Tommy Ingram's Eclectic Variety Show

How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.

Category: Performance Art

Thoughts on adaptations

My review of The Hobbit focused almost entirely on how the movie relates to the book. I thought this was odd as I wrote it—I wanted to mention more specific information about the acting, the visuals, the music, but I couldn’t find a way to work it in and it didn’t seem all that important, compared to the overriding question of how well the transition to the screen was carried off. We know that The Hobbit is a good yarn, we know that Peter Jackson won’t make a movie that’s not at least watchable, we know Ian McKellen can act and Howard Shore can bang out a tune. These are not interesting questions to ask. On the other hand, “Did Peter Jackson fundamentally misconceive The Hobbit?” is.

We’re dealing here with a matter of minor controversy in the genre fiction community. On the one hand are the people who want to be told a story, preferably with guns and aliens and simplistic morality, and don’t care all that much about the way it is told. Such people are the reason that, e.g., Stephen R. Donaldson has a career as a writer. TV Tropes is important to them. Adapting a book to film is, to them, paying it a great compliment, and the result will always be judged based on how well it adheres to the source material.

On the other hand are the more educated and intelligent (but sometimes too clever by half) people, the ones who are able to join in on beatdowns of this guy while simultaneously holding this guy in contempt. They will point out that there is more to a novel than the sequence of events it narrates, that not everything will adapt well to the screen, that perhaps the adaptation should try to be good in its own right, in film terms, instead of slavishly following the book. They have, in general, a nicer and more sophisticated way of looking at the world, and if they read it they’d probably object to my Hobbit review. I think they’d be wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

More on Mamet

I’ve begun reading David Mamet’s book Writing In Restaurants (I have True and False, but haven’t started it yet), and I must say that I’m not impressed. His essays are a mixture of insightful high-minded thoughts, rhetorical sleight-of-hand, and downright stupid conclusions. In “Radio Drama”, Mamet begins by discussing writing for the radio and how it prepares you to write for the stage. But as soon as he mentions movies, it takes a weird turn:

Witness the rather fascistic trend in cinema in the last decade:

Q: How’d you like the movie?
A: Fantastic cinematography.

Yeah, but so what? Hitler had fantastic cinematography. The question we have ceased to ask is, “What was the fantastic or brilliant cinematography in aid of?”

Of course it’s important that the cinematography, and all other aspects of a movie, work toward the same goal. But an otherwise mediocre movie that’s skillfully put to film deserves at least that much credit. Good craftsmanship should always be celebrated. You don’t have to accept or reject the whole production as a package deal. Birth of a Nation is one of the most morally reprehensible movies ever made, but it is startlingly well put together for its time, and it’s the origin of numerous film production techniques. It deserves, and largely gets, credit for its cinematography even thought it was used for shameful ends.

We’re not twenty pages into the book, and Mamet has already brought up Hitler and fascists in the middle of a discussion that has nothing whatsoever to do with them. Even by Internet standards, that’s bad. This is the whole purpose of Godwin’s law–a writer who makes this comparison lightly is either a bad writer or a liar trying to put one over on you, and in either case it’s hardly worth reading further. I’m tempted to shut Writing In Restaurants and return both Mamet books to the library on general principle, but now I feel the same obligation to keep reading that I get in, say, Terry Goodkind or Laurell K. Hamilton.

Note also the undertone of “kids these days” running through it. This “fascistic” decline is a product of modern society, and things were better back in Mamet’s day. I’m not sympathetic to that kind of whining. Injudicious overproduction is not a new thing. Benedetto Marcello was complaining about it all the way back in 1720:

He [the opera director] may give in to the clamouring of his friends and hire some stage hands, conductors, dancers, tailors, and extras, but in this he should use the utmost economy so that he can spend all the more on singers, especially prima donnas, as well as on the bear, a tiger, flashes of lightning, thunderbolts, and earthquakes.

On the very next page, Mamet equates “concern for commercial viability” with censorship and thought police. He imagines the shady corporate overlords who run the theatre business (work with me here) draw up a list of things they don’t want the masses thinking about and refuse to fund any productions that touch on these topics. He has it backwards.

Most people don’t want to think about certain things. They don’t care about philosophy, the human condition, or the “national dream life”, and don’t want to see plays that deal with them. The shady corporate overlords are in the business of giving the audience what they want, and so deeply introspective plays, movies, music, and books are not the norm. That’s not to say there’s no place for them, but they’ve always been fewer and smaller.

