Tuesday, December 29, 2009

IN MEMORIAM -- FICTIONAL FRIENDS WE'VE LOST THIS YEAR

As 2009 draws to a close, it's a fitting time to remember the loved ones we've lost this year. Whether it's the faceless billions killed in one or another global apocalypse, or a single caring doctor who sacrificed herself to save her friends, they touched our lives in ways that words can't begin to describe. And yet words are all we have to pay tribute to just some of the colorful characters who've passed on in 2009. Just because they didn't exist in three dimensions doesn't mean they weren't every bit as important to us as other public figures who squirmed out of this mortal coil in the past 12 months. Join me in thanking, honoring and remembering our fictional friends.

Ellie Fredricksen, devoted wife who sacrificed her dreams for a balloon salesman
Ellie Fredricksen, born circa 1930, died of natural causes on May 29. As a young girl, Mrs. Fredricksen aspired to be an explorer. She met her kindred spirit and future husband Carl on a neighborhood expedition when they were both children; they bonded over a shared admiration for the famed explorer Charles Muntz, who discovered Paradise Falls in South America. The Fredricksens dreamed of traveling one day to that fabled land, but in fact barely made it out of their own neighborhood throughout the course of their long and supposedly happy marriage. Underneath the cheerful exterior lay a piercing regret, say Mrs. Fredricksen's friends. Even as she kept a scrapbook documenting the mundane pleasures of married life, Mrs. Fredricksen reportedly cursed her choice of husband, a man who attained no greater station in life than that of a balloon salesman. Friends blame Mr. Fredricksen for his wife's death, and consider it a bitter irony that it was only after his wife's passing that he carried out the dream of going to Paradise Falls. (Up)
Man, survivor of global apocalypse and symbol of human resilience, succumbs to disease, again

 
Man, of unknown age, died December 2 of this year on the Coast. Man was famous for embodying the strength of the human spirit. He had survived the apocalypse that claimed the lives of billions of people, including his wife, Wife, nee Woman. In an effort to escape the grim prospects at Home after the global cataclysm, Man took his son, Boy, on a trip to the Coast. It was to be their last vacation together. After successfully evading or killing several Bad Guys bent on enslaving or cannibalizing them, the father-son team reached their destination in a journey that -- before the apocalypse -- might have gained them a slot on the Amazing Race. With his illusions crushed by finding the Coast every bit as desolate and uninhabitable as the miles of terrain they just covered, Man succumbed to despair and illness. Boy was placed in foster care with some Good Guys who happened along the Road after Man's death. (Editor's note: Man had died previously in 2006 in print, and was resurrected and killed again this year on celluloid.) (The Road)

Amanda Grayson, teacher, and mother of galaxy's most famous interspecies logician

More than 6 billion lives were cut tragically short this year, 2258, when the planet Vulcan imploded, the result of a Romulan revenge plot.  Amanda Grayson, an Earthling expatriate and former teacher, was among those killed as she awaited rescue on an ill-fated cliff, which collapsed in the seconds before she was to be beamed to safety. She is survived by her husband Sarek, an astrophysicist and the Vulcan Ambassador to the United Federation of Planets, and her son Spock, the half-Human, half-Vulcan logician and First Officer of the Starship Enterprise. The Lady Amanda, as she was commonly called in Vulcan society, died at other times in alternate realities, such as in a shuttle accident at Lunaport soon after Spock's alternate-reality death in 2239. In yet another reality, Amanda happily lived to help Spock get in touch with his human side, after the latter's death and rebirth. She will be sorely, or perhaps just logically, missed. (Photo: Winona Ryder in Star Trek)

President Thomas Wilson, calmed TV viewers as world came to an end

President Thomas Wilson died this year, 2012, in the tsunami that destroyed a large swath of the east coast of the United States. The tsunami was but one of the many catastrophes worldwide that were brought about by a rapid increase in the temperature of the Earth's core, in turn caused by neutrinos from a massive solar flare in 2009. Not much is known about President Wilson, other than that he was avuncular and in perhaps advanced middle age or early-mid old age. He was one of the first African American Presidents of the U.S., standing on the shoulders of such giants as Presidents Douglas Tilman, Tom Beck, David Palmer, Wayne Palmer, and others. Wilson will likely be remembered for his bravery in foregoing rescue and instead remaining in Washington, D.C. to calm what was left of a doomed nation with these now-famous words of consolation: "Today we are one family." This insufferable sentimentalist is survived by his smoking-hot daughter Laura, who is likely to help repopulate the planet with her equally handsome new romantic partner, the geologist Adrian Helmsley. Helmsley was the first to sound the alarm about the impending disaster, not counting the ancient Mayans who supposedly saw this shit coming down the pike many hundreds of years ago. Props to the Mayans, and to President Wilson. (2012)

Dr. Juliet Burke, nee Carlson, presumed dead in nuclear explosion


Juliet Burke, a former fertility doctor with the Medical Research Laboratory at Miami Central University and later for The Others, was presumed killed when she detonated a hydrogen bomb in order to prompt a rupture in the time-space continuum. Earlier in her career, Burke's successful treatment of her sister's cancer attracted the attention of Mittelos Bioscience. Only when her domineering and unfaithful husband Edmund was run over by bus, under suspicious circumstances, did Dr. Burke feel liberated enough to accept a job offer from the firm. She was assigned to work on an uncharted island with apparent curative powers, and her desires to return home were frustrated. She and her colleagues were named "The Others" by the survivors of a plane crash on the Island, and relations between the two groups were marked by frequent hostilities, kidnapping, imprisonment, and the excessive pursing of lips. Dr. Burke, however, gained the trust of at least one of the survivors, and, after an otherworldly set of events, became key to their survival. Then, after being transported back in time to 1974, she became a mechanic with the Dharma Initiative, an experimental research community on the Island. In an effort to save her friends trapped in a bizarre game of time-space hopscotch, Dr. Burke detonated a hydrogen bomb. The incident is thought to have killed Dr. Burke, at least in the present dimension, but some theorists believe she was transported to another dimension, or may exist in several other dimensions. That is, dimensions other than the TV screen.  (Lost, with credit to Lostpedia page for some information. Photo by ABC Television.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

SHERLOCK HOLMES -- DRUG USER, GENIUS, AND INGRATE

Using my keen powers of observation, I have come to believe that Sherlock Holmes is a terrible ingrate. 

How else to describe someone who berates the narrative skill of Dr. Watson, his faithful chronicler and friend of so many years? Watson, who has made written accounts of the great majority of Holmes' cases. Watson, who assists Holmes in any investigation at the drop of a hat, or even the mere suggestion of the drop of a hat! Read no further than "A Scandal in Bohemia," in which Watson cheerfully obliges the famed detective's request for his cooperation, which requires that he break the law and risk arrest. "I shall be delighted," Watson says.

