Sunday, March 25, 2012

BULLYING, DEADLY FORCE, IGNORANCE—FRAGMENTS—



Hello, my dear ones. Rollicking laughter has not been on the docket this week. Will indeed shoot for humor another week and soon.

Miss O’ has been feeling necessarily serious and thoughtful, and this is never to be enjoyed, but rather endured until the breakthrough comes. Have not had that breakthrough. Herewith some sources of her turn of mind.

Fragments from the Week in The Huffington Post

“I will kill you,” a student cries in a class on Evolution: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/student-threatens-evolution-class_n_1372574.html

“Please Offend Me…”: Bill Maher on the culture of (in my view, often bullying, mean people) who cry, “I’m offended” when verbally challenged, who can’t just take it: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/please-stop-apologizing_n_1372297.html



And a counterpoint/point on healthcare, showing how the health care industry will make its huge profits, regardless of laws or fairness: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/health-insurance-premium-hikes_n_1373083.html

On the Trayvon Martin shooting and the fallout of the arrogant gun culture mentality (the Old West taught 21 states and counting absolutely nothing): http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-03-20/trayvon-martin-teen-shot-stereotypes/53677634/1

Deryl Dedmon Pleads Guilty In Mississippi Hate Crime Hit-And-Run Of James Craig Anderson http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/deryl-dedmon_n_1372184.html?ir=Black+Voices&ref=topbar

And this on “football bounties,” the federal investigation into the NFL paying players to hurt star players on opposing teams: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/senator-durbin-hearing-nfl-bounties-program_n_1373420.html



Where does it end? It doesn’t. The past week has felt relentless. I can’t seem to write cohesively on all this, and rather than force it, I feel I need to let the fragments stand.

This week I’ve been reading Italo Calvino, “If on a winter’s night a traveler…”, a sentence from which says:  “Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears.”

Like gunfire.

Fragments. No context. Random lines I’ve heard around from strangers and friends and acquaintances confirm this—politically, personally. More and more people seem to live in unmoored, fragmented fantasies of their own making, and I suspect it’s because people no longer value the reading of fiction.  One can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy if one doesn’t read fantasy enough to compare it to something else, such as real life.

(Remember that man I tried to date a few posts back? He’s been pursuing Miss O’ relentlessly on email, so she allowed him over last evening, during which failed attempt at an encounter he confessed, “You aren’t attractive.” He was repulsed by her physical being, actually, and always has been. So what were all those emails? “Fantasy,” he said.)

Carolina Morning by  Edward Hopper, The Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC

"What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space." 
― Italo Calvino

For those of you in the crippling grips of the violent, the ignorant, and the cruel, may Miss O’ recommend Italo Calvino to you? And Jane Austen. And a good Terry Pratchett novel? Learn the difference between fact and fancy, cold reality and deepest wishes. Watch the first 8 seasons of The Simpsons. Have a little fun. Lighten up. Go deeper. See a movie. Go see The Hunger Games for me—because I know I can’t stomach it—because I suspect there is a truth about humans in it. A terrible truth.  We devour each other for sport.

“The things that the novel does not say are necessarily more numerous than those it does say and only a special halo around what is written can give the illusion that you are reading also what is not written.” 
― Italo Calvino

A colleague of mine traces this nation's loud, horrid swing back toward unchecked ignorance, hatred, and greed, this decline, back to the end of the Cold War in 1989: We didn’t have to pretend to be morally superior anymore, and sometimes in pretending to be better than we are, be really do become better than we are.


Possibly we need to get OUT more. Possibly we should not be reading at all. Possibly we should be engaging, talking, dancing, leaving the neighborhood more often.

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.” 

Maybe I need to take a good, long walk, stare into the petals of pink magnolias in a city park.

I close this fragmented post with another fragment from Italo Calvino, from my favorite book of his (so far), Invisible Cities, which I read when I first moved to New York City. It was the perfect guidebook for learning to be here, and continues to guide me as I navigate the dark streets of my own unmapped invisible city:

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
― Italo CalvinoInvisible Cities

Love to all.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

On Fantasy, Facts, and Fabrication: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Art

How’s THAT for Pretension in a Title?

Miss O' is feeling a little under the weather today, and so she's feeling a little critical.

Today’s title is brought to you by the letter “F.” What the alliterative “F” stands for, beyond the F words in the title, is Flunk.

People everywhere enjoy believing things that they know are not true. It spares them the ordeal of thinking for themselves and taking responsibility for what they know.

–Brooks Atkinson

Brooks Atkinson was the New York Times theater critic in the mid-20th century, from 1925 to 1960, for most of that time, anyway (and for perspective, A Streetcar Named Desire 1947, and Death of a Salesman, 1949, were running on Broadway at the same time, right in the middle of his tenure). He was talking back there about why people like going to the theater, and in that context it’s charming. Did you read it a different way? Because I know I would, reading it for the first time now. By extension, we can see that as a lifestyle this way of being—believing things that are not true—is beyond dangerous, hence the beauty of Stephen Colbert’s word truthiness, the defining word of the new millennium.

