Our friends Randy and Barbara are avid movie watchers. Avid. The classics in particular. They’ve seen most of the films worth seeing from the 40s to the 60s, as well as a hefty chunk of films from those eras (and others) that they can vociferously suggest that you avoid. They’re partial to British humour, not least of which includes A Bit of Fry and Laurie. It’s because of this predilection of theirs that I thought they would very much Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, which came out widely this past year (technically, 2010). All of the reviews I heard focused on the banter between Coogan and his companion, Rob Brydon, via – amongst other things – their dueling Michael Caine impersonations.
When I was teaching Freshman Comp at Carroll University, I asked my class how they felt about picking up the anthology of essays I had required them to purchase for the class. I had a good enough rapport with them that I was rewarded with heartfelt groans of despair and disgust. You don’t like reading, I pursued. Hems and haws, lots of “sometimes.” Do you mind reading your text messages? (Chelsea, put your phone away.) They were surprised at the thought, that texting was reading. You look forward to one, but not the other. Part of this is just what you expect. Adjust your expectations and the experience won’t be so onerous.
I don’t know if that helped them with my assignments, but I hope that it helped them in their later years at school.
First Ladies is an opaque play by the Austrian writer Werner Schwab, which I saw this past weekend at Trap Door Theatre. The production was very, very good. In spite of this, my friend and I, theater pros that we are, having each studied in college and worked in the industry for 20ish years, we didn’t really get it. But we agreed that Trap Door had put on a hell of a show.
I saw A Serious Man with three other people, all of whom work in the film business and all of whom really like the Coen brothers. We all agreed that it was a beautifully realized movie, but none of could make heads or tails of it. Did we not have enough background? If we’d been raised Jewish or educated in Judaism, would we have made sense of the story? Didn’t get it = didn’t like it.
This past weekend was the six month anniversary of my friend Anthony’s death. Coincidentally, I came across the book review linked at the top – in which the reviewer wonders why we write about grief.
This afternoon I read Lore Segal’s “The Ice Worm” in the April, ’11 issue of Harper’s, which is a wonderfully executed story about a sudden horrible event. I understood it, I appreciated it, and I wondered why someone tells a story of despair, for that is how I read it.
The last link up there, that’s Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, singing a rockin’ song with punchy lyrics, but whose overall meaning I don’t think about.
A question that I used to pose to my students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, one that I didn’t have an answer to, was this: why do we fret about meaning in film and theater and not in songs? Why do I dwell on First Ladies and A Serious Man, but not “Woke up near Chelsea”? Why can I go a different direction entirely with prose, and simply admire the craft of Lore Segal’s writing?
More to the point, why can’t I simply admire the craft of the film? Why don’t I fret about what the song means?
There’s something about the form that makes me hung up on interpretation – not how I should interpret it, because I don’t think about how. I simply leave the theater and say, wow, what was that about? Obviously, I can appreciate the craft of the play, but that’s only a stopping point. My goal for it, for the film, is the meaning.
I’d be grateful if you had any insights or similar takes.
I met up with Lisa yesterday afternoon to catch the fourth of her four films, Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym. “Frederick Wiseman’s a genius,” swore Lisa, before running on for forty-five minutes about the other films she’d just seen. Most of her enthusiasm was reserved for Cinema Komunisto, but her one-word precís of the day’s picks were “great” (Mysterion), “good” (Earth), and amazing (the aforementioned).
When I first moved to Brno (nearly 20 years ago – egad), I didn’t speak much Czech. My friend Johanna came to visit one weekend and I found myself speaking at speeds that should have caused a cop to pull me over. I knew I was doing it, but I couldn’t stop myself – I was finally in the position to talk! Not with someone, just at all. Johanna didn’t get a chance to say much back and never visited again. I’m not saying there’s a correlation, I’m just saying.
Anyway, that’s what the first 45 minutes of Lisa was like last night, and that’s why she likes film festivals, and all of that had been prefaced by genius.
Genius is not a word that Lisa bandies about. I’ve never heard her apply it to anyone, in fact, so the bar was set pretty high for Boxing Gym. In light of yesterday’s post on criticism, this film couldn’t have come at a better time. For one thing, Wiseman is a superb visual storyteller. There’s hardly any dialogue in the film at all, and what is there tends to be illustrative rather than expository. No direct questions or graphics for this guy. Secondly, there’s no dramatic arc, which is how Lisa often talks about her stories, and I think why she likes Wiseman so much.
Here’s a still from the film.
If I ask you to describe this picture, you’ve got just the one image frozen in time. Which part do you begin talking about, the foreground or the background? Do you talk about the kid’s stare, his intensity? The placement of his feet or the way he holds his body? Do you begin with the state of the bag, hardly brand new, or the duct tape keeping the carpet fragments together?
