Friday, December 28, 2007

Polar Bears

"And now Edgar's gone...something's going on around here."

(A "re-enactment" of the Gary Larson cartoon, because I couldn't find the original online.)

Let's get one thing straight. You know that Coke commercial where the family of polar bears is on a hillside, and the cub slips down the slope to land amongst the astonished flock of penguins? Yes, those penguins well might be astonished, because polar bears live in the Arctic and penguins in the Antarctic (except, of course, when they go on vacation). But never mind, I had a sort of inadvertent vengeance in that I was quite certain, until my friend Shauna proved me wrong, that this was a Pepsi commercial. Oddly, this branding error of mine seemed to offend her more than the zoological faux pas of the advertising folks. But I suspect that the polar bears would be with me on this one.

And, of course, I'm perfectly willing to let the notion pass when Gary Larson uses it. Because he's funny, see?

At any rate, the real reason I am making this post is because I just spent most of the morning figuring out how to download a video from YouTube and put a new soundtrack to it. My reasons for wanting to do this have to do with using film clips in the classroom, but the video I chose to teach myself with was one I was altering on behalf of a friend, and it features a polar bear cub called Knut in the Berlin zoo who was raised by a zookeeper after his mother had rejected him. Honestly, the soundtrack really HAD to be changed. The original video had possibly the most annoying, cloying song I've ever heard attached to it, which seemed a shame because when I was not put into a homicidal state, the cub was undeniably... Well, I only wish it didn't rhyme with "Knut."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Information R/evolution

The title is not mine; rather it belongs to the video at the bottom of the post. But it's a phrase that makes me think immediately of the great Canadian scholar, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). The height of McLuhan's career was in the 1960s when most of his important works --- The Gutenberg Galaxy(1962), Understanding Media (1964) and War and Peace in the Global Village(1968) --- were all published, although his celebrity would really peak in 1977 with his cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall.

I think that perhaps the most important thing that Marshall McLuhan left us was not any single work, nor any single observation, but rather a particular approach to seeing the world. McLuhan looked at all media as technological extensions of the individual body, and he considered that the use of these extensions would change not only the world but us. Although people once had difficulty accepting such ideas, McLuhan's approach now seems like so much common sense. As W.H. Auden said of Sigmund Freud, "he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion." Most of us now accept that we are being changed by the media and the technology we use; although to say exactly how, and to what degree the benefits are in balance with the disadvantages is naturally more difficult.

One of the things I have been thinking of lately is the traditional association between architecture and thought. For example, Cicero used to memorize speeches by associating each section with a room, or hallway, or stairway, so that his process of thought would have a sort of architectural solidity (v. Frances Yates, The Art of Memory). But is there a means of memorizing, of assimilating information that would be more effective for us in an age in which the model for information exchange is no longer rooted in location, but in the internet, wherein the free exchange of ideas in all directions at once has delivered an information revolution with hints of evolutionary consequences? The internet certainly has immense advantages as a means of assimilating information over the traditional structural model, but to what degree can such a system of association convey meaning? Is it (not the content, not the individual sites and pages, but the system itself) perhaps just too close to the way we already think to bestow a meaningful structure upon our thoughts for repackaging and delivery to others? Is Cicero's architecture, or the idea of shelves, somehow still necessary as a foreign structure to impose on our thinking? Can we really, as the cliche has it, "think outside the box"? Or will boxes---however external to our favourite boxes the new, more innovative boxes may be---always be necessary to us?

At any rate, the point about the difference between the traditional structural basis for organizing information and the new non-located network approach is illustrated beautifully in the following video, Information R/evolutionwhich was made by Mike Wesch as part of the Digital Ethnography project.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Academy of Snivelling

God give me patience, but I am sick to death of hearing academics snivel about how hard their jobs are. Sure, there are occasional frustrations, but the bitter, hard-done-by moaning and kvetching about being exploited that I hear in some quarters is just totally incommensurate with a considered, measured view of reality.

My own view, having been a professor for fifteen years, is that this is the best job in the world. I love it at least 95% of the time, and I earnestly wish that those who disagree would move on and let just one of the many, many people who would like to replace them do so: because being a professor is a job for those who are inspired and driven from within, not for those who arrive at work sullen and resentful, feeling the lash of the administration upon their backs. But before anyone accuses me of being a Pollyanna, let me describe what I think is the realistic view I alluded to above and which I believe should temper all of our opinions.

Before I earned my PhD (but, in some cases, after I earned my M.A.), I worked at some truly horrific jobs. I did these jobs for the same reason that the vast majority of the world works: because I needed the money, and because these jobs represented the best chance of making honest money that I could find at the time. Now, thankfully, in my case, the jobs were temporary rather than permanent necessities. I was struggling to pay off my tuition and just stay alive while not deviating from the important life goals I had set myself; and this perhaps made it a little easier for me to struggle through. But the more important point is that, temporary or not, as is the case with most people, I did these jobs not because I had any delusions that they would be fulfilling, but simply because I felt that I had no better choices available. Three jobs which were certainly among the worst were: (1) cleaning up the site of a burnt building---prying valuable hardware away from charred remains and, over the course of a couple of weeks, gradually filling several large dumpsters with burnt junk, and a couple of oil drums with valuable stuff; (2) working for several weekends in the laundry room of an enormous hotel, where the piles of often disgustingly filthy sheets and towels were filled with all manner of imaginable refuse, including vermin and insects, and were, I assure you, even for a fairly strong young man, unimaginably heavy once they had been put in the huge laundry bags which had to be hoisted onto hooks to go in the automatic washers; (3) playing a "leprechaun" at a zoo around St Patrick's Day, in a totally ridiculous costume and make-up, without having been given any script, nor even any specific instructions but to entertain people, though I received plenty of abuse and mockery both from officials of the zoo and from the customers. At each of these jobs I worked for pay that was at or very slightly above minimum wage.

Now, truly, these are the conditions in which many, perhaps most people the world over, reguarly work: filth, physical trauma and humiliation. It is even worth considering that---pace Karl Marx, a great thinker to be sure, but a man, it must be said, who seems to have never worked a regular job, instead sponging shamelessly off his industrious buddy Engels, even while Marx mocked him for his bourgeois preoccupations---this may be the natural state of most human labour: filth, physical trauma and humiliation. For example: anyone care to try hunting down and killing a woolly mammoth? Or digging for roots and grubs? At any rate, the jobs I worked at certainly made me see quite clearly that, in terms of being exploited for one's body or lesser skills, and enduring degrading health and safety risks, prostitution probably falls well short of the very worst possibility one might be forced to consider---if nothing else, the work of the prostitute takes less time and is generally much better paid, considered as an hourly wage.

So the occasional unpleasantness in academia to do with tedium or lack of appreciation hardly seems so much to bear, does it? Moreover, even if marking or teaching or attending committee meetings could be compared to menial labour in any way, it has to be said that the hours at which we are actually responsible for being at a certain place and doing a certain thing are miniscule compared to other jobs: the rest of the time, we drive ourselves to fulfill our responsibilities in the way which seems most appropriate.

Still, I imagine that some people will object that, given the sort of extremity I have complained of, no one would last more than a couple of weeks in the jobs I have described: although that would be refuted by the reality of the indefatigably cheerful Columbian immigrant I worked with in the hotel laundry, who had been there eight years by that time, and from whom I learned the true meaning of stoicism. But even were that so, let me offer you what remains the more poignant touchstone of moral perspective for me: the thought of my late father, a steel-worker who, for the thirteen years that I knew him, on at least five and more usually six days out of the week, would rise at 5:30am and not return home until after 6:00pm, often with cuts and burns on his hands and legs, and always with parts of his body still a little dirty, despite having washed thoroughly. And that went on day after day for years on end. Yet I never heard him complain. So I imagine that, to him, for me to complain of my job would be completely absurd and even inconceivable.

Finally, I want to add that to my mind, the worst offenders of all are those academics who complain about the lack of time they have to do their jobs, and yet waste a good half hour making exactly that complaint. There are too many outside the university who automatically think of academics as being lazy, spoiled, impractical, self-indulgent, carping, pretentious flakes. Let's try not to prove them right

Monday, December 10, 2007

Bob Dylan's Huck

“Huck’s Tune” is yet another great Bob Dylan song that has not been released on any of his own albums, nor anywhere the average person would ordinarily look for it. Rather, it’s on the soundtrack to Lucky You, a rather forgettable minor film (a knock off of The Cincinnati Kid, it would seem) by a good director, Curtis Hanson, who is responsible for L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys amongst others.