If I Say It, It’s True

When writer James Frey was celebrated for his “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, and it was revealed that he’d written it as a novel but his publisher convinced him it was “real enough” to sell—and sell better—as autobiography, everyone suddenly turned on not only the author, but the work itself. (Wikipedia now calls it “a semi-fictional memoir.”) What is at least a little heartening in this sordid set of conscious lies is that readers want to know if something is “true.” They actually want to know.

Even little kids, when they hear the Disney version of “The Three Little Pigs,” where all the brothers live and trick the wolf together, will ask (as educator Vivien Paley has pointed out), “Is that the real story?” Because they know—they have an inherent instinct for these lies. What they know is: If you toss together a house of straw, YOU DIE. If you build a half-assed house of sticks, you also DIE. Only when you build the house of bricks can you have any hope for survival. To tell the story in any other way is to say to children, “Go ahead and do a lousy, lazy job, because your brother will save your ass.” Is the true story—the first two pigs getting eaten by the wolf—really a lesson we want to protect children from? I’d say bring out the dead. Lay the carcass before them in story form. It’s life. One tornado through their town will teach them that, too. Why not a good story to prepare them?

So what is the role of art in all this debate? Is A Million Little Pieces a good book or a bad book? Does art quality change when the genre changes? It’s a vital question. Is a fur coat more beautiful if it’s real mink? Is a ring more stunning for being a real diamond? What if you can’t tell: Are you still allowed to be moved, or think it pretty?

You can ask this of high art and low—the forgeries of paintings, a woman who has had cosmetic surgery, a renovated home: Is something inherently more true or more beautiful for being unaltered, original, and stamped with a seal?

Here’s another case in point:


To recap the story: The monologist Mike Daisey, who has been performing his acclaimed show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at New York’s Public Theater—a show dismissed by some critics as not theater at all, but really journalism, a lecture—was recently showcased by Ira Glass on NPR’s This American Life, a show that exclusively focuses on stories of our real lives here on Earth. Daisey’s show has been promoted as an investigative piece about the conditions of workers in China who make Apple computers, iPods, iPads, and the horrifying working conditions Jobs’s company has subjected these workers to. It turns out that some of the story has been fabricated for theatrical purposes.  Daisey has said in a statement that he stands by his work, which is theater and not journalism.

So which is it?

"It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity," Daisey said in a statement posted on his website.

In fact-checking the show, the This American Life people interviewed the Chinese interpreter, who disputed many of his claims. Daisey, who reports, for example, that children work there, now admits he only guessed at the ages of those workers. He talks about hexane poisoning but now admits he didn’t meet any poisoned workers. Yet he stands by his work as art.

So which is it?

Here’s another view:

David Henry Hwang’s play Chinglish, which I saw in January, takes on the subject of interpreters. Hwang was a linguist at Stanford (I met him at Bread Loaf one summer and he’s just a doll) and does the audience the great favor of explaining how those Chinese signs for something such as “Dry Goods” end up, in English, as “Fuck Items” or some such. (The story, paraphrased and I hope I have all this right (don’t quote me—this is from memory and from a play, so I only know that it sounds true but don’t know if it's factual): Under Mao, Chinese calligraphy was forcibly recreated to “simplify” it for the common man, so symbols got conflated, and so the words “dry” and “do” became the same symbol, and “do” in Chinese has the same slang meaning as in English, “fuck,” so in a dictionary a Chinese may see “fuck” and not know it's sexual, you see, and there you have it.) So when things are “lost in translation” or “open to interpretation” you can see how it gets messed up.  (Hwang’s play also talks about men and women, Chinese and American, how the values and ideas and needs are different and get confused, so the play is multi-layered, but has a basis in language, since the main character is a sign-maker in Ohio who wants to do business in China.)

So which is it? “Dry” or “Do” or “Fuck”? That’s easy to answer. But when it comes to “art” or “fact,” this planet has been pissing me off for a couple of decades, and I can trace it to Bill O’Reilly and his “show” on Fox “network.” Back in the 90s I had students who came to believe that if you SAY it, it’s TRUE. And I’d stare.

Lest Mr. O’Reilly take all the credit for this, we have to go back at least to Shakespeare. Antony’s speech to the Citizens in Act III of Julius Caesar is a masterpiece of manipulation, because Antony understood what Brutus did not: If you say it, it’s true, until someone else comes along to say another thing, even if it’s a lie, and say it better. And THAT becomes true: “The evil that men do lives after them, / the good is oft interred with their bones. / So let it be with Caesar.”

