September 2008

Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

An occasional column of ideas and thoughts not fully enough formed to warrant their own article.

One of the things I wanted for the Spectacle that has not come to pass: more reviews. Although I have been lucky enough to find people (more strictly they found me) who have contributed regular columns and articles for years on end, none of these people has wanted to concentrate on reviewing books or movies. I had two bad experiences with reviewers; one fellow who emails out a collection of book reviews from time to time first permitted, then forbade me, to rerun them here; a woman who wanted to write movie reviews for me pulled out after the first time because I didn't edit her work but ran it as submitted. I would still like some dedicated reviewers for Christmas but never seem to find them under the tree.

An independent film I saw this month, Frozen River, is a dark thriller about two women living on the Canadian border who start smuggling illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence. The film is intensely interesting and atmospheric; the two, one Caucasian and the other Indian, both live in decaying trailers in the snow, each is single, and they each have kids they are struggling to raise (the Indian woman's mother in law has seized her child from her). They meet cute when the Indian woman tries to take the other's apparently abandoned car. They dislike each other immediately, but cooperate because each has something the other needs to improve her economic lot: the Indian woman has access to illegal aliens who want to enter the US; the Caucasian has a car with a trunk in which the illegals can be stowed.

What makes the movie unique and memorable is the way in which it turns the standard film noir tropes on their head in its last few minutes. With the two women under pressure by law enforcement--white cops and tribal police--we enter the part of the movie which in most films of the genre would become a prisoner's dilemma, with the characters offering to betray one another. Instead--spoiler coming--the opposite happens. Despite their dislike of each other, the two women recognize what they have in common--poverty and children--and each persuasively decides to take a fall for the other. In the end, they work out a beautiful compromise, in which one accepts a short jail sentence, while the other cares for both their children.

This got me thinking again about movies and morality. We imagine "morality" to be one of those overarching concepts extraneous to the minutiae of life, when in reality it participates in every moment and is implicated in every decision. While we may think of movies "about" morality as being potentially didactic or dull, every movie (and every story we tell in every medium) is a moral tale. Charles Bronson or Bruce Willis seeking revenge on someone who injured his family? Criminals planning a heist, but observing rules about the honorable way to treat one another? People banding together to fight a monster or a killer, working out the terms and the limits of their cooperation? One of the things I love about Westerns, even the more pedestrian ones, is that the moral issues are at the forefront of the story. Westerns are all about outsiders and insiders, communities and threats, competing moral schemes for the exploitation of land and people, respect or hatred for indigenous races. Every time a loner rides a horse into a scraggly town of three or four saloons and storefronts, we are about to watch a morality play where everyone--the corrupt or honest sheriff, the domineering rancher, the frightened shopkeeper--has a moral axe to grind.

Film noir by definition is also a morality tale, set in an ambiguous apparently amoral world where each character brings his or her own competing rulebook. The memorable visual from so many of these movies--the light through the venetian blinds striping people's faces--reflects the way the characters and the universe they live in are layers of good and evil, good and evil, good and evil.

In the best movies, the moral scheme and the way it plays out form part of the director's and writer's commitment to the story, the reason they felt compelled to tell it in the first place. In the worst movies, the moral scheme, though equally important, is merely a means to an end rather than an end in itself. In the seventies, with rising crime rates, we started to see a lot of movies about vigilantism and revenge. It was interesting to realize that in many cases, the people making these were the same Hollywood liberals who had presented us a couple years before with noble schoolteacher or union organizer films. They would have bristled at the accusation they were now telling stories about the utility of violence and the concomitant importance of ignoring civil liberties and the Bill of Rights. The standard defense is, "We are just telling the stories people want to hear." This is a bit like saying "Don't criticize us, we're just pandering."

This is not to say that filmmakers have a responsibility to make only movies which promote pacifism, cooperation and the singing of "Kumbaya". They should, however, own up to the moral scheme inherent in their work, which operates in effect as their own opinion of the way things work or should work. This is an important, very hard to make distinction--an artist portraying a shitty world is not necessarily advocating for one. In the former case, we will sense and possibly share the artist's contempt or despair for the world and people portrayed. In the latter, the artist gives us built in clues that he shares and advocates for the protagonist's world view--the hero is a hell of a fellow, and everything comes out his way without causing the filmmaker or anyone else to despair. In violent vigilante movies, the people responsible for them are trying to have it both ways, portraying a world of enjoyable and righteous violence yet denying that they intended any endorsement. I respect people like John Milius, who doesn't deny the right wing moral perspective he brings to his films.

A painful thing I observed in the work world was my own surprisingly controversial effect on people. Right out of law school, I had a series of job interviews in which, called back several times to meet more people, I always had one or two advocates fighting to get me hired--and one powerful person who conceived a stunning dislike of me. Since I regarded myself as a mild mannered, friendly guy who didn't make a lot of demands or take up a lot of space, and I really had no guile whatever, it was shocking to meet people who disliked me that much. Needless to say, I didn't get offered those jobs, because the person who hated me always seemed to have veto power. I used to spend time agonizing about what unperceived aspect of my personality or history inspired such intense dislike. Did I seem privileged? Pretentious? Was it being from Brooklyn, or Jewish? I never knew, and ultimately had to conclude that it wasn't useful agonizing about the reasons.