This, however perverse it seems, is Dylan’s wont. Take “I’ll Keep it With Mine,” “George Jackson,” “Things Have Changed,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “Abandoned Love,” and “Dignity,” all of which are among Dylan’s best songs, and none of which he cared to release on a regular album. Instead, they tend to show up years after the fact on some compilation or other. And don’t even get me started about the great songs which he couldn’t be bothered with recording through to the end, such as “You Need a New Lover Now” or finishing writing, such as “To Fall in Love With You.” For me, these latter works are like those unfinished Michelangelo statues (and anyone who thinks that’s an extravagant comparison is just a snob), which gain a kind of fascination because one compulsively finishes them in one’s imagination. Or at least I do. But as for the finished works that are allowed to sit in obscurity? I don’t know: maybe that’s Dylan’s version of the fresco painted by a great master on the wall of a private home; or maybe he simply doesn’t give a damn. Who knows? Probably not even Dylan himself. In any case, I suppose when you’ve got talent at the highest level, there’s a kind of honour in squandering it rather than over-valuing it and hoarding it in a miserly fashion, which bespeaks an unseemly sort of vanity.

Of course, this is not to argue that Dylan’s career has consisted purely of masterpieces, the acknowledged and the unacknowledged. There is certainly chaff amongst the wheat (e.g., most of Self Portrait to begin with). My point, rather, is that although, from a bourgeois standpoint, there have been many times when watching Dylan’s management of his own career has been as frightening as watching a drunk behind the wheel of a transport truck, from a strictly artistic point of view, he has simply done what he has felt like doing without respect to profit or prudence, and whether motivated by inspiration or irritation (e.g., again, Self Portrait, which, as the title implies, was simply his expanded truculent response to those he had complained of in “Maggie’s Farm”: “Well, I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you /To be just like them. / They say: ‘Sing while you slave!’ and I just get bored. / I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.”) So, chaff there may be, but, if “the word of God is,” as Northrop Frye suggested, “the aggregate of inspired words of art,” then the uninspired works don’t necessarily come from somewhere else, because, as Tom Waits said, “There ain’t no Devil; that’s just God when he’s drunk.”

At any rate, here is an amateur video of "Huck's Tune" which someone has posted on YouTube. The video is sweet, I suppose, although it makes me sigh a little because of its literal mindedness; but regardless, it's a handy way of hearing the song. I've transcribed the lyrics immediately below the video, and you may want to read those as you listen instead of watching the video. (By the way, those looking for seasonal content in this posting may find it in the first line of the fifth verse.)

Huck’s Tune
by Bob Dylan

Well I wandered alone through a desert of stone
And I dreamt of my future wife
My sword's in my hand and I'm next in command
In this vision of death called life
My plate and my cup are right straight up
I took a rose from the hand of a child
When I kiss your lips, the honey drips
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

Every day we meet on any old street
And you're in your girlish prime
The short and the tall are coming to the ball
I go there all of the time
Behind every tree there's something to see
The river is wider than a mile
I tried you twice; you can't be nice
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

Here come the nurse with money in her purse
Here come the ladies in red
You push it all in and you've no chance to win
You play 'em on down to the end
I'm laying in the sand getting a sunshine tan
Moving along riding in style
From my toes to my head you knock me dead
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

I count the years and I shed no tears
I'm blinded to what might have been
Nature's voice makes my heart rejoice
Play me the wild song of the wind
I found hopeless love in the room above
When the sun and the weather were mild
You're as fine as wine, I ain't handing you no line
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

All the merry little elves can go hang themselves
My faith is as cold as can be
I'm stacked high to the roof and I'm not without proof
If you don't believe me, come see
You think I'm blue? I think so too
In my words you'll find no guile
The game's gotten old
The deck's gone cold
And I'm gonna have to put you down for a while
The game's gotten old
The deck's gone cold
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

Now “Huck’s Tune” is interesting to me beyond its inherent merits because of the way in which it seems to be set in a landscape of immanent apocalypse (and I do mean immanent: inherent in and subjective to the mind, and not imminent: likely to happen any moment) that is similar to the overtones of his last record, Modern Times. In Chronicles, Dylan writes about how, in the first years of his career, he regularly read Civil War-era newspapers, not for specific stories, but to glean a sense of the era for its ethical and mythological dimensions. In Modern Times, Dylan seems to be doing something similar, although his focus is on a different era. To a degree, it is related to what Ry Cooder has done in his latest, My Name is Buddy: Cooder went back for inspiration to the 1930s, when Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Leadbelly and others were offering a sort of existential portrait of the individual worker cut loose from any firm social structure. Like Cooder, Dylan uses this frame of reference as an ominous precursor to the social conditions of the United States today, when the reckless capitalism of the right wing has systematically eroded any sense of common weal and therefore any confidence in a firm social morality. But Dylan has pushed the idea much further than this historical context, in that while he embraces various forms of American music from that time (including not only folk ballads and blues, but even crooner tunes and jaunty fox-trots), he also intimates that the songs are set not in the past or present or even in the future, but in a sort of parallel world that resembles the apparently post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. And he is interested in the idea of being on a journey without apparent destination, and without the benefit of moral compass ⎯ listen carefully to “Ain’t Talkin’,” the closing song on Modern Times, in which, as the song progresses, the title seems more and more related to the refusal of speech (“ask me not what I know”) from King Lear. There seems little question that he is after something of a universal sort. To compare it to another play, it is as if Beckett’s tramps were forced, not to sit in one place to wait for Godot, but having given up on his arrival, to make their way, perpetually, and without pause, along the road in search of something unknown.

Bob Dylan considers what should be done when the wheels come off of Western civilization

“Huck’s Tune” seems to partake of this same context. Now, it may have been written expressly for the movie Lucky You, although it seems equally likely that Curtis Hanson was offered the unreleased song and then decided to name the character, a gambler, accordingly. But in either case, I think that Dylan surely (and Hanson probably) also had in mind Mark Twain’s boy hero, Huckleberry Finn, whose journey into moral maturity has come, through repeated allusion, to represent the American soul. Of course, that idea of Huck as the American soul comes with a sort of daunting baggage when one considers the end of the book, where the arrival of Tom Sawyer takes what had become an increasingly profound and earnest quest for a new moral code, and allows it to drift back into a puerile denouement that suggests a failed struggle (Twain’s failed struggle, if you ask me) to wrest spiritual destiny out of the hands of selfishness and ignorance. For the Huck of Dylan’s song, the quest seems to be for a redemptive love, but it’s confused by the gambling addiction. The woman in question seems as though she may be a bad gamble; but the irony is that the alternative is gambling for an empty reward (more money, which will only lead to more gambling). In the contemporary world, Dylan apparently sees a lot of confused and corrupted Parisfals on quests with no clear directions. As always, Dylan doesn’t pretend to offer any answers; he’s just thinking out loud about the dilemma.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

My Day of the Dead

It's been shamefully long since I've blogged, but all my writerly energies seem to be deployed elsewhere. However, today I wrote a poem. Now, I'm not much of a poet, really, so I've only ever written for myself or for good friends. But I've been in France for the last week, and right now I'm in Paris, and perhaps something of its famous inspiration took hold of me. It's not a good poem, by any means, but it does capture what I was thinking. Anyway, here goes:

My Day of the Dead

I chose a quiet day amongst the dead,
Strolling in the Cimetière Montparnasse.
Morbid celebrity gawking, was it?
Inverted autograph hounding, perhaps.

See, I played Ophelia at each stone:
For Samuel Beckett: a one-leafed tree,
For Charles Baudelaire: well, flowers, I guess
Whichever evil type’s in season, naturally.

For Serge Gainsborg: a narcissus,
(He could wrestle Margurite Duras for it).
And for Ionesco, who believed nothing:
Nothing at all, the silly git.

For Jean-Paul Sartre: a poppie’s eye
And for Simone de Beauvoir: une autre.
For Man Ray: roses, black and white
For Tristan Tzara: electric goat.