And the truth is buried, too, isn’t it? I think of that poem by Robert Frost:

The Secret Sits

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

Truth from Fiction

Tim O’Brien’s short story collection, The Things They Carried, is a perfect book for this subject, not least because it is fiction that purports also to be a memoir of Vietnam even as he tells you he might be lying.  And you realize it’s true, this book, the way Virginia Woolf understood fiction to be more true (grammar check wants me to say “truer” but that is not what I mean) than so-called fact. One story, “On the Rainy River,” is about O’Brien’s near-draft-dodge, a story he says he hasn’t told anyone, not even his wife—is it true? “How to Tell a True War Story” discusses how one makes a story both believable—telling the truth—and bearable. (This is Kurt Vonnegut’s triumph in Slaughterhouse Five, a novel of WWII, and Elie Weisel’s in his Holocaust memoir, Night, a slight volume of 100+ pages culled from over 1,000.) The most astonishing story of O’Brien’s collection, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” is built around what would have to be a fantasy, but it somehow rings truest of all, so rich in symbolism, when a man’s childhood sweetheart joins him at his station in Vietnam, ostensibly to live with and comfort him, only to be absorbed by and empowered by the war and the country. It’s harrowing and gorgeous. (But don’t believe me; read the collection.)

When I say, “Don’t believe me,” I mean it. When Mike Daisey asks an audience to listen to him, and believe him, I gather that nowhere in his show (which I haven’t seen—I somehow distrusted it as theater, and now I am told I had it backwards) does he let his audience know he is dramatizing for effect. Does he consider his audience to be fools if they attend the theatrical presentation of a monologue at a theater, a monologue that bills itself as a memoir, as reportage, only to be shocked, shocked to learn he may not be telling the factual truth?

I have two responses to this.

1.     Brooks Atkinson, the aforementioned critic, wrote a book called Broadway, which I devoured when my mom gave it to me for Christmas in 1981 or so. Atkinson maintained that any Joe Schmo and his wife should be able to walk in off the street in New York and enjoy a play. (He was actually a little more high-minded than that, but that comes later in the book.) I more or less instantly disagreed with him. Going to the theater without knowing the ways of theater is like watching a football game without knowing the rules.  Sure, you can be captivated, and maybe you just instantly “get it,” but I’d sat through too many high school home games, agonizing over a holding penalty after a great run, hearing friends around me saying, “Lisa, calm down, why, what happened, what does that mean,” to know that not everyone can walk off the street to see much of anything without knowing the rules. As Mr. Atkinson also knew, “Good plays drive bad playgoers crazy.” Why? Because they have to know shit and really pay attention to the unfolding and know how that works, the way any sports game bores a spectator who is rule-clueless.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Andy Griffith when he was country, and so fun I think, “What It Was, Was Football,” from an innocent’s point of view: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKSo7QO7ceo (The video is just there for cover—just listen.)

2.     If you call something “theater,” then, is it implicit that everything you experience from the stage is a fiction? If you do not call it “journalism,” but call it “a show,” is it just that? If so, the onus is all on Ira Glass for airing a theater piece on NPR and calling it nonfiction. But did Mr. Daisey say with a straight face that it all fell out just as he described? Yet even if he did, he’s on stage, delivering words as an actor in a theater, and like Tim O’Brien, he could tell you it’s true and tell you he’s lying, and you, the audience, have to decide, because this is art, after all.

3.     I have a third response: When you tell a story of your life, how can you be sure it’s true? How many times has your mom told a story, and your dad says, it didn’t happen that way? More often it’s the reverse in my family, but later my dad will tell me, “Your mother is wrong, but don’t tell her—it really did happen that way,” and he is sure he is speaking truth. The big question is: How can you be sure, and do you even need to be? If a story is a good story, and you can take away a memory from it, or learn by it, or be moved—isn’t that enough?

It really depends on what’s at stake.

Stakes and Obstacles

“The virtue of the camera is not the power it has to transform the photographer into an artist, but the impulse it gives him to keep on looking.”  –Brooks Atkinson

As with photography, I think the power of writing, painting, or any other art form is the impulse it gives the tool user to keep on looking—at everything. Some things matter more than others, depending on the meaning they hold. When we try to look, we are often faced with obstacles: the higher the stakes (the greater our need), the more willing we are to surmount the obstacles to gain the better view.

It’s one of the first rules of playwriting: What’s at stake? To achieve good stakes, the playwright must, as M*A*S*H writer Larry Gelbart has observed, place the hero exactly where he does not want to be. The obstacles in his path on his way to getting out, and the way he surmounts them, are at the core of the drama. When the stakes are life and death, you have tragedy or drama; when the stakes are low but played as if they are life and death, you have farce. Anything in between can be comedy, in the richest sense.

Then there is LIFE: When the president lies and it means life and death, he’s a criminal. When Bill O’Reilly lies on national television and the lie means life and death, he’s a criminal.  But O’Reilly says he’s an “entertainer,” an artist, not a journalist, even on a news network. Which is it? When an artist lies, it’s called fabrication in service to art. He’s an artist. Is he a criminal? Society says “No.” Well, until he lies about his art.

I have mentioned often in my blog that I’m working on a theater version of The Miss O’ Show to be about teaching and my teaching life. It will be presented (whenever I get that far) as theater, a monologue, and done theatrically, but it will be absolutely true. For me.  How will I bill it? It’s in the title. I want people to leave thinking about what it’s like to be a teacher, that life. I don’t care about “facts” in terms of “Did that really happen?” It’s about the effect a scene produces in the audience: I want them to be moved, entertained, all that, and even educated. But it’s not reportage. Except when it is. But I'll be the only one who knows the difference.