To be fair, it must be said that Watson -- loyal pal though he may be -- is not the master logician that Holmes is. Holmes continually impresses his friend by deducing a person's job, travel destinations, diet, faithfulness in marriage, state of mind or daily goings-on from such simple things as a hat, a sleeve (one of Holmes's fixations), a fingernail, or "the great issues that may hang from a bootlace," as he says in "A Case of Identity." You'd think that Watson would get used to Holmes' fantastic abilities, but evidently not; it seems that every time Holmes deduces something the rest of us would miss, Watson exclaims with fresh astonishment, "How on earth-----!" or some such thing.
 
Still and all, it is Watson's unending capacity for surprise -- borne though it may be of dim wits -- that make him Holmes' ideal chronicler, his "Boswell," as Holmes himself has put it. Were Holmes to relate his own sleuthing, it would surely be a dreadful bore, reading more like a forensics textbook than anything else. Instead, we have Dr. Watson's literate, funny, and altogether entertaining accounts of the cases. Dr. Watson has made Sherlock Holmes! Without Watson, Holmes would have been a successful but by no means celebrated detective.

And yet, after all this, Sherlock Holmes insists on playing the literary critic. Get a load of this preposterous tirade from "The Copper Beeches." "You have erred, perhaps, in attempting to put colour and life into each of your statements, instead of confining yourself to the task of placing upon record  that severe reasoning from cause to effect which is really the only notable feature about a thing." Watson rightfully defends his efforts, saying "that I have done you full justice in the matter." Sock it to him, Doc! You've done a great job!

Still undeterred, Holmes continues, "You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales." That's the thanks he gives his friend and chronicler for turning him into the most famous detective in all of English literature. Bug off, Sherlock, you creep! You go solve the crimes, and let Watson do the literary heavy-lifting. 
 
Hell, I'm tempted to boycott the new Sherlock Holmes movie, in hopes of drawing attention to this heinous miscarriage of literary justice. Perhaps readers of this blog will do the same.

(P.S. The above likeness of Watson (left) and Holmes (right) by Sidney Paget only proves my point: the detective's arrogant bearing, his inconsiderate use of tobacco -- or one of any number of other substances he was known to use -- in company, mark him as an unworthy subject for the attentions of Watson, who here appears to be justly saddened by the neglect and ingratitude of this supposed "friend.")

Sunday, December 20, 2009

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 14: BATTLEFIELD OF HISTORY



LISTEN TO THE EPISODE ONLINE HERE, OR SUBSCRIBE TO THE FREE PODCAST ON iTUNES HERE.
 
Photo of members of the First Rhode Island Regiment from their website, here.

This past summer I had the pleasure of meeting some total nerds. Naturally, I mean that in the best way possible. Anyone who's as deeply into something as the members of the First Rhode Island Regiment reenactors are into dramatizing the roles of African Americans in the U.S. Revolutionary War is automatically a nerd.  Thing is, they say it's fun and I believe them. The Regiment is part of a larger organization called the Sixth Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactors, who do living history events about African Americans in U.S. military history from the Revolutionary War to the Korean War. Pretty nerdy, wouldn't you say? 
 
The event I went to was a "living history" day in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, to commemorate the Battle of Brooklyn, which took place on August 27, 1776. Among those who fought that day were members of the original First Rhode Island Regiment. The Battle was a rout for the newly independent country, but oddly the British didn't follow up on the advantage they'd taken, and General George Washington managed to pull out his troops to live and fight another day. (Lots more in "The Battle for New York: the City at the Heart of the American Revolution," by Barnet Schecter.) In the podcast, you'll hear these strangely overlapping time frames, such as when people are shooting off old-fashioned (fake) cannons, even as jets soar overhead. And I was moved to hear the intertwining of little-known African American history with the founding legends and words of the nation, not least of all the Declaration of Independence. Past and present were on display, and African Americans were demonstrating their righful and long-denied place in that past and present. So, what are you waiting for? Go listen!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

THE LAST WOMAN ALIVE -- NOW THAT'S AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT STORY

Like many kids growing up in the 1980s, I was terrified by the prospect of a nuclear war. But I also became fascinated by what would come after, in spite of the grim picture conjured up by the TV movie The Day After, the book The Fate of the Earth or the many other post-apocalyptic visions I have consumed right up through today (On the Beach, 28 Days Later, The Pesthouse). And this month we have the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, about a father and son's quest for safe haven after an unspecified global disaster. These works have survivors battle against mutants, disease or other survivors, and have more to do metaphorically with legacy or redemption, or literally with the effects of nuclear war, than they do with my true interest: absolute solitude.

For that purpose, I have found nothing so satisfying as The Wall, Austrian author Marlen Haushofer’s splendid 1962 novel (English translation published in the U.S. by Cleis Press, 1990). The unnamed protagonist awakes one morning to find the entire mountainside where she is staying encircled by an invisible wall. Judging by indicators such as the lack of any aircraft, she surmises that the world has been silently destroyed and she is the only survivor. Rather than fighting off enemy legions, she struggles with feelings of futility, a toothache, planting and harvesting, and the responsibility she feels towards the animals that have fallen into her care. A beguiling incident of violence recounted at the end of the book is what prompts her to begin writing a report of her 2½ years (and counting) within the confines of the wall.

Reading is always a solitary act, even more so in a book with only one human character. I took refuge in the story’s rustic setting and in the company of this, the last woman alive, speaking in a voice that quietly commands recognition.

The narrator hopes against hope that someone will read her report: “[M]y heart beats faster when I imagine human eyes resting on these lines, and human hands turning the pages.” I felt as if I were the lucky someone who happened upon this account, on the shelf somewhere in an Alpine lodge. The sole survivor of the old world communicating directly with me, the first occupant of the new world that I—alone at last—was given to glimpse in the book’s pages.

(This piece was originally published in Paste Magazine online, here.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 13: "LOVE SHACK" RADIO PLAY

LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE OF THE PODCAST ONLINE BY CLICKING HERE, OR BETTER YET SUBSCRIBE TO THE FREE PODCAST ON iTUNES BY CLICKING HERE

This is, I will admit, a rather random podcast episode. It's a diversion from the usual conversation on storytelling, which I didn't have time to prepare this past week because I was on vacation. Instead, it's a short comic radio play I wrote years ago, and recorded with some friends. It's called "Love Shack," and in it, self-styled revolutionaries calling themselves "Che" and "Vlad" take over a radio station during a sex advice show, and learn a little something about themselves in the process. I got the idea for this show after working at KPFA Radio, the flagship station in the listener-supported Pacifica Radio Network. KPFA has quite a history, with no shortage of tumult. It's the nation's first non-commercial, lister-supported station, and it and sister stations in Los Angeles, New York City and elsewhere have been charged with indecency, communist affiliations, and general bad taste over the years -- thanks to broadcasts of/by Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the "dirty words" routine by George Carlin, an interview with Che Guevara, tapes by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and lots of other crazy stuff. I volunteered and worked for KPFA in the news and arts/literature departments about 1992-1997. At the time, the schedule was ALL over the place -- some weekly half-hour shows, some daily shows of a few hours, and many shows that only aired once a month. Cool, in a way, because they had programs that you'd never hear anywhere else -- news about Russia and the Eastern Bloc, Latin music, a gay talk show. Problem was, some programmers had become entrenched in their decades on the air, their shows sucked, and nobody was listening. And 94.1 on the FM dial is a pretty prime spot on the dial -- basically, the closer you were to the center of the dial, the better. So management shook up the schedule, dumped a bunch of old shows, and tightened up programming. 