Boxing Gym is a 100 minute portrait of a place where people come to train. Some of the issues that come up are a lack of class divisions (in that this particular gym is a real melting pot of working class, white collar, serious fighters, new moms trying to get their bodies back), an emphasis on movement, technique, and form, and particularly given that the cinematography took place during the Virginia Tech attacks, the occasional meditation on the aesthetics and ethics of violence.
Wiseman largely builds from the background up with visuals of the empty space and the sounds that feet make, hands striking bags, electronic buzzers. It’s not until near the end of the film that he gives us an expansive physical view of the gym, and it’s also only near the end that he finally shows sparring. It’s a mark of his focus on technique, an emphasis he shares with gym owner Richard Lord, that fighting in the gym is secondary: training is what’s important. When one of the two combatants strikes a cross to his opponent’s jaw – no slow motion here – there’s an audible gasp and jump from the audience. Boxing is a violent sport, but the gym is not an inherently violent place.
This is the kind of storytelling that cinema can do well, but rarely does because it’s not a money maker. It’s not the kind of storytelling that theater generally does at all, where, thanks to that bully Aristotle, people always want to know what the conflict is.
It’s a hegemony, is what it is.
At the risk of getting into some big words here, there are a lot of semiotics at play when you try to talk about the performance inherent in a production, live or recorded. I will turn for aid to a paraphrased, unnamed, and not shown French diplomat, who is referenced in How to Start Your Own Country. In regard to the potential number (and potential explosion of numbers) of micronations, he dismissively says that he doesn’t want to have to deal with a bunch of “silly little countries.”
I could get lost in the micromeanings of individual self-presentations, but I think in a larger scope a work of art of this sort is delivering a set of meanings to us. How we interpret all of those micromeanings, their interplay, and how we layer on our own experience and cultural knowledge is what determines whether or not a movie or a book “works for us.”
How to Start Your Own Country illustrates a couple of micronations (Sealand, North Dumpling Island, Hutt River Province, Seborga) and shows interviews with various diplomats and political scientists, all of whom discuss potential definitions of What a Country Is. What they (or Shapiro, the filmmaker) dance around but never articulate precisely is that existing countries (and through them, their clubs: the UN, the IMF, World Bank, EU, etc.) have a vested interest in stability. Stability is safe, after all, and helps to insure that existing countries (and perhaps existing power dynamics between countries) will also remain stable.
So it is, I think, with evaluation of art, even if accidentally. The criteria by which I judge, evaluate, and criticize a work of art should be flexible, allowing each piece to succeed or fail on its own terms – as opposed to succeeding or failing on mine. But isn’t easy to fall into patterns of my own, and come back to familiar answers? Classical storytelling (whether “documentary” or “narrative”) often relies on the Aristotelian 5 steps: first,
admit you’ve got a problem exposition; followed by conflict, rising action, climax, denouement. It’s simple, tried and true. Aristotle didn’t even invent the rule, so you know he didn’t have a dog in that fight, right? Right. So you know that’s the best way.
Or at least the simplest, most straightforward way.
The truth is, as far as I can tell, that every story wants to be told in a different way. Maybe a percentage far north of 50 want to be told that via Aristotle’s prescription. Sometimes, though, a little bit of non-linearity goes a long way. Sometimes you pull a last-minute reverse to surprise your audience: “OMG! Bobby’s still alive! It was all a dream!” (I apologize for crossing the timestreams).
If that’s the case, then when I say that How to Start Your Own Country got a little long and rambling, is that because it failed to tell its story well, or that it failed because it didn’t conform to how I expected it to tell its story? Because either are real possibilities. (You could quibble with me here and assert that Aristotle’s work doesn’t even apply in the first place so I enact my own argument by applying Aristotelian standards out of context and I would say that you have missed my point entirely Mr/s Lost in the Microsemiotics (that’s “Mr/s Can’t See the Forest for the Trees, BTW).) I learned facts about an odd little quirk of history and law, and they showed me some eccentric ideas thrust into the world (MAN, talk about performing yourself – sheesh). It was fun. It got long.
Tagfish used individual screens as literal, visual placeholders for the projections of the men speak from them. An interesting idea, and a potentially enthralling story about bureaucracy and how a redevelopment idea can be killed not by committee but by the very process that is meant to document and regularize business planning. Instead, it was technically superb (in design and execution), but with a quite dull story. Although by necessity it was highly edited, they pretended to a cinema verite style of recording by using prolonged silences, awkward pauses, and charisma free committee members.
The execution of their idea, however, is impractical on any kind of scale. Costly in motor control and projection (not to mention the rigged table and chairs), it is an effective blend of performance and recording. So what does it do, if that’s the case? I think shows like this succeed as experiments – they’ve shown us a new possible path. Because I think there’s a corollary – if every story wants to be told in its own way, finding a new way to tell a story might yield new kinds of stories to tell entirely.
And that’s an exciting thought.
Although as something that holds your interest, I gotta say WAY too long. And slow. Hoo boy.