For Dreyfus: I say “J’accuse” again,
For his grave’s neglected, his spirit roams.
Perhaps below, where six million lie
Abandoned in the catacombs.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Totality of Richard Bradshaw

There are many reasons to admire the late Richard Bradshaw, who led the Canadian Opera Company for almost two decades, until his shocking and untimely death in August: he was a great conductor; he was a caring and visionary leader of the people who worked for his company; he was a charismatic and reassuring spokesperson for the arts; he was a shrewd and far-seeing business person; he was a seemingly tireless worker; and he was ambitious in a way that might have seemed almost un-Canadian, had it not been that he so clearly believed in the specific potential of his adopted country. And it is surely true, as I’m sure countless people have now remarked, that the Four Seasons Centre, the elegant, pragmatic and beautifully effective opera house that was largely the result of his determined work, is a fine memorial to the man.

However, the aspect of his work that I think I admire the most, perhaps because it is somewhat unexpected in one who was known chiefly as a conductor before taking over the COC, is his intense interest in the whole of the art of opera. In particular, I am thinking of Bradshaw’s lively interest in improving the theatrical direction and design of the COC’s operas. Bradshaw took some great risks with some of the directors he hired; but the risks were well calculated, and if they did not invariably work out well, more often than not they produced thrilling work. It was Bradshaw, for example, who offered Robert Lepage his first opportunity to direct opera, resulting in a brilliant double-bill of Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Bradshaw also invited Atom Egoyan and Francois Girard, best known as film directors, to work for the company.

The importance of these decisions to the advancement of the art of opera in Canada cannot be overstated. Before Bradshaw, far too many Canadian operatic productions had used the “park and bark” approach, in which the singers simply stand down front and sing straight out. The scenery and any action in such a view are a decidedly distant secondary concern, or a sort of largely superfluous background ornament, to the real attraction: the singer and the orchestra. In this traditional view, a few feeble gestures as to the setting along with some pretty costumes and some hierarchical lighting (follow spots on the leads, dimmer lights on the chorus) are sufficient to the task at hand. Any deeper concern with the mise en scène might be likely to distract, and is therefore to be suspected, if not deplored. Naturally, this attitude (I can’t bring myself to call it an “aesthetic”) is a product of the rather limited practices of stage-craft in the era in which opera came to maturity. Painted backdrops into which the performer could not possibly be integrated, and precious gas-light or lime-light instruments that needed to be always focused on the principal performers, were the norm in the nineteenth century. And when any closer concern with these factors did intrude, it had to do with making the setting “realistic” from an antiquarian perspective. But essentially, all such efforts were deliberately kept deeply subordinate to the main attractions: singer and orchestra.

To be sure, the singer and the orchestra are immensely important, and I am far from arguing that the hierarchy should be reversed. Rather, what I AM arguing, and what Bradshaw was implementing, was an approach to opera that takes the entire art form very seriously, and assumes that all the elements will be carefully integrated to create a single unified art form, with no hierarchy apparent within it. In this, of course, Richard Bradshaw was realizing the wishes expressed more than a century before by another Richard, Wagner, who in a famous 1849 essay, “The Art-Work of the Future” had argued for the “Gesamtkunstwerk,” the total art-work which would integrate music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts and stage-craft into a single work. Now, it is true that Wagner’s ideas of what might go into this total art-work were rather circumscribed by what he saw in his own time ⎯ the scenery, for example, would be based on the middle-brow illusionist paintings of the sort that illustrated literary fantasies in his day, a shortcoming it would take the less literal imagination and good taste of Adolphe Appia to overcome ⎯ but the idea was a powerful one, and compellingly argued.

At any rate, it is not as though the gesamtkunstwerk is a marginal or radical idea anymore: Wagner’s essay is one that virtually every student of opera would be required to read at some point. However, for all that everyone agrees in theory that such an approach to opera is a good thing, there are far too few people in charge who are like Bradshaw in their determination to go beyond lip-service and to see that their actual productions truly approach the ideal for which Wagner argued. The reason for this probably has to do with the opera business, which, because of the business of marketing the box office --- in which star singers are traditionally the main attraction, star conductors the next, and star directors and star designers are still widely considered something of an oxymoron --- remains deeply addicted to old-fashioned hierarchies. Indeed, the problem is great enough that, while all regular opera-goers would testify to the great thrill of seeing a production in which every aspect of the art form is fully realized, there are few who have become more than middling critics of direction, design or choreography, even as they make the most highly-informed and exacting criticisms of leading singers in specific roles.

Thus, while this is one of the most important aspects of Richard Bradshaw’s legacy, it is also one of the most vulnerable. I only hope that the search committee who faces the daunting task of replacing Richard Bradshaw as General Director appreciates the totality of the great artist and leader he was, and accordingly recognizes the commensurate importance of Bradshaw’s concern with realizing his chosen art form in all of its totality.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Aging and the Optimal Ratio

I've decided that the secret to aging gracefully lies in the judicious exchange of waning nubility for waxing dignity. That is to say, in youth, one’s status and self-assurance may be based on physical attractiveness (i.e., nubility, and whatever the male equivalent is ⎯ not virility, really; and it's a measure of our society's sexist bias that whatever the term is, it is not so ready to hand as "nubility") and a carefree disposition; in old age, clearly, this is not a viable option, so one must stand rather upon the ground of impressive character and personal achievement. But the optimal ratio is, for each person, an elusive, unique and ever changing calculation, in the pursuit of which there are many more opportunities for humiliation than for attracting the admiration of others. Too late and too large a weighting of the first part of the ratio suggests a preposterous vanity; too early and too large a weighting of the second suggests defensive pomposity. It is essentially the same vice applied to different content.

This is why some gain status as they age while others lose it, and it seems to be only a lucky or skillful few who ever manage to maintain a more or less consistently high status throughout life. But, of course, an obsession with “getting the ratio right” is not only neurotic, it deprives one of some of the best chances to be a complete human being. Paradoxically, the most promising creative opportunities offered by life lie not in the straight and narrow path (yes, I'm mixing my metaphors: so what?), but in the ditches along the way---in exploring the humilations, as it were. So a little gracelessness can be a valuable commodity.

Those who play for a living ⎯ i.e., actors, musicians and other artists ⎯ tend to maintain the air of youth longer than those who have surrendered more fully to Freud’s “reality principle.” So we tend to be attracted to such people, at least in a facile way. But what is the price of such attractiveness? “Oh, you silly, silly man,” a distinguished woman blurted out to me after seeing me perform as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream ⎯ apparently intending this as praise, for hearing herself afresh in the sight of my quizzical reaction, she suddenly began to compliment the work more precisely. But I suspect that her initial impulsive comment conveyed her most truthful response, and I certainly don’t blame her. When one plays that sort of role, one is consciously choosing to create delight rather than respect, and it would be absurd to complain when one is successful.

Of course, I don't mean to say that in playing that sort of comic role one is acquiring physical attractiveness (if only it were that easy); I mean, rather, that one is performing certain attributes associated with attractive youth --- untrammelled enthusiasm, innocence, suggestibility and unquestioning optimism --- each of which is attractive in itself, but which, collectively, are (however unfortunately) at odds with a dignity becoming to middle age. The incongruity is amusing within the context of a fictional world, but generally repellent in the real one. Still, the ability to meddle with the ratio in this way is probably as valuable a skill for real life as it is essential for the theatre.

Brian Bedford, who has played Malvolio in three different productions at the Stratford Festival

I think of the actors who have played Malvolio in Twelfth Night, a character who moves from one sort of overemphasis in the ratio (too much dignity) to the other (too much "nubility"). This lack of self-knowledge makes Malvolo both amusing and contemptible, because he basically moves from one ditch of ludicrousness to the other without ever so much as acknowledging the path that lies in the middle. But each of the actors who has enjoyed a clear success in the role is the sort of person in whose company, offstage, one feels completely at ease. Brian Bedford, for example, is a charming, attractive, dignified man who seems admirably at his ease in any sort of social occasion, managing to also put others at their ease. I suspect this is because of the self-assurance that arises from being a master player of the ratio as opposed to an anxious slave to some fixed notion of what is most appropriate. One gains a greater than average self-knowledge from being so well acquainted with the pitfalls of disproportion and is therefore able to make a liberal but judicious use of the whole of the available path between the ditches.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Embracing Discomfort

Recently, I’ve heard a couple of allusions to theatrical origins in a way that has become quite common, along the lines of “since the first person returned to the cave with a hide and re-enacted the details of the hunt for the others...” This popular image is, I think, fair and intelligent speculation about theatrical origins: common sense suggests that theatre, in the broadest possible sense, probably began as instinctive communication about something of importance in a manner which is not far from Bertolt Brecht’s “street scene” ⎯ i.e., a person describes an accident to another person using a combination of narrative and re-enactment. As for theories of ritual origins, theatre and ritual may have shared some common origins, but the idea that theatre evolved from ritual is finally rather logically incoherent. Of course, the notion of instinctive re-enactment/narrative does not offer us much toward an explanation of the development of spoken drama, which is a much more complex matter; but, for that, see Jennifer Wise’s highly interesting and illuminating book Dionysus Writes.

