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

Monday (9/4/17) 12:35am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:   The Other Side of History, At Risk, Theatre of the Unimpressed
Movies:  Colossal [spoilers]
TV:  <none>

The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World by Robert Garland
This is the 2013 Teaching Company audiocourse about daily life for average citizens in the ancient western world.  He runs from prehistory to the Middle Ages, slowly focusing in on Europe, and then England, as he goes.

The lectures cover discrete topics, usually focusing on some class of people in some particular society.  How interesting the lectures are depends on how vividly Professor Garland can put you in that character's shoes.  The few times he has to 'zoom out' to talk about geopolitics, the course loses some steam.  But other times, he absolutely nails, say, the breathtaking wonder of coming to Alexandria for the first time during the Hellenic period.

The course also runs the risk of being a little scattershot, like the mystery-fiction audiocourse with all its discrete topics.  Fortunately it has some through-lines that unite the material.  The most dismal one is how awful nearly any historical society is if you're not a dude in charge of it -- there's simply no way around the miserable lot of women, of the elderly, of the disabled, or of slaves.  Yes, we have a long way to go, but wow, these societies seemed to hate most of their inhabitants.

On a more positive note, it was neat to see how many things we take for granted in modern life had to be invented.  Take streets, for example.  The earliest cities didn't have them -- just jumbles of buildings that, in some cases, you had to kind of parkour through to get around.  Bizrre to think there was a moment of, "Wait, why don't we put our buildings along a blank strip of land, and make all the doors open onto it?"

Professor Garland himself is a delightful, engaged speaker.  Even in the few sections where he doesn't have the most commanding background (like the Middle Ages), his sheer enthusiasm for imagining life in other time periods, and his passion for giving voice to the everyday people that history typically passes over, makes for an interesting listen.

It's a strange course to look back on.  In a way, the material I learned from it is almost laughably impractical.  I don't think I'll ever *need* to know anything I found out there, for any purpose, ever.  But on the other, I look forward to how it will color everything I learn, from here on out, about the ancient world.  Now, all the old dates and nations have families, and temples, and ramshackle buildings, and day jobs, and drunken arguments, and the rhythms of everyday life behind them.  They've got some dirt under their feet, now.

At Risk by Stella Rimington
This is a 2004 spy novel about a high-level MI5 agent who struggles to stop a terrorist attack on British soil.  Its author, Stella Rimington, used to run MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence service.

I figured this would be a shallow, exciting, 'beach read' sort of book, and that's pretty much what I got.  Don't expect vast depths of unforgettable characterization.  Don't expect the pacing or the action sequences to be perfect.  Just go in expecting an engaging yarn about a terrorist planning something terrible and an intelligence officer trying to stop them.  Like 24, only less ludicrious and not enamored with torture.

Of course, Ms. Rimington's background gives a great, lived-in quality to the spycraft.  Everything feels convincing, from how a terrorist gets into the UK to the techniques they use to home in on a suspect from a list of names.  Nothing feels like a whimsical James Bond "action for the sake of action" set-piece.  It also does a fine job of getting into the psyches of both the MI5 protagonist and the 'viewpoint' terrorist.  And this level of detail means that they explore an almost Dickensian range of characters, from the people in charge of British intelligence to the upper-crust estate owners along the coast to the low-end "wide boys", aka street criminals.[1]  It's rather amazing, how much of a world Ms. Rimington builds up in the book's short page count.

The plot is mostly fine.  This is a procedural: the good guys find a lead, investigate, interview a person of interest, move on to the next lead, and repeat, gradually ratcheting up the intensity as the terrorist attack comes nigh.  And we alternate that with the bad guys, without a clear notion of what they're trying to do.  And there's a romantic subplot for Liz, running in the background, that mainly feels like a needless distraction from the real story.

The book doesn't quite stick the landing.  I'll try to avoid specific spoilers, but it kind of suffered from the Raiders of the Lost Ark problem, in that, if Liz had done absolutely nothing, technically the outcome might have been the same.  And they throw in one last twist during the denouement that is... fine, I guess.  It does sensibly explain some odd behavior from earlier in the book -- but I, as a reader, never really cared about that odd behavior.  It wasn't any sort of mystery that needed solving, it was more a moment of "Oh, this seems like bad writing" as I breezed past it.  Once the truth was revealed, I didn't really care then, either.

