Friday, July 04, 2003

Happy Fourth of July!

Now go watch fireworks and barbecue something.

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Paul Green, The Lost Colony, and American popular drama

Most people haven't heard of Southern novelist and playwright Paul Green. Theater buffs might remember him from the infamous Orson Welles production of Richard Wright's Native Son; Green's attempt to collaborate with Wright is usually considered a minor disaster, though the production had a decent run in New York and even made a national tour. Earlier, in 1927, Green had won the Pulitzer Prize for In Abraham's Bosom, a Southern-liberal protest against racial prejudice. For a time he was considered second only to Eugene O'Neill in the annals of American theater. But during the 1930s, Green took part in the Federal Theater Project, and began to think of a way to bring drama to the American masses.

The result would take him on a radically different career path, blending theater and tourism to create some of the longest-running plays in the history of American drama. In fact, three of them are still going today. Since 1959, Stephen Foster: The Musical has played at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown, KY. Trumpet in the Land, one of Green's last and most pessimistic dramas, has been staged for over three decades near New Philadelphia, OH. But for sheer longevity, it's hard to top The Lost Colony, which has played on North Carolina's Outer Banks almost without interruption since 1937. Take that, Cats.

On some level it's useless to review The Lost Colony. This year marks the production's 66th "official" season (though technically, because the production had to shut down during three years of World War II, it's the 63rd). Plenty of famous names have paid dues here: Andy Griffith played Sir Walter Raleigh (yes, that Sir Walter Raleigh) in the postwar years; his wife Cindi played Eleanor Dare during the late '70s. Broadway veteran Terrence Mann started out with the comic role of "Old Tom" during the late '70s; now, after roles in Les Miz and Beauty and the Beast, he's a director. Frankly, after more than six decades The Lost Colony has become such a fixture of Outer Banks tourism that it hardly seems to matter whether the actual play -- or for that matter, the production -- is any good or not. It just might last forever anyway.

So it's a blessed relief to find that not only is The Lost Colony America's longest-running professional drama, it's also one of the best. The script has survived with relatively few changes over the years, and most of it still holds up to critical scrutiny. From the Whitmanesque incantations that open the play, to the slow, sad procession of colonists at the finale, Green tells a ripping good story about the famous "Lost Colony" on Roanoke Island. The dialogue is dense, literate and memorable; Green understands that the colonists of 1587 spoke the same rich language that Shakespeare used, and in the spirit of Elizabethan drama, many of the lines are in a rough-hewn iambic pentameter. (Samples: "My tongue was ever wayward, like my heart." "If English men have dreams, so have her women." "Tonight I am for play, not argument.") In the original script, Green even invented an incident in which the Bard himself volunteers to travel to the New World. This scene is almost always cut from the play to maintain a short running time, but it does show that Green invoked the conventions of Renaissance drama intentionally.

With The Lost Colony Green pioneered the literary no-man's-land of outdoor drama. Prior to this play a few towns had presented amateur historical pageants as a civic ritual. Green's genius was to add professional actors and direction, as well as a script which stressed legitimate dramatic tension and narrative development, and then give the work at least a Broadway-style run. Green was often willing to take considerable liberties with historical fact to achieve his dramatic effects; nowhere is this more evident than in Lost Colony's second act, which relies on speculation, conjecture and outright fiction to reconstruct the ultimate fate of the 1587 colonists. Members of the Roanoke Island Historical Association, which sponsored the original production and still reaps yearly profits from that investment, were initially horrified to discover that Green invented most of the story out of whole cloth; however, Green persuaded (or rather, pressured) them to let him write the story as he saw fit.

Green called the result a "symphonic drama," because the dramatic elements of song, dance, chorus, character dialogue and rhetoric all worked together to create a grand theatrical spectacle. After The Lost Colony, he would write sixteen more "symphonic dramas," most of them for outdoor performance. Indeed, after The Lost Colony these dramas were his primary literary output.