I think the question we have to start asking is What’s at stake? If you bill your show as fact-finding, and Apple sends a special contingent to China to investigate, and a radio program goes fact-checking, and you don’t fess up to your fabrications, what are you? And to raise the stakes: When you send troops off to die in a phony war, what are you?

As I say, Miss O' is feeling sick today, and also sick of truthiness today. And we’re all a little bit guilty of going for the easy lie. So maybe she'll try out another F word, where nothing is at stake: Fantasy. And maybe he'll bring her a nice, tall one. And then, if she's very nice, a drink.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Miss O’ Takes a Holiday

Won’t You Come, Too?

Well, let's face it, Miss O' is exhausted. And why shouldn't she be? Between work deadlines and all this political examination of her womb, Miss O' feels the need to move away from fighting words, moronic news reports, and the numbing effects of sweet, sweet alcohol to go in search of real enchantment. So at the risk of sounding like a latter-day New York Blanche DuBois, let her invite you to join her in seeking solace in the talents if not kindness of strangers, starting with the makers and stars of this classic movie:

HOLIDAY (1938) Columbia Pictures
Directed by George Cukor
Starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant




Do You Promise This Isn't About Abortion?

Recently I have become obsessed with this 1938 comedy classic. Holiday, which I watched again in a four-part free upload on YouTube, and then purchased when that little YouTube offering suddenly disappeared, is marvelous. (I had seen the movie a couple of summers ago at Lincoln Center on the big screen, and saw it first back in college, when I rented it with Sue and Steve, two high school buddies, as part of a Katharine Hepburn film fest to ring in the New Year. We were PAR-TAY-ers!) And something really struck me this time through, which I think has to do with how today’s political climate mirrors the one in the film, and how the romantic angle is affected as a result. It’s quite a sophisticated movie, in addition to being smart, funny, and charming as hell.

I am bringing you along into my obsession, so come on along. You heard me.

Um...Okay...

Let me first talk about the stars. 

On Hepburn and Grant: A Match Made in a Celluloid Dream Factory

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, as great as movie stars get, made four films together: Sylvia Scarlett (1935); Bringing Up Baby (1938); Holiday (1938); and (most famously) The Philadelphia Story (1940). Their first three films together were utter box office flops. (The first, in which Hepburn disguises herself as a boy for most of the picture, was ahead of its time, and Brian Ahern, the romantic interest, is boring. I’ve only seen clips—someday I hope to see the whole thing, but it’s rarely aired and was un-rentable for years.)

The second, Bringing Up Baby, possibly the funniest screwball comedy of all time, has a couple of problems attached to it, and as a result, it tanked at the box office: First, the so-called “screwball comedy” genre was falling out of favor at that time. And second, the movie is not really hilarious until the third time you watch it. It’s THAT sublime. Here’s the thing: The first time you click on TCM and watch Bringing Up Baby (directed by Howard Hawks, the man who personally taught the future four-time Best Actress Oscar® winner how to be funny), you may find yourself thrown almost immediately because powerful dramatic actress Katharine Hepburn is playing an absolute ditz, and suave, hot Cary Grant is playing a dopey nerd. And then there’s the pet leopard of the title, and you can’t believe how easily Kate is engaging with the leopard. So you watch it in a kind of confused fascination, waiting for the train wreck. From these details alone, you can already see (without even seeing the movie) why following the plot takes a little work, not even mentioning the switch in location from New York City to rural Connecticut; the dinosaur bone Cary Grant carries under his arm for the first 25 minutes of the picture; the leopard’s arrival and its plot significance; and Hepburn’s rich old aunt and her lawyer, just for starters. And while you are fascinated, you are not amused. Ah, well. [Time passes.] Then one day it’s on TCM again, and you watch it again because you are bored, and it’s Kate and Cary after all, and you remember the leopard but you realize that you forgot everyone else: the stuffy aunt, her eccentric hunter friend, Barry Fitzgerald as the drunk gardener, and the daffy town constable, to say nothing of seeing Cary Grant in a negligee jump up and say by way of explaining the way he’s dressed, “I just went GAY all of a sudden.” They are great, and you think, “There was more to this movie than I remembered.” And this entices you to watch it a third time, and then will be your payoff: NOW for the first time—because the plot is easier to follow and the premise feels less bizarre—you are really watching the astonishing comic performances of Hepburn and Grant, the timing, the inventiveness, the chemistry, the balls-on wackiness, all brought to glorious fruition by the insane imagination of director Hawks. You wet yourself laughing. It’s that funny. Rent it, won’t you?



But I digress. This leads me to Holiday, possibly my favorite of their movies together, even more than The Philadelphia Story, which may be a better film, but I don’t care.

It’s a Jolly Holiday

Holiday, directed by George Cukor the same year as BUB, failed at the box office for another reason altogether: This was the height of the Great Depression, and the plot centered around up-and-coming financial wizard Grant marrying into Hepburn’s very wealthy family, and being conflicted about “making too much money.” Needless to say, few in the audience, most of whom had scraped together their nickel, and with much sacrifice, for the privilege of spending one afternoon at the movies, could muster any sympathy for the main character. (The movie is so much more than that, but it’s understandable why no one then could see it for anything else.)