This was not to the liking of many long-time listeners, or the shows' hosts if they'd been ejected, or to some public media activists, who noted a distinct change from political programming to music programming. Lots of protests ensued, the station was occupied at one point, there was a big conflict with the national board of Pacifica radio. Both (or all?) sides had a point, and I'm glad they duked it out, because the programming coming out of KPFA got better as a result. Now, fortunately, we have internet radio and podcasting, which makes "niche" programming of the sort that was happening on KPFA entirely possible, and accessible to a wide audience. I was only peripherally involved in the whole blowout -- I moved out of town as things were heating up. Not because things were heating up, mind you, but around that time, to go to grad school! It wasn't in direct response to the controversy that I wrote the script for this little radio play, but nor do I suppose is it much of a coincidence that this is what I came up with. I suggested the idea to the station manager, who dismissed it because it might cut a little too close to home! 

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

SEVERAL SIDES OF THE "DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS" STORY

Coming up next Monday, December 14, a national simulcast of the Oscar-shortlisted documentary film "Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders." There's a screening and panel discussion in NYC that night, and the whole megillah will be simulcast in nearly 450 theaters around the country. For locations and tickets, click HERE.

The organization "Doctors Without Borders" (or MSF, by its French initials) remains impartial in providing medical care -- they provide care based on need, and not on political affiliation. That sounds relatively uncontroversial, except when you consider that they're operating in countries at war, and with murderous rebels or government officials whom many people would consider indefensible. How do you treat a rebel army troop who, say, is willingly disrupting life in a refugee camp? And more to the point of this blog, how does the filmmaker remain neutral in treating these various issues? Is neutrality a cop-out in situations where one or another party may be "obviously" in the right, or another in the wrong?  

You can ask these and other questions if you attend the simulcast this Monday, December 14. Also, stay tuned for an "Inside Stories" podcast episode about the film, in which I speak with the film's director and with the organization's communications director about making the film, and how they hope the risky strategy of this one-night event will benefit the organization. I'll go to the film screening, and have a podcast for you this month or next. If you go to the simulcast in your home county and city, please let me know what you think.

Monday, November 30, 2009

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 12: NEWSEUM

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST EPISODE ONLINE HERE, OR BETTER YET SUBSCRIBE TO THE FREE PODCAST ON iTUNES HERE

In the new podcast episode, a confab with Cathy Trost, the exhibit development director of Newseum, the museum of the news, and which is touted as "Washington DC's most interactive museum." (The above photo of the Newseum exterior is by James P. Blair.) Sure enough, you can't swing a dead cat (or, say, some more journalistic object) in this place without hitting a touch-screen game that allows kids to ask questions and report on a story, or a small TV studio where visitors can play at being a news anchor. I think the real test of a museum is not how many gadgets it has, but how well it fires the imagination of its visitors. If interactive exhibits achieve that, then so be it. 

Another thing that the aforementioned dead cat will hit is a (usually unobtrusive) sign or plaque naming one or another of the museum's corporate underwriters. I guess the Newseum has got to survive somehow, but I can't help but wonder how sponsorships affect what the exhibits say, or moreover, what exhibits they can get sponsorships for in the first place. Shows about G-men or the hunt for Lincoln's killer are always popular, and perfectly enjoyable and educational. In places, the main exhibits did address biases in journalists and journalism. But when are we likely to see an exhibit on, say, the mainstream media's unchallenging coverage of the Iraq War? And what corporate giant is going to sponsor that? Those are questions I should have asked Cathy, but didn't. So maybe the experience of talking with her, and then thinking about it later has made me into a bit of a better reporter! And if the Newseum inspires some visitors to go into journalism or ask tougher questions themselves, well, that's an important function. Cathy was a reporter for decades, and brings a genuine spirit of journalistic inquiry to her work with Newseum. Hope you enjoy the episode.

Friday, November 20, 2009

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 11: HOUSING IS A HUMAN RIGHT







Photograph by Michael Premo (c) 2009

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST EPISODE HERE, OR BETTER YET SUBSCRIBE TO THE PODCAST SERIES ON iTUNES HERE.

Michael Premo and Rachel Falcone chat with me about "Housing is a Human Right," a multimedia documentary project of the struggle for Home in New York City. The project collects and shares first person stories of Home, community and ongoing efforts to maintain or obtain housing, celebrating our desire for a place to call Home. 

I spoke with the duo at a laundromat in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, where they had mounted an installation of photographs and an audio presentation of stories of people, many of whom had been forced out of their homes. That particular exhibition of stories was supported by Michael's residency with The Laundromat Project, which supports public art projects by artists of color in their neighborhoods. (Michael himself was recently priced out of Fort Greene!) 

Fort Greene is an apt place for this project. It's a largely African American neighborhood that has been gentrified mightily in the last several years (including by me, though I just moved out myself). The stories were at once a bracing reminder of the sometimes brutal unfairness in housing trends (someone who loses housing after getting cancer), the mixed feelings some longtime residents have about gentrification (better services, loss of old neighbors), the complicated mix of actors (not just old and new residents, but the people who make housing policies that affect all of them), and a poignant elegy to people who've lost everything they had (an elderly couple who get forced out of their apartment). Whether it's old residents or new listening to the stories, I can't help but think that we all have to place ourselves in the interplay of neighborhood life. Whom did I replace, and what if any is my responsibility to them? 