But all that said, if you come into the novel with reasonable expectations -- "this is an engaging spy novel with a broad canvas and convincing details" -- you won't be disappointed.  Just don't expect much beyond some idle hours of entertainment.

Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama by Jordan Tannahill
This is Jordan Tannahill's 2016 book that's nominally about why there are so many bad, boring plays, but on a deeper level tries to get at what theater is, and why, in this day and age, we should still do it.

I'm leery of any book that aims to tell me why theater exists.  God knows, I've read too many improv tracts that purport to tell me why *improv* exists.  So far I've been told that audience members come to (1) see improvisors reveal embarrassing secrets about themselves, (2) see shit that doesn't make sense, (3) see the people onstage achieve 'group mind', and god knows what else.  And every time, it's a reductive analysis: "I'm telling you the ONLY TRUE REASON people come to watch this; all other answers are wrong."

Fortunately, Mr. Tannahill avoids this kind of simplistic dogmatism, for the most part.  Instead, the book is more of a catch-all, with each chapter listing something that is dismal and broken about modern theater, and the approaches that can fix that problem.  He focuses on scripted theater, but every word of it feels applicable to improv.

The most eye-opening chapter, for me, was the section about how live theater is energized by the possibility of failure.  This was fascinating material, because we all say, in a knee-jerk sort of way, that this is a fundamental component of theater, and a vital reason why it's meaningful to watch it live, in the room.  But Tannahill then explains in some detail how most scripted theater relentlessly suffocates any sense of risk.  And really, ask yourself: when was the time you watched a play and wondered if they could pull this off? or wondered if it was going to fall apart?

This applies to improv, too.  It's very rare that I've sat down to watch an improv show and wondered, "Will they be able to pull this off?"

And I think, in most cases, this has been because of the format.  If your goal is "do a montage of scenes," then few things short of the theater burning down will prevent that from happening.  And if you're doing long-form, but there's no stated objective beyond "we're going to do somehow-related scenes for an hour or so," then you've again set yourself an unfailable task. 

When the show's purpose is more specific, things get a little better.  If you're doing (I dunno) improvised Alf, then I sense you're going for an improv take on the alien-centric 80s family sitcom.  But still, as an audience member, I don't know what constitutes 'success' for that.  What's the show aiming to do?  If the goal is "do a bunch of amusing scenes, only with the tropes from Alf," failure is, again, nearly ruled out.  And if Alfprov has some more challenging goal, but it's not expressed to the audience, then I *still* can't perceive success or failure with the show.

Now, you could argue that just doing improv at *all* conveys a high-wire act where failure awaits the performer with every passing moment.  But I think that's incorrect, albeit in a subtle way.

An example: a performer gets up onstage and starts awkwardly taking off his trousers.  As an audience member, I might think, "Oh, god, I could never do that."  I might be impressed with the performer for having the courage to undress like that.  If I were asked to do that, I'd probably freeze up.  I might feel a vicarious tension, as my brain involuntarily explores, "What if I were up there, attempting that?"

But I'm not imagining that the performer might *fail*.  I'm not picturing some critical wardrobe malfunction rendering the pants-removal impossible.  Again, few things short of a theater fire will prevent this action from carrying through.

And I think that reflects how "muggles" watch improv.  There's a strong vein of "oh, I could never do that", but rarely a lot of "this production is trying to do <x> and it may succeed or fail at it".  There's tension, but it's not the tension of possible failure.

Now the "I could never do that" of it all is a valuable part of that muggle's experience.  But if that's all there is -- if that's the only excitement to the show -- then there's a very real danger that we educate our audience *out* of enjoying improv.  Once an audience member thinks, "Eh, I could get onstage without a script and it'd be no big deal," or "If I were a trained improvisor, I could get onstage without a script and it'd be no big deal," then that vicarious tension goes away, leaving us only with the tension of whether the production will succeed.

