Blaque Friday Moviegoing

I read today that this past Thanksgiving weekend marked the lowest box office (adjusted for inflation, I assume) in the history of the motion picture industry.  Which demonstrates once again just how out of sync with the rest of my countrymen I tend to be, because I went to the movies on Friday for the first time in several months.  I’d gotten my yearly check-up that morning (I’m nice and healthy, potential employers), then done something else atypical for me – a little early Christmas shopping, braving the chaos of Black Friday.  And then, on my way home from Manhattan, instead of changing trains at the Atlantic Avenue hub, I disembarked the station entirely, walked over to Brooklyn Academy of Music, bought myself a ticket, and sat down to watch the new Cate Blanchett movie, Tár.

I’m still reeling from the experience.

Now, I’m not the only person you’re going to find on the internet telling you how amazing Tár is; it’s gotten rapturous reviews.  I do, however, feel like I have a special insight into this movie about the classical music world.  I don’t discuss it here on my blog, because I’d like to remain employed, but my day job is in arts education, in the classical music field.  For twenty years, I’ve helped coordinate masterclasses and draft artists’ contracts; I’ve been the guy writing up programs and setting up the music stands.  And for decades prior to that, I’ve known and loved the repertoire, ever since Mrs. Del Rosso’s second grade music class.  And I can tell you that the level of accuracy in this movie, the attention to detail, is mind-boggling.  It’s not just that Blanchett herself is conducting the orchestra we see on screen, for real – it’s that her style is specifically linked to her character’s backstory as a Leonard Bernstein protégé, and that her interpretations of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and the Elgar Cello Concerto are directly linked to the character’s journey.  Hell, the fact that Lydia Tár’s a Bernstein protégé in the first place is a crucial insight to the character.  The varying intonation styles of different cellists turns out to be a major plot point.  The fact that the elite symphonies audition new members behind a screen is an even more crucial plot point.  A pivotal scene is built around decades-old gossip concerning the conductor Herbert von Karajan.  The central premise of the movie – conductor Lydia Tár’s inappropriate sexual behavior and abuses of power coming back to haunt her – is built on real-world gossip that only went public months ago.  To chronicle every single reference, to provide a footnote for every frame of film and line of dialogue, would take exponentially longer than the film’s running time.

Ah, but Michael, I hear you (hypothetically) say, isn’t this just another case of artists being flattered into liking a work simply because it’s talking about them?  Which means that critics will love it because it speaks their language, but if you don’t already know this material you’ll be hopelessly lost? And that’s a valid question; insularity in the arts is a real danger (and one of the major subjects of the movie).  But the critics who’ve been rhapsodizing over this film don’t have any special knowledge about its subject matter.  At all.  And their reviews have made that spectacularly clear.

The best evidence of what I mean comes in the discussion of the film’s most mind-blowing scene.  It comes early on in the film, as Lydia Tár gives a masterclass at Juilliard.  (And even though it’s a purely interior scene and there’s no way anybody would know it wasn’t shot on a soundstage or some alternate location, it was clearly shot on location at Juilliard.) The masterclass unfolds as a ten minute unbroken take, in which uncomfortable questions of identity politics are raised as the Western canon is discussed (and in which Blanchett not only plays an excerpt from  Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier mid-way through her monologue but breaks out a Glenn Gould impersonation while doing so, because apparently she can do anything.) At one point, as she tries to stress the importance of mastering the standard repertoire even if it’s not what you personally respond to, Tár exclaims, “if you want to dance the masque, you must service the composer.”  Which is a florid way of making the point, but that’s the character.

