Monday, January 23, 2017

One Last Night with Mata Hari

(Here are my Director's notes from the world premiere production of One Last Night with Mata Hari, which just finished its run at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston, ON.)

A century after her execution by firing squad in 1917, Mata Hari remains a household name. Search for her on Google and you will generate more than 40 million hits. Much of what you will find mixes fiction and fact, with the emphasis on the former. Mata Hari has become a mythological figure for the modern age: an exotic, treacherous femme fatale who seduces men, drains them of information, then ruthlessly betrays and discards them. As enchanting as she is dangerous, that version of Mata Hari has been embodied on film by some of cinema’s most glamourous stars, including Greta Garbo, Jeanne Moreau, and Sylvia Kristel. The real woman is barely visible beneath all the layers of fabrication. But now that the records of her secret trial are available, we have a better chance of recovering the truth.

To be sure, Mata Hari herself contributed much to her own myth. Before she was ever accused of being a double agent, she was already trafficking in a form of deception. Her stage persona was a deliberate invention in a mode we now would call “cultural appropriation.” To be blunt, she might as well have been using Edward Said’s Orientalism as a handbook. Mata Hari presented herself as half-Asian, but she was all Dutch, born Margaretha Zelle (she preferred the French version of her name, Marguerite). In that respect, one can compare Marguerite’s creation of Mata Hari, a putatively half-Asian performer, to Archibald Belaney’s creation of his fraudulent First Nations persona, Grey Owl. Of course, both were exposed as imposters. But it is worthwhile looking beyond that “aha!” moment to consider why Europe was at first so eager to embrace Mata Hari as a performer and so ready later to believe she was a traitor.

One way of grasping the point quickly is to compare Mata Hari to another semi-mythological figure from the Great War, the legendary Canadian flying ace, Billy Bishop. John Burge and I are both admirers of the elegant simplicity of the musical Billy Bishop Goes to War, and in some ways what we’ve created is deliberately the flip side of that show. Whereas its tunes were often inspired by the patriotic music hall, ours draw more on the sardonic cabaret and art song. As a mythical persona, Billy Bishop represents the culmination of the vast patriarchal and nationalistic drive toward war, a nearly gleeful bloodlust (“we’re going to fight the Hun!”). Western Civilization was plainly in the grip of a neurotic obsession with violence as an agent for change. But there were other means of expressing that same desire, as Modris Eksteins taught us in Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of Modernism; in the shadow of war, art was making its own sort of revolution. Mata Hari’s performance might have served as a sort of dream in which the East represented freedom from repression: an erotic, feminized revolution.

What of Mata Hari’s career as a spy? [Spoiler alert!] “Career” already overstates the matter. She did indeed provide the allies with some information, although her job was not made easy. Was she a double agent? Well, as we show, the conviction was based on scant evidence.

The authorities were eager to preserve Bishop’s life because he was “good for morale” (meaning good for preserving the enthusiasm for killing or being killed). If Mata Hari represented a tug in the opposite direction---away from Thanatos, the death instinct, and towards Eros and life---it is easy to imagine why it would be in certain interests to portray her as an enemy of the people. Now, that is an argument about preferences in propaganda; to move from there to the idea that there was a vast conspiracy to execute Mata Hari would be to indulge in paranoia. However, to suspect a smaller conspiracy is not at all unreasonable. After the war, Mata Hari’s nemesis, Georges Ladoux, stood trial for treason---twice. In the end he was acquitted, but enough evidence had been mustered against him to end his career.

Friday, November 27, 2015

2015 Convocation Address

This speech was actually delivered when I was guest speaker at the Spring Convocation, not at the more recent convocation a couple of weeks back, but I had totally forgotten about the speech until I was reminded today. Here goes.

Convocation 2015

Principal, Chancellor, Rector, Colleagues, Family and Graduands:

Certain Indian yoga masters say that, whenever a novice sits down to meditate, there is a risk of all the demons floating around nearby rushing in and creating a distraction. Apparently, concentrated intelligence is a threat to these demons. They want to keep the mind of the novice away from the spiritual and return it to trivial earthly matters. The demons want the novice to stop striving for something higher and to instead rest content with the default world.