Although critics have seldom given outdoor drama its due, it may be as close as Americans have come to a self-supporting "people's theater." Families with small children, elderly philistines, and people who generally wouldn't be caught dead walking into a local playhouse, willingly attend an outdoor drama or two on vacation. (These are not the glitterati.) These productions are based on local history, often -- as in the case of The Lost Colony -- a mere stone's throw from where the historical events actually took place. Even when the history involves warfare, racism or governmental oppression, outdoor dramas always manage to affirm traditional American values in the end. They embrace corny humor, family-friendly sentimentality, spectacle, an extensive use of traditional song and dance, melodrama and ardent patriotism -- in short, all the vulgar values modern theater has abandoned -- and craft an entertainment to please the masses.

It was certainly Paul Green's intent to affirm traditional patriotic values when he developed the American outdoor drama. He saw the nation as part of a great democratic tradition, in which individuals work together to form a functional collective. His "symphonic dramas" hammer home the point that, unlike England with its rigidly stratified class codes, the American wilderness placed beggars and kings on perfectly equal footing; here, people would have to take care of each other, regardless of rank or station. Although Green despised Communism (which placed him in the distinct minority among his colleagues in the Federal Theater Project), he was a social reformer and a New Deal Democrat. His liberal-left politics is reflected in the aesthetic of outdoor drama. Green's plays feature large crowds but very few major characters; they usually tell stories about societies instead of individuals. When a distinct voice does emerge from the crowd, it represents a "social type" rather than a psychologically developed characters; characters only achieve significance inasmuch as they can relate to each other. In keeping with the collective focus, Green organizes central scenes around community-based ceremonial rituals -- funeral processions, christenings, religious worship, and the like.

But Green's community-based ethos serves more practical concerns as well. In the vast, 3000-seat amphitheaters where outdoor drama is often performed, individual performers are dwarfed by the setting. Subtle nuances of expression are lost on spectators beyond the third row; grand gestures are the norm. What's more, outdoor amphitheaters are acoustic nightmares. Without a ceiling, actors find basic vocal projection impossible, and the audience has to hear their dialogue over natural annoyances like stiff winds, chirping crickets and tweeting birds. Before cordless microphones provided amplification, individual performers would have to shout their lines, leaving their voices raw and hoarse by the evening's end. Thus dialogue in outdoor drama is limited and usually declamatory in nature. Even more importantly, lines are distributed among several members of a group rather than concentrated in a handful of lead roles. These attempts to compensate for a less-than-ideal performance venue end up creating the very collective spirit Paul Green intended for this type of drama. Had he not been ideologically attracted to mass movement, group protagonists and visual spectacle, the outdoor theatrical space might well have set these particular formal characteristics for him. Certainly the most aesthetically successful outdoor dramas are the ones which best adapt to the limitations of the venue.

Ironically, even though Paul Green was once considered second to Eugene O'Neill, far more Americans have seen Green's plays in live performance than will ever see O'Neill. (It doesn't hurt that the top ticket prices for Green's outdoor dramas are about twenty dollars, about half the price of regional theater, and less than a third of the going rate for Broadway.) By combining drama with tourism, then applying a patina of good-for-you history and nationalism, Green invented a new type of roadside attraction, one which millions of Americans visit every year. Currently, over a hundred venues stage outdoor summer theater; some forty-plus outdoor amphitheaters present outdoor historical dramas in the Paul Green mode, while others offer Biblical dramas (mostly Passion plays) or Shakespeare festivals.

If you want to see the type of theater that reflects the values and beliefs of most middle-class Americans, check out a few of these productions. You won't need to dress up for the occasion, but insect repellent is always a must. Above all, prepare yourself for a crowd-pleasing good time, about as far from the disciplined aesthetic of contemporary theater as you're likely to get. As Green envisioned, outdoor drama has become our people's theater.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (caution: contains lots of spoilers)

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines may be the grimmest, most depressing summer blockbuster ever. I predict that audiences will loathe it with a passion, so that after a middling first weekend the film will quickly vanish. In Charlottesville, even last night's "special preview" played to a half-empty theater. That doesn't bode well.