Every single review I’ve read which mentions this scene  – and again, it’s the most mind-boggling scene I’ve seen in years, and you can’t discuss the film or Blanchett’s performance without discussing it because how the hell did she do all that in an unbroken ten minute take – has quoted this line incorrectly.  They transcribe it as “if you want to dance the mask,” which is a nonsense phrase.  The question makes no sense.  (Just so we’re all clear, a masque is a formal court dance. Depending on the masque, you might wear a mask if you’re performing in one, but they’re two separate things.) Since the intent of the question is abundantly clear from context, if the critics are garbling the line like this it’s clear that they don’t know that context.  The dialogue might as well be gibberish.  And yet, they completely grasp the power dynamics of the scene, and of the movie, so they’re accurately praising what they don’t fully understand.

And ultimately that’s why I wanted to write about Tár today, and encourage all writers and performing artists to see it.  (They’re not paying me.) The standard procedure, the advice writers are invariably given when setting a story in an unfamiliar milieu, is to find a way of orienting the audience.  To give Tar some sidekick who’s brand-new to the classical world, let’s say, so that arcane concepts can be helpfully explained.  To make concessions to the audience.  But Tár works spectacularly precisely because it never makes any concessions to its audience.  It lets its characters have long conversations about abstruse musicological points right off the bat, and trusts that we’ll follow along.  And we do, because the emotional truth of the scenes is right there.  More to the point, the emotional truth of any given scene is enhanced because there’s no phony, clumsily inserted explanations to try and dumb things down.  The characters know what they’re talking about, and instinctively we know they know what they’re talking about, and we believe them as a result,  The specificity is what makes us care.

So, filmmakers and artists of America, please go see this movie and take away its lesson.  You don’t need to dumb anything down.  You don’t need to talk down to us.  Go ahead and realize your worlds, whatever they are, in the most painstaking detail you can.  Let them be truthful.  Maybe then we’ll start going to the movies on Thanksgiving weekend again.

From The Edge

This is an arts blog, Constant Reader, so I try to avoid talking politics except in the broadest sense of such sentiments as “fascism is bad.” (Apparently this is something that still needs to be said; if for some reason you think that fascism is good and you’re somehow still reading the blog of a New York theater actor and playwright, I’m going to ask that you log off now and go rethink your life.) Ideally, the scripts I write and the projects I perform in would make all the political points I’d want to make, shape the general political discourse in the direction I’d want it to go, therefore allowing me to simply cast my own ballot in private when the time came.  Of course, we live in a far from ideal world, and the approach I’ve just outlined felt inadequate to a great many of my peers, looking to find a more direct way to have an influence on the election just past.  (We had midterm elections earlier this month, in case that wasn’t clear.  It was in all the papers.)

A huge number of my New York theater friends occupied themselves in the months prior to the election with postcard writing campaigns.  Indeed, it seems to have been all the rage in our arts community.  These weren’t isolated missives, you see; rather, it’s become customary for organized campaigns of letter and postcard writers to send out hundreds of pieces of mail at a time, coordinating with get-out-the-vote efforts across the country.  The postcards are directed to registered voters in swing states, urgent pleas from the folks in “blue America” for those crucial “purple”-staters to actually go out and be counted.  Among my friends, most of these campaigns have fallen under the aegis of some non-profit organization or other, often affiliated with the arts in some way, and therefore officially neutral in their political stance, simply urging people to do their civic duty.  But c’mon – these are New York theater artists we’re talking about here.  The bluest of the blue, pouring their hearts out onto little five by seven cards (well, they’re usually following a script, but there’s passion in the penmanship), begging the citizens of the heartland to fight for progressive values against the rising tide of that aforementioned fascism.

Well, the election has come and gone.  There’s still a Senate run-off to come in Georgia, of course, and a few races still too close to call.  But the overall outcome is clear.  The dreaded “red wave” (dreaded by my friends, that is – again, you’re reading a New York artists’ blog) would seem to have been thwarted, and the Senate will remain in Democratic control.  But by a tiny margin, the House of Representative will flip to Republican control, with enormous ramifications for this nation’s governance over the next two years.

And the margin of that shift can be directly attributed to voters in New York.  Specifically, the voters in the congressional districts on Long Island and the northern suburbs.  While my friends were pleading oh so earnestly with the rest of the country to stay a progressive course, the voters who most directly rebuked them were our neighbors.