Sound familiar? Sure, the demons you know probably take a different form. They look more like, oh, that Netflix series you were bingeing on, or Facebook, or…uh…Tetris? In other words, one’s own demons are never terrifying monsters. They’re comfortable and familiar. But they are the adversaries of our more precious purposes.

Still, whatever your particular demons might have been, here you are, so you must have been at least moderately successful at wrestling with them and concentrating on your studies. Congratulations.

But what happens now? Does getting this rolled up piece of paper mean an end to the struggle? I hope not. The whole point of your degree is to effect some permanent change in your thinking.

But what change? Well, it’s become a cliché in convocation addresses to say that the purpose of a liberal arts education---with varying emphasis on the arts---is not to supply knowledge, but to teach you how to think. It’s a cliché, but as with many clichés, there is some truth to it.

Let me back up a bit.

We get the term liberal education from the Romans. What they meant is the education that would help a free person take an active part in civic life. At its core this is about conceiving improvements for society and interrogating the ideas that are handed to you. It’s about cultivating a critical attitude towards what have become social norms.

Now the reason that the arts are crucial to this enterprise has to do with the insights of extraordinary individual minds. Such a mind, notwithstanding that it may belong to an eccentric social outlier, occasionally affords us a vision that is more compelling and far-seeing than what the world is otherwise willing to reveal. And regardless of whether that vision is in the form of a concerto or a play or a painting or an essay or whatever, it establishes its own authority by compelling our imaginations, in effect freeing us from the tyranny of our preconceptions about how the world works.

A great work of art confronts you with something for which you were not quite prepared. It takes what you thought of as fixed reality and causes that to slide into contingency and illusion. By studying these works, by embodying them within ourselves, we are pursuing a kind of mental discipline: a form of discipline that, paradoxically, leads to intellectual freedom. We all understand we are not free to play the bassoon until we have studied and practiced the bassoon. In a similar way, freedom of thought depends upon study and practice. And the discipline of thinking critically about and through art, the activity of a liberal arts education, leads to a free imagination.

The idea is well understood within the university; outside there are other opinions. Not long ago, I saw a videoclip in which the tv personality Kevin O’Leary was talking about education. First he declared: “money is the only thing that matters,” and then he said that, consequently, a “liberal arts degree…is useless” (BNN Video, G&M, 6 Feb 2015).

Now I hope that none of Kevin O’Leary’s loved ones are here in the audience, because O’Leary will be playing the role of demon in the rest of what I have to say.

We know that what O’Leary says represents a very commonplace a point of view. But is he right? Is money the only thing that matters? Let’s agree that money is important, never more so than if you don’t have enough. But you can only eat, dress and sleep so well. Once you have enough of it to make your life comfortable, pursuing money for its own sake, or for power, is a kind of neurosis. Those who worship money or power can never have enough of either. As some very rich people like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates will attest, having made yourself comfortable, the only real worth you will find in money or power lies in how you use it to improve the world.

But even were we to accept the premise that money is all-important, O’Leary is just factually wrong in suggesting that those with liberal arts degrees don't make money. On the contrary, the evidence shows that those with liberal arts degrees tend to do perfectly well financially. Why? Well, because you are imaginative, resourceful, articulate and insightful: all crucial qualities contributing to prosperity in any field.

Why would O’ Leary dismiss that? Well, let’s look at the other part of what he’s implying. For those who believe that money is the only thing that matters, what does a useful education look like? The preference would be for you to smoothly join the economic machine, become a docile worker causing minimal disruption to the flow of wealth up the pyramid. A useful education would make the student a morally obtuse, quiescent commodity.

By contrast, a student with a liberal education is a critical and carping individual with “ideas” about how the world could be “improved.” In the it’s-all-about-money world, such people are not merely useless, but inconvenient, even threatening. They become threatening the moment they decide they’d prefer to make a better society instead of apathetically or cynically resting content with default assumptions about the world.

