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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (7/14/08) 9:45am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[missed last week, on account of I barely watched/read anything]

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Friday Night Lights (2x13-2x15) [spoilers], Mad Men (1x01-1x03)
Books:  Acting on Impulse



Friday Night Lights (2x13-2x15) [spoilers]
This disc included the last three episodes of season two:  "Humble Pie", "Leave No One Behind", and "May the Best Man Win".

I had heard that Friday Night Lights gets its act together at the very end of season two, but these episodes left me underwhelmed.  There were character motivations that felt arbitrary.  Or more accurately, characters hit upon wildly-unrealistic motivations that just happened to work very conveniently for generating plot.

For example, Matt's affair with his grandmother's live-in nurse (Carlotta) ended when said nurse went back to Guatemala.  Fine.  They had no chemistry, it hadn't gone on long, and the audience hadn't invested much in the relationship, so it was probably good to cut that plot short.  But now they're trying to sell me on Matt being utterly distraught over this, cutting school, ditching the team, and drinking himself into a stupor.  Maybe it makes sense intellectually -- he is a teenager, and he did (presumably) lose his virginity to Carlotta -- but it just doesn't play onscreen.  It's more like, "Oh, um, now I'm angry!  And bitter!  Over Carlotta!"[1]

The same goes for Tim suddenly feeling compelled to pursue Lyla with everything short of a boombox held aloft near her window.  Huh?  I never really saw anything going on between them beyond "hot people having sex with other hot people".  And now he's in love?  And for no good reason, *now* he's decided he has to do something about it?

Meh.

Also, I feel disappointed that the second season hasn't done much to expand the show's setting.  Instead, they find ways to shuffle the characters through the same places we've seen before.  Jason Street needs a job?  Well, let's route him into Garrity Motors!  It's odd:  I *liked* it in season one when they went over the same locations repeatedly and made Dillon feel very lived-in.  But in season two, I want them to expand, and fill out new places in town we haven't seen before, while occasionally touching base with Smash's church, or the Diary Freeze, or the Garrity Motors sales office.  I'm not saying I want a complete break, like when season two of The Wire heads off to address Baltimore's crumbling docks.  I'm saying that, when it would make sense for a new location to come along -- like when Jason Street is looking for a new job -- then let's let that happen, and let Dillon grow with it.

But that's the end of the season, with most everything up in the air.  It feels wrong, breaking things off before the football season ends -- but then again, they didn't do a good job of making the football season the central arc of the TV season, so perhaps one endpoint is as good as another.


Mad Men (1x01-1x03)
This disc included the first three episodes of season one:  "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes", "Ladies Room", and "Marriage of Figaro".

Given the hype that this show has had, both from minimalrobot and from the critical community, I feel a little bit guilty about not just being knocked on my ass by this show.  It's almost a legend by this point -- Matthew Weiner used the pilot episode as the writing sample that nailed him a job on The Sopranos some seven years ago.  As that show wound down, Weiner (by then one of the star writers on the Sopranos staff) showed the pilot to the execs at HBO.

For reasons that make no sense in retrospect, they passed.

And then, of all things, AMC -- a network better known for showing Marx Brothers marathons or 50s beach movies -- announced it was in the market for "an original series that was cinematic in its ambitions".  They snapped up Mad Men and put it in development as their first original drama series.

As always, the opening credits nail the show:  the glamorous world of advertising in the early 60s, poised right on the edge of falling to pieces.

It's surprising to me that historical fiction almost always does a much better job than science fiction of showing us ways that society could be different.  If a series shows us spacefaring aliens from another galaxy, they're spacefaring aliens who act a lot like contemporary middle-class white people.[2]  But if a series shows us March 1960 -- and if the show doesn't sanitize 1960 for modern sensibilities -- then we're looking at something very different.

Mainly it's a surprisingly subdivided world.  So many groups -- men and women, Jews and gentiles, blacks and whites -- just don't mix.  It's like you have a dozen little societies that happen to occupy the same space, and everybody's just a little anxious that somebody might cross a line and talk to the wrong person.

And if you reflexively say, "So 1960 is just like *today*, then!", it's safe to say you really don't get 1960.

But there's tension there, because you the audience know about the decade that's coming.  And the signs that, like the opening credits, everything is going to fall apart -- those signs are not ubiquitous, but they are persistent.  The Sterling-Cooper agency knows it's a bit of a throwback.  Their cigarette account has to deal with the fact that cigarettes have just been proved to be carcinogenic.  VW starts a humorous campaign for the Beetle that the agency just can't wrap its head around.