Two of the many cool things about Housing is a Human Right -- they "remix" oral history, and they put stories in unusual public places. (The sound montages or "story-scapes" were mixed by Oja Vincent.) To learn more about these and other bits of goodness, listen to the podcast, and visit the project's site. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

MOTHS TO THE FLAME

First off, can I just tell you how totally under-dressed I felt last night at "The Moth Ball," the big black-and-white formal benefit for the "The Moth"?  Let's just say, very. The recommended attire was, of course, black and/or white, and a mask if you could manage it. I'm not a real clothes horse to begin with, and on top of that, a bunch of my clothing is in a box right now, since I just moved into a new apartment. So I wore gray cords, which I figured was the most suitable pair of pants I had readily available. I also had a pair of white painters pants, but those make me look like a Moonie or, well, a painter. And I was going to wear a white shirt and cool vintage black jacket with those pants, but then at the last minute figured I'd distinguish myself by wearing my fancy embroidered party shirt, it's a Western shirt with shiny multicolored threads in a flower pattern that I got in a used clothing store several years ago, after my friend George helpfully informed me that what I considered my "party shirt" was actually just a drab old rag. Problem is, the shirt is blue, and it doesn't really go with the grey cords, and to make matters worse, I was wearing brown shoes that I'd thrown on because my one pair of black shoes catch me in the heel and are kind of uncomfortable. What can I say, I got them at PayLess. So when I got to "Capitale," the very fancy venue for the ball, and saw pretty much everyone dressed to the nines in black and/or white -- and creatively done, too, especially a lot of the women -- well, suffice it to say I felt like I might as well have just been in my underpants. Come to think of it, that might have been better, because at least my undies were white. 

Radio personality Garrison Keillor started off the evening's show by noting that the Moth was started by people "not from here." (I'd just learned from a Danish guy with a prop theatre hat that several of the staff members of the Moth are from Denmark.) Anyway, Garrison's point (we're totally on a first-name basis) was that New Yorkers will interrupt you every 15-20 seconds "to test your commitment," and if you were brought up in a place where the tendency is to yield to others in conversation, then any story you try to tell will be a series of opening lines. (Big laugh line, that.) And so, for people telling stories at The Moth, having five minutes of uninterrupted time is like having a handicap parking permit. "That is why The Moth started," he said, "to give people a fighting chance." 

Garrison then presented the 2009 Moth Award to playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith. Anna (we actually are on a first-name basis, as I used to work for her) interviews people about a given event or theme, and re-enacts portions of those interviews on stage in one-woman shows. Her new show, "Let Me Down Easy," at Second Stage Theatre through December 6, is about health and the human body. Check it out, or if you're not going to be in NYC, the theatre's website  has video of Anna's recent appearance on Bill Moyers, in which she discusses the play. Anyway, Anna says that hers are "hand-me-down stories," and told one that was related to her by oral historian Studs Terkel, who in turn got it from Mark Twain (in books, that is, since Studs Terkel was not THAT old). Anna then launched into what I thought was a pretty great Studs Terkel voice,  repeating verbatim what he'd told her about how important it is to question "the official truth," and using Huck Finn as an example. Anna added that Bill Moyers had asked her if acting was lying, and she said no, that instead it was about getting at other truths. That's what storytellers at The Moth do.

"Everyone has a story" is the simple, compelling message of The Moth -- and part of the "brand" campaign developed for the organization by the ad firm of Ogilvy. The new tag line for the organization (or at least its "story slams") is "You, a microphone and a story." Aside from the "story slams" and other performances, The Moth sponsors storytelling workshops for students and marginalized adults living in New York City. One of those students was Terrence Buckner (pictured above), who last night was awarded The Moth's $5,000 college scholarship. I had heard Terrence's story "Last Laugh" on The Moth podcast a few months ago. Terrence has got a lovely, sing-song teenagery voice (he was 15 at the time of the telling) and an adorable laugh, and told a story about coming out of the closet, and getting beat up, and pressing onward. Terrence is totally the gayest thing, and in case it's not clear I say that in respect and admiration. So, Terrence is challenging the official truth by telling his story, and also looked pretty sharp while doing it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"THE MOTH BALL" TONIGHT!

Tonight I'm going to "The Moth Ball" in New York City, it's the annual benefit for "The Moth." For the uninitiated, "The Moth" is a regular series of performances where people tell true stories live on stage without notes. "The Moth" started in New York City, and has since spread to Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities. They have a free weekly podcast of stories recorded at their live events, and are now piloting a new hour-long radio show.  

The benefit tonight features radio king Garrison Keillor, writer Jonathan Ames, and it honors playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith (who I used to work for, incidentally). The recommended attire is described this way: "Raven black or powder white, Don yourself for a festive night. Add a mask so we will wonder, What persona lies there under?" I am so lame, I have nothing to wear. Is it gauche to mix brown shoes with a black jacket? Probably so, and at the very least it's not in keeping with the dress code. As for a mask, well, about the only thing I have is a thick black pair of novelty glasses (with no lenses) that might make me look a little like Ira Glass. Well, if Clark Kent can disguise his identity as Superman just by donning a pair of specs, then maybe it'll work for me.

I'll let you know how it goes, when I blog about the event tomorrow.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 10: NARRATIVE MEDICINE

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST EPISODE ONLINE HERE, OR BETTER YET SUBSCRIBE TO THE FREE PODCAST SERIES ON iTUNES BY CLICKING HERE

Happy Tuesday to y'all. This time on the podcast, I chat with Dr. Rita Charon, founder and director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. Rita is a double doctor! An M.D., as well as a Ph.D. in English -- her dissertation was on Henry James. "Narrative Medicine" sounds like it might refer to medical treatments for people who just can't tell a story to save their lives. But -- and isn't this a handy reversal! -- as it turns out, telling stories might just save lives. Rita talks about how "narrative competence" can help improve doctor-patient relations, the quality of service, and the effectiveness of medical teams. I think you'll agree she's really pretty cool.  I think this photo of her captures her lively spirit. (I grabbed the photo from this website, and it's (c) 2003 by V. Hevern.) We spoke over tea at her writing studio, which has a lovely view of the Empire State Building -- it was lit up in red, white and blue that evening for the election.

The Program in Narrative Medicine has classes for med students, but they also have a series of monthly public talks called "Narrative Medicine Rounds" -- a fantastic lineup of authors, artists, activists and others. They just had Harlen Coben speak last week, and coming up in the next couple months are Virgil Wong and Sharon Olds. All those talks are open to the public. The schedule, and links to audio recordings of the talks, are available here

Thanks for listening!

Monday, November 2, 2009

CJR ON SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER

From the September/October issues of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), a piece by Brent Cunningham called "Take a Stand" on how the press can regain its relevance. Cunningham notes that CNN/U.S. president Jonathan Klein defended his network's coverage of Hurricane Katrina by saying, "We go in looking for stories, not issues which need to be raised." That, for Cunningham, is at the crux of the issue: too often the press just conveys stories and perspectives given to them by powerful interests -- an important function, to let the public know what's going on. But so long as the "fourth estate" of the press forgoes its other vital roles as "investigator, explainer, and, I would add, arbiter of our national conversation," it then "mostly amplifies the agendas of others--the prominent and the powerful." 