This brings us back to those demons who, because they were threatened by concentrated thought, tried to distract the yoga novice. Naturally, I am not suggesting that Kevin O’Leary is an actual demon---though, neither can I rule it out---but his suggestion that money is all that matters does represent the sort of values produced by a refusal to think. In short, he is demonic insofar as he is a self-elected representative of the kind of self-absorbed, unexamined, lazy prejudices that much of your education has given you practice in recognizing and resisting. …And which I hope you’ll go on resisting.

Here’s where the idea [alluded to by Principal Woolf] comes in that, after you leave Queen’s, the university goes wherever you are: because, you’ll discover that resisting the demons of lazy prejudices often requires a disciplined mindfulness that has been fortified by your education. And you’ll find, too, that your robustly educated imagination is an enormous help in doing many of the things necessary to live a full and happy life. I’m speaking of things such as:

Discovering what you really need as opposed to accepting what others want you to want;

Learning how to express yourself so you always say exactly what you mean and so your own feelings and ideas never seem confusing and alien to you;

Understanding other human beings well enough that you do not automatically attribute to maliciousness what might be as easily attributed to incompetence or desperation;

Now these ideas are focused on the individual mind rather than society at large. But, as Mahatma Ghandi taught, any greater social struggle is first of all fought within the self. You have outgrown the simplistic world of melodrama, where evil is always external. You know that the demons of greed and narcissism, apathy and ignorance, fear and suspicion are not really floating in the air around us, or even on our tv screens. They are within us. Having the strength of imagination to see this and resist is where the struggle to make a better world begins.

Thank you.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Ten Years When the Winner of the Genie Award for Best Picture Was Better than the Winner of the Oscar for Best Picture

No Canadian film has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture, although seven Canadian films have been in the running for best Foreign Language film, with one actually winning (as I mention below). Does this mean that Canadian films are just not in the same league in terms of quality? Not so fast. I offer here a list of ten occasions when an award-winning Canadian film has been, in my opinion superior to the film selected by the Academy for Best Picture. I should say that I do believe there are lots and lots of great films that have won the Best Picture award; it’s just that, in these ten cases, I think that there were better films, which the American Academy ignored and the Canadian Academy didn’t.

1. 1987

Best Picture Oscar: The Last Emperor
The Last Emperor is pretty to look at, and it focuses on a fascinating episode in history, and it is very, very long, which possibly adds to its impression of grandeur. But the sweep it made of the Oscars that year did a lot of damage to the credibility of the Academy. Vincent Canby hit the nail on the head when he compared it to “an elegant travel brochure” in the New York Times. As lushly attractive as the film is, it is thin on real content. The script (which also won an Oscar) is dull and vapid, rarely rising above the level of a soap opera.

Best Picture Genie: Le Déclin de l'empire américain
Let’s admit that The Barbarian Invasions (2004), the sequel to The Decline of the American Empire, is probably the better movie (indeed, it won the best Foreign Language Film Oscar that year, so I haven’t put it on the list for that reason; and also because I am not sure I would want to argue that it is a better film than the 2004 Best Picture Oscar winner, Million Dollar Baby). But there can be little question that Decline is better than Last Emperor. Where the Oscar winner is a solemn historical pageant that quickly becomes turgid and never really engages any important ideas, the Genie winner is a lively character-driven drama in the spirit of Chekhov. Because it was a movie that belonged so clearly to its time, it has dated a little, but in 1987 it was surprising and unconventional and it is still full of ideas.

2. 1989

Best Picture Oscar: Driving Miss Daisy
Yes, Driving Miss Daisy is a sweet and likeable movie, and I wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to dislike it. The question I want to raise has to do with the artistic achievement it represents. The movie sticks fairly close to the play by Alfred Uhry, a sentimental favourite of theatre audiences. But, as charming as the play is, and as winning as the performances of the main actors are, judged as a piece of filmmaking, the movie seems no more than…fine, blandly competent. (This film also raises the question of what the Academy is actually judging when they award Best Adapted Screenplay: the specific work of adaptation or the overall accomplishment regardless of how much adaptation there was? Either way, I await a rational justification for why the award went to the barely adapted screenplay for Driving Miss Daisy over Branagh’s somewhat bolder screenplay for one of Shakespeare’s classic dramas, Henry V.)

