessed status. If that means torturing a few creeps, so what?

Mark: Wow, I usually have to pay $3.95 per minute for this.

Page: Becky, thank you for your keen insights. Mark, zip your pants back up.

Mark: Look, this word "torture" is getting thrown around too freely. It's not torture if they're HEROES.

Mike: Where I come from Heroes is a dopey superhero soap opera. Only Neo-Cons think it's a reality show.

Mark: Mike, why do you love 9-11?

Mike: Suck it, gnome.

Mark: Okay then, Mike, let me ask you something. If you could have prevented 9-11 by sticking bamboo shoots under a terrorist's fingernails, would you have?

Jess: If I may interject here, 9-11 didn't happen because no one in America had the moral courage to torture terrorists. It happened because the CIA and FBI were acting like middle-schoolers who think each other is too stuck up. If they had shared information that they already had, the whole thing could have been averted.

Mark: Where's the fun in that? I can't go back to highlighting favorite passages in Naked Lunch! Tormenting young Arabic men is too important for the imagination alone! It needs to be explored... in all its shiny, wet glory...

Page: My hand to God, we are never discussing this topic again.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Nagging Dreams

Laurie gave me a GPS, one of those little computers you suction-cup to your windshield and it gives you directions in a sometimes cheerful, sometimes scolding voice. We call it Nag Lady.

One cool thing about Nag Lady is that she has a bunch of preset locations, so if you need, say, a grocery store you can just scroll through Nag's list of nearby groceries, pick one that sounds promising, and go. Along with franchise and chain retail joints, Nag knows about a lot of offbeat places.

For example, I was out in the country recently and I wanted a grocery store. Browse through the list... aha! "A Better Taste Co-op." How could I resist a Co-op? Sure, it was a little out of my way, but why not give it a try!

Nag Lady led me down wandering roads through the woodsy hills of North Carolina, past burnt phone books and mounds of paper on the side of the road. Evidence of an angrily failed attempt to navigate North Carolina's love for bureaucracy?

After miles of twisty, turny country roads, Nag Lady led me to... a house at the end of a gravel drive. No signs. No evident retail facility. Just a country house, out where people live when they don't want you finding them.

Sadly? Not the first time this had happened. I like to check out obscure retail establishments, and I'm gullible, so I'd fallen for Nag Lady's prankishness before. In High Point she kept promising to know the way to shops with intriguing names (all of which I've willfully forgotten) but always led me to the same dull mid-priced residential subdivision.

Perhaps someone at Garmin has a puckish sense of humor. But I have a woolier hypothesis...

I often dream of finding sections of town that are packed with wonderful shops, shops that brim with low-priced, high-quality, attractive and unusual products. Bookstores, mostly, full of the kinds of books I want but can rarely find.

Perhaps Nag Lady also dreams of these shops, and tries to lead me to them... only to find that they have vanished like dreams.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Second Post of the Day

After reading this column by L. Brent Bozell I was all excited about the inaugural poem. Bozell is the self-appointed spokesman of people with plastic grapes on top of their TV cabinets, and his manufactured outrage is a handy guide to things I might wanna check out. It's evident from this column that he doesn't know what constitutes authentic avant-garde work (or that he thinks we don't), and that he conflates "being taken outside one's comfort zone" with "having grounds for offense," so I inverse-heed his words. I felt let down this time, though: the poem was true but banal (or banal but true, to phrase it a bit more charitably). I hate to come across like a wannabe Harold Bloom, but I'd prefer something that made us work a little harder.

Don't hate; Celebrate!

I was raised to rightly revile racism, but my hometown of Signal Mountain Tennessee is a White Christian Republican Pod-Person breeding ground, and while most White Christian Republican Pod-People are perfectly fine folks, some are Klansmen. I rode the schoolbus with the breed of such sad cases, and I have to wonder what all the white supremacists are thinking as the USA sees a black (or mixed-race, really, which hatin' honkies don't like either) man, who is clearly superior to any white supremacist on offer, become President. Part of me wants to gloat, but that's not really in tune with the proper spirit of the day, is it?

A lot of those racist kids tried to make friends with me, expecting me to be a fellow White Man. I of course gave those chinless wonders the icy-cold shoulder; I was an elitist, not a racist. But once we went to a high school with black students a lot of those klan kids discovered that class was a stronger bonding agent than race. They made friends with black kids and stopped wasting their time by trying to befriend me. By which time I was finally willing to be friends with them, but too late.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Second post of the day: Invaders From Mars!