And so, after a long list of unsuccessful pictures, culminating in her being labeled “Box Office Poison,” that was the end of Katharine Hepburn’s career. Almost.

A Little Film History: A Brief Digression Again

After these three strikes—for it was Academy Award winner Hepburn who received top billing in each film—along with several other “dull pictures,” Kate left Hollywood, moved to New York City, established herself on Broadway, and made herself into the acting icon we know her as today. She worked for her career. She worked hard for it. She and Judy Garland, should you care to know, are my favorite women in film of all time, for obviously different reasons, except this: They both had showbiz discipline, total focus, emotional transparency, and complete connection to everyone in the frame with them. As much as I admire Bette Davis and Greta Garbo—and all their emotional risk-taking and their amazing faces—their connection was, for me, primarily to the camera and then to the audience; and while they are rich and believable and great, it’s Katharine Hepburn who can range from daffy heiress to feminist newspaper executive to champion athlete to morphine-addicted mother to Queen of England all the while hating, loving, lusting after, and quarreling with everyone around her as if they were really hers to do unto. With Judy Garland, too, you know she feels all of her characters’ love, pain, joy, and fear totally and completely, and she connects deeply to anyone with her, whether it’s a song and dance man, a scarecrow, a middle class family, or a suicidal Hollywood husband: she’s present and giving, giving, giving as if her life and theirs depended on her every breath. Both actresses demand your total focus, and they deserve it. They both could also make weak and even lousy pictures, but never with half a heart. (As women, of course, they were also totally different: Hepburn, career-oriented and childless, with the strong family and the exercise regimen; and Judy’s “family” was a studio system full of abuse; pills, booze, money troubles, and famous motherhood are parts of her notoriety. Hepburn really tried to help her, but Judy told her, “I’ve lived a thousand years,” and Kate knew it was true.) But when they were onscreen, they were there.

So: Box Office Poison? This Picture? How?

I have this idea for a monologue I’d like to do, spending a little time setting up a screening of Holiday. I’d like to make a kind of guide for watching it, so that you might want to watch it again. Here’s why.

First off, in this movie both Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant are at their absolute finest, their most fully fleshed-out, and are allowed to have and express a vast and true emotional range as characters. They execute crack comic timing alongside real dramatic pathos; they bounce from joy to despair to ecstasy to utter confusion, often in the same short scene, with total commitment and truth. For me, it is Cary Grant’s finest work. Sure, he’s brilliant in North by Northwest, but to see the creation of a truly rich and believable human being,  Holiday is the movie in which to see it.

The Premise

Young man of business and very fun guy Johnny Case (Grant) returns to New York from a 10-day holiday in Lake Placid and while there, as he relates to his old friends, Nick (Edward Everett Horton) and Susan (Jean Dixon), he met the woman of his dreams, “the girl,” and is engaged. (The exposition is handled brilliantly—not only for plot but for character development and real point of view.) Johnny then visits her at home (which turns out to be, to his shock), a swanky 5th Avenue mansion, where he learns that his new fiancĂ©e, Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), is the wealthy granddaughter of a Morgan-type banker. There he also meets her older sister, Linda (Hepburn), who is funny and sarcastic and sharp, and who immediately likes Johnny. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that where money, temperament, and values are concerned, Johnny and Linda are the better match. But will it happen?

Of course it will. But that’s not why you watch the movie. You watch because everyone in the film has something to learn, to share, to find out about themselves and each other. Where do you stand politically? Socially? Who are your friends and why? What is the life you picture for yourself? How do you want to live in the day to day? What is really important to you? How do you matter to other people? What do you believe in? Is money your God?

Why the Movie Matters Now

Those aren’t exactly the questions an audience of hungry, unemployed people could afford to ask in 1938, but they are exactly the kinds of questions employed (and even unemployed) middle class and the very wealthy Americans can and should be asking themselves today.  It’s stunning how relevant and contemporary the movie is. There are doubtless plenty of people who will side with Julia (portrayed with real depth and sympathy by Doris Nolan, who wasn’t exciting enough to be a star, but nonetheless gives an ideal performance in this movie), whose ambition in life is to marry someone who will make a lot of money. It’s very clear to her what she wants, and since Johnny is so good at making money, why not push him to keep doing just that? There are as many others who will side with Linda, even as they may find her maddening, exasperating, exhausting, and unreasonable. Neither sister is a “catch,” in that one is unutterably dull and the other emotional and neurotic. In Johnny Case, then, does the real dilemma rest: Who am I? With what kind of mate can I be true to myself and true to her, and build a real future that is tied to what’s happening in the world, and not just here and now and for money? For me, it is Linda who has the strong moral core, the sense of what truly matters, though Julia seems by far more practical and realistic, if only is an opportunistic way. Johnny is caught in the middle, as are a lot of us. It’s not a bad middle to be stuck in, given the terrible places where people can get stuck in this world.