Best Picture Genie: Dead Ringers
Dead Ringers is as disturbing as Driving Miss Daisy is charming. David Cronenberg has created a film that is haunting because scene after scene it manages at the same time to be both repellently horrific and absorbingly beautiful. It is an astonishing and wholly original work. Many people hate the movie for what it does to them emotionally, but the strength of that response speaks in favour of Cronenberg’s artistic achievement, not against it. Dead Ringers is like a nightmare shared by the whole modern world: all our obsessions with eroticism and violence and with the mechanical scrutiny of human beings flow together into this movie. It is a brilliant work of art and a shattering experience for the viewer.

3. 1990

Best Picture Oscar: Dances With Wolves
I used to have the idea that Dances With Wolves had won the Oscar in the same year that Black Robe had won the Genie, but this is not so.
(Black Robe is indeed a great Canadian movie, but it won in the following year, 1991, when Silence of the Lambs won the Oscar, and I’m not convinced there is an obvious enough difference in quality to make a point about that.) The reason I wanted to put them into the same year, I think, was because of all the ridiculous things Dances With Wolves did in telling a story that is similar to Black Robe’s, about European contact with First Nations people. Again, Dances With Wolves is often very beautiful, but it is a silly film that uses sentimental melodrama and well-worn clichés to appeal to our emotions and avoid any intellectual scrutiny. It is, in short, rather adolescent in its sensibility. It may be enjoyable at that level, but it is hardly great art.

Best Picture Genie: Jésus de Montréal
Jésus de Montréal is an allegory that alludes continuously to the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but the main emotional and intellectual thrust of the film has to do with the idea that any genuine spiritual awakening will pose an intolerable threat to the establishment. A feeling of euphoria emerges at first, only to be replaced by dread and sorrow and finally acceptance as the film continues. For the viewer, it creates something very close to a religious experience, albeit one that is really entirely heterodox. It is dangerous and thrilling and profound.

4. 1994

Best Picture Oscar: Forrest Gump
The faults of the movie Forrest Gump may be summed up in the way that the catch-line of the movie was altered from what it had been in the novel. Where, in the novel, the lesson Forrest learned from his mother was that “bein’ a idiot is no box of chocolates,” in the movie, this famously became “life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.” A grim and pessimistic truth has been replaced by a rather saccharine and sanctimonious piece of optimism. But it is worse than that. The real damage is that the story of Forrest Gump stands as an allegory of the experience of the United States of America over those decades. An indictment of a nation that has been slow to learn and has suffered for that lack has been turned into a feel-good, can-do story. The very notion that an opportunity for self-scrutiny should be seized upon and profited from has been discarded in favour of a cheerleading session. In short, the movie valourizes stupidity.

Best Picture Genie: Exotica
Atom Egoyan’s Exotica is another one of those strange, quasi-hallucinatory Canadian movies that deliberately challenge the mainstream ordering of values and experiences. At first, the scenes and characters in Exotica seem to have no coherent relation to one another. Indeed, the story is not even organized chronologically. The main sense of order lies in the film’s consistent offering of images of obsession, of boundaries crossed and of taboos violated. The effect for the viewer is a queasy sense of being complicit in something that is bound to bring an enormous flood of remorse. When the heart of the mystery linking all these characters is revealed, it arrives with awful clarity and the realization that what lies at the core of many experiences is unresolvable tragedy. Exotica is a sternly demanding, but emotionally exhilarating work of art. (It is worth noting, too, that one of the short-listed nominees for the Genie that year was Whale Music, which, in a way is a kind of critical commentary on what the film Forrest Gump embraces: the deliberate choice of mindlessness as a way of avoiding painful experience.)

5. 1997

Best Picture Oscar: Titanic
Lest anyone should believe that this whole exercise is motivated and informed solely by nationalist prejudice, let me note that James Cameron, the writer-director of this, my least favourite movie on the list, is Canadian. So be it. I hasten to admit that the last twenty-five minutes of Titanic (with the exception of a few moments of mawkishness) are brilliant filmmaking. The sinking of the ship is an extraordinary spectacle marrying a huge array of different talents and disciplines. The film up until that point, however, is a different story. The script is shallower than a comic book. Stilted dialogue, preposterous plotting, clichéd characters are all packed into the stalest sort of melodramatic story imaginable. Titanic contains so many groan and wince inducing scenes and lines of dialogue that one hardly knows which to single out for special derision. And let’s not even talk about that dreadful, cloying theme song from Celine Dion. No, watch it for the shipwreck and do your best to forget the rest.