Most recently, the press did a lot of hand-wringing the Bush Administration's prosecution of the Iraq War, over its own failure to separate truth from lies. (Frank Rich's book "The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina" has a superb chapter on the failures of the press. Here's the New York Times review of the book, which further examines this issue.) Which is to say, the issues in Cunningham's piece are by no means new. But "Take a Stand" is a sharp piece, and an indicator of the ongoing and wrenching conversation in the press as to when and how to hold power to account, and just what that means. Some provocative comments were posted in response. 

Friday, October 30, 2009

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 09: THOUSAND KITES

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST EPISODE ONLINE HERE, OR BETTER YET SUBSCRIBE TO THE FREE PODCAST SERIES ON iTUNES HERE

On the podcast, a conversation with Nick Szuberla, the director of Thousand Kites, a community dialogue project about the criminal justice system. Thousand Kites uses radio, film, video, theatre, spoken word and more to exchange stories and perspectives on prisons. With 2.2 million people in jail or prison in the U.S., and millions more on parole, probation, in immigrant detention or the juvenile justice system, the misinformation and bad policies on incarceration is astounding. Thousand Kites gathers and distributes the stories of prisoners, their families, corrections staff, community members and others -- not just to allow people to express themselves, but to inform and change policy. From Nick, I got a sense of big economic and political powers in whose interest it is to build prisons, throw way too many nonviolent offenders into them, "rent out" prisoners to other states, keep prisoners isolated from their families and communities with no thought to what will happen when they get out -- and conceal what happens on the inside. I'll write more soon about this absolutely essential project, including some great stuff that Nick told me that I couldn't fit into the podcast. In the meantime, please listen to the episode and check out the Thousand Kites website.  Photo by Thousand Kites of Wallens Ridge State Prison, in Wise County, Virginia. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

BRINGING CHARACTERS TO LIFE

From a delightful interview by Michelle Wildgen with author Lorrie Moore (her new novel is "A Gate at the Stairs") in the latest issue of Tin House. (Photo of Lorrie Moore by Linda Nylind.) 

Michelle Wildgen: Do you have a go-to trick to get recalcitrant characters to come alive for you -- the way a parent might broach a sensitive topic with a kid while driving? 

Lorrie Moore: Sadly, all my characters are alive for me. Even the ones that seem like zombies to others. So it's not me they must come alive for. But if characters seem dead on the page, they simply need to say or do more. Or they need to have a really interesting thought. Or a thought so banal it's interesting. Or they need to be killed or maybe not killed but just roughed up a little or they need to be driven out of town on a rail, an expression I've never used before and so am not highly confident about its meaning. Also? I never talk about sensitive matters with my kid while driving. 

Okay, end quote. "Character" is a big interest of mine in this blog/podcast -- how writers create characters, and how we all create our own characters, as if writing them. If Lorrie Moore brings her characters alive to readers by having them do or say more, or get killed or roughed up, then what (if anything) does this mean for how we communicate own personal characters to other people? Hopefully not get roughed up! An open question.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

IS CHARACTER DESTINY?

Is character destiny? Hell if I know! But one's character would seem to have a bearing on things, especially if we are to judge by "Historia Semanal de Amor y Pasion" ("Weekly Story of Love and Passion"), a very soapy little Spanish-language comic book that I love so much I sometimes spend an hour on the subway just to get the latest issue. 

The issues contain free-standing (i.e. not serialized) stories, many of which take place over the course of years, even a whole lifetime. Maybe if you compress a few years of anyone's life into a 150-page pocket-size comic book, it will seem eventful, but the lives here are especially dramatic. One of my very favorites -- gosh, I feel just a touch guilty playing favorites, there are so many good ones -- is called "Sacrifice for Love," and it's about a young woman named Isadora who, upon turning 18, goes out and gets drunk with her betrothed and figures now would be a good time  to learn to drive. Naturally, there's an accident, the boyfriend is killed but Isadora survives to stew in her own guilt as she recuperates in the hospital. It is there that she is visited by a neighbor who says her stupid behavior effectively killed her (Isadora's) mother. After recovering, Isadora is hauled off to prison for a 15-year-long sentence which starts with vicious fights but gives way to industriousness and acceptance on Isadora's part. And that's just the first third of the story. It's a doozy. Or how about "Amoroso" (cover picture at left), about a handsome truck driver named Daniel and his helper Bernardo who dream of getting their own truck and starting their own business. Daniel, on his sojourns, occasionally visits various women for romantic trysts, including an apparently delusional and poor elderly woman -- whose relations with Daniel baffle many others, but he's just generous with himself. She dies and leaves Daniel a sum of money she'd been secretly saving, and which allows him to buy his truck. Problem is, he totals it, and, well, ends up learning about generosity. But no heavy-handed morality tales are these, just powerful displays of some of the most basic human emotions. Many of the stories have to do with long-standing patterns people carry from one marriage to the next, or character traits that lead people to self-destruct, not to mention the usual assortment of cheating husbands and long-suffering wives, and actresses and yacht trips and all the great stuff that happens in imaginary lives.

So, when reading these, I can't help but reflect on Heraclitus's remark that "character is destiny" -- are we stuck with who we are, or is there some possibility for change? Is a person's life story, like the latest issue of "Historia Semanal," basically written before she has a chance to live it? Of course the idea that "character is destiny" would have been spoken by an ancient Greek philosopher, whose country's tragic plays all hinge on fate. But the trick is, Heraclitus also famously said, "you can't step in the same river twice" -- the river is different, and so is the person stepping into it. What's it gonna be, pal? That human character is ever changing, or unchanging? I have to know so I can decide whether to go for an advance discount on the epitaph on my grave. 

On a related note, David Brooks had a curious op-ed piece in the New York Times the other day, in which he mused on two views on character -- the philosopher's view that says character is unchanging, and the psychologists' view that says it is situational, or rather that the traits we display and the choices we make may change depending on the setting or who you're talking with. As much as the Historias feature characters who just can't escape their own fundamental traits (at least not until the end of the story!), there are plenty of others who manage to learn a thing or two -- and in so doing change their character, and, it would follow, their "destiny." 

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

COLLECTIVE STORYTELLING -- THE CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF ART & COMMUNITY

Who authors a story? The name on a book jacket or in a byline may be the writer, but consider the many people who contributed to that creator's ideas. Many book writers, of course, have extensive acknowledgements that thank the people who supported or inspired them, or more to the point edited or advised them. But what of the many other people who, say, told the writer a joke long ago, it stuck, and you jiggle it a little bit and put it on paper? Or how about an arresting turn of phrase some stranger used in passing, and the author puts it in her book? I suspect that most authors -- including anyone who writes so much as an email -- would, upon reflection, admit that their inspirations are many. This is not to downplay the imagination of any given individual. But my question is just that: who authors a story? And how much does the story a person tells really "belong" to them? 