You heard it here first, gentle reader. This one's going to bomb ... big time.

That said, T3 is often very good, though its appeal seems limited to hard-core sci-fi fans. Director Jonathan Mostow, of U-571 fame, doesn't have James Cameron's trademark visual flair. But he works well with actors, and can tell a compelling story with little waste. In a summer of bloated, two-hour-plus blockbusters, Terminator 3 clocks in at a lean, mean, hour forty-five (not counting end credits).

Despite the $20 million presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger as another Terminator off the robot assembly line, Nick Stahl carries the film as the nearly grown-up John Connor. The internal conflict between his sense of destiny and his desire to prevent the horrible events that lead up to it gives the story an uncommon warmth. Claire Danes is equally good as Kate Brewster, whose destiny is inextricably linked to Connor, as well as to this particular Terminator. Wisely, the film limits the Terminator's humanization, leaving Schwarzenegger somewhat closer to the monosyllabic killing machine of the first film than the almost-human android of the second. When he tells John Connor, "We'll meet again," it's more of a threat than a promise -- the chillling prediction of a hero's untimely death.

Although the special effects here seem less remarkable than those of previous installments, T3 makes the shape-shifting villain carry much more dramatic weight than Terminator 2 ever did. In Terminator 2, the villain disappeared for an entire half-hour stretch so that we could have some maudlin "father-son" bonding between the big robot and the young John Connor. Terminator 3 corrects this imbalance by keeping its female "Terminatrix" front and center throughout, always in hot pursuit of our heroes and killing everyone who gets in -- or near -- her way. As played by supermodel Kristanna Loken, the "T-X" is an S&M dream date with just the right touch of ditz. Call her Lethally Blonde.

Instead of playing up the Terminatrix's physical strength (always a dicey proposition where women characters are concerned), Mostow and company have chosen to equip her with plenty of murderous new gadgets, as well as the ability to "infect" and control other machines from afar. Tricked out with these nifty toys, as well as astonishing agility, she seems more than a match for the beefy but clumsy Ahh-nold. In one of the film's most frightening scenes she even manages to reprogram the sad old Terminator, controlling him just as she would any other machine. Good for her.

The main problem with Terminator 3 is the same as in Terminator 2: Schwarzenegger is always much more compelling as a villain than as a hero. As a heavy he looks positively unstoppable. Mere mortals look like ants next to his overpowering physique, a contrast which ratchets up the visual and dramatic tension considerably. As a good guy, he is so thoroughly outsized that it's tough to find an adversary who could match him, let alone run a solid chance of overpowering him. Hot and heavy as the resulting battles may be, there's never any doubt about the outcome. Luckily, in T3 Schwarzenegger's heroic role is rendered ambiguous by the ever-present implication that a machine can never be trusted: The Terminator becomes an object of suspicion, not admiration. If we can't have Ahh-nold as a bone-chilling villain, this is the next best thing.

No one can accuse Terminator 3 of being compromised to death, not with such a dreadful downer of an ending. Most viewers won't like it, I think, because the horrific events that our heroes have tried to prevent over the previous two pictures finally occur. The closing scenes depict a new-and-improved "Judgment Day" for humanity; they are mournful and restrained, as befits a cataclysm of such magnitude. Schwarzenegger is well out of the picture by this time, so all we see are the characters of Connor and Brewster holed up in a cave while the nuclear missiles soar above their heads.

Unlike Terminator 2, which stressed human beings' ability to control our future, T3 is fatalistic to the point of despair. Our heroes don't triumph; instead, they barely manage to survive as the world around them crumbles. That's as close to a happy ending as you're going to get, folks. John Connor tells us that the future has already been written; all one can do is try to live in it. And boy oh boy, does that future suck.

Do you buy this message, gentle reader? I'm afraid I don't. However, I find it fascinating that two of this year's biggest summer movies adopt such terrifying, hard-line determinism. Both Matrix: Reloaded and Terminator 3 articulate the idea that all our actions are predestined, and that the shape of our future is out of our hands.

