Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Yes, but what does it MEAN?

First Ladies. A Serious Man. Grief. “The Ice Worm.” “Woke Up Near Chelsea.”

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.

P.S. For what it’s worth, here’s the link that got me thinking about A Serious Man again. And two reviews (one, two) for First Ladies.

10 responses

  1. Poopsie

    First, pardon any misspellings, I’m sick and on Theraflu.
    On to my reply…
    I think because we experience plays and films as a form of verisimilitude we long for a conclusion to the experience, one that makes “sense.” Plays and films use words, sounds, imagery drawn from life and construct an experience for the viewer, and just the way we try to make sense of life experiences and create a “meaning” for them, we want the same thing from the near reality we experiences of film and theater.
    You reach the end and wonder what it was all for.
    We expect the ol’ classic dramatic “catharsis,”—something to purge confusion and disturbance—and when it’s not given we can feel almost strangled by the lack of closure.—“But why the dybbuk in the beginning of A Serious Man? Why the dybbuk??”
    There needs to be a signified at the end of the chain of signifiers.
    Music/songs on the other hand are at a remove from daily experience. For one thing, it’s not visual. Just by representing the world we see when we leave our role as audience members, theater and film is already held to a different standard (even if it’s not consciously). Music is a language all its own, and while it does usually follow certain expected rules, it doesn’t simulate anything out of our daily lives. Lyrics, like poetry, are also more abstract signifiers taken out of the context of the structure we’re used to using for words. Lyrics don’t need to be grammatical, they don’t need punctuation, they only need to leave impressions.
    All that being said, I think if you choose to take a more Zen approach to films and theater, you can start to come up with all sorts of meanings behind things and just have fun with it!

    April 30, 2011 at 5:35 pm

  2. Megan

    The first funny thing is that I “get” First Ladies a little better now that I’ve seen the Steven Berkoff parallel drawn by the Wikipedia entry author. I still don’t know what it means, or meant.

    The second funny thing is that I was not plagued whatsoever with that question Saturday night while watching Mike Watt and the Missing Men at Shank Hall. It was weird, angular, funky, poetic, operatic punk strung out over a couple of dozen snarly, smoky songlets. A good thirty minutes into it I went, OH! NOW I know why they played Coltrane over the sound system before they started. Watt’s performing a suite, a song cycle. Did I care what it was about? Nope. I loved and reveled in every minute of it.

    Maybe since his interpretive choices are limited to guitar-bass-drums, and theatre interpreters have a ginormous palette to choose from to paint the stage, there’s just more to mentally dodge to get at a meaning when you’re sitting in the theatre rather than bobbing your head in a rock club.

    April 18, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    • Chris Jones’ review did that for me. I ended up feeling like Marie was a bit like Socrates explaining the shadows on the cave wall to Greta and Erna – the cave of Catholicism, that is – so they killed her, much to the Virgin’s surprise.

      April 19, 2011 at 11:07 am

  3. clickerbug

    I don’t think I quite answered the question. Why do we seek meaning in stories but not in the wind blowing through trees? Maybe we do, it’s just a different kind of meaning.

    April 18, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    • Dunno – I think there is something to letting yourself get distracted by the other elements of the medium (song, dance, pretty lights and OOOH! SHINY!).

      April 19, 2011 at 11:15 am

  4. Ted Leo in specific or pop songs in general?

    April 18, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    • mitya

      Yes, pop songs in general.

      April 18, 2011 at 9:54 pm

      • I’ll noodle on pop songs but they don’t weigh on me. Could be the music is overriding? Sometimes the meaning makes me like the music less? I went off YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT when I gave it a solid, patient listen and decided they were all relationship songs. I like XTC’s formal constructions, but Andy Partridge’s screeds really seem like he’s refusing to get over Lots of Stuff. Lyrics that are too straight up (rhyme scheme ABAB or simplistic) turn me off.

        Generally I prefer stuff that lets me think (David Byrne, XTC, Ted Leo) without telling me exactly where the songwriter is going. The Hold Steady tell very straightforward stories, and I like them – maybe because more narrative and less preachy?

        April 19, 2011 at 7:34 am

  5. mitya

    I think clickbug is on to something with time, although I’ll put in a bit differently. The three or four minutes of a pop song is short enough for your experience to be visceral, like the sugar rush from this cake I’m having for breakfast. But that’s not sustainable for 60-90-120 minutes, and so you start seeking “meaning”.

    The other thing I would say is ask yourself the question in reverse: why do you *not* seek meaning in Ted Leo? I think that may be the more important question.

    April 18, 2011 at 9:13 pm

  6. clickerbug

    My thoughts:

    One part is the time investment, another is how many different things about the form there are to like, i.e. how many distractions from the main story are there.

    A song is (average) three minutes long. A short story is a few pages at most. If you don’t understand the words of the song but can totally appreciate the music, you can invest your three minutes in it. If you don’t understand the words and the music doesn’t grab you either, you’ll probably avoid that song.

    I personally hate the song by Annie Lennox that starts out, “Shooby-dooby-doop-doop-doop, oh ohhh” … I don’t know what it’s about, I hate the musicality, I’ve rejected it, and actively avoid it: I turn it off, leave the room, plug my ears and sing “LALALALALALA” to myself until it goes away.

    But most music I can either relegate to the background and “wait it out,” or bring to the foreground and listen if I like it.

    A symphony is a larger investment of time, like a novel or a movie or play. If you don’t like the music at the symphony, you might try to find something else to entertain you for the time you’ve invested. You might try to distract yourself with the program, the performers, the lights, the construction of the walls, the head of the person in front of you. Sometimes you just can’t mentally remove yourself, so you leave at intermission.

    You can put a novel down if you don’t understand the story. Perhaps craft alone can pull you through 200 pages … probably not me, though. Assigned reading forces you to slog through something you dislike or fail to engage in. There’s no option to stop. That breeds anger.

    But a play or a movie are designed to remove your “distraction defenses.” They are set up to pull your attention to one thing, and rarely give you much else to do if you aren’t engaged. The room is dark. You can’t see anything except for this bright THING in front of you that you are not engaged in. Your only recourse is to zone out into your head. You’re not supposed to pull out your phone. You can’t watch your neighbors. Lights in a play generally don’t change often enough to be interesting. A movie forces a POV and there’s not much else. That breeds anger.

    I saw a movie I failed to engage with and HATED the experience. I tried to zone out. Didn’t work. I left to get more popcorn. Didn’t use up enough time. Tried sleeping. Woke up and it was still going on. Finally nudged Ron and asked to leave… I. Just. Couldn’t. Stay. Anymore.

    That’s probably why musicals are so much more popular than plays among the general public. They give you a lot more distractions (music, dancing, lights, large casts) even if you aren’t engaged in the story.

    April 18, 2011 at 8:08 pm

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