Since 2005, I have been writing and producing plays, and getting reviews, and experiencing a similar phenomenon. For every one of my five productions, one reviewer has loved the work, while often (not always) there has been one who detested it. Usually, there are three or so in the middle, finding some good and some tedious or difficult elements.

Naively, just as one hopes to be loved by everyone, playwrights dream of writing the play that meets universal acceptance, but it never happens. Reviewing plays is not a science, but is rather like reviewing ice cream: some people like mint chip and some don't. One blogger who hated my last play did lead me to formulate a possible rule: people who adore tranvestite farces probably will not like my work. I do want to write an essay called "How to Review a Play": no-one is required to like my work or anybody's, but (similar to what I said about the movies) the metadata about the reviewer's beliefs and preferences, and the approach they took to the play, should at least be exposed. One reviewer started by saying that she disliked the genre in which she believed my play to be included. That raised the issue for me whether someone who hates ice cream should be asked to write an ice cream review.

A difference between music and theatre reviewing is that, in the former discipline, reviewers as a matter of course write about genres they don't love without heaping contempt. A writer who grew up listening to hip hop is capable of telling us if a country song will be liked by country listeners: what does it aspire to be, and how well does it succeed in meeting its own standards? Is it fresh, innovative, lyrical? Only in theatre reviewing are critics permitted to show off their own aspiration to be Oscar Wilde or H.L. Mencken, and the nasty one liner becomes king.

I would like my plays to be reviewed like that country song. What is my theme? How did I succeed or fail in elucidating it? Were my characters and dialog fresh and surprising or did they seem cliched or overused? In short, how well did I get to the goal I set for myself?

Even successful and famous playwrights have a very ambivalent, often hateful perspective on reviewers. One point I have heard several make is that reviewers might give a counterpoint to their own opinions by mentioning what the audience thought. If no-one was fidgeting, if everyone was rapt, if appropriate points in the play were met with gasps, laughter and thunderous applause, shouldn't a reviewer mention this in the course of an otherwise negative review?

One thing I have noticed a few times is a reviewer who reviews himself rather than the play. Whenever I see a review in which a play is accused of being a "jumble" or "morass", I find this translates into an admission that the reviewer didn't pay attention. While the playwright may be blamed if the play is particularly dense, obscure or slow moving, much of the time I suspect that the reviewer, being human, came to the play tired, distracted or without the commitment and open-mindedness a reviewer should bring to every play she attends. We worked so hard to put it up, should you not work hard to understand it? Here is a concocted example of a lazy "morass" review:

Fairies, monsters, princes, drunken sailors, lovers, chess games, songs. What story is Mr. Shakespeare trying to tell? Every time he embarks on one story line, he flits to another. The play might be a finished work if the playwright would just make a choice among story lines and strands. Instead, "The Tempest" is a morass of undigested elements.

The solution, for me, has been to adjust my expectations. (This works for the rest of life as well.) I don't write for everybody. It is intensely gratifying that there always are a few people out there who appreciate the art (and the effort which went into making it).

Stupidity of the invisible hand. The mortgage crisis which has driven us into a more general recession illustrates very poignantly that the "invisible hand" beloved of Libertarians cannot be trusted. In its most perfect imaginary incarnation, the invisible hand operates with a wisdom greater than that of the people whose ids and egos (and hopefully, super-egos) generate it. In reality, excitable, vain and rather stupid brokers started competing with one another to write the most dubious mortgages with the most outrageous balloon payments for the most marginal customers. Some of them probably believed against all evidence that the customer would be able to pay ("a good salesman sells himself first") while the rest were playing the game I call "fuck the future": "When it all crashes, it will be someone else's problem, not mine."

We learned the same lesson, or should have, less than ten years ago during the Internet bubble, when firms that were not profitable and never could be by any reasonable standard were going public at outrageous multiples. But the truth seems to be that in the world of the invisible hand, we never learn anything. Only 79 years have elapsed since the crash of '29, a minute by the standards even of human history, but Glass-Steagal and most of the other safeguards that were legislated to prevent a recurrence of the Great Depression have long since been dismantled.

As I've said elsewhere, there are two kinds of Libertarians, realists and idealists. I only respect the realists, who would say to each other, if not publicly, that the invisible hand is the best system going even though it has a tendency to land us in the mud at intervals. The idealists believe the invisible hand is God, way superior to the flawed humans whose mutual hallucination it is, and can never go wrong. These are the ones who are doubtless already claiming, as they always do, that the mortgage crisis was caused not by greed but by government intervention.

Vice Presidential choices. Newsday reported today that Obama for the first time is trailing John McCain in the polls and that he received no bounce whatever by naming Joe Biden as his vice presidential candidate.

Joe Biden was a disappointing choice, a breath of stale air when a fresh one was needed. Biden, as a politician, not a human being, is older than dirt; he got elected in the 1970's, has run for president before without gaining any momentum, and has had his share of stupid problems, such as plagiarism in law school and during his 1987 presidential campaign (when he routinely incorporated portions of speeches by British politician Neal Kinnock and others into his own speeches without acknowledgement). He has his own motor-mouth problem as well, similar in nature if not in degree to Bush's; his designation of Barack Obama recently as an example of a "clean" African American running for office is just one in a series of embarassing malapropisms.

I expected Barack Obama to select someone new and charismatic, somebody likely to be the next president after Obama two terms from now. There may have been a thought process working that it is better to stick with the scandals we know than risk the possible revelations about young firebrandsa never before tested in a national campaiogn (anyone remember Tom Eaglet on?)