I’ll spare you the scene-by-scene take down, but do this: Watch the movie more than once in a short space of time. If you can, see it three times: Watch it 1) first for plot; 2) second for Hepburn’s performance, including Linda’s connections to her family, her own self-discovery, her nuances and change-ups and what motivates them; and 3) finally, for Grant’s revelatory showing as a real man, a total man, fully involved in every frame, as he switches allegiances and faces his own inner conflicts.

If you can, watch it a fourth time—and give it all up for Doris Nolan, Edward Everett Horton, Jean Dixon, Henry Kolker, Lew Ayres, Henry Daniell, and Binnie Barnes in all their supporting role glory. Every single actor plays a character that could easily devolve into stereotype, and all of them instead have real dimension.

All this is due to the astonishing direction of George Cukor, who brought out the best in every actor open enough to work with him.

Oh, and the WRITING. Remember writing? Screenplays—the words the actors say—are in fact written. The screenplay is by David Ogden Stewart and others, from the play by Philip Barry. (Fun fact: Philip Barry also wrote The Philadelphia Story, later, as a favor to Katharine Hepburn, helping her to resurrect her stage career when she left Hollywood. Howard Hughes, who was Kate’s boyfriend at the time, bought the screen rights to it as a birthday present, and gave the rights to Hepburn. She took it to Hollywood and asked for Spencer Tracy (whom she didn’t know, but who was a big star) and Clark Gable to co-star, but neither would accept roles so secondary to hers. Instead she got Cary Grant (who agreed to do it, provided he got top billing—he gave his salary to the British war effort), and contract player James Stewart, and George Cukor as director, and the rest is history.)

I hope you enjoy Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, and while you’re at it, The Philadelphia Story. (I even got my NASCAR-loving, Marlboro-smoking, manual-labor doing brother Jeffy O’ to watch. He loved them in spite of himself.) One more enticement: It’s fun to see them fly: Not only is their acting range extraordinary, but Hepburn and Grant do ALL her own stunts. ALL OF THEM. And they just get better with every viewing. How many actors can you say that about?



Happy Spring Holiday from Miss O'!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

FOLLOW THE MONEY: Wherein Miss O' Takes on Rush Limbaugh by Way of Acting

So, You Act. What’s Your Day Job?

Years and years and years ago, when Miss O’ was between teaching gigs, she talked at length one day with a successful professional actor she knew slightly about the possibility of returning to acting. Here is what he said: “If you can imagine yourself doing anything other than acting, and being happy doing it, you’re not an actor.”

Miss O’, being a Taurus, believed him. It sounds right: Actors have to spend a lot of money they do not have on clothes, hair stylists, accessories, professional training, gym memberships, agents, and transportation, all in the service of walking through the gray lobbies of a string of nameless buildings to stand in long lines with others who look exactly like them, in order to walk into bare-walled studios to stand before some folding table behind which sit three people they do not know, for two minutes of a monologue and talking, only then to be told, “Thanks.” Maybe. And do the same tomorrow, all in the hopes of landing a 6-week stint in a show that pays a few hundred a week, all in the hopes of someone seeing said show, who will spot them so they can be the next Lindsay Lohan or Dame Judy Dench or George Clooney. Or Rush Limbaugh.

And so Miss O’ went back to teaching.

But the above long paragraph is by no stretch of the imagination the whole story of any life. Look at it again. What job isn’t that job? If that were the whole story of working, everyone would walk into the nearest garage and turn on the engine. Where are my car keys? Screw the keys, where is my car?

There are a lot of jobs you can do and hate the job. It’s really about finding joy in the work. You act, in other words. My dad, Bernie, was a meat cutter for 42 years for Safeway stores. He did not love his job, though he loved the people he worked with, and loved what his union job was able to give his kids, his wife, and his quality of life compared to the poverty he had known as a child. The routine and brutality of the job took a toll: He has spent every night of his retirement cutting meat in his sleep. 

It’s a funny thing about the dream world, and I do think it’s important to think about your dreams. After all, as poet Joy Harjo points out, you spend a third of your entire life asleep. In the five years I worked as a cashier during every college break, I spent every night of my dream life ringing up customers. Why? Because while I was grateful for the job (my supervisor gave me 39 and a half hours a week—“but don’t tell the other cashiers”—thus giving me the money I needed for books, food, and art supplies without having to buy new clothes or pay for transportation because I could walk to work), I hated it. I did it with joy, however, because my dad taught me how to do that: Be the best one, set the tone, have a sense of humor, hustle, hustle, hustle.  Keep your hands and eyes and feet moving. Know your job. You act. That’s how you get the clock to tick down.

But when you dream about your work at night, I’m convinced it’s because you do not love the work you do. I hardly ever had teaching dreams—because I loved teaching. I might have anxiety dreams at stressful times, but I could count on one hand the number of teaching dreams I'd have during the school year.

What We Do for Love

I think now that what the successful actor told me back there was a load of bunk. It was a pretentious, mystical sort of answer, elevating the job of artist above the job of meat cutter or cashier (and thereby diminishing me for being a person of varied interests). I don’t like that. I think artists are important, and I also know that I eat steak and that I buy it from a store. All jobs deserve to be valued.