Best Picture Genie: The Sweet Hereafter
Here we have Egoyan again, with a very different sort of disaster movie. This disaster doesn’t involve thousands of passengers aboard the largest ship ever made; it is just a couple of dozen school children on an ordinary school bus, although they nonetheless drown in icy water. The actual crash is almost eerily unremarkable in the film. Rather, the focus is on the aftermath, the complicated interplay of relationships. Love, betrayal, loyalty, exploitation, grief, honesty and deception all come to the surface after the accident. And I would argue that the cast is one of the best ensembles every captured on film.

6. 2002

Best Picture Oscar: Chicago
I don’t have anything against Rob Marshall’s Chicago. I actually think it’s a fun, invigorating film and that its music is much better than many musicals. It’s well cast, and the choreography, cinematography and direction are all impressive. If pressed for criticisms, I would have to admit to finding the story a little thin and not especially significant. But I would by no means want to suggest that this was a bad movie. No, the real problem for Chicago in this context is that...

Best Picture Genie: Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
...Atanarjuat is a genuine masterpiece. It is based on an old Inuit legend about a man’s attempt to escape a group of killers, a story that continues to resonate profoundly as figurative rendering of the daily struggle of life in the Arctic. The story of Atanarjuat is, essentially, one of the central myths of the Inuit, and every aspect of the film works to ensure that the story lands with an uncanny persuasiveness in the viewer’s imaginations. This may be the most startling and original film ever made in Canada. In fact, when I am made Emperor of the country, I will decree that Atanarjuat is required viewing for anyone wishing to retain their citizenship. That’s all.

7. 2005

Best Picture Oscar: Crash
I actually think that Crash is a pretty good film, and again, I should note that the writer-director, Paul Haggis, is Canadian. (Which really ought to have made him hesitate more before he went ahead and used the same title as David Cronenberg’s 1996 movie…but, whatever.) However, there are a few things that keep Haggis's Crash from greatness in my opinion. First of all, the set up of the racial collision feels a little schematic and somewhat predictable, and, at moments, even a bit clichéd, so that there is sometimes a feeling of safeness and familiarity about the movie that is probably not what was intended. Second, I find that too often it strains credulity with the various coincidences and the outrageously bad behavior of the characters. Still, these are somewhat minor quibbles with a movie that, in the midst of so much mindless dreck, is mercifully about something important, and it does have a strong impact on the viewer. Indeed, it would not have made it on to my list except for what won at the Genies that year.

Best Picture Genie: The Triplets of Belleville
The relentless ingeniousness of this animated feature is breathtaking. It reminded me of the effect of those early Disney movies ⎯ Dumbo and Snow White ⎯ before that studio settled into the narrow formulaic approach they mostly take today. But, of course, the work of the animators in Triplets of Belleville is in a new age, and it amazes with its vivid effectiveness in frame after frame. This is a story in which love and goodness prevails, but the story is so weird, so extravagant, that it never settles into cliché or feels overly familiar. I’ll admit that I can’t possibly justify preferring this movie to Crash on intellectual grounds; but the delight it brings is just overwhelming enough that my preference is undeniable.

8. 2008

Best Picture Oscar: Slumdog Millionaire
Slumdog Millionaire is another visually arresting movie, and the fast pace of the editing adds to the visual excitement. But I think that the degree to which this film fails to rise above the level of eye-candy is probably its greatest fault. I don’t want to damn it for its gross implausibility, of which we could equally accuse Charles Dickens, one of the screenplay’s clear influences. The setting in an Indian slum is unusual for a mainstream movie, but apart from that, it is quite formulaic and the dialogue is too often trite: “Come away with me.” “And live on what?” “Love.” Moreover, for this viewer, the inescapable constant awareness of how the manipulation of emotion is occurring scene after scene, tends to take away from its feel good ambitions. It just feels too much like a well-oiled clockwork emotion machine.