This is what I was thinking about in reading the "Wild Caught Story," a project of the Center for the Study of Art and Creativity, whose director is Bill Cleveland, a cool guy I met just the other night. He's is the author of several books I'm eager to check out (inlcuding "Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World's Frontlines"), and  he has worked at or run various community art programs, including, remarkably, the Arts-In-Corrections Program at the California Department of Corrections, a program which he helped make the largest arts residency program in the country. Yowsa. Anyway, "Wild Caught Story" is a "rotary journal of creative community building," in which six contributors write about "culture, community and current affairs." As explained on the site, "Each discussion cycle will begin with a question posed by one of the six, then, each week, one after another, the other members will write in response to both the current question and whatever has emerged in the ongoing discussion. After six weeks, we will start again with a new question." Now, granted, this is a discussion that's happening in rotation, rather than a story. But the principle is the same: each person riffs off of or is inspired by the others' writings, truly responds to them. I can easily imagine how this method could be used to produce a collectively written story.  

"Wild Caught Story" has yielded some great results. Just one of the things I enjoyed was Puanani Burgess's process of facilitating story circles -- she'll ask people to tell the story of their names, their community, and their gifts. I can only guess that people learn from the others about how to tell their stories, perhaps adjust the length or emphasize certain themes. 

So, these in-person and virtual story circles are a way of people telling their own individual stories, but also are a way of explicitly generating collective stories. Represented graphically, this process might look like, well, a circle! Last month I wrote about Dahlia Lithwick's experiment on Slate.com, in which she gave herself a month to write a "mommy-lit" novel, posting a new chapter about every day. All along the way, she had readers contribute plot points, characters' names, technical information to make the story more realistic, and other items via Slate.com and a Facebook page, and then she'd incorporate those contributions to the book, and annotate the book to attribute those contributions. That process of "crowd-sourcing" a story, as I put it, might look -- in a graphic representation -- more like a a bicycle wheel, with contributors being the spokes that move towards the center. Except there's no real rim of the wheel, just the spokes and the hub or axis -- so, okay, the metaphor only goes so far, but you get the idea. In these examples, the contributions of other people are just made more explicit. And the author, clearly, "contains multitudes."     

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 08: THEATRE OF THE SENSES

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST EPISODE ONLINE HERE, OR BETTER YET, SUBSCRIBE TO THE FREE PODCAST SERIES ON iTUNES HERE

In this episode of the podcast, I chat with the artistic director and some of the company members of "Teatro de los Sentidos" (Theatre of the Senses), a multinational theatre troupe based in Barcelona that does these thoroughly unusual and sensuous sort of "performances." I put "performances" in quotes because it's hard to describe what they do in typical theatre talk. In the "show" I went to in Pittsburgh last year, "Echo of the Shadow," individual "audience" members would go one-by-one through a of labyrinth of environments -- a circus tent, a moat, a sort of fairy-tale house, and others -- where they would have mostly wordless encounters with individual "actors," or what the troupe calls "inhabitants." All five senses (and probably a few unnamed senses in addition) come into play. It's a horrid cliche to describe something like this as "magical," but it really was, and one of the most enlivening pieces of theatre I've ever seen. This show probably sounds less like a story and more like a series of impressions -- and it is, in a sense. The show is inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story, but it does not tell that story, really. Instead, each of the environments evoke so many of the individual visitor's memories and feelings that the experience becomes, in fact, a very personal story for each person. And, no coincidence, the visitor is given a small booklet at the beginning that they carry with them throughout the labyrinth, and which is added to at several of the stations along the way. Great stuff. 

I thought I'd post this episode in advance of Halloween, because artistic director Enrique Vargas said specifically that, while "Echo" plays with darkness and different rooms or environments, the show was not a haunted house. Shortly after going through "Echo of the Shadow," for the sake of comparison I went to the most dreadful haunted house -- and I don't mean "dreadful" in a good way. It was hugely popular, and cost something like $30. Fortunately, I got in for free, because otherwise I would have felt positively robbed. Groups of 5-8 people were herded through at a time, the occasional zombie would reach out and grab your shoulder, "creepy" lights cast shadows on the wall, and you had to crawl through one or two passageways. These little "frights" (more like annoyances, the whole thing was idiotic) were not unlike some of the conceits of "Echo of the Shadow," only there were many factors that took you out of the experience -- the other people with you saying how dumb it was, or them talking about the club they were going to later that night, or the emergency exit signs and other indicators of the outside, or the fact that midway through you had to pass through the crowded lobby again. Well, the whole thing was cheeseball and lame. In contrast, however, at every turn "Echo of the Shadow" immersed you in experience. It was brilliant. It made me want to run off with the troupe! This production of "Echo of the Shadow" took place October in 2008 at the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, and was Theatre of the Sense's U.S. premiere. I hope they come back. For the Pittsburgh production, they worked with Clear Story Creative, a production company that works in various media. 

Again, be sure to check out the Theatre's website, see a performance if you can, and if you happen to be in Barcelona, go to one of their theatre workshops. I dare you not to fall in love with them! 

Friday, October 16, 2009

FILLING IN THE BLANKS OF MICHELLE OBAMA'S FAMILY TREE

This is already yesterday's news -- or rather, last week's news, or, looked at from another point of view, centuries old news! -- but the New York Times reports that a genealogist has uncovered a slave-owner five generations back in Michelle Obama's family tree. This is not in itself totally surprising, of course, since it was not uncommon for slave owners to rape their slaves; and hence many African Americans have white people in their lineage. However, as the article says, "the more complete map of Mrs. Obama's ancestors -- including the slave mother, white father and their biracial son, Dolphus T. Shields -- for the first time fully connects the first African-American first lady to the history of slavery, tracing their five generation journey from bondage to a front-row seat to the presidency." 

African American genealogy of the antebellum period is more difficult to research than that of most European Americans, since slaves' names were changed, their marriages were not recognized and recorded in the same way that whites' were, those who were literate were subject to have their writings destroyed, and slaves were scarcely considered worthy of historical documentation. So, given all that, it's remarkable that African American genealogy has advanced has far as it has. The New York Times also has what is known of Michelle Obama's family tree here, and readers who have some connection to are knowledge of it are invited to help fill in the many gaps here

One thing that fascinates me about the gaps in genealogical records -- of African Americans or others -- is not only the ever more sophisticated methods people may use to fill in those gaps, but also the imaginative journeys they may be inspired to take in order to tell a more complete story about where they come from. I'm not suggesting that genealogists are making up family trees out of whole cloth, but rather that the gaps in knowledge can inspire the creation of art and literature.

P.S. I hope you'll take this chance to visit (or revisit) the podcast episode featuring Maya Lilly, the creator of a one-woman show called "Mixed," about people of mixed race.  

