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

Monday (12/12/11) 10:02pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[*Finally* resuming this after the quit, the move, and all the time commitments therein.]

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Our Mutual Friend [BBC 1998], The Twilight Zone [1x01-1x08]
Books: A Tale of Two Cities [audiobook], Sketches By Boz

Our Mutual Friend [BBC 1998]
Still more preparations for the Improvised Dickens show!  This is a six-hour adaptation of Our Mutual Friend, Dickens' last completed novel.  As I wrote a couple years ago, you can see Dickens' bibliography as starting out with exciting bildungsromans about orphan kids buffeted by adversity in Victorian London... and ending in massive, multithreaded plot tornadoes not entirely unlike The Wire[2]  So Our Mutual Friend is the far extent of that.  Like Bleak House, it doesn't center on a character -- the eponymous Friend is out of the picture for much of the book -- so much as a situation.  In Bleak House, there was the big court case that all the characters swirled around -- and in this book, it's also a massive inheritance that draws everyone together.

The adaptation tries valiantly to make the story clear and engaging, but the source material fights back.  So you follow one character, then another, then another, only dimly aware of who is related to whom via what connections.  You feel plenty of "Wait, *what* was his name again?" while watching this.  (Hell, I did, and I've read the book fairly recently.)

What the adaptation does *right*, though, is get the central relationships down.  I was especially struck by a scene between Bella Wilfer and her father.  Bella's parents are estranged, and the book includes a chapter where Bella spends an evening out with her father, whom she rarely sees and misses dearly.  And the adaptation just nails that.  It even includes a montage that doesn't make me want to throw things.  It was amazing to me, how often Dickens adapatations will get wrapped up in the period detail and in Very Emphatic Acting, but can miss the boat on "why do these characters care about each other?"  Once you've got that, though, all the layers of Victoriana just feel like little inconsequential details; at its core, these are people you know, and you want things to turn out alright for them.

The Twilight Zone [1x01-1x08]
I've started watching The Twilight Zone, as preparation for the Hideout's upcoming "Science Fiction Double Feature" show, which will feature improvised takes on The Twilight Zone and Star Trek (the original series).

The main thing that strikes me about The Twilight Zone is how focussed it is.  Many of the episodes are adaptations of golden-age science fiction short stories, and even the episodes that aren't adaptations are still heavily influenced by those simple, clearly-presented "what if?" scenarios.  It's impressive, how everything is streamlined to focus exclusively on the one, weird sci-fi element in each episode.  The characters are either archetypes, or they're characters who are defined very clearly by one adjective.  They disregard the Passover test here -- you don't need to answer, say, "How is *this* aging film star different from all *other* aging film star?", because the thing that's different is the sci-fi thing that *happens* to her.  The casts are small.  The plots are as simple as possible.  They throw everything into the characters *responding* to this one crazy what-if.

That's making the show crazy-difficult to improvise, actually, because even the slightest hint of "offer soup" -- where performers keep adding elements to the story because we can't suss out what the story is about -- immediately makes the show feel like it isn't The Twilight Zone.  The format is pretty merciless in this regard.

We'll see how we do with it, come January.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens [audiobook]
It's hard to find anything to say about this classic novel.  The performance is well-done.  To my surprise, Dickens really knows how to write an action scene.  I found myself shouting occasionally that Charles Darnay was an idiot and deserved what was coming to him, but I suppose that's to be expected when I know so well how things will turn out.

Sketches By Boz by Charles Dickens
This is Dickens' first book, a collection of fifty-six "sketches" about daily life in London.  It comprises four volumes, the first three of which are non-fiction.

Full disclosure:  I didn't get all the way through this book.  I feel no shame about this -- the book is as massive as anything he's written, and without any overarching plot, it never gets any momentum going.  Instead, you have these ten- to fifteen-page 'sketches', and by the time you settle into any one of them -- say you finally have a feel for what a London omnibus was like, and you can start focusing on the details -- then it's done, and he's off to another chapter, coloring in some other part of the map.

What amuses me about Sketches is how Dickens is such a 'beginning writer' here.  Yes, sure, he's clearly vastly talented, but you can still see that feeling of "Oooh, isn't my writing *cute*?" that you often see in fresh-faced young twenty-somethings before they get past marvelling at their own cleverness.  So here, you'll see Dickens revelling in a bon mot that isn't actually all that funny, or professing fashionably-ironic shock at some new character he introduces.

Eh.  Kids.

Anyway, the book has been especially useful as preparation for the show, though, because it focuses exclusively on illustrating his world, so it's full of the sorts of details you can draw on for an improvised production.  Or at least, theoretically, it would be.  In practice, all the details just get jumbled in my head, and onstage I just wind up babbling out some vaguely-remembered bits and pieces of the book at random.  I probably would have been better-served by re-reading What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.

Ah well.  That's the thing with these genre shows -- you can never know enough.

For next time:  switching gears to watch some of the original Star Trek series, again in preparation for the Hideout's Science Fiction Double Feature.

[1] ... no offense intended to any 10th-graders who might be reading.
[2] Side note:  David Simon absolutely detests it when anybody describes The Wire as 'Dickensian'.

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