Best Picture Genie: Away From Her
In contrast, Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, which is based on an Alice Munro story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” feels anything but familiar. That’s one of the themes of the movie: the idea that the movement of a loved spouse into the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease entails finding oneself in an unknown land, in which neither one’s spouse, nor one’s love nor one’s self seem familiar any longer. This is a good-looking, well-edited film, but the most compelling aspect of the movie is probably the rich, detailed performances that Polley drew from her terrific cast. It is undoubtedly somewhat depressing to watch, but by compensation, it is always a bit invigorating to witness the triumph of great art being made from terrible experiences.

9. 2011

Best Picture Oscar: The Artist
The Artist is another charming film, but it would seem that the chief reason for the enthusiasm that it generated, was surprise at the way it proved that the old conventions of silent films ⎯ not merely the lack of sound, but the dialogue cards, the performances conveyed through pantomime, and the stark reduction of the complexity of real life to a clear, melodramatic plot ⎯ are still quite effective. What had seemed merely a gimmick at first acquaintance actually created something quite fulfilling for the viewer. And it was that amazement that prompted people to say of what was, finally, merely a good film, that it was great. I think that, viewed in a few years time, when the novelty of The Artist no longer startles (not, of course, because other silent films will be made, but merely because one knows already that it was done and it worked), it will seem what it is: solid entertainment, but no more than that.

Best Picture Genie: Incendies
Incendies is often uncomfortable to watch because of its content and some of its settings, but it is always enthralling. The performances are terrific, and the scenes all seem absolutely fresh to the screen. There is a highly crafted plot that is driving the story, a sort of thriller, but it has to be said that it is unconventional enough that it is difficult to believe that anybody could predict exactly where it was going without having read the play by Wadji Mouawad first. That is another thing that is remarkable about Incendies: it would be almost impossible to guess that this screenplay had started life off as a play, so naturally cinematic seems the story.

10. 2012

Best Picture Oscar: Argo
Argo is good fun, but although it is about a very serious subject, it is certainly not a movie to be taken seriously, simply because it plays so fast and loose with the facts. The real story, if you want to read it, is laid out in Robert Wright’s very exciting and very readable Our Man in Tehran. Naturally, one expects Hollywood to make stories conform to Hollywood conventions, so there are no surprises in that. But it is difficult to achieve greatness by playing wholly within such limited popular conventions, and Argo doesn’t surprise there either.

Best Picture Genie: Monsieur Lazhar
In contrast to Argo, Monsieur Lazhar is a film that seems innocent of convention or calculated effect. It contains perhaps the most extraordinary ensemble of child actors that I have ever seen. They are never less than convincing, and the depiction of the social workings of the classroom is compelling and truthful. Moreover, the story, though quite simply told and containing little action, manages to be utterly wrenching. This is terrific, under-stated filmmaking.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Polychromic Plumes: The Peacock's Song

About twelve years ago, I wrote the book, lyrics and music for Chantecler, a musical that was based loosely on the 1910 play by Edmond Rostand. The story is set in and around a barnyard, and the cast consists entirely of animals. Rostand's verse play is a tragicomedy that champions romanticism and traditional French nationalism in opposition to modernity. But in my musical version, the story basically becomes a satirical comedy about what happens to values when they are caught between, on the one hand, deluded traditionalism, and, on the other, cynicism and pretentiousness masquerading as sophistication. How does one find one's way through to something authentic? It seems to me that it is worth producing again, and on a larger scale than I did back in 2002. So O've been revisiting it recently, revising the text, and reworking and rewriting some of the music, and one of the pieces I enjoyed revisiting most was this one, a patter song. It struck me that it works fairly well independently from the rest of the musical, so I thought I would post it here. The Peacock is a sort of celebrated critic in the barnyard, whose opinion is increasingly sought on all aesthetic matters.

CROWD: Ma-as-ster!
Master Peacock bless us here!
With your insightful eyes and never failing ear!
Tell us all your tail does see!
Reveal your critical dexterity!