But the real point of this post has to do with that image of the person returning with the hide of some large beast. For the image suddenly brought to mind something that I had read a couple of months ago, in Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee. It seems that when archeologists investigate the fossilized dumps of very early human settlements, they find very, very few bones of larger game, but many bones of smaller animals ⎯ mostly rodents, lizards, and that sort of thing. So the killing of larger animals, notwithstanding the popular image of Neanderthals bringing down tigers (or bears or wild boars or whatever), was an extremely rare event. And my assumption is that for a person used to killing rabbits or squirrels it would be an extremely stressful event at that, and one that would probably not be consciously sought out except on rare special occasions. The performance worthy aspect of bringing home the hide of large game, then, would be the triumph over the hunter’s initial terror at encountering a large predator rather an easy small victim.

At any rate, this seems only to confirm an idea that I have sometimes suggested to students embarking on an improvisation: as soon as you imagine something that you would very much like NOT to happen to you, you have the beginnings of a story. Of course, this means that to some extent, in order to be theatrically creative as an actor, one needs to be operating outside of a place of comfort. And yet, there is the paradox that, without a relaxed and well-centred mind and body, it is impossible to work in a creative manner. Hence, an actor’s best work is always going to occur in close proximity to some sort of optimal ratio between discomfort and relaxation. Too little of the former, and the work becomes insipid and listless; and it is this that is the more common problem with many actors: opting for an approach to a scene, even unconsciously, simply because it is in some way comfortable and not psychologically dangerous, rather than submitting to what the story has made necessary. The opposite problem, of too little relaxation, is the great difficulty that faces beginning actors, of course, and it usually leads to stage fright. But I think, in more experienced actors, who are unlikely to suffer stage fright, there can be a tendency to embrace discomfort without a sense of relaxation, and it is at these times, I think (and I am recalling a particular production I saw last year), that the work can become ugly and even repellent. Even in the most hideous moments on stage, I believe, we look for some sort of graceful artistry.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Straightforwardness of Women

Apparently, given at least one private response I have had to even the revised version of the last post, I need to clarify what I have said---or rather, NOT said--- in that post still further. It may be that I made a mistake in quoting Einstein in the title, because it seems that some readers more or less decide at that point what the posting is about, and this colours their reading of what follows. So, in a spirit of experiment, let's try out a different title.

Okay, first of all, what the previous post is NOT about is any real or imagined bafflement about women on my own part. Really and truly, it's not. Nor is it at all about women not being "straightforward" in explaining themselves. In short, this is not an extension of Sigmund Freud's "what does a woman want?" Rather, the post is about the obsessed fascination that leads some people (or some men, at least) to make certain kinds of art---working through the complexity of their own responses, attempting to apprehend or comprehend the essence of why a woman has captured their attention---in a way that is similar to the way other people can get totally absorbed by, for example, trying to solve a Rubik's cube: though, of course, in the case of the artistic representation of women, there is no real solution, because what one is dealing with is not a puzzle per se, but rather an extremely complex reality that eludes straightforward translation. Hence, the idea of spending one's life in its contemplation and in trying to comprehend the complexity in art rather than mathematics. Because, however fascinating and enigmatic we may find Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Mona Lisa, I'll just bet that he himself felt he had only scratched the surface of all the thoughts and feelings that the real woman evoked in him.

So, again, let me assure you: while I do believe them to be complex, I don't really find women baffling at all, at least in general. Although I will go so far as to admit that I certainly find Condoleeza Rice's loyalty to George Bush extremely baffling. I mean, what IS she thinking, after all this time? And, on a more personal note, if you really must have it, I will admit also that I have found myself at a loss to explain in hindsight how it is that my interest in this or that woman has, on a couple of occasions, so totally trumped my better judgement. But, I guess that's really me being baffled by the complexities of Walker, isn't it?

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Complexities of Women

(This is my second attempt at making this post; my first was apparently a little opaque...or, okay, even MORE opaque than this one.)

Many people will have heard that Albert Einstein once quipped: “Some men spend a lifetime in an attempt to comprehend the complexities of women. Others pre-occupy themselves with somewhat simpler tasks, such as understanding the theory of relativity.” I think it’s fair to say that this quotation is received by many people with a smirk (or even a sneer?), as if it were merely a vaguely sexist glib remark rather than a well-considered statement of belief; yet, my own suspicion is that it correctly describes an important aspect of the relationship between biological instinct, evolution and civilization. It seems clear enough, for example, that many male artists have a sort of primordial level of fascination toward women that is probably rooted in biology, and which embraces heterosexual desire, although it also quite clearly extends well beyond that sort of attraction. Now, I could delve here into the whole question of whether or not, and to what degree, this fascination appears to be reciprocated by women for men, or note where it appears to find its equivalent in same sex desire; but, really, trying to navigate all the "essentialist" and "constructionist" aspects of the argument (the Scylla and Charybdis of all contemporary discussions related to gender) would only bore and frustrate both me and you, gentle reader. Instead, I just want to observe that, at least with regard to some male artists, Einstein was right about this (as about so many other things): it is precisely the refusal of this primordial fascination ever to be fully ironed out into two-dimensional rationality or comprehended within an orderly equation that creates a kind of complex tension into which a tremendous amount of creativity often flows. Perhaps we could even think of it as the centripetal expression of the same instinct that, in its centrifugal expression, leads others to ponder the expansion of the universe and the curvature of space-time: the difference being that the intensity of the subject position in the former instance makes a satisfactory objective resolution of the complexities far more elusive than in the latter. In that respect, it’s another kind of “uncertainty principle,” I suppose, though one that can have all the beauty of a Zen koan. And, in the spirit of that thought, I offer you, as a gloss on Einstein’s comment, this film that I found on YouTube:

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Spirit of Emma Bailey

On Monday of this week, Emma Bailey, a lovely, funny, talented young woman, until recently one of my students (she graduated in 2005), died in a car accident, just outside of London, England. She was just nine days shy of her 24th birthday. Emma had gone to London to do her M.A. at Central after graduating from Queen's, but she had stayed to pursue professional work --- and, incidentally, to have a good time and to live life to the fullest. That she was successful on a large scale with this latter aspiration, at the very least, was made evident in her blog, The Emm, in which she recounted her daily adventures and thoughts in a hilarious, irreverent way. You can find one of my favourites among her many posts, "Pretty Fly for a White Girl," in which, in her typically self-deprecating manner, she recounts an audition for a hip-hop video, here. Anyone who has met Emma can imagine both how she looked at each moment of this audition, and how hard she laughed about it afterwards. This was one of Emma's great talents: the ability to laugh at herself, and in so doing, to encourage others to laugh at themselves as well. She was as passionate about life as anyone I've known; but I think she felt that it was just too rich to be taken entirely seriously, and was too full of pleasures that could be taken immediately to mope for long over what it had denied her. She would often make self-deprecating remarks about not being a thinker, but the truth is, she had a very active intellect and imagination; what she was not, was a brooder. Instead, Emma showed the rare gift of being able to turn just about every other moment of life into a sort of celebration.