If an improv show can't answer "Why this play now?" -- i.e., if it doesn't have a goal -- then it can't fail at the goal.  If it has a very vague goal, then it's unlikely to fail at it, and the audience will be hard-pressed to judge whether the show is living up to its rather squishy criteria.  If the goal doesn't involve the audience's resposne -- e.g., if it's only about the techniques employed by the improvisors, not how the audience feels -- then the audience can't assess whether the show succeeds.  And if the goal isn't clearly presented to the audience, then, for purposes of "the tension of failure", that goal might as well not exist.

We often talk about improv as a 'magic trick', and I think magic provides us with an instructive example.  A magician declares the impossible task they will do.  And they establish that there's nothing in the hat, and no means of concealment.  But they promise that they will do something wondrous.  *Then* they pull the rabbit out of the hat.  Sure, they could just get up on stage and yank out the rabbit -- it's a surprise, yes, and you'll think, "Well, I couldn't do that," but you lose that wonderful tension of wondering how the magician could possibly do the impossible.

Anyway, that was a lot of words about one chapter, but each topic inspires this sort of philosophizing.  Many chapters center on some inner thought I've often had about theater.  Why is theater mostly by and for white people in downtown areas?  Why do so many modern plays feel so similar in structure?  What advantage do we get out of doing this live?  For god's sake, why is our audience *here*, and not staying home binging on netflix?

Yes, those questions sound kind of whiny when just listed out, one after another, but as Mr. Tannahill takes the time to explore each topic, he uses these complaints to explore new approaches to theater, and turn the weaknesses into strengths.  It's more or less, "By god, *this* is one experience a play can give you that netflix can't."

It's not a flawless book about theater -- it's often self-indulgent, and not every chapter is relevant for every performer.  But I think it should be required reading for improvisors, just because it raises so many valuable questions, and points out a lot of opportunities that improv could easily take advantage of.

(Plus, it's a fairly quick read.)

Colossal [spoilers]
This is Nacho Vigalondo's 2016 indie about a woman who realizes she can control a giant monster that is regularly appearing in Seoul.

This is going to be fun to write about -- I watched this movie 3½ *months* ago, and I'm just now getting around to putting down my thoughts.  One thing I *do* remember, though, is that there's pretty much no way to discuss the film without spoilers.  To the spoiler-phobes, I'll just say, "If you like indie dramas, please watch Colossal," and send you on your way.

Now, as for the rest of y'all -- folks who've watched the film or don't care about spoilers -- let's tuck in.

Specifically, let's talk about the crazy double-feint that this movie pulls off.  "Okay, it looks like this is a rom-com.  Wait, no, I guess it's a sci-fi monster movie.  Wait, no, OH GOD WHAT IS THIS AAAAAA"  I'm told that Colossal is an eerily accurate depiction of abuse, and I believe it.  I'm told, further, that it is accurate the whole way through -- even early on, the early interactions between xxxx and yyyy are fraught with red flags about how controlling and ultimately nightmarish he is.  Of course, xxxxx cloaks it all in the tropes of an indie rom-com, so that you (by which I mean, me) don't observe closely enough to see the pattern.  And if we've seen the trailers, we all think, "Oooh, I know what's *really* going on here -- it's going to be a kaiju movie!", and we congratulate ourselves for being Very Smart People.  It's very deft misdirection.

And for all its genre-hopping quirkiness, it's a very solidly constructed movie.  They do a perfect job of slowly revealing the sci-fi secret, and a great job of building the tension on the abusive relationship.  Yes, the kaiju conceit is a head-spinner, but given that, characters behave in ways that make sense -- nobody has to act like an idiot for plot purposes.  Even the twist at the end feels logical, and consistent with what we know about the "rules of magic" for this movie.

I like this movie, and I'm glad I watched it.  I might even watch it again, as painful as it can be to watch.  Apparently Hathaway is the whole reason the picture got made -- the script found its way to her, and she put aside, no doubt, a zillion more conventional and lucrative projects to get this one on-screen.  And when you watch it, you can see why -- it's powerful, it's meaningful, and you sigh with relief at how different it is.  At long last, a movie that you haven't seen a million times before.

For next week: I'm watching Deutschland 83, reading The Signal and the Noise, and gearing up to listen to Every Anxious Wave on audiobook.

[1] Side note: one unexpected delight of this book is the number of Britishisms I'd never heard.  "Wide boys"; "windcheaters"; and so on.  God, I wish I'd written them all down.

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