In the foreground, the story unfolds.  A new secretary, Peggy Olson, starts work for the agency's pre-eminent copywriter, Don Draper.  Peggy (and by extension, the audience) learns the lay of the land, while Don deals with challenging ad campaigns and goes home to one of those fraught marriages where both spouses spend a lot of time reassuring each other that everything really is just fine.

But still, you sense it isn't really about its plot -- or if it is about its plot, it's about the overall series plot.  Generally, an episode has just enough of a plot to tug it along -- the cigarette account becomes an obvious crisis in episode one, but in episodes two and three, the central question of the episode is more muted, and the resolution more debatable.  Instead, the show wants us to observe.  It's not "OMG how will this episode turn out?!!", it's "Look at this long-simmering conflict between these two guys.  That's probably going to go somewhere."  Or maybe it's "She really doesn't look like she's going to take much more of this crap, does she?  Perhaps something will happen with that."  Or there's also, "Who is this 'Whitman' fellow?  Maybe we'll find out."

Again, nothing's really blown me away so far, but this is exactly how a solid act one is supposed to go:  we see its distinct world, we see a lot of conflicts on the horizon, and we see that the world at the *end* of season one will likely be a far different beast from what it was at the beginning.

So now let's see how well the show delivers on this promising start.


Acting on Impulse by Carol Hazenfeld
This was the textbook for Shana's "Improv 401" class.  We were occasionally assigned a chapter here, a chapter there.  After the class finished up, I decided to read the whole thing cover to cover.

It had some useful advice here and there, but mostly it brought into focus for me a lot of why I'm never going to be that gung-ho about improv, and why for me it's a pleasant, casual hobby.

For instance, Hazenfeld mentions that part of the appeal of improv to its audience is that the audience knows that a performer might let slip some secret about him-/herself.  To which I say, "Huh?"  I guess I'm just not aboard that particular train.  I mean, I'm the sort of person who loathes "I never" on the simple grounds that I don't *want* to know which of my friends has screwed a goat.  And the few times improv performers have let fly with ghastly childhood secrets or the like, I've been... oh, let's say "nonplussed".  I basically wanted to unknow that unwanted information.

And I'm supposed to be... what, giddy about this prospect?  O-kay....

And then there was the bit where she talked about how it's okay to perform in a French accent even if you haven't the foggiest idea how to do one, because the audience delights in seeing the performers do something badly.  This one makes a *little* more sense to me.  I know most people love a karaoke performer who, though they're wildly off-key, really gives it their all.  The problem is, when I'm listening to that performer, I'm fighting back the urge to curl into the fetal position, cover my ears, and shout, "Stop! Hurting! Music!"  I just get twitchy and miserable when I'm watching somebody suck at something.

But the most important thing I miss out on as an audience member is the sense of exhiliration.  She writes frequently and breathlessly about the sense that "anything can happen" in an improv scene.[3]  And as an audience member, I recognize that that's true, but that aspect rarely makes me feel good or excited.  Instead I'm just hoping the story doesn't collapse into random, surreal goo.  "Please, please don't make me regret having invested my time and attention here."  I suppose I wind up that much happier (and more relieved) when the plot makes sense up to the end, but it's cold comfort.

But maybe that's what's missing for me when I watch improv.  Maybe that's why it usually winds up feeling like scripted theater, only clumsy -- I'm just not feeling what the target audience is feeling.

So that was a bit sad.

Moving on to the actual content of the book... to my mind, there are only two real schools of improv:  hippie improv and engineer improv.  Sure, you have your Johnstone, your UCB, your Annoyance Theater, your Groundlings, and they all have their own takes on the art -- but for my money, the interesting dichotomy is between the hippies and the engineers.

The hippies believe that everyone has a natural, built-in instinct for storytelling.  "But people get on stage, and they're utter crap at storytelling!"  Well, that's because they're *afraid*.  If they stop being afraid of their own natural, built-in instinct for storytelling, the stories will just fall out.

The engineers believe that it's all about learning techniques.  You are utter crap at storytelling because you don't know about this Story Spine or these five simple approaches to creating an interesting character or these ten foolproof ways to start a scene.  If you just pick up enough *information*, the stories will just fall out.