There's some cool stuff in this Fifties fever dream, but most of it can be found in compressed form in this trailer. Most of the groovy bits are near the beginning and the end: the start is pure fifties Americana and the end is delirious. The picture takes forever to get to the good stuff, marking time with plotty plotting (much of which is charmingly absurd; no one thinks it's strange to throw a kid in jail and keep him there for no particular reason, while the scientist knows a little too much expositionary info about aliens... where does he get his info? From Science?). And the filmmakers assume we just can't get enough stock footage of tanks. Speaking of the military, I've never met a dull soldier, but all the soldiers in this flick are dull, dull dull. Yet once they enter the picture they take over from the little kid and cute lady whom I'd rather watch. The flick's so full of heroic soldiers rushing around and serving as collectivist proletariat heroes that I wondered if Sergei Eisenstein was an uncredited codirector. Finally they bust into the aliens' smoked-glass hideout (where the woman's blouse slips off her shoulder and her hair gets disheveled in the film's one concession to cheesecake sensuality). Alien sociology is pretty simple: Low-level alien slaves look like guys in green flannel PJs with zipperlike spines, tight hoodies and fly goggles. The boss alien is pretty creepy, though, as demonstrated by the trailer, and they have some kind of ray that keeps the pretty doctor lady frozen in a pained pulp-cover pose that the director seems to like as much as I did since he keeps cutting back to it.

Most of the film's final minutes is a double exposure: a closeup of the boy's garishly-lit running face, and a mostly-pointless series of flashbacks to previous bits of the film. The whole movie should have been done as a superimposed flashback.

Casting for Passion

When I was in college we had auditions for Pippin. I knew a freshman Music Theatre student who was hungry, mad hungry, to play Pippin, and I could see him in the role. He was trim, cute, and enthused.

I saw his audition. I don't remember which song he sang, but he was flat. Way flat. Throughout the song. He burned with passion and enthusiasm; you could feel the passion billowing out of him, throughout the room, but he was FLAT. Mrs. Miller flat.

And you know what? The director cast him as Pippin.

I didn't work on the show, but I kept hearing from insiders that our hero was having terrible trouble hitting the right notes.

One day I mentioned to him that I wasn't really a fan of Pippin. "Neither am I anymore," he replied.

Then the show opened, and he was perfect. On pitch, still burning with passion. He won deserved praise and adulation, and I witnessed young women shamelessly throwing themselves at our still-closeted hero. "You were so sexy," they'd moan. "Sexy sexy SEXY!" And he'd wince.

So while I am coming to appreciate how much technical precision and reliable consistency a professional performer must have, I learned an important lesson from our hero's casting. Casting for passion and working on technique will yield more invigorating results than casting for technique and trying to engender passion.

Why do I bring this up? Could it be that Your Humble Narrator recently gave an almost-stupendous-but-for-one-visibly-flubbed-line audition? Could it be that the director averted his eyes from Your Narrator after the flub, and missed a fine performance?

Perhaps.

P.S. Nowadays I think Pippin is a delight... guess I had to outgrow my own Pippinish, puppyish qualities before I could swallow its gentle ribbing of young-boy enthusiasm.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Over Sea, Under Stone is Rising

I've already gone awry on my Read Your Own Books challenge by checking Over Sea, Under Stone out of the library. It's the first in the Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper. So far it's entertaining but a rather more conventional juvie tale than Dark, lacking the rich interplay between legend and modernity that helps make Dark so compelling.

Speaking of which, I decided years ago not to sacrifice two hours of my life to The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, the movie nominally based on the novel. A glance at the Hollywood-by-the-yard trailer was enough to shape that decision, but one early indicator that the film would probably suck was the screenwriter's avowal in pre-release interviews that Will Stanton, the hero of the tale, would be an outsider in the film, rather than a local. Midway down this article is a representative quote to that effect.

The problem with such a change is that Dark is about learning hidden layers of significance about familiar people and places. Continually Will is discovering that folks and locations he's grown up with and thought to be utterly ordinary have a deeper significance than he could have guessed. As a child I found this inspiring; the idea that subterranean streams of history and significance lay beneath the surface of one's humdrum neighbors and neighborhood was inspiring, and helped me appreciate my suburban town more than I might have otherwise. To rob the story of this element of learning deeper truths about one's familiar life is to rob it of the element that made it resonate with me all these years.

Also got my first taste of this Battlestar Galactica all my nerdbuddies are crazy about. I came in late so I can't pretend to evaluate the story beyond it's being a Dark Knight style consideration of W-Presidency issues in a genre context. I liked the acting, camerawork and spaceships though. It looks like a Stephen Youll painting come to life. Big Love is more my speed, though.

I have an audition tomorrow night, and if it goes well I may have something besides entertainment to post about soon.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Second Post of the Day: Act-Ing!

As an actor I'm transitioning from therapy to puppetry. Instead of trying to turn every Second Waiter role into a Forging in the Smithy of my Soul situation I'm thinking about how to use my body and voice to communicate with precision, wit, insight and economy. Not that one precludes the other, but I'm getting away from acting being a Spirit Journey and more about it being a communication.

More about my 2009 reading list

Okay, I mentioned An Alien Heat and Complete Albee Vol. 2. I'm also still working on Eno's Diary. Next up on my groaning-under-the-load bedside table:

The House With A Clock In Its Walls, a juvie fantasy I remember finding hypnotic as a kid. I was introduced to it by a freaky school filmstrip about kid's books, so bravo filmstrips.

A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet. A play of obvious interest.