I'm not sure why today's mass entertainment is preaching this old fatalism to us. But one reason might be that, in this new age of supercomputers, artificial intelligence, bio- and chemical warfare, and homeland security, the basic events of our lives seem further and further removed from our control. It seems futile to believe that we can put the kibosh on advancing technology, encroaching governmental power, or scary new weapons which can destroy us all without a moment's notice.

Granted, to some extent we fragile humans have always been subject to monstrous forces beyond our control; after all, no one handled this type of tragic fatalism better than the ancient Greeks. In our own case, though, we seem to have created the monsters which threaten us, and now we can't even understand them anymore. We fear that since we seem to have no control over our lives, something very bad will happen to all of us very soon.

Still, if you'll forgive the film's ugly determinism and the muffled sob of an ending (though I rather doubt you will, and I'm not even certain you should), T3 is a good time-waster, well directed and not badly written. Unfortunately, it suffers in comparison to Matrix: Reloaded, next to which it seems inferior and redundant. Most of T3's action scenes (especially a drawn-out car chase) seem designed to give that Matrix sequel a run for its money, and the "freedom vs. determinism" debate leads to inescapable thematic similarities between the two films. Been there, done this.

Ultimately, T3 may not prove smarter or more thrilling than Matrix: Reloaded, but at least it's easier to follow. It's certainly a vast improvement from the much-overrated Terminator 2. Just don't take it too seriously.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Another political post. An essay/review of Paul Green's The Lost Colony is coming very soon, as is a brief observational piece on development and sprawl in North Carolina's Outer Banks.

So Why Isn't Jonah Goldberg Screwing His Sister?

Jonah Goldberg is grasping at straws. In today's National Review Online (which now owes me thirty-three dollars), he writes:

In today's society, where sex pours in from the popular culture like rain through a poorly thatched hut, the last thing kids need is to see their siblings as sexual creatures. ... If the taboos against incest were lifted, if romance between siblings was seen as just another "lifestyle choice," then it would be that much more difficult to prevent my own kids from getting jiggy with each other.

Agreed and agreed -- taboos can be very good things. But have you guessed that Goldberg is not actually writing against incest? No, he's writing against legalizing same-sex marriage, a distinct possibility now that states no longer have the right to criminalize private, consensual sex acts.

Goldberg knows that images of same-sex incest are percolating through the culture. How does he know? Why, by reading Playboy, of course!

Second, what about lesbian incest (unlike homosexual incest, I know for a fact this happens because I've seen twins in Playboy plenty of times)?

First of all, I have no idea why Goldberg would claim that "lesbian incest" is somehow different from "homosexual incest." The last time I checked, Lesbians were homosexual, too. But sometimes when you're desperate, logic and language fly out the window.

Goldberg's social-conservative pretzel logic works as follows: Legalizing certain sexual relations means that impressionable youth will see more evidence of these relations every day. This evidence will break down social taboos, which will eventually lead to all kinds of higgledy-piggledy, like the sexualizing of family relations. (This may seem like a non sequitur to you. But bear with Mr. Goldberg, gentle reader.) Thus, siblings will start screwing each other with abandon, and the family -- bedrock of Western civilization -- will get blown to bits.

Now we know by his own admission that Goldberg has seen images of Lesbian incest, not once, but "plenty of times." Since he claims to have seen these images in Playboy, the sticky pages of which can be found under many a young laddie's mattress, I could hazard a guess that this exposure began when he was an innocent, impressionable youth. But since no one has arrested Hugh Hefner, his photographers or his buxom models over these pictures, we may presume that although Playboy may have flirted with social taboos, it remained well within the bounds of law.

Since these images of incest were widely disseminated (ahem) and presumably legal, we could expect young Jonah's moral fiber to unravel accordingly. So why isn't he screwing his sister now?