PEACOCK: My friends you’ve been so gracious
To suggest I’m perspicacious
And I can’t call your assessment
Disproportionately grand.
I deplore the great disparity,
But multi-ocularity
Bestows a rare sagacity
Beyond other birds’ command!
And if I may be provocative,
A wiser, more evocative
Derrida or Foucault
In my dazzling derrière looms:
Neo-Nietzsch-e-an proponents,
Exegetical exponents—
Yes I’m poli-perspectival
In my polychromic plumes!

CROWD: He’s poli-perspectival
In his polychromic plumes!

PEACOCK: It’s true that my proclivity
Is interdiscursivity;
Toujour the polysemious
The linear jamais.
Yes, all matters hermeneutical
Are to me pharmaceutical;
The thrill of Deconstruction’s
What I privilege today.
Sure, of all the dazzling fashions
That could e’er excite your passions,
This doyen of the haute couture
Will make the others pale!
Taj Mahal’s a paltry palace
And Aurora Borealis
Makes a petty, pallid show
Next to my iridescent tail!

CROWD: The Northern Light’s a sorry sight
Next to his shiny sparkly tail!

Master Peacock, won’t you, please,
Tell us everything that your tail sees!
Master Peacock won’t you say:
Are we in the style of today!

PLUMP HEN: Does my dress reveal my figure?

PEACOCK: Why, I’d call it “lard-o-scribular!”

DUCK: My quack?

PEACOCK: It goes...?

DUCK: Just “quack.”

PEACOCK: “Aphoristical,” I’d say.

OTHER HENS: And our clucking?

PEACOCK: “Ornithological”

GUINEA HEN: He speaks so—

PEACOCK: “Heteroglossical.”

TURKEY: And, Master, do please tell us
If our farm is a-okay!

PEACOCK: Well, the sunflowers are van Gogh-esque;
And quite Edgar Allen Poe-esque
Are the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells
I hear ringing in my ears!
The garden smells too peat-ish
But the apples are Magritte-ish
Your allusions are both rural
And post-modernist, my dears!

CROWD: Our allusions are both rural
And post-modernist, my dears...!

Then the song shifts, as a parade of grotesque show roosters arrives to be assessed by the Peacock.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Politics of Downtown vs Suburbia

I've now seen a few articles centred around the Toronto electoral map for the 2010 election. I post the map below, not to be inflammatory, but to offer a historical context to consider the problematic nature of the Right-wing "populism" in the outlying regions vs Left-wing "elitism" in the city centres.

This is map of the German elections of 1933, in which the Nazis won a majority. Dark brown represents the districts that they won outright; pale beige represents where they lost. Look at Berlin (#2 on the map) vs the surrounding regions. Without wanting to suggest that the actual politics are equivalent (they are decidedly not), I do want to suggest that there is a case to be made that the styles of political discourse seen in that 1933 German election (a decline into grievance- and fear-mongering, name-calling and contempt for reasoning) were comparable to those that have led to the similar looking maps of Suburban Ford Nation vs Downtown Smitherman supporters, or, in many Canadian cities, Downtown Liberals/NDP vs Suburban Conservatives. My point, really, is that an extremely divided electorate is, in aggregate, a stupid and even dangerous electorate. I hate the idea that we must fatalistically accept this situation. I believe that the major political imperative all of us face is to wrest the discourse away from sensationalist and ruthless demagogues, to find a way of acknowledging, articulating and addressing the feelings of grievance that drive many into the hands of those who are being elected on slogans rather than because of soundly-reasoned platforms. It may be infuriating that people vote that way, but they do. Mockery, however well-deserved, will not do the trick of reforming them; nor, evidently, will appeals to pure logic. Patiently reaffirming common interests in order to pull people back into some shared centre may be the best we can do.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Grotowski's lab

A friend of mine recently drew my attention to this clip from a film made in the early seventies about Jerzy Grotowski's theatre lab. Now, I realize that many, if not most people in the world, would dismiss what they see as flaky, but we who come from a theatre background are supposed to be more open-minded than that. And I've tried to be, so watch it with as much of an open mind as you can muster, and then I'll say what I think.