At any rate, naturally I have been thinking about Emma pretty steadily ever since I heard of her death; and I was puzzled when, for no immediately apparent reason today, I suddenly had the theme from Zorba the Greek playing in my head. It's been many years since I've seen the film, although it's been only a few since I read the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, and I know that, at the time that I did (while in Greece), that catchy theme song kept popping into my head. Now, to see any connection whatsoever between the large, white-haired old man who is the title character of the novel, and young, pretty, vivacious Emma seems most unlikely, I admit. But, thinking it over, I realized that there was a connection, at least for me: the way that Zorba teaches the narrator to "seize the day," to enjoy life in the moment, was more or less the same sort of reminder that Emma represented for me. For example, Emma never seemed to let the fear of looking foolish stop her from doing anything. And Zorba says: "Every man has his folly, but the greatest folly of all ... is not to have one." He also extols, as Emma did (with poutine, with the Oilers --- although she'd clobber me for putting them in this category) the virtues of simple pleasures: "How simple a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. All that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple heart." And, of course, as Emma did, he loves to dance. For Zorba, it is the best expression of vitality's defiance of the claims that death and despair make upon our hearts.

So, I suppose, it was my effort to conjure the spirit of Emma Bailey by dwelling on comforting thoughts of the way that she had enjoyed each moment of her life to the fullest, had indeed lived each day as if it would be her last, and the way that these thoughts fought with my sorrow at her loss, that brought to mind Zorba and his dance at the moment that the narrator feels, almost, that he has lost everything. I wish I had a film of Emma herself dancing; but, for me --- for today, at least --- this may be the next best thing.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Photos from That Night Follows Day

Astonishingly, Tim Etchells himself found and read my last post within a day of my writing it, and he very graciously emailed me to thank me and also to send me a few of his own photos of the show, which he gave me permission to share on this blog. These will give a much better idea of what the show was actually like than my own blurry Q&A photo. The eight-year old girl I mentioned in my post is second from the left in the first photo, which shows the younger children taking a turn confronting us adults as a sort of half-chorus.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Letter from Belgium III

I’m just about to leave Belgium in a few hours, but I thought I’d write, before I did, about one of the two plays I’ve seen since I last posted. Both plays were part of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts (yes, one word, in that amusing way beloved by Teutonicinfluencedculture everywhere). This particular play was That Night Follows Day, directed by Tim Etchells (he who is mainly associated with “Forced Entertainment,” in England), produced by Victoria, a Flemish-language theatre company based in Ghent. It was performed entirely in Flemish (barring a couple of somewhat startling English profanities---e.g., "motherfucker" and "fucking asshole"---but with surtitles in French and English) by seventeen children aged 8 to 14, and it was one of the most arresting and provocative pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

The set was designed to resemble a school gym, but essentially the entire play was presentational, the children speaking to us in a frank, sometimes simple, but sometimes more accusatory manner which resembled, vaguely, “Self-Accusation” by Peter Handke (which I recently read on the recommendation of my friend and colleague, Kim Renders). The play began with the seventeen children (eight boys and nine girls) moving into line (heels on a painted line) facing the audience, at first silently. They were relaxed, unaffected, natural, gazing out at the audience in a way that seemed, from the beginning, to challenge all the layers of affectation we had accrued over the years. Even the youngest, a tiny, adorable eight-year old girl, possessed an apparent comfort and self-assurance for the possession of which I know some adults would kill. Then they begin speaking, at first in chorus (these first lines are taken verbatim from the website:, although they would eventually separate into individual voices:

You feed us. You dress us. You choose clothes for us. You bathe us. You lay down the law. You sing to us. You watch us sleep. You make us promises and sometimes hope we will not remember them. You tell us stories you hope will frighten us, but not too much. You try to tell us about the world. You explain to us what love is. You explain to us the meaning of war. You kiss us while we are asleep. You whisper when you think we can’t hear. You explain to us that night follows day.

Tim Etchells with three of the performers, answers questions. (Sorry, there were no production photos on line that I could upload, but look here:

As Tim Etchells explained at the Q&A afterwards, the assertions were meant to be, in a way, questions, which asked: “Do you do this? If so, why do you do this?” Now these first assertions were fairly innocuous. (Although, how could any of us be entirely comfortable with either “You make us promises and sometimes hope we will not remember them” or “You tell us stories you hope will frighten us, but not too much,” in which surely we conceal something even from ourselves?) But when it comes to “You tell us an edited version of the truth. You leave out information. You pick and choose what we should know,” there is more discomfort. And, after all the “You tell us ‘keep quiet.’ You tell us ‘stay still.’ You say ‘no!’” (this latter assertion building to an enraged chorus that makes one see how the rearing of children is as surely a mutilation of nature as the pruning of a cherry tree), one can’t help but twitch a bit as we move from “You say ‘the neighbours are just a bunch of bastards’” (the adorable tiny eight-year old girl) through to “You say ‘Whites are assholes. Blacks are stupid. Foreigners are lazy.’” For, as much as we might cluck and frown over these ideas ordinarily, presented as such, it is clear that that they are part of a continuum that leads inexorably from our incautious and ungenerous utterances.

Perhaps what was most refreshing in the show was the almost total absence of apparent self-service and affectation among the performers. I don’t mean to say that children are naturally devoid of such characteristics ⎯ indeed, I would say they display these qualities more nakedly than adults (perhaps because more ingenuously). But Etchells has somehow persuaded these children to simply come forward and say what they had to say as if they meant it; and the raw effect was to bestow a sense of depth and uncanny authority upon the children. In fact, the only time when there was the least hint of "falseness" was, just barely, when they were behaving obstreperously, "as children do."

But my main point is that there was no assuming of some vague “performative” quality with no purpose but to revel in “performativeness,” which I have seen destroy so many productions which dabble in “big questions.” Instead, every word had a specific meaning, and although the whole was totally extirpated from any naturalistic context, it was, nevertheless, a stark and thoughtful performance of one of the central truths of our civilization: how we pass on, independently of genes, what we already are to the generations who are to be.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Letter from Belgium II

A typical canal view in Ghent

Over the last few days, I’ve been in Ghent and Antwerp, both of which I admired, though Ghent was especially winning. It seems to have all the beauty of Bruges, but to actually operate as a real city, as opposed to some degraded Disneyland-like version of its former self. For one thing, the city is bigger, and yet does not have nearly as many tourists. What it does have, being a university town, is large groups of young people, and that gives the place a strong sense of vitality. Antwerp is also an extremely interesting place, and while not quite so picturesque as Bruges or Ghent (mainly, I suppose, because canals are not so integrated into the core of Antwerp as they are in those other two), it certainly has its fair share of historical buildings. Antwerp is probably at its best in the evenings when the night-life you’d expect from one of the major fashion centres of Europe comes alive.

As I’d hoped, I was able to see the production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which was directed by Robert Lepage, at La Monnaie in Brussels the other night. This opera is nominally based on the series of paintings by William Hogarth, although the libretto, written in part by W.H. Auden (the libretto is a little reminiscent of some of Auden’s plays), moves quite a distance from anything Hogarth painted, and Lepage’s production moves further, leaving eighteenth century London almost completely behind.

Instead, Lepage has set the opera in 1950s Texas (the opera was written in 1951), and a photo of a house in the middle of a field that appears in the programme (itself a clever pastiche of a 1950s Life magazine), which I think is a still taken from the James Dean/Rock Hudson/Elizabeth Taylor movie Giant, is a good clue to the centre of gravity Lepage has chosen. The first scene takes place with an oil rig pumping away against a beautiful sky (the clouds moving slowly all the while), and Nick Darkness, the Mephistopheles of the tale, climbs straight out of an oil well, glistening and black. If this is the home in place of the country squire’s estate Auden offers, it makes perfect sense that where Auden moves the action into the fantastic and dissolute world of London to corrupt his hero, Tom Rakewell, Lepage moves into the desert, to the world of Hollywood films and Las Vegas. The brothel scene is shifted into a cheap Hollywood movie, Tom becoming a film star.

One of the best devices is when a small grey mass appears out of a hole in the floor of the desert and inflates to become Tom’s obligatory silver movie-star trailer. (Sorry: no photo available. By the way, this is also where we see all that is left of 18thC London in this production: Tom in a period frock coat, in make-up outside his trailer, with a powder wig on a nearby mannequin.)

In a perfect piece of reconceptualization, where Auden has Nick tempt Tom later in the libretto with a machine that turns stones into bread, Lepage has Nick use a television set, where the fraudulent transformation of uselessness into wholesomeness resonates convincingly, especially when we see a series of faux commercials with a Tom-like little boy advertising the virtues of the bread. The gambling scene takes place on what is apparently the rooftop of an abandoned casino in the desert; there is a terrific pool scene; and the madhouse scene at moments approaches the frightfulness of Brook’s Marat/Sade.