You may have guessed that Goldberg's argument against same-sex marriage is basically the old "nanny-state" conundrum: What would our children say, if the courts gave their blessing to relations which we deem morally wrong? How could parents punish children for acts which the law considers right and proper? The most practical answer, of course, is that parents do this sort of thing all the time. If you're a parent, you don't let your young kids watch NYPD Blue, you keep a close eye on them as they surf the Internet, you ask them what they learned at kindergarten today, you hold their little hands when they cross the street. The state does not have to tell you to place restrictions on your child's behavior that extend beyond civil or criminal law. If you are at all interested in your child's welfare, you do it -- almost as if by instinct.

Parents know that, for children, the primary agents of law and order lie within the home. It may be perfectly legal for other teenagers to be out past ten o'clock, but if a teenager comes home at 10:30 to find his parents alternately yelling and glowering at him, it's a safe bet he's stumbled into pretty deep trouble. Likewise, if a parent is opposed to same-sex marriage, she works that into her child's moral instruction. (She may be acting to the severe detriment of her child's mental health down the road, but she still has the right to do it.)

So if Jonah's parents/guardians have taught him that sex acts with family members are a very big no-no, it's a given that he won't try it no matter how many images of Lesbian "twin-cest" he keeps under the mattress. The taboo, once established, acts as a powerful deterrent regardless of what the law says.

Laws and taboos are not the same thing. If someone violates your sense of propriety, you are not required by law to have anything more to do with that person. You don't have to invite him into your home for dinner; you don't have to let him join your bowling league; you don't have to let his kids play with your kids. You can shun the fellow and all his relatives to your heart's content, and there's nothing the law can do to stop you. The Amish have done this sort of "shunning" for centuries, but that doesn't mean an Amish woman can be arrested if she decides to remove her black bonnet in public.

Goldberg's arguments against same-sex marriage (or incest and polygamy, for that matter) would make sense only if a social taboo were the same as a law, or if one were necessarily based on the other. But this is not the case. And until Goldberg can find a compelling legal argument for his positions, he'll just keep grasping desperately at straws.

Update (5:30 p.m.): Andrew Sullivan says he couldn't agree more with Goldberg's "thoughtful" essay in today's NRO. He must have read a different column than I did. To be fair, Sullivan agrees with Goldberg's coda that same-sex marriage should be a state-by-state decision. Yet this "federalist" compromise could well destroy the civil institution of marriage, by making marital bliss more of a legal hassle than it's worth. What happens when a married couple moves to a state where their union isn't recognized? Does that mean they're automatically divorced? Under what grounds could a state refuse legal recognition to marriages granted in another state? Would it apply only to same-sex marriages, or would there be other kinds of marriage that a state could deny? Would a married couple have to remarry whenever they crossed a state line?

I'm sure someone has addressed these concerns already, but to me this federalist compromise looks like a Gordian knot of legislation, regulation and litigation.

Monday, June 30, 2003

Finding Nemo and the Paradox of Digitized Naturalism

The first movie image I remember came from a Walt Disney "True-Life Adventures" short. You never see these nature documentaries in theaters anymore, but there was a time in the mid-'70s when every family comedy from the House of Mouse would be preceded by some brief trifle about sea otters, or lemmings, or happy little foxes. This one was about birds -- hundreds and hundreds of white birds nesting on a rock in the middle of the ocean. They swarmed the camera in a tangle of wings, beaks and feathers, filling every inch of the screen with flashing patterns of grey and white. To a four-year-old boy like me, the effect was mesmerizing. As the birds flecked over the grey rocks and the blue sea, Disney's trademark balloon-yellow letters appeared, announcing that at last, we were going to see this movie about seagulls.

I knew that somewhere in the world -- the real, live world -- was a place that looked just like what I had seen, a place where pretty white birds and their little hatchlings swooped and soared over rocks and ocean. Surely such a world was full of wonders, which, if I was very good, I might even get to see one day.

I was reminded of those birds the other night, as I watched the new Disney/Pixar film Finding Nemo. The story is partly inspired by animal-quest pictures like The Incredible Journey, but its syrupy sentimentality belongs strictly to an old-school Disney film like Bambi. The original "twist" is that Nemo is set underwater, on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. But this location feels drawn out of a hat, since the film could take place just about anywhere. There's no compelling reason for any of the major characters to be fish; I suppose they have to be something, though they could be moose, bears, sitcom characters, or aliens from another galaxy, and do almost exactly what they manage to do as fish.