Thursday, October 15, 2009

PERIPHERAL CHARACTERS TAKE CENTER STAGE

"Someone like Jean doesn't normally get a whole play written about her. She's usually the sidekick or best friend." That's playwright Sarah Ruhl in a Boston Globe article, talking about the protagonist of her play "Dead Man's Cell Phone," which opened last week at Boston's Lyric Stage Company. "I'm interested in what happens if you foreground that character. People like Jean are all heroes of their own story, but they don't feel like heroes on the surface. I'm drawn to people like that in life."

Funny thing, that. A character in a play is only what the playwright makes of her. Central characters are central because the playwright has put them at the center. Peripheral characters are on the sidelines for the same reason. So in that sense, "Jean" is exactly the kind of person who gets a whole play written about her -- because Sarah Ruhl has written just such a play! But Ruhl's point is well taken, and is perhaps evidence of how fully she imagines her characters -- they are real people to her, almost as if they have a life outside of the words and actions the playwright gives them on stage. Perhaps a real-life person of Jean's type is shy and unassuming, likely to be overshadowed in the theatre of work or home or the street by even just slightly bigger, more bombastic people. 

In "Dead Man's Cell Phone," Jean answers the cell phone of a dead man in a cafe, and then, as the Globe article puts it, "begins playing secretary, therapist, and healer to his lives ones. It seems Gordon had made a mess of his life, with a mercurial mistress, a distant mother, a socially awkward brother, and a perilous profession." 

I'm intrigued about the play, and the description makes me wonder about the various roles we play in each other's lives. How prominent or peripheral a role might you have in a play  about your parents or partner or a friend or your boss, or even just someone you met once on the street? And how might that role be different if you wrote the play, or the other person wrote it? 

I'm reminded of the bit in the film "Citizen Kane," in which the title character's manager says "A fellow would remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day back in 1896 I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry. And as we pulled out there was another ferry pulling in. And on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress he had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all. But I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl." 

"Jean," or a real-life person like Jean, is already is the hero of her own play, and now she finally gets to be the hero of Sarah Ruhl's. Whereas she might just be like the girl with the parasol in "Citizen Kane," incidental, and yet plays large in the imagination of someone else.

Who knows what role we're cast in in each other's lives? 

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"HOUSING IS A HUMAN RIGHT" PRESENTS ORAL HISTORY "REMIXED"



I'm psyched about "Housing is a Human Right," an "ongoing multimedia documentary project of the struggle for home in New York City." The project, led by artist Michael Premo and former StoryCorps facilitator Rachel Falcone, launches this month with an opening reception at the SUPERFRONT gallery at 1432 Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn this Saturday, October 17 from 6:00-9:00pm, and another "sidewalk listening party" at the Wash and Play Lotto Laundromat at 81 Lafayette St. in Brooklyn on Tuesday, October 27 from 6:00-8:30pm. Presenting in a laundromat -- brilliant! What could be more neighborhooody than that? I'm intrigued by the project's notion of "oral history remixed" -- and the new formats and venues in which oral history can be presented, and the uses to which it can be put. The 11 stories presented at this exhibit (which runs 10/17 - 12/12 at the gallery, and 10/27 - 11/2 at the laundromat) are a starting point, and will incorporate the "remixed testimony" of attendees and neighbors. 

More information about the project and events is available here. I'm hoping to make it to at least one of these events, and will write and perhaps podcast more about the project later on.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

CONCERNED THAT "WILD THINGS" MOVIE WILL BE TOO SCARY? GO TO HELL

What kinds of surprises or fears can kids tolerate? At least, in books and movies? Children's book author Maurice Sendak says in a Newsweek interview that the publishers of his book "Where the Wild Things Are" wanted him to change the line on the last page from "The soup was still hot" to "The soup was still warm." That's because "hot" seemed to imply that the kid would burn himself. He says "it turned into a real word war," and as any fan of the book knows, Sendak won. 

The group interview is with Sendak, and two of the creatives behind the new film adaptation of his famous book -- director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers. Jonze says the studio "thought I was making a children's film and I thought I was making a film about childhood." In the end, the studio let them make the film they wanted -- one that doesn't gloss over the rough emotions of childhood. Sendak says American films tend to be Disneyfied, and remove all the scary bits. I see what he means, but of course several Disney movies (such as "Bambi" and "The Lion King") feature a child losing a parent, or other traumas. Sendak seems to acknowledge this when he points out that Mickey Mouse used to have teeth -- literally! -- and that he, Sendak, stopped liking Mickey when he was turned into a "schmaltzer," a cuddly character.  Sendak says, "We don't want children to suffer. But what do we do about the fact that they do? The trick is to turn that into art. Not to scare children, that's never our intention."

Dave Eggers points to the film version of "The Wizard of Oz." That's some pretty upsetting stuff, what with Toto getting taken and the house being sucked up in the tornado, and the wicked witch. "But there is something at stake," says Eggers, "and ultimately kids do want something at stake." Maybe that requires that they be a little scared.

One last little note. The Newsweek interviewer asks, "What do you say to parents who think the Wild Things film may be too scary?" Sendak replies, "I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate."

Again, check out the whole fun interview, by Ramin Setoodeh and Andrew Romano, here

Monday, October 12, 2009

THE STORY BEHIND THINGS = $$$

"Can a great story give a worthless item monetary value?" That's the question Slate Magazine is asking in a contest this week. Two authors, Joshua Glenn and Robert Walker, have written about people's prized possessions -- and naturally, the value we ascribe to our belongings often has little to do with their actual monetary value and more with the story behind them. To test this theory, the authors bought a bunch of items at thrift sales, and had some writers create fictional back-stories (which were passed off as true) about those objects, and then sold the items on eBay. Buyers paid substantially more for an object than the authors ever paid. Now, the authors are soloiciting a back-story for yet another item, a little barbeque sauce jar and brush. Check the link above (on the word "contest") for more information, or to enter by the deadline of this Friday, October 16 at 5:00 pm. 

I'm inclined to think that the back-story is part of the value of objects of art, as well -- at least to viewers, if not necessarily on the art market. I recall seeing this one 1917 piece by Man Ray called "Boardwalk," in a Dada show at the Museum of Modern Art. The work was a sort of irregular checkerboard pattern made from the wood of a dresser-drawer, with several knobs attached and twine looped between them, and a piece of fabric pasted on. Make of it what you will. But what gives it an extra charge is that the piece was shown at a 1958 exhibition at a commercial art gallery in Paris, and some students, protesting the show being at a commercial gallery, took "Boardwalk" off the wall, ran outside with it, and shot it several times with a small gun. Man Ray himself was amused, and felt the piece gained some street cred. The piece may or may not now be a better work of art for having been shot, but its history --- it even has the scars to prove it! -- imbue it with intrigue, and perhaps even more monetary value.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 07: A STORY READ BY THE AUTHOR, KRIS KOVICK

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST ONLINE HERE, OR BETTER YET, SUBCRIBE TO THE FREE PODCAST ON iTUNES HERE
This week on the podcast, a story by my old friend Kris Kovick, read in live performance by Kris herself. I also talk a little about Kris, and also about how I'm now soliciting stories for the podcast.