For all that, I have to admit to not being much more won over by Stravinsky’s music for this opera than I was when I listened to a recording of it a few years ago. I like some of Stravinsky’s other work very much, but it seems to me that he didn’t find a form of music which was as witty, brisk, dynamic and (if I may) as unheimlich as Auden’s inventions for the libretto. And, where the music in an opera is not everything one would have it be for the story, there is not much that a director can do. There were times when I desperately wanted to pick up the pace, because Stravinsky himself, it seemed, was not keeping pace with the story by providing a commensurate range of musical ideas and rhythms. It’s not that I think it is BAD music; it’s just that, for Stravinsky to match what Auden (and Lepage) had done, it would have to be on the level of his Rites of Spring or the Firebird Suite.

One other complaint I would make is a general one I have often made about opera: there is still a rather hidebound aesthetic, shared by both some of the performers and some of the audience members, which holds that beauty of tone is more important than drama or clarity or theatrical style. In other words, although this opera was in English, and I could understand most of the singers perfectly well, I could not understand the soprano (Laura Claycomb as Anne) at all and instead I read the French surtitles. This was seemingly because she was determined to perform the role not only as it if were some traditional melodic, lyrical part, straight out at the audience, without any sense of irony, but also because she felt that what the character was saying was irrelevant next to the question of how beautifully she sang it. And some in the audience clearly agreed, because the applause whore (I’m sorry, but there it is), was given her due. Dagmar Peckova, as Baba the Bearded Lady, had a much stronger grip on the nature of her role (and of the opera, and of Lepage’s wishes for the production), but again, could have used a little more clarity of tone and diction; but at least she was trying to be a part of a whole art form, rather than just being in it for her own exquisiteness. This is not just a problem in Brussels, of course, but is a battle that is being waged in opera everywhere. I suppose the problem with any revolutionary overthrow of the reactionary tastes is that many of those who buy subscriptions would not have it any other way. But I hope it is not unfair to question the honesty of their aesthetic preferences. The man next to me was, in the third act, fidgeting like a bored four-year-old (I was hard-pressed not to hiss at him: “sit still! It’s almost over”). But all the same, he shouted his “bravo” to the soprano (and if we’re going to get picky, it should have been “brava” anyway). Would he have done so, if, instead of congratulating himself for being a cultured man and paying 100 euros for a ticket to hear a sublime soprano notwithstanding his secret boredom, he instead expected an engaging and thrilling show and refused to inform his experience with ritual snobbery? I doubt it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Letter from Belgium I

(Caveat: although I am writing from my own laptop in the hotel lobby, the instructions on this blogger are all in Dutch, so please forgive me if I screw this up.)

I have been here in Brussels for a conference since Tuesday. (I was giving a keynote lecture called "Hopeful Monsters and Doomed Freaks: Evolutionary Overtones in Canadian and American Drama" which I gather will be published sometime early next year.) The conference actually ended on the weekend, but I am taking an extra week to stay in Brussels and make excursions abroad, so I thought I would provide a brief update.

Naturally, when I arrived last Tuesday, the first thing I did was stroll around the neighbourhood, keeping an eye out for any theatre posters. In an inauspicious beginning, these were the first two that I saw. Naturally, I was less than thrilled at the prospect of sitting through either of these.

However, I found out a bit later that the hotel where I am staying, and where the conference was being held, is actually in a suburb, Ukkle (I think of it as named after a ukele-playing uncle) to the south of the main city. So, instead, on Friday, the one evening I had free (after the Canadian ambassador's reception) last week, I went with a couple of friends in search of some theatre downtown. What we ended up going to was a sort of conceptual-installation-variety-performance which was based on the conceit that this was a force created to prevent the Flemish and the French sections of Belgium from killing one another. (Brussels is officially bilingual, although more French than Flemish; and all the other regions are separated into either Flemish or French, with a tiny German section in the East. But plenty of English seems to be spoken, too.)

The show was better, perhaps, in concept than in execution. There were lots of soldiers with guns, a tank at the entrance, then a supposed hospital bed where one lay down and listened to people speaking in French and/or Flemish about their feelings about the tensions between the two groups. In another room, there was a band that sang, in Flemish and French, songs that sounded a lot like the 80s new wave band, The Psychedelic Furs. There was a dance performance that we had missed already. And then there was the performance in the photo below, which basically consisted of one man, on the left, in a black suit, who sat at the table and read, aloud in Flemish, Franz Kafka's "Letter to My Father" while another man, in his pyjamas, loafed on the sofa, read silently the day's Frankfurt Times (I checked the date) and drank beer. That was it. No movement to speak of, except for a woman in a black dress who entered twice and uttered a line --- presumably representing Kafka's mother. The marble floor on which we were sitting started to feel very, very hard.

And that has pretty much been it as far as actual theatre has gone so far, although there was an execrable one-woman performance that was offered as part of the conference, about which the less said the better (the performance, not the conference, which was mostly quite interesting.)

Anyway, with the conference over, on Monday I walked around Brussels, including trips to Le Musees des beaux arts (interesting photography exhibition, some nice Reubens, although I'm afraid he doesn't do much for me, and about a third of the collection seemed to be on loan, and the 15th & 16th C section was closed, which meant no Bosch and no Brueghel, which was exactly what I wanted), then went on to the comic strip museum, which was edifying, at any rate; then I tried to go to a recommended restaurant with a name something like Spanokapita, for which I had to follow a road with a name something like "The Road of the 6 Jetsons" (this is the sort of world I live in) --- but it was closed when I got there, so I ate at a random place, which served this amazing piece of fish (though my guts were in turmoil that night, so...who knows what caused that). Then I did plenty more wandering and returned home with my feet badly blistered and fell asleep reading.

Then, yesterday I went to Bruges, which is very beautiful indeed in parts, but in the main areas is ridiculously crowded with tourists. It made Niagara-on-the-Lake, which I think of as the most tourist-plagued place in Canada (though that may just be because I've had to suffer through it during too many summers), look postively pastoral. This is something that I should have anticipated, especially in that today is May 1st, so it was undoubtedly a 4-day weekend for many people. I guess because we don't celebrate May Day in Canada this was not in my mind. Off the main areas, though, in the residential streets off the canals, it was very pleasant and very pretty. To my frustration, the Groeningmuseum was closed on Mondays (imagine my surprise to discover that this is not a museum dedicated to the creator of The Simpsons). So, again, no Bosch for me. I'm thinking about heading for Ghent tomorrow, so I can at least see some van Eyck. Since I have not seen nearly enough of the great Flemish painters, by way of retaliation, I am working on a joke about all the spray-painted graffiti I HAVE seen, which will contain some allusion to the great phlegmish painters. Details to follow.

Today, I spent the morning reading and writing and nursing my poor feet, and then this afternoon went in search of Art Nouveau architecture. The Horta museum, dedicated to the architect who pretty much invented the style, was closed (May 1st), but I saw some great buildings, took a few photos, and drank beer at a sidewalk cafe while eating the best chicken club sandwich in Christendom.

Given that it is May Day today, most theatres are dark, but I am hoping to go to the theatre tomorrow night. So far, however, most of what I have been able to find seems to be extremely talky, and after the experience with Kafka's "Letter to My Father" (which at least I know) I worry that my French is just not so good that it will withstand a whole evening of a static play made of nothing but talk. I'm sure I would end up with a headache, having understood about half of it. (Of course, you're thinking: "what about your Flemish?" but I don't like to show off.) What I need is something with lots of pretty pictures and music. Speaking of which, what I HAVE discovered is playing, which would be perfect, is a production of Stravinsky's opera "The Rake's Progress," and it is directed by Robert Lepage! (When I was in Milan a few years ago, I saw a production of Lepage's "Polygraph" which he had directed---odd to go half-way around the world and see the work of Canadians.) Apparently, this was playing throughout the conference, but nobody seems to have known about it. There will be some gnashing of teeth when people find out, I expect. Unfortunately, it appears to be sold out according to the La Monnaie/Theatre Royal website, but I will find out more about that tomorrow, and report on how that turned out in my next post.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Middle-Aged Brando

And here he is in Last Tango in Paris. Proof, if any were needed, that his mastery of film acting was unsurpassed. I assume that this monologue was improvised, as I understand was most of his dialogue in the film.

