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. 

Monday, October 5, 2009

THIS AMERICAN PARK -- HOW THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE INTERPRETS U.S. HISTORY

The job of the National Park Service is to tell stories, says the agency's new director, Jon Jarvis, in an article by Julie Cart in today's Los Angeles Times. The new director says in the article, "It's our job to tell the story [of the parks and the nation] and without embellishment, to tell it as truthfully as possible. Based on the historical side, scholarly work; and on the natural side, scientific work." You might think that basing the stories of the parks in historical and scientific fact wouldn't be such a controversial idea, but the article says that "problems arise at places such as the Grand Canyon, where some visitors prefer a biblical interpretation of the canyon's age." Rangers' storytelling (or "interpretation" in the lingo of the park service) will also change under the new director's leadership. "Jarvis said that rangers at Civil War battlefields now spend less time telling visitors where the Confederate and Union armies lined up for Pickett's charge and more time discussing slavery and civil rights. Those issues are more relevant to today's society, he said." Jarvis continues, "This country's history is being made every day... The country always turns to us whenever there is a seminal moment in the American experience. We tell the Vietnam story at the Vietnam Memorial. We are going to be telling the story of the war in Iraq. We are going to be telling Afghanistan. Those stories are going to come to the service because that's our job, that's our responsibility, to tell the stories of the American experience." 

Coming up soon on the podcast, by the way, is an episode about a regiment of African American revolutionary and civil war re-enactors. The nation's parks and historical sites hold a privileged position in American geography, and this and other similar groups use these sites to -- gosh, there's almost no way around this dreadful cliche -- "bring history to life." But it's more than that, their task is to participate in history, to sort it out, to argue about it, to challenge received wisdom. 

Thanks to my friend Adele Horne, a very talented documentary filmmaker, for bringing the above article to my attention. Adele also cites the work of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), which does these unusual projects which interpret places like the oil fields of Texas or the heliports of Los Angeles.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 06: EROTICA WRITER SUSIE BRIGHT

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

This week on the podcast, erotica writer and editor Susie Bright. May I just take a moment to nominate Susie for the Niftiest Person of the Year award? She's awesome. You may know her as the former longtime editor of "The Best American Erotica" series, or as a super-fab blogger and producer of her own audio program "In Bed With Susie Bright," or as Susie Sexpert, or as a co-founder of "On Our Backs" magazine, as a consultant to the movie "Bound," or from any number of other things.

This week on the podcast, Susie chats with me about the sexual imagination, and a couple friends of mine read snippets of stories in an anthology Susie edited called "X: The Erotic Treasury," which was published earlier this year by Chronicle Books. The book is sexy, and not to mention a gorgeous object, with a sort of velvety red slipcover. Check it out. The podcast episode contains talk of sex, of course, but doesn't have any swearwords or graphic descriptions of sexual activity. It's more like, talk about sex writing and writing workshops. 

Some things that Susie said, both that are included in the podcast episode or that I didn't include for reasons of time, are about erotica on the margins, pressing in at the mainstream. Whether it's how the zeitgeist gets captured in erotica writings people would submit for her consideration, or the hidden meanings in porn films, or the obscene "forage" paintings on the edges of pages of Plato's "Republic" or the Bible or other books -- sex is not just at the center of culture, but also plays around the edges in some fascinating ways.