This is something we desperately need to reckon with.  As much as we’d love to have a great big national megaphone with which to proclaim our lofty ideals, there’s the nitty gritty of working with the people we actually live amongst – the folks who commute into our city to work and play, the people we’re liable to perform in front of on Broadway or serve an espresso at Starbucks just before they start work – that needs to take place first.  And while there’s a lot of handwringing about the state of the Democratic party in New York, and plenty of internal recriminations, and all sorts of issues of political infrastructure and what not to deal with, I’m not going to address any of them here.  This is an arts blog, remember?

And as an arts blogger, the thing I think must be stressed here is that these New York suburban voters, the ones “our side” has lost and is desperately trying to understand, used to be the primary audience for New York theater.

That’s not the case anymore.  Commercial theater is aimed at the tourist trade; independent theater focuses more and more on an ever shrinking pool of people who are already in the arts, already in sympathy with those theatermakers’ beliefs.  Those folks out in the burbs, who once upon a time would have been the target audience for Arthur Miller, for Edward Albee, for the Golden Age Broadway composers?  There’s not much aimed for them anymore, not much reaching them.  And reaching those folks is absolutely crucial in getting the idea across that there’s more to life than the insular, meretricious values of the suburbs – the values that have sunk us into much of the mess we’re in.  The values we’re trying to fight.  We need to reach that specific audience if we’re to have any hope at all.

I know.  I grew up in that audience.

And I can tell you that for the arts to have any meaningful impact at all, for theater to have any sway over the broader political currents swirling around it, it needs to meet two crucial criteria.  It needs to address the concerns of its local audience, and it needs to be affordable.

We’re rebuilding everything post-pandemic anyway, we might as well rebuild the theater so it meets those two criteria again.  Maybe, just maybe, that can help bring us back to the ideal condition I described at the top, where it’s the art we make that gets our ideas across, that affects the politics around us, that improves the society we live in.

I hope so.  I really don’t like writing postcards.

Practice Makes Perfect

I had no sooner returned from this summer’s Valdez Theatre Conference when I vowed to return next year.  Alaska is a stunning, bewitching place, and it makes for a spectacular backdrop for what’s essentially a summer arts camp for middle-aged theatre people.  (You can trust me on my math there.) Since I’d been there as a playwright, with my piece An Arctic Confederate Christmas (which, as a reminder, you can find on NPX here) the way to return seemed clear – write a new play.  From scratch.  Which is, of course, not the easiest thing in the world, but as I already had an idea in mind it was simply a matter of researching and drafting the project over the next few months.  I just needed to be sure the draft was ready in time for the submission deadline.

That deadline is this Tuesday, November 15.  And as luck would have it, a number of complications have arisen to keep me from submitting that day.  Tuesday’s already a tricky day for me, since I go from my day job directly to Theatre 80, where I co-host the Tuesdays at Nine reading series. (Which you can learn more about here!) And last week, I was invited to take part in Hedgepig Ensemble Theatre’s public reading of Shirley Graham DuBois’ Dust to Earth, a part of their Expand the Canon series.  This was a last-minute invitation of sorts; the reading takes place tonight, Monday the 14th of November.  So that’s the critical final two days before the deadline, and thanks to my other theatrical commitments, I would have no way to finish this new play within that window of time.

So instead, I finished and submitted the play yesterday, two days ahead of schedule.  And I’m not sure exactly how to feel about this.

It’s not like I didn’t procrastinate.  If I’d been more diligent, if I’d sat down at my laptop for a few uninterrupted hours each and every day, I’d have finished at least a month ago.  Instead, social media scrolling, online gaming, and general pacing marked these sessions as much as anything else.  Even this Saturday, a day I’d set aside for final revisions, was taken up just as much by not one but two separate walks around my neighborhood, about ninety minutes each, covering several miles.  (I also baked banana bread.  I added my leftover M&Ms from Halloween.  It was tasty.) This does not sound, by any stretch of the imagination, like disciplined working habits.  And yet, the task is done.  I recognized the need to adjust my deadline, and adjusted what I need to do accordingly.  And while it’s ultimately not my judgment to make, in looking over the script it doesn’t feel like I compromised the quality of the piece.