ABOUT KRIS AND THIS STORY: Kris was a hilarious, bawdy and poignant storyteller, she kick-started the lesbian spoken-word scene in San Francisco in the early- to mid-1990s, at the Bearded Lady Cafe. This story is the chapter "Big Stump" from her novella "America's Least Wanted," which mixes family lore, contemporary personal stories from her own life, and a murder mystery. This chapter is mostly stories about her family from early 20th-century Wilsonia, California. I chose to feature this story because, well, it's a great story, and also because (for me, anyway) it calls up the difference between live performance and recordings. Anyone who sees live performance, whether music or theatre or what have you, knows that it's all about the spirit in the room at that moment, and that moment only. Recordings can't quite capture that spirit, not for anyone who wasn't there anyway. The can capture the words and the ambient sound, but at most they can recall or evoke a spirit, but not capture it. (One of the audio tours available on this site is a story by Kris, and read by Michelle Tea, about putting her dog to sleep. Click on the "audio tours" link on the right hand-side of the blog.)

I'M SOLICITING YOUR STORIES: This episode is a bit of a departure in this still very new podcast. I normally have conversations with different kinds of storytellers. But starting this week, I’d also like to do an occasional podcast episode where I have someone read or tell an original story—it could be fiction, or memoir, or a documentary story, or some experimental form, or something else. The idea is that these stories be “about” storytelling in some way, or that they highlight something about the craft or process of storytelling. It doesn’t have to be as literal as someone telling a story about how their grandma used to sit ‘em on her knee and tell stories. Instead, maybe it’s an unusual format or medium that somehow explores or is an example of the many ways stories are told. Maybe it’s a story told through a sheaf of old letters. Or it could be an audiotape you once made, and listen to now, and it prompts some memory. Or maybe it’s a new spin on a classic radio drama. Or it could be a fictional short story about another life that the main character imagines she might have lived if she’d taken a different turn earlier in life. Or maybe there’s just a terrific story that’s not “about” storytelling at all, and you just think I might like to feature it. So, send me your ideas, or stories, and I’ll consider them. As for recording these stories, if it came to that, you could record them yourself, or you can send me text and I can have someone read them, or I can record you if you live in San Francisco or New York or one of the other towns I visit sometimes. But  first, drop me a line with your stories or ideas and we’ll talk about the possibilities. I'm at InsideStoriesOnline [at] gmail. Thanks!

Paul VanDeCarr

Thursday, October 8, 2009

THE ETHICS OF DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING

Independent documentary filmmakers I know are often hyper-aware of the responsibility they bear towards their subjects (who may, at great emotional expense, be sharing their foibles, failings, and feelings) and their audiences (who rely on the filmmaker to be truthful). But there are a million little choices that go into making a documentary film -- who to interview or whom to ignore, how far you push them in your questioning, whether you pay them, your lighting and camera angle, which archival sources to use, who gets final say over the film, what's left on the cutting room floor, and every single edit point in the entire film. Naturally, there are ethical questions in each of these choices. An interesting new study by Patricia Aufderheide, Peter Jaszi and Mridu Chandrea for the Center for Social Media looks at "Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work." 

Here are a few intriguing (but not necessarily representative) bits. 

One filmmaker "asked a subject to redo an interview in order to get a more emotionally rich version of a painful moment when he had been abused by police in prison. The second time, 'he was crying, I was crying, we were all crying. It was so powerful. After I wrapped, I felt like a real shit for the rest of the day, felt like I manipulated him for my personal gain. It is a powerful moment in the film but I felt bad to push him to that point when he broke down." 

Another filmmaker says, "If the tables were turned ... I would never allow them to make a film about my tragedy. I am keenly aware of the hypocrisy of asking someone for access that I myself would probably not grant." And another: "They let you be there as their life unfolds, and  that carries with it a responsibility to try to anticipate how the audience will see them, and protect them where necessary." 

Still another filmmaker "recalled having to decide between two photographs to illustrate the point that [former Louisiana governor] Huey Long was often surrounded by bodyguards. One featured his typical bodyguards, in street clothes. Another featured uniformed guards -- a one time, exceptional moment. After discussion with his team and with professional historian, he decided for the atypical shot, because it communicated his point (that Long used bodyguards) more rapidly. "I sacrificed a little bit of accuracy. But did I? The reason we still talk about [this] is because it was a perfect ethical conundrum. It spoke to the possibilities as well. It made the film better. It did not compromise an ultimate truth." 

The report also describes a filmmaker who was shooting a wildlife film, trying to capture a scene of one animal hunting another. "We tried to shoot a few [scenes of the predator capturing its prey], and missed both of them. Unbeknownst to me, the [animal wrangler] broker the next rabbit's leg, so it couldn't run. So we got one [shot of the successful hunt]. On the next take, they then asked, 'Should we break its leg again?' ... I made the decision, let them break it. I regret it. It eats me up every day." Apparently, this filmmaker felt bad about sacrificing the rabbit, but it seems to be the bigger conundrum is how what happens gets manipulated, edited or staged to tell a story. 


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

FINDING THE "NATURAL THEATRE" IN EVERYDAY LIFE


The playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith has a splendid new show called "Let Me Down Easy," at the Second Stage Theatre in New York. (I used to work for Anna, doing research on this show and other projects.) For her plays, Anna interviews people about an event or theme -- this show is about the triumphs and failings of the human body -- and performs portions of those interviews verbatim on stage, adopting the interviewees' accents, speech patterns and mannerisms, not as a form of mimicry so much, but as a way of exploring their character through their use of language. An article by Susan Dominus in the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday captures something essential about Anna's method. I'd recommend reading the whole piece, but for the moment I just want to highlight one paragraph.

" 'Brecht talks about it in that wonderful essay "The Street Scene" -- how if you went into the street right after an accident, you would see all this natural theater.' People describing the drama that they had just witnessed would actually act it out, she explained and then demonstrated for me: 'My God! And the car went, "Bam!" And she got out and said, "Aaaaaaaah!" ... I want to stand in that natural theater.' " 

Intuitively, that resonates, doesn't it? How many times have you watched the TV news, where someone is describing a car accident or a rescue attempt during a fire? Or how often do people on the street just seem to arrange themselves into a theatrical scene? There are two levels of theatre there -- there's the actual drama that happens in a car accident or in some quiet dispute between neighbors or whatever other situation, and then there's the way that witnesses or participants act it out afterwards. Why might we feel compelled to relate an event in that way? Especially in the case of a shocking event like a car crash, I suspect that relating the story or acting it out is a necessary release of energy -- the charge is neutralized, or perhaps passed to another person.