As my tone must imply, I think both approaches are full of crap, but I suspect that the truth does lie somewhere in between.  Yes, stage fright is crippling, and you have to get over that, on many levels.  But I just don't buy that storytelling is instinctual.[4]  "But Peter, you've watched stories your whole life!"  Yes.  I've also eaten a lot of cake.  It doesn't mean I know how to bake one.[5]

I think you have to learn and develop instincts that make for satisfying stories, *and* you have to learn how to get out of your own way and follow those instincts instead of freezing up or desperately trying to consciously think through the scene in real time.  But most improv books tend to side with the hippies or the engineers, and only grudgingly give lip service to the other side.

This book, I think, sides with the hippies, and only includes technical advice in bits and pieces.  Typically, a chapter will pick a topic -- for instance, chapter six is about playing slient scenes -- and the start of the chapter will go on and on about how HORRIBLY FRIGHTENING it is to play a silent scene.  Details will follow about how an improvisor, in order to take this on, has to be braver than... I dunno, a firefighter... on the moon... fighting aliens.  And somewhere in there is a paragraph about how most improv scenes are ruined by this lack of courage.

Again, my tone is giving away my next point:  I find it a bit silly, all this harping on fear.  According to Hazenfeld, every single error in improv stems from performers being *afraid* to do things right.  She always adduces this without evidence.  It always strikes me as reductive -- i. e., it could well be fear and a number of other factors that make this error happen.  And -- here's the key bit -- she never really goes anywhere with the 'fear' thing.

I mean, let's say I agree that "improvisors screw up <x> because they're afraid."  Now it is possible that just pointing out that the improvisor is afraid of something will make the fear go away.  "Oh, I was just anxious about playing downstage.  That's silly.  I'll go ahead and play downstage now."  But there are many cases where merely pointing out that a phobia exists doesn't help.

So you'd expect the book to go on from there:  "... *since* improvisors are afraid of <x>, here are some ways to ease them into doing <x> and get them over their fear."  Maybe you point out, "Just think about it:  <x> isn't so bad, is it?" and the improvisors are enlightened.  Maybe they do a very simple form of <x> first, and attempt more complicated versions afterwards.  Maybe they do <x> in some scipted format first, and move from scripted material to improvised material.  Or maybe you throw them into the deep end, force them to do <x>, and demonstrate that <x> isn't so bad.

And maybe that's what Hazenfeld is doing.  As written, though, she just moves from "OMG this is TERRIFYING" to a list of exercises.  I don't get it.  Maybe the accusation of cowardice is supposed to shame students into doing the exercise properly?

Then she follows that up by reiterating how very important this technique is, and sometimes coyly hinting that mastering this technique onstage will make you a better person in real life.  She quotes herself at the beginning and end of the book:  "Warning!  The Surgeon General has determined that improv causes people to quit their jobs, leave bad relationships, and become unwilling to lead gray, colorless lives."  Ah, those poor, benighted non-improvisors.

Honestly, I think this book is 60% about improv and 40% about how the talented improvisors truly know how to live, and you don't.  But once you wade past all the breathless centaur-talk, and once you try to tune out the bits where she tells you how scary and impossible improv is, you do get useful information.

The book's main strength is that it's a bird's-eye view of *everything*.  The book's seventeen chapters take you from "Yes, and" to genre work and beyond -- with many of the chapters, I know of entire improv books devoted to that one chapter's subject.  So it works well as a tour of all the improv skills you can work on.

As inspiration, well, it might not have had the effect it obviously intended.


For next time:  Still plodding through the audiobook of American Pastoral, which isn't doing much for me.  I'll watch more of The Corner and possibly start in on The Kingdom.  I'm now reading The Tempest, which should keep me occupied for a while.

Still listening to Beethoven's piano sonatas at work.



[1] ... to which I can only imagine Michael Bluth putting on a puzzled expression and asking, "Her?"

[2] Maybe it's enough of a stretch to show us spaceships, and showing a society jarringly different from the show's target demographic would just go too far.

[3] As she puts it, "The first time I improvised [...] I felt wild and free, like a centaur thundering through the woods."  So that similie, y'know, grounded things for me.

[4] It may be for some people -- and I think those are the types that (surprise, surprise) learn very well from hippie improv while the rest of the crowd languishes.  And that's what I usually see in pure hippie-improv instruction:  a few people benefit greatly from it immediately, but nobody else does.

[5] And no, that's not because I'm just *afraid* to assemble the ingredients correctly.

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Comments:

From:ptevis
Date:Wednesday (7/16/08) 12:34pm
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Interesting. I just re-read Acting on Impulse, and based on my reaction to it, I think I'm a hippie. (That's probably not true: I'm also between the two camps, but right now I'm closer to the the hippie side.)
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