Could it be?  Is it possible that somehow I’ve perfected procrastination?  That I’ve internalized a way of working so that no matter what my time frame happens to be, I’ll always be able to alternate periods of productivity with spells of rest and relaxation, ensuring that I meet my deadline with a few minutes to spare, no matter when that deadline happens to be?

I’d ponder this question some more, Constant Reader, but I fear I must conclude this week’s remarks at this point.  You see, since I have the reading tonight, I have to be at work earlier than usual today and therefore need to turn in early on Sunday night and oh dear God I’m doing it again…

Dust to Earth

This Monday, November 14, at 7pm, I’ll be appearing in a reading of Shirley Graham DuBois’ DUST TO EARTH, presented at Sisters Brooklyn by Hedgepig Ensemble Theatre and my old friends at Classical Theatre of Harlem. It’s part of of Hedgepig’s Expand the Canon series, and admission is free/pay what you can. For more details about this series, check out their website here.

Existential Crisis

There’s a grim mood in my city this weekend, Constant Reader, the balmy 70 degree temperatures notwithstanding.  (Actually, for some of us – those of us who’ve written plays about climate disaster serving as a tool to implement fascism, let’s say – the weather’s making our mood even grimmer.) The upcoming midterm elections, and the massive uncertainty around them, have people on edge.  (Especially since all of the likely outcomes lead to something terrible down the line.) That’s all on top of a host of other social ills and structural problems, a line of dominos all set to fall down upon us in rapid succession.  And within my own industry, there are still thousands of workers sidelined by a pandemic that’s never gone away.  Commercial productions may be back up and running, but they’re routinely shutting down for days at a time as whole companies get sick – the coronavirus paying no attention to the continual cries that “Broadway is back!”

I’m seeing a lot of despair on my friends’ and colleagues’ social media accounts, and to a great extent that’s normal.  I’d be worried if they weren’t worried.  But I’m also seeing a lot of people talking about leaving the arts behind as a career.  Some simply don’t see the opportunities that have been lost over the past few years coming back any time soon.  But many more have expressed some variation on the lament that “they don’t know what they’re doing it for any more.”

To which I have to ask: what were you doing it for in the first place?

I’m not being flippant here.  When I first really felt the pull of the arts, when I realized both its inherent value and the role I wanted it to play in my life, I was growing up on Long Island in the middle of the 1980s.  The black and tawdry heart of Reagan’s America, a climate that was profoundly hostile to most of what I consider to be the social contract, and just about everything else that I value.  In the complacent and judgmental landscape of suburbia, I didn’t have a whole lot of peers who agreed with me about much of anything.  But there were books and movies, and the occasional reports that would reach us of what was happening on theatrical stages elsewhere – places we could potentially get to if only we were permitted the train fare.  These stories weren’t simply escapism, although the 80s certainly produced a fine vintage of that sort of thing.  They were also an assurance that one wasn’t alone in noticing how bad things were.  There were names like Orwell and Vonnegut and Huxley, and science fiction allegories on cable, and all sorts of strange and wonderful missives from a world where people didn’t have the blinders over their eyes that your neighbors did.  They were resistance, in a time when that meant more than simply putting a hashtag in front of the world.

I tell stories because I recognize the need for that.  Not because it’s ever going to make me a ton of money.  Not because it’s easy.  Not because it sounds like a cool thing to do when you’re talking about it at somebody’s party in a cool Brooklyn apartment.  (I may live in Brooklyn myself, but not the cool part.) Not because it’s anything I ever felt entitled to.

Because it needs to be done.