Okay, so here's what I think: First of all, I recognize the value to a performer of feeling expressive vitality throughout the body, but this strikes me---as a lot of Grotowski's stuff always did---as pretentious and obscurantist. "If this precision is absent, then the result is useless..." says the narrator near the end. And yet, it's not clear to me what the intended theatrical "use" of this sort of thing ever was. You could defend it by analogy with theoretical physics, I suppose, but the body is not abstract, so that argument would be straining for validity. Relevance seems a fair issue to ask about. Those hand movements resemble something encountered in Kathakali training; but absent the tradition, what would be the point of such specificity of gesture? Are we really to accept on faith that it is all preparation to convey some aracane code, "signaling through the flames" (Artaud) about some inner truth? The meaning is somehow thrown back on some vague organic feeling of rightness for the performer, but what could it communicate to the greater world? We know (v. the film "My Dinner With Andre," where Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory discuss this at length) that Grotowski ended up turning his back on theatre and channeling his energies into a sort of quasi-religious isolated community---a cult.

Now, there have been plenty of people who have embraced cults, and who have found therein for themselves a tremendous existential sense of purposefulness. But my beef with cults is the same as my beef with any ideology: part of our life is---must be---irrational, but as soon as you exclude rational argument, doubt, and evidence from any project altogether, it becomes a vehicle for our broken, limited selves, and refuses to engage with what we might be.

Moving one's hand into a difficult and painful position can undoubtedly strengthen the hand and even the self; but I feel such acting exercises should never entirely lose communication with rationality. And when I look at this clip, I see Grotowski's lab well on its way down such a path.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Noël Coward’s Private Lives

These are the programme notes for my production of Private Lives, for Plosive Productions at the Gladstone Theatre in Ottawa, play September-October 2013.

David Whiteley and Alix Sideris in a publicity shot for Private Lives. Photo by Andrew Alexander.

“I think that very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.”

The critic John Lahr once declared Noël Coward’s Private Lives to be the “high-water mark” of “comedies of bad manners.” If we remove the qualification “bad” from Lahr’s memorable description, we will find that Coward’s play is joined by a couple of others, most notably Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Should that observation encourage us to look for a sensibility shared by two writers who created widely celebrated, socially astute personas within a society that rejected their sexuality, we may certainly find evidence of it in the plays. It is undoubtedly true that any society that criminalizes homosexuality must inevitably turn every gay person into a performer of some sort; a select few will become consummate performers whose personas define the style of their eras.

Rather than resting with that one insight, however, we do well to consider some of the other sources of the disengagement Coward felt ⎯ and in turn bestowed upon his characters. As suave as he seemed as a public person, Coward had known humiliating poverty before he finally knew great wealth, and this, along with his status as a “bohemian” artist and agnostic, made him highly conscious of his lack of ease amongst complacent materialist philistines and prudish Pharisees. Many if not most of his comedies are founded on such a conflict: “artistic” types discovering that they are not merely incompatible with, but weirdly incomprehensible to those who complacently identify with social conventionality.

At its darkest, Coward’s indictment of such complacency was expressed in Post Mortem, the work that is chronologically closest to Private Lives and which shows the ghost of a man killed during the Great War returning to find that in the 1930s, people apparently have learned nothing whatever from that debacle: complacency remains the greatest threat to vitality and humanity. At its lightest, of course, we have Private Lives itself, in which glib, impatient irony is the method of deflecting an awareness that might otherwise lead to bleak nihilism. Amanda and Elyot are very witty; but implicitly, “being in on” the joke means one also has to “be in on” something of the raging discontent that seethes beneath the surface of this bad-mannered comedy.

In some respects, it seems impossible to set Private Lives at any time but when Coward conceived it: between the two World Wars. And yet there is very little in the play that obstinately refers to a specific time and place. Amanda’s Paris apartment is, in some ways, out of time: a forest of Arden, an Illyria, an Athenian forest, in which nature and enchantment reveal true selves in suspended time until the clock moves on and the public world must be confronted again. And it is with that in mind that I have taken a few liberties concerning the dates of some songs I have used. It is, from that outlook, simply a dull error of chronology that Rodgers and Hart did not write Elyot and Amanda’s “theme song” ---"Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," from Pal Joey (1940)--- in time for the first production of Noël Coward’s play.

Raging discontent haunts idyllic Paris. Photo by Craig Walker.