Young Brando

Evidently, based on the age slated for him (23) and the Broadway credits Brando mentions at the end, this screen test was shot in either the Summer or early Fall of 1947, before he'd been cast in A Streetcar Named Desire. He mentions playing Marchbanks, the young, delicate poet, in Bernard Shaw's Candida; and as difficult as it is to think of that when you see him playing Stanley Kowalski, you can just about imagine it when you see him at the end of this clip, gentle and boyish.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Two videos

Once again, I'm a bit too busy to post anything of my own this week, but here are a couple of related videos which, in combination, are pretty amusing.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Barker Poem

At the Queen's Department of Drama's "Somewhat Formal," I read a poem by the English playwright Howard Barker at the end of my speech, and a couple of people have asked me for a reference, so I thought I would reproduce it here. I hope this constitutes fair usage. I notice that Peter Hinton has also been using the poem as a means of helping to suggest the outlook inherent in his programming for the National Arts Centre English Theatre. Here's the poem:

"First Prologue to The Bite of the Night"
by Howard Barker

They brought a woman from the street
And made her sit in the stalls

By threats
By bribes
By flattery
Obliging her to share a little of her life with actors

But I don't understand art
Sit still
, they said
But I don't want to see sad things
Sit still
, they said

And she listened to everything
Understanding some things
But not others
Laughing rarely, and always without knowing why
Sometimes suffering disgust
Sometimes thoroughly amazed

And in the light again, said
If that's art I think it is hard work
It was beyond me
So much beyond my actual life

But something troubled her
Something gnawed her peace
And she came a second time, armoured with friends

Sit still, she said

And again, she listened to everything
This time understanding different things
This time untroubled that some things
Could not be understood
Laughing rarely but now without shame
Sometimes suffering disgust
Sometimes thoroughly amazed

And in the light again said
This is art, it is hard work
And one friend said, too hard for me
And the other said, if you will
I will come again
Because I found it hard I felt honoured

Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Proffice

Do other professors --- of physics and philosophy, for example --- have to put up with this sort of insolence from their students? I doubt it. Pretty funny, though --- especially if you know the people involved.

Naturally, every year, there are plots hatched of vengeful counter films in which the profs lampoon the students; but they're too smart for us. They do this just before graduating. Of course, we could always fail them and THEN humiliate them. Hm....

Monday, March 19, 2007

Osama's Bonanza

So, according to Lawrence Wright in his book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf, 2006), apparently Osama bin Laden was, when a child, a great fan of the western television series, Bonanza (which originally ran from 1959 to 1973, with seemingly perpetual reruns). Let us imagine young Osama eagerly tuning in:

Now, this is a rather striking image in itself. But let me explain why I consider it not merely bizarre, but significant. I am convinced that no one, not the most heinous monster, is content to think ill of himself (and I'm going to stick with a "he" here for this particular argument). Even if “no man is a hero to his valet,” every man is a hero in the story he tells of his life within his own imagination, the notion of the gleeful villain being purely an invention of melodrama. That being the case, the sources of a man’s self-understanding --- the myths and stories chosen as favourites, the sources in which the very nature of "heroism" are defined --- are crucial to understanding his nature. So, how exactly did Osama bin Laden, as a boy, feel about Bonanza? How did he position himself in the stories?

Well, pondering the Ponderosa through Osama's eyes, thoughts of Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright suddenly jogged my memory of a brief account of Osama bin Laden’s father that I had read in a biography of the son on the Frontline website some time ago.

Lorne Greene, Queen's University alumnus and Ben "Pa" Cartwright on Bonanza.

To make the point clear for those who have never seen Bonanza, I’ll start with a description of Ben Cartwright from a website devoted to the show:

"Ben Cartwright, a man whose quiet strength and perseverance has always been a steadfast and stabilizing influence on his sons.
A man who values family and moral justice . . . A man who stands fast when faced with adversity . . . A man who never allowed the wealth that he had accumulated to overshadow his beliefs.
He is a man who is no stranger to tragedy, a man who became a widower three times. After each of these devastating losses, the love he felt for his sons helped him overcome his pain and continue building his life’s dream, the Ponderosa, the largest ranch in the Nevada Territory.
Ben Cartwright never forgot his simple beginnings. A generous man, he has sheltered and helped many people, rich or poor, from every walk of life. He reaches out to his neighbors, never failing to offer them support in times of trouble. A tolerant man, who never judges another, who looks at a person for what they are on the inside, not by what they appear to be on the outside.
A righteous man, he firmly instilled his strong faith and unwavering convictions in his four sons. But he was also a gentle, loving father who knows instinctively how to give each one the guidance they need, to console in just the right way, a man who understands each son, who loves and 
accepts them no matter what circumstances they face.
Ben Cartwright, a man respected and admired by all who know him. He is the bonding force of the Ponderosa, whose deep voice and wisdom touches everyone
." (Source)

And now a description of Osama bin Laden’s father, from a biography of Osama written by a friend of his, and reproduced on the Frontline website :

"His father Mohammed Awad bin Laden came to the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] from Hadramout (South Yemen) sometime around 1930. The father started his life as a very poor laborer (porter in Jeddah port), to end up as owner of the biggest construction company in the kingdom…
…[Awad] bin Laden was so supportive to King Faisal [of Saudi Arabia] that he literally paid the civil servants' wages of the whole kingdom for six months....
The father was fairly devoted Moslem, very humble and generous. He was so proud of the bag he used when he was a porter that he kept it as a trophy in the main reception room in his palace. The father used to insist on his sons to go and manage some projects themselves.
The father had very dominating personality. He insisted to keep all his children in one premises. He had a tough discipline and observed all the children with strict religious and social code. He maintained a special daily program and obliged his children to follow. At the same time the father was entertaining with trips to the sea and desert. He dealt with his children as big men and demanded them to show confidence at young age. He was very keen not to show any difference in the treatment of his children.

The place in which Mr. Greene is currently rolling as I write this.

So, what lessons did young Osama take in at his father's/Ben Cartwright's knee? And which of the three sons did he most identify with: Adam, Hoss or Little Joe? Well, my guess is that it was not Adam, if only because Adam was gone from the series by 1962. But what part of the mythology embodied by Bonanza left the series along with Adam's departure? Well, consider this episode that someone has helpfully edited down (sometimes it seems you can find absolutely ANYTHING on YouTube) in which the venerable Ben Cartwright is bent on "taking the law into his own hands," and Adam, the rational liberal, attempts to reason with him. Try substituting the Islamic Holy Land for the Ponderosa ranch in your mind, and see how it plays:

But, it seems to me that the pseudo-liberal resolution arrived at in this episode was not exactly characteristic of Bonanza, and that the more frequent moral would be something along the lines of what Kenny Rogers declared in "The Coward of the County": "sometimes you've got to fight to be a man." And, indeed, it seems that after a time there was not quite room enough in Bonanza for the point of view represented by Adam, for the character lasted only three seasons, Pernell Roberts leaving the series in 1962 because of his disagreements with the writers. (To get a sense of what these disagreements were, it is important to note that Roberts was something of a liberal activist in real life, politically known for publicly embarrassing NBC about their lazy habit of hiring caucasian actors to play natives.) But it almost seems as though they could not allow Roberts to go without teaching his character a hard lesson in one of his last episodes --- one of the more famous from the series, number 94, “The Crucible." I’ve combined two different website sources to create this synopsis:

After completing a grueling cattle drive, Adam Cartwright takes a trip into the wilderness for some peace and quiet, Instead, he is robbed and stripped of his weapons and clothing by a pair of vicious outlaws. Left to die in the middle of nowhere, Adam attempts to make the grueling journey to Signal Rock on foot. Along the way, he meets prospector Peter Kane (Lee Marvin), offering to work Pete's claim in exchange for the man's mule. Alas, the mentally unbalanced prospector turns out to have an altogether different agenda in mind. He holds Adam prisoner and tortures him to prove his theory that anyone could be driven to kill, even a man as rational as Adam.” (Source 1 & 2)