I also know that my dad’s life has been enriched by art: He’s a huge fan of the movies (as is my mom), and knows the name of every actor from 1933 on. He and my mom see every movie that comes out, even South Park. That’s right. (“Geez, the stuff that came out of those kids’ mouths…,” he said, chuckling.) My dad, though smart, hated school, and I think that if there had been such a thing as film courses in 1950, he might have stayed and finished his education. I really think so.

My own life, too, has been enriched by art. The more I know, the more I have to give to my art. The healthier I am, the more I have to give to my art. And the more art that feeds my soul, the more I have to give to my life, including whatever job I happen to be doing.

This is what knowledge is about. And I use that knowledge in any number of surprising ways each and every day, whether in writing or editing or acting or surviving on the subway system, or watching Rush Limbaugh rant, or reading my fucking Facebook home page.

We Interrupt this Reverie to Argue with a Moron about Sex

Rush Limbaugh no doubt loves the "work" he does. He sits and screams into a microphone. He denigrates women. He puts on a show of being an ignorant blowhard, which isn't acting, really, because he is an ignorant blowhard. (As Rachel Maddow pointed out, Mr. Rush seems to think that every time a woman has sex, she must take a contraceptive pill to prevent pregnancy. When I taught in rural Virginia, a teacher of Family Life told me that a female student had said, "Those pills don't work. I took a pill, and my boyfriend took a pill, and I still got pregnant." She might have been Rush's child.)

So in all this week's media screaming about birth control, this is what sent me over the edge: A female former student of mine posted on Facebook yesterday a “poster” from a “group” calling itself, “Impeach Nancy Pelosi.” The poster says: “Hypocrisy is asking the government to stay out of your womb and your bedroom and then expecting them to pay for your contraception and abortions.”

Oh, dear GOD, where to start?

The “group” that created this poster and the young woman who in turn celebrates it are so tragically ignorant about the issue at hand that it pains me to be bothered to set up the counterpoint. And yet I will take it on, because I am a woman, and I am smart, and I can write, and this writing is the only way I sleep at night.

1.     What the fuck does Nancy Pelosi’s lawmaking stance have to do with anything here? I disagree with every Republican sitting in the House and Senate, but if they were fairly elected by their constituents, that’s life in a democracy. They don’t need to be impeached. Fry in a Hell I don’t personally believe in, sure, but impeached because I disagree with them? That’s stupid.
2.     And so is the “message” on that poster, but the layers of stupidity are so deep, it will take a while to unearth them. Here we go, in baby steps.
a.     Contraception—the responsible, adult alternative to unwanted pregnancy—is a health issue and an insurance issue. Let’s talk about two types of contraception for women and what they mean:
i.       The Pill, which prevents pregnancy by taking a hormone pill once a day each day of your life, is a miracle drug. Not only does it prevent unwanted pregnancy, it is often a hormone treatment that helps women mitigate debilitating menstrual cycles and reduce ovarian cysts. Most women take it to prevent unwanted pregnancy, the way men get vasectomies or use condoms, except that the actual baby-formation takes places inside a woman's actual body.  
ii.     IUDs, or inter-uterine devices, are another form of contraception, but I know at least two women who got pregnant while using these, and had abortions, partly out of concern for what the removal of the device would do to the fetus.
b.     The issue of insurance is another factor. Should insurance cover contraception? Or should we, in the 21st Century, with safe medications at our disposal, be made to “let go and let God”? I would ask, “Should insurance cover insulin?” I mean, if God had intended for your pancreas to work, wouldn’t it work? I do think it amounts to the same thing.
c.      It really does. Because this debate is not about insurance coverage: It’s about DECIDING, and who gets to do it. Do women, as voters and insurance clients, have a say in their medication needs, or not? Rush Limbaugh’s Oxycontin is covered, but not a woman’s contraception? Rush Limbaugh’s Viagra is covered, but not a woman’s contraception?
d.     While condoms are not covered by insurance, vasectomies are, and so is Viagra, the boner pill. Exactly what is a boner pill for, if not creating a newfound capacity (since God has failed) for impregnating women? SO WHICH IS IT? Contraceptive freedom or spreading fertile seed? Apparently MEN don’t have to be told; they get to DECIDE. (Masturbating is a true waste of seed. The government might want to look into that. Maybe Monsanto will want to modify and patent it.)
e.     And now for something completely different: God bless Monty Python: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47P59ha9k9s
f.      People like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are frighteningly convincing when they declare that any woman who has sex when she does not want to get pregnant is a slut, and that giving her birth control is essentially subsidizing her sex life. You never hear them say, of their own reproductive life, that every time their own sperm leaves the gate they want to or should produce a child, but the implied ring is that if they could produce a child with every spill of seed, they would, which is not to say they would support the child. As a result, they each would have about 80,000 kids. At least. And so would every other man. And that just makes SO much sense on a planet of limited size with limited resources that every man should produce 80,000 kids a piece by the time he’s 60 or so. Too bad gestation takes nine months (and in the obliging non-slut's body). Dammit!
g.     That any woman is complicit in the idea that a woman should get pregnant any and every time she engages in sexual intercourse (and I happen to know that a good many of the women I’m arguing with on this subject were sexually active, while (gasp?) unwed and in high school, and (for the fun of contrast) I, the pagan progressive Liberal was NOT, and several of those gals chose to get abortions, yes they did, which is, in point of fact, actual hypocrisy, if we are still thinking about that stupid poster) is beyond heartbreaking. Why not making love for its own sake? Why not for love?
h.     Why are we even having this conversation? Is it about, as is so often the argument Conservatives toss in, “the sanctity of life”? No, it is not. This is about Money. The poster in question is about money. And that is really what makes me sick about it. It’s not about morality, or love, or the well-being of children: It’s about tax money. So let me meet her where she lives, my poster woman, in her wallet: How much cost-analysis research has the poster post-er done? I suspect NONE. Here’s a place to start your research about the costs of birth control: http://www.plannedparenthood.org/health-topics/birth-control/birth-control-pill-4228.htm
i.        For the record, from the Planned Parenthood Website: Birth control pills may be purchased with a prescription at a drugstore or clinic. They cost about $15–$50 a month.  Just the same as the monthly cost of raising a child to adulthood. Right?
j.       Money, money, money. Have you no sense of decency? No sense of love or morality or caring? Apparently for you and Rush and Bill it’s all about your precious tax dollars, very few dollars of which really even go to the birth control you are so desperate to end.  Here’s where your tax money goes, should you care to actually research it (about 40% goes to Defense, and less than 1% to Welfare and the Arts, to start): Office of Management and Budget website: http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb
k.     And what you really need to be worried about is the food supply: http://www.wimp.com/realfood The lack of government regulation in FOOD is what may truly kill us. That, and needless wars that send our children off to die, so that we may protect the freedom of Rush Limbaugh to make $25 million a year.
l.       Finally, love. Work on love. Why not have a real adventure, get out of my womb, and crawl out of your own gold-filled navel? There is more to life than money. There really, really is. For the Christians out there, it’s even in the Bible: http://christianpf.com/money-in-the-bible/