This is just two pages of one essay. There’s plenty more, and I’m not even halfway through the book yet. David Mamet reads like a parody of the pretentious theatre type, sneering as if by reflex at anything that an actual human being might enjoy and reading bizarre political motives into the ordinary. There is much that is good in Writing In Restaurants, but there’s also a hell of a lot of bullshit and I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.

David Mamet and the Role of the Performer

In 1999, David Mamet wrote a book called True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor. In it he gave his perspective on acting, specifically that the influential actor Constantin Stanislavski was an amateur and most of what actors spend their time doing is a waste of time. He claims that actors should not try to “find the character”, but instead recite the lines simply and let the words themselves create the illusion of character in the audience’s head.

I should probably disclose that I haven’t read the book. I looked up reviews of it online and put it on hold at the library, but it will be a few days before I’ll get around to it. These are uninformed first impressions, and I’ll come back to Mamet once I’ve finished reading the book. I also know approximately nothing about acting, but I do know a thing or two about the related field of music.

Essentially what Mamet is arguing is that the playwright should be the central creative force behind a play, and everyone else’s job is to get across the playwright’s vision transparently and accurately. (Mamet, by sheer coincidence, happens to make his living as a playwright). This is analogous to the role of the composer in classical music, and, in fact, Berlioz expressed a similar sentiment about singers in one of his essays:

A singer who is able to sing even sixteen measures of good music in a natural and engaging way, effortlessly and in tune, without distending the phrase, without exaggerating accents to the point of caricature, without platitude, affectation, or coyness, without making grammatical mistakes, without illicit slurs, without hiatus or hiccup, without making insolent changes in the text, without barks or bleats, without sour notes, without crippling the rhythm, without absurd ornaments and nauseating appoggiaturas–in short, a singer able to sing these measures simply and exactly as the composer wrote them–is a rare, very rare, exceedingly rare bird.

–Hector Berlioz (trans. Elizabeth Csicsery-RĂ³nay)

The composer or playwright creates the “text” to be performed. They make the notes to be played or the lines to be recited unambiguous. They give an indication of the desired articulation and inflection. They even write little directions now and then, like “(aside)”, “calando”, or “release the penguins”.

The instrumentalist or singer would be analogous to the actor. They both read the creator’s text, get up on stage, and transform it into something an audience would want to watch. In other words, they perform. The conductor and the director have essentially the same role: keep everyone involved in the production working toward the same overarching goal. Prevent conflicts between performers’ differing interpretations, and cast the final veto on any questions that crop up. Read the rest of this entry »

Teller Speaks

It’s interesting how this ties into what I hesitate to call postmodernism. As I understand it (correct me if I’m wrong), postmodernism involves a work of art being aware of its medium or even aware that it is fictional. So the practice of what TV Tropes calls subverting a trope–setting up an expectation based on the accepted conventions of the medium and then denying it–would fall under this.

When Buffy sees the freaky sentient vetriloquist’s dummy, she and us both expect it to be the bad guy who’s killing all the students, because there’s an accepted convention going at least as far back as Dead of Night saying that dummies, especially when they can walk and talk, are scary, evil things.

This is a good way of looking at the magic of Penn and Teller. The first time I ever saw them on TV, they were doing the cups and balls trick with clear glasses so you could see how it worked. The variations they put on the trick, and the speed with which they did it (making it almost impossible to follow) was the entertaining part, not the trick itself.

The same thinking that led to that trick led to the version of cups and balls described in the clip above. Teller saw a magician doing the trick and thought it was just some dumb amateur trying to impress him. He clearly saw the magician steal the balls from the outer cups and put them underneath the middle one, though probably no one else did. When Teller played along and said that there is one ball under each cup, he was surprised to find that he was right. The magician was using Teller’s knowledge of closeup magic to set up expectations and deny them.

I think we as a culture are more aware of the rules of fiction than ever before. The result is that playing every trope completely straight results in something watchable, but unforgivably hokey. Like always resolving a V chord inward to the tonic, for those of you who know music theory. Since we know the secrets behind all the tricks, it’s the job of the modern artist to take our knowledge of those secrets and use it to jerk us around.