Grendel by John Gardner. I remember being spellbound by this odd book in college. I recently reread Beowulf (in translation, natch) and wonder what I'll make of Gardner's philosophical novel now. I'd rather read this than watch the recent Hollywood film of Beowulf, with its ugly, stiff motion-capture animation.

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston. Why so much classic Juvie fiction? I think it's partly because I loved the stuff so much as a kid, partly because I'm excited by how clear yet rich the best of it is, and partly a blowback of my stick--in-the-mud refusal to read or watch Harry Potter.

Nova by Samuel Delany. Read in high school for a thing called Academic Decathlon. I recall it was exciting, but that's all I recall.

Make Your Own Damn Movie! by Lloyd Kaufman. I don't aspire to make a movie, but as my involvement in the performing arts and my interest in idiosyncratic fringe culture grows I want to keep my options open. And while I can take or leave Kaufman's movies, I do enjoy his anecdotes.

Peter Greenaway Interviews. I'm giving myself permission to only read as many as I want, though.

Hal Hartley Collected Screenplays Vol. 1. Why not?

Collected Plays of Edward Albee Vol. 3. What else ya gonna do?

Gravity's Rainbow. And you can keep your smart remarks to yourself. I'm totally gonna do it.

Also on the list: Kramer's Ergot 7 and a slew of M. John Harrison novels I ordered online, winging their way to my door. For crying out loud, DON'T TELL LAURIE I spent good money on more books!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Read 'em Already

Check out the Read Your Own Books Challenge! I've set aside an ambitious stack of books to tackle for 2009, and in keeping with this challenge I intend to keep you updated with my reading for this year. I'm currently working on An Alien Heat by Michael Moorcock and Volume 2 of the Complete Plays of Edward Albee. More to come...

Also note that I've added a few new links, including Eric of Austin's blog.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Likable Characters are for lonely readers.

In my enthusiasm for M. John Harrison's SF novel Light I did a bit of sniffing around the Internets, and stumbled across a review of it that I've been a bit fixated on over the last few days. (It's here if you want it.) I think it fascinates me because its logic and tone are such that it's uncannily like the review I might have written of Light 10-15 years ago, had the novel (and perhaps blogs) existed. The article got me thinking about how my view of fiction has changed.

Once upon a time I resented any and all fiction that wasn't

A: Escapist;

B: Comfort Food;

or C: Reassurance Fantasy.

As far as I was concerned an author's primary job was to sprinkle sugar on my thumb before I sucked it.

Phrases like "Two unlikable characters and one barely tolerable loser do not a compelling tale make" made perfect sense to me then.

I think what changed is that I slowly stopped turning to fiction and entertainment to fill my social needs. It seems a reoccurring problem for nerds like me; we want fictional characters and settings to meet, or help meet, our natural needs for human interaction and environmental stimulation. Once I got used to the fact that all my social needs should be met by humans, and all my needs for environmental stimulation should be met by my actual environment, I lost this desire to "hang out" with "likable"characters. Once one stops demanding that fictional characters be "likable," one is freer to engage the ways that fictional characters offer perspective on the human condition(s). Instead of looking for prefabricated Mary Sues a reader becomes open to understanding real people, to the extent that the author offers insight about real people.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy Eno Year!

I'm going through A Year With Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno's Diary and highlighting favorite passages. I thought I'd start the New Year by sharing a few of them with you. The following passages are all by Brian Eno, the great experimental musician and producer. His observations are wide-ranging, but I'm focusing are ideas about artistry with economy, since it seems the financial meltdown is going to tighten theatrical budgets, and I like lo-fi theatre anyway.

"Old ideas don't go away- new ones just get added.

"Spending lots of money is often an admission of lack of research, preparation and imagination. We must be more careful about this sort of thing in future. How much more satisfying to make clever, original (cheap) choices.

"Looked at fine gilded details on finials at (Big Ben) clock face-wondering if they were visible at ground level. They were-as subliminal detail. (Dave) Stewart explained theory of 'least distinguishable detail' (Christopher Alexander has it too), and we discussed the idea of working beyond perceptible ranges of detail- the idea that the mind registers detail without necessarily being able to distinguish it.

"If all I'd ever wanted to do was make money, I'd probably be really poor by now.

"Saying that cultural objects have value is like saying that telephones have conversations.

"All this money has been squeezed out of various committees on the pretext that something of high cultural value is being made for it. But whatever of value is made will not be the bit that cost all that money. I always want to work the other way round: 'Tell me what you can spare and I'll make something from it.'

"There must always be a positive relationship between what goes in and what comes out. Thrilling if little goes in and much comes out; OK when much goes in if much comes out; completely unacceptable if much goes in and little comes out. Classify all proposals on this continuum."

(Describing a group art exhibit which he oversaw:) "Almost without exception the best works were the cheapest. There are many good reasons why this should be so, but perhaps the best is that people who haven't invested much feel free to change their minds. So the cheap shows were the ones that suddenly changed quickly and for the better at the last moment.

"A new kind of artist-one who turns abandoned industrial projects into useful (lovely) objects.

"' Why am I doing this?' The question that always precedes something worthwhile."