In subsequent seasons, then (those which appeared after Osama had turned five, in 1962), Ben Cartwright represented absolutely the most authoritative view on show: wise and unopposed in his no-nonsense idea of hard-nosed, stand-alone justice --- the Texan ideal (although, yes, the Ponderosa is supposed to be in Nevada). So, am I suggesting that Osama bin Laden became a terrorist because Pernell Roberts left Bonanza? Well, I don't think I'd like to go that far. But I will say that all of this brings me to consider that, in terms of personal mythology, there is perhaps very little separating the ideas of Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush except the accident of geography: for each seems determined to consider the world his own personal Ponderosa.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Other Blanche

For years now, I have been deeply curious about what Jessica Tandy might have been like as Blanche when A Streetcar Named Desire first played on Broadway. Tandy was the only one of the major players from the Broadway production, directed by Elia Kazan, who did not recreate her role for the film, also directed by Kazan. Instead, the role went to Vivien Leigh, who had played the role in London under the direction of her husband, Laurence Olivier. Leigh was a much bigger star than Tandy, of course, having won an Oscar for her performance in Gone With The Wind; and in the end she won another Oscar for her performance as Blanche, which is certainly memorable, although to some viewers nowadays --- to some of my students, at any rate --- it seems just a little too mannered. Kazan confessed later on that he actually preferred Tandy in the role because she was subtler. So did Karl Malden, who played Mitch; although he also emphasized that when he discussed this question with Marlon Brando, Brando had said he preferred Leigh, because she had brought a sexual energy to the role that Tandy had lacked.

I had always assumed that there was no objective evidence left for us to make a comparison, but the other day (while in fact looking to see if there was any video of the country-rock band, Tandy --- evidently not yet), I came across this clip on YouTube of Jessica Tandy recreating a bit of her performance in a monologue that was filmed for a television special on Tennessee Williams. Of course, this was probably filmed almost three decades after the original production: Tandy is grey-haired and a very different woman, and there is no Marlon Brando or Kim Hunter for her to play off. But still, it's interesting, and gives some clue to how the production must have differed from the film. Whereas Vivien Leigh gave the impression of being a sort of panicked song bird battering against the window of a room, struggling to escape from Stanley and everything he represented, Jessica Tandy seems more like a dignified, beautiful creature speaking about the instrument of its imminent extinction. She also seems more formidable than Leigh --- her struggle with Stanley must have seemed more like an even match, which would probably strengthen the play quite a bit. But, one can also see Brando's point about the sexuality: while it's easy to see this Blanche as a schoolteacher, it's a little more difficult to imagine her seducing a school boy. She seems too much in control of herself for anything quite so impulsive.

On a side note, it's also interesting to hear Tennessee Williams' voice at the beginning of the clip. It's easy to forget sometimes, just seeing him frozen in photos (like that great Yosef Karsh portrait above), that he was almost as broad a character in his own way as was Truman Capote (e.g., "collEEsion cohwrse"). And on a side note to my side note, I am very eager to see what Daniel MacIvor does with Williams in his new play, His Greatness, which is about the last year in Williams's life, and a new draft of which Daniel finished just the other day, according to his blog (see the bottom of this page).

Anyway, here's the Jessica Tandy clip:

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Harper's Newspeak and its Enforcers

I think, from here on in, I am going to allow my blogs to drift as far away from theatre as my mind happens to be at any given moment. And in this case, I have as my topic another passion, my hatred of bullies.

The bully in this case is one Dr. Irwin Itzkovitch, Assistant Deputy Minister, Earth Sciences Sector, Natural Resources Canada (who has very thoughtfully posted his photo and email on the government website). To be sure, he was carrying out the wishes of his odious master, Stephen Harper --- but rather more zealously than conscionably, as you shall see. A couple of months ago, Harper's Magazine (a favourite of mine) published some of Itzkovitch's email correspondence, and while it made me laugh, and then sneer, eventually it made me burn with indignation. If there is one thing that I hate even more than a simple bully, it is one who is putatively acting in my name, as a citizen of Canada. I began to think that, in spirit, though of course not degree, Itzkovitch's acts are of a piece with the sort of attitude popularly typified by Adolph Eichmann: unquestioning, boot-licking obedience to one's masters and ruthless intolerance towards underlings. And once I'd thought that, I didn't really feel comfortable just letting this go with a sneer anymore. So I wrote to him. Anyway, for your reading pleasure and moral indignation, I offer to you first the original correspondence as it appeared in Harper's, then my email to Itzkovitch.

From a September email exchange between representatives of Natural Resources Canada and Andrew Okulitch, a scientist working at the Geological Survey of Canada in an emeritus capacity. Irwin Itzkovitch is an assistant deputy minister under Minister of Natural Resources Gary Lunn. Vanessa Nelson is an executive adviser. Okulitch was fired but reappointed two weeks later. The Conservative Party won control of Canada's government in January, after twelve years of Liberal rule. Originally from Harper's Magazine, December 2006:

FROM: VANESSA NELSON As per the Minister's Office, effective immediately, the words "Canada's New Government" are to be used instead of "the Government of Canada" in all departmental correspondence. Please note that the initial letters of all three words are capitalized. Thank you for your cooperation.

FROM: ANDREW OKULITCH Why do newly elected officials think everything begins with them taking office? They are merely stewards for as long as the public allows. They are the Government of Canada. Nothing more. I shall use "Geological Survey of Canada" on my departmental correspondence to avoid any connection with "New Government." The GSC, steward to Canada's earth resources for 164 years, is an institution worthy of my loyalty, as opposed to idiotic buzzwords coined by political hacks.

FROM: IRWIN ITZKOVITCH Given your strong though misdirected views of the role and authority of the Government as elected by the people, and your duty to reflect their decisions, I accept that you are immediately removing yourself from the Emeritus Program. I wish you every success in your future.

FROM: ANDREW OKULITCH Although your knee-jerk response seems typical of Ottawa "mentality" these days, to give you the benefit of the doubt, it may have been mandated by our nervous minister. Of course, it is not a particularly rational decision, and perhaps you might reflect upon it. We of the GSC are used to taking the long view. Ministers come and go, but my talents will always remain available to the people of Canada.

FROM: IRWIN ITZKOVITCH This is not a knee-jerk reaction nor was it dictated by anyone. My decision stands and I await confirmation that it has been executed by the responsible GSC management.

FROM: ANDREW OKULITCH I have just received the clarification of the usage policy for the term New Government, stating that the new wording is required only in documents prepared for or on behalf of Minister Lunn. This limited usage is consistent and appropriate. We would appear to have been victims of an unfortunate misunderstanding. My intransigence about the term was in protest about its misapplication, not a call for civil disobedience. I do understand the need to obey ministerial directives once I am given them clearly. If I can help calm the waters by issuing my own clarification and apology, I would be glad to do so.

FROM: IRWIN ITZKOVITCH Your reaction was and continues to be unacceptable for anyone associated with Public Service. My decision stands. As of yesterday you are no longer an emeritus scientist.

FROM: ANDREW OKULITCH I concede that my memo was intemperate and deserving of a reprimand. It was, however, prompted by misinformation sent out by your staff. I don't expect that anything I might say now will change your mind, so I'll conclude with a few facts you will now have to live with. I'll come out of this a champion of common sense (except when it comes to sending memos), someone who tried to defuse a situation with humor and made an effort to restore calm. You'll come out as an intemperate, irrational manager who lacks the strength of character to reverse a hasty decision. Do you really want to be remembered as the only assistant deputy minister who sacked an emeritus scientist over such trivia? It is never too late to repair an unfortunate situation if everyone approaches it with an open mind and good intentions.

From: Craig Walker
Subject: Correspondence

Dr. Itzkovitch,

Because I have been busy with other things, I have only just read your correpsondence with Andrew Okulitch published a couple of months ago in Harper's Magazine.

I imagine your emails must look very different, reading them as reproduced in an international publication rather than reading them upon your computer screen from the seat of power. Now it is there for all to see that in one swoop you managed to act as both a bullying tyrant and a craven toady. Shame on you. If you do not have the bare common sense to be at least moderate in your implementation of a government policy that any objective judgement would have to admit was, at best, rather vulgarly self-serving, you have no business holding any leadership role. I suggest that you resign before you disgrace yourself any futher.

Craig Walker
Professor of Drama,
Queen's University