WHAT THIS HAS TO DO WITH ACTING

As with having sex for the sake of love: What is so wrong about taking a subject for its own sake? Why not study acting, or filmmaking, or photography, or painting, or music, or Latin, or building trades just because it’s interesting? And surely my previous posts on the expectations of Theater Production have shown what really valuable thinking an arts course can teach. So why do schools and school boards resist the arts and languages and the trades? Why must every such course always be sacrificed to feed the corporate test beast?

Money:  1) Corporations that produce testing materials lobby hard for standardized testing in order to push the products that they sell at huge profits. 2) No school system wants to pay a teacher a salary for even part of a school day for teaching what amounts to something (this shows the limits of systemic thinking) that she loves and her students love. (Because if you aren’t in agony, you cannot be doing anything useful, and ergo are not serving the corporate interest God. Unless you are Rush Limbaugh.)

We are a Puritan nation. And a prurient nation. We are simultaneously a nation of Fun Police and Secret Policemen Having Other Balls. It plays out in our political discourse: Contraception and the rights of women and Education and its evil teachers (mostly women) being the hot-button issues (as it were), over, say, issues such as the Earth and Jobs and War and Cancer (and the fact that the U.S. has the highest rates of cancer of any nation in the world).

I don’t think it’s an accident at all that both issues feature women at the center. We as a nation blame the skirts. We blame women. Women do it, too. ("Impeach Nancy Pelosi." Nancy Pelosi?)

All About EVE

The world is full of sex and its consequences, and we blame the women. It’s as old as Eve, and it has to stop. It really, really does. Boys have penises. Women have vaginas. Semen from the penis ejaculated into a woman’s vagina can cause pregnancy. This can be prevented, should we wish to, because we know how.

The world is full of fascinating things about which we are curious, and the blame and guilt that attend this curiosity remain. It’s as old as Eve, and it has to stop. It really, really does. The world is full of Gardens. Some are natural and some are manmade. We can insert ourselves into the Gardens, should we wish to, because we can know.  

We have our own wills. It’s awesome, and terrifying, and IS, and ever was. We have to own that. And move on.

As a wonderful Bread Loaf professor pointed out to me, all good teaching is subversive, but sanctioned or otherwise, Miss O' will go ahead and spell out today's lessons:  1) You can do any job you want, whether you love it or not, because you have to, as long as you can find joy in it and have a good movie to watch when day is done. 2) If you can do a job you love, so much the better. 3) Being a curious, interested person does not preclude you from being an actor or anything else. (Seriously, the actor who told me that was a limited person. And a bad actor.) 4) Being ignorant is stupid. 5) Governments and corporations do not own your body or your mind or your art, unless you let them. That includes Nancy Pelosi.

So that about wraps up another sexless Sunday morning—another in a string of many, many such sexless Sunday mornings in which childless Miss O’ writes to defend the right of all women to have safe, healthy sex and enjoy full reproductive control, and manages somehow to connect all this to the need for arts education. I’m nothing if not subversive.