The "dead-mommy moment" comes remarkably early in Nemo, prompting the reflection that mothers in Disney nuclear families have an even shorter life expectancy than Bond girls. Within three minutes, a prowling barricuda knocks Dad unconscious, then devours Mom and all the little fetus-like fish eggs -- all, that is, except for one. Naturally, the poppa fish (voiced by Albert Brooks) is neurotic, traumatized and overprotective, and little Nemo -- who bears no relation to Windsor McKay's comic strip -- gets kidnapped by a scuba-diving dentist. Now, as Nemo languishes in captivity, poppa fish goes out to rescue his son, survival of the fittest be damned. (Hey, haven't I seen this movie before?)

As you may have guessed, gentle reader, this film is none too subtle as it tugs at the old heartstrings. Director Andrew Stanton signals emotional moments with everything but a sledgehammer, and stops the action cold from time to time just so he can deliver a little afterschool-special moralizing. Apparently, according to Stanton, parents need to let their children fend for themselves once in a while. (Well, duh.) This is a very nice message, but it's more than a little strange to see a child's kidnapping play out like two weeks of summer camp, complete with coping lessons for the parent.

However, the film's greatest aesthetic accomplishment is the way it turns absolutely everything it touches into a plush toy for the mass market. The various fish, with their big button eyes and uniform, white-gummy cartoon teeth, all look like foam rubber; the coral resembles an assortment of colorful sponges. A sting ray (complete with stinger) looks less like a menacing predator and more like a seagoing magic carpet; even a gigantic great white shark seems as cuddly as a teddy bear (and since this shark happens to be vegetarian, we're supposed to see him as a nice guy). There is one fairly scary grey fish with a hanging light, a serious underbite and some big, pointy teeth, but even he seems like something you might find in a kid's bathtub.

It's odd how in this film about living organisms, nothing feels the least bit organic. Like Bambi before it, Finding Nemo scrubs nature squeaky clean. But the medium of computer animation does the job far more thoroughly than hand-drawn animation ever could. Nothing in Nemo has a slimy, squishy appearance, or an angular, spiky surface, like something you might really find in the living ocean. Instead, characters and backgrounds alike share the cutesy, rounded designs that maximize expressiveness and audience appeal.

Computer animation adds yet another layer of artifice, giving its surfaces the textureless quality common to synthetic substances. The result resembles neither art, as hand-crafted animation does, nor life, as live-action filmmaking can. Anything rendered digitally is a simulacrum of how human beings perceive the world, and not necessarily a convincing simulacrum at that. The images of Finding Nemo may be carefully calibrated and meticulously programmed, and they're certainly eye-catching, but ultimately they feel disconnected from human experience.

When Pixar first made computer-animated films, it focused mainly on inanimate objects. The protagonists of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 were fabricated from cloth and plastic, but looked convincing enough as children's playthings. The leads of Monsters, Inc. were imaginary creatures; the characters of A Bug's Life were cartoons. Neither of these films aspired to naturalistic fidelity. But with Finding Nemo Pixar aspires to a greater realism and a more accurate portrayal of nature. It fails. Alas, as was true for Bambi, the plush-toy cartoonishness simply doesn't mix with the attempts at realism.

I can't say I didn't enjoy Finding Nemo. The film tells a solid story with engaging characters, and even manages to produce several moments of genuine wonder on the way. For what it is, it's quite good. Still, I can't help thinking there are four-year-olds today whose first cinematic memories will be of foam-rubber fish, clean-scrubbed coral and digitized denizens of the deep. In a way, I pity these kids, because non-stop fiction and hyperreal imagery eventually prove empty and unsatisfying, like a diet of candy bars and soda pop.

It would be nice if, once in a while, we could show children something real -- something that directed their attention, however briefly, toward the wondrous world beyond their mundane personal experience. The little ones hunger for such images, so why shouldn't we share them?

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