I’ll be cutting this post short (though a glance at the word counter suggests I’ve been my usual verbose self) because I have a deadline coming up next week, and I’d like to think the play I’ve been drafting the past few months might have something useful to say about our moment to somebody, somehow.  As always, there is work to be done.  And if you believe in this work, then you need to be doing it right now.

Spooky Scary Songs of the Season

Happy Halloween, Constant Reader!

No doubt, with all the litany of real world horrors bombarding us all, you’re enjoying the holiday by seeking comfort in all the fake terrors which pop culture provides us with.  I love horror – I basically learned to read from Stephen King novels – but outside of a few rare and wonderful examples the scares provided by the genre aren’t actually terrifying.  They’re not meant to be; the whole point is to provide a catharsis, to convert our real nightmares into something we can more easily process, to purge our fears rather than exacerbate them.  Horror novels provide magnificent atmosphere when they’re well written, and can excite our imagination better than most anything else can, but we know full well that the monsters aren’t going to spring out of the pages and the bookbinding.  With horror movies, even the goriest visions have a certain charm in terms of how those practical effects are realized; the make-up and gore effects have their own weird beauty to them.  (I’ve got Return of the Living Dead playing on my DVD as I write this, and a better piece of 80s-era comfort food is not likely to be found.) And as for pop music?  The songs that get played this time of year are either moody fun or kitschy fun, but they’re fun nonetheless.  You might be moping to Bauhuas or dancing to The Monster Mash, but you’re almost certainly not scared.

There is, however, one Halloween song – by which I mean a song I’ve come to associate with Halloween – which has genuinely scared me.  Which instills in me a feeling of sickening dread and creeping terror, which I cannot shake.  Which disturbs me to the core even now.  And that song is, of course, Glen Campell’s “Wichita Lineman.”

But Michael! I hear you disclaim.  That’s not a Halloween song!  And for much of my life, I would have agreed with you.  But that was until the afternoon of All Hallow’s Eve, ten years ago today.

Two days after Superstorm Sandy struck.

Like most of us in this region, I lost power that day.  In my hard-hit part of Long Island, I was ultimately without power for a total of eleven days.  That meant no heat in the house, and no lights; it also meant that communications from the outside world were limited to what battery power radios could provide.  To ensure that we could get news updates, we all had our radios turned to AM stations, the scratchy voices on shaky frequencies the only lifelines any of us had.  Most of the time, it was the news updates that came through.  But on Halloween morning, as I was sitting alone in a cold house and carving some forlorn jack-o-lanterns in a desperate attempt at maintaining normalcy, the format of the station I was tuned to changed for some reason.  I couldn’t make out the call letters, and I couldn’t figure out what exactly the format was.  But coming out of the static, I could hear, clear as anything, that Jimmy Webb-penned song from 1968.

It’s a disturbing song, if you think about it.  It’s a portrait of loneliness, its lovelorn narrator out in the emptiness of the heartland, with no apparent relief.  The song itself doesn’t offer you relief in its music – it never returns to its original tonic key, so there’s never a formal resolution.  But there are those insistent high violins, doubled by an organ motif, simulating an electronic message of some sort.

Some message from a lost time, coming to me, alone, cut off by disaster from everybody else I cared about.  Shivering in the cold.  On Halloween.

And listening to that song, with no relief in sight, I felt a deep, numbing terror.  There aren’t many of us here in my part of the world who lived through that event, who can’t tell you how that terror felt.

Here at the tenth anniversary of Sandy, we’re still rebuilding.  There’s still infrastructure repairs taking place – which at this point are racing against the next inevitable weather catastrophe.  (Thanks a lot, complete inaction on climate change.) And those repairs are taking place against a larger panorama of national terrors, some obvious, some unseen and unspoken, lurking in the shadows, waiting to plunge us into an unfathomable darkness.

It’s a lot to take in.  Good thing it’s Halloween – I could use a good horror movie or something to take my mind off all of this.

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