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

Tuesday (2/16/16) 2:16am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  The Art of Conflict Management [audiocourse], The Dudes Abide, Notes on Directing
Movies:  Sense and Sensibility
TV:  <none>

The Art of Conflict Management: Achieving Solutions for Life, Work, and Beyond by Michael Dues
Like it says on the tin, this is a series of lectures from the Teaching Company about how to handle conflicts.  Professor Dues summarizes information from the last few decades of research in the field, using scripted conversations as examples.

I feel like I didn't get much out of it.  When I got to the end of the twelve hours of material, I felt like I'd eaten a large but unsustaining meal.  And I can't quite put my finger on why.  Professor Dues delivers the material clearly and competently, and all of what he says makes sense.  The examples are simple and to the point.  The lectures are organized sensibly, progressing from first principles to the latest research in the field.

But it all just sort of floated by me.  It may be that a lot of the advice was 'soft' and vague.  If someone tells you "be sure you separate people from the problem", then my initial response is "great -- so... how do I do that?"  The lectures emphasize these sort of wooly guidelines, only briefly getting down to the 'brass tacks' of specific tactics.  Also, the examples were mostly to do with office jobs and cohabiting couples, and felt kind of un-relatable to me.  Honestly, the problem might be that I just don't have a lot of conflict in my life lately, so there wasn't a set of memories that I could use as context for this new information.

All that said, it was mostly engaging while I was listening to it, and there were bits (especially towards the end) that I found really interesting.  I doubt I'll end up making much use of this information, though.

The Dudes Abide: The Coen Brothers and the Making of The Big Lebowski by Alex Belth
This is Alex Belth's novella-sized memoir about his time working for the Coen Brothers during the making of their cult classic The Big Lebowski.

This little book delivers nicely on what it promises -- a view of the production process behind The Big Lebowski, from the perspective of an personal-assistant-turned-assistant-editor on the project.  It's full of little details like how the Coens had their offices arranged at the time, or how the principal actors delivered lines in their first table read, or what an editing room sounded like in the days before everything went digital.  You can rightly conclude from this whether you'd like reading the book or not -- if you're the sort of film nerd who revels in this sort of backstage information, the sort of nuts-and-bolts production notes that are the opposite of salacious celebrity gossip, then this book is for you.

It doesn't really add up to anything, or hint at any larger opinions, or themes, or any kind of "big picture".  It just plods through the facts: here's how he met the Coens, here's what shooting was like, and here's how he ended up moving on.  But for fans of the Coens, and of this film in particular, the details are gold.  Why yes, I would like to know how John Turturro came up with Jesus Quintana, and how that portrayal evolved from script to shooting to post-production.  Thank you very much!

That sort of thing.

Notes on Directing: 130 Lessons in Leadership from the Director's Chair by Frank Hauser
This is a quick, concise guide to directing scripted theater, in the form of, basically, a novella-sized listicle, with 130 sections.  Each section has a heading (such as "End rehearsals on an upbeat note" or "Never, NEVER bully"), and then a couple of pages of further explanation.  Most of it feels like common-sense advice, though that may speak more to the clarity of the writing than to the ideas being self-evident.  It's hard to find any over-arching theme in the book's advice -- the book doesn't add up to anything summarizable -- instead, it's what its forward promises: dozens and dozens of guidelines discovered over a long career in directing.

Anyway, apparently I'm a director now, so I'll likely have to come back to this every so often, letting one or another of its pithy proscriptions leap out at me with newly-discovered relevance.

Sense and Sensibility
This is the 1995 film adaptation of Austen's novel, written by Emma Thompson and directed by (of all people) Ang Lee.

1995 was a good year for Jane Austen.  As far as I can read the critical consensus, this film and the renowned Pride and Prejudice BBC miniseries still stand twenty years later as the best Austen adaptations ever made.  And watching the movie, it was easy to see why -- the movie is riotously funny, clearly presented, and may be peerless in getting across Austen's sense of humor.  (Un-funny Austen adaptations exist, and they are sad, stuffy things.)

The film fascinates me, because I'm of a mind that Austen is not an easy read.  I know, they are favorite books for many readers, but they've always been a challenge for me.  English from circa 1800 is not easy.  Go back thirty or forty years, and English has shifted just enough to seem noticeably weird (f-shaped esses and all), and slows you to a crawl as you carefully process each phrase, occasionally scurring away to explanatory footnotes.  Advance to (say) Dickens' time, and English is pretty much behaving itself -- the text isn't difficult, it's just that there's a very lot of it.

But Austen exists at a kind of inflection point: close enough to how we write and speak to *seem* familiar, but far enough away to be very, very foreign.  I even get tripped up by the title: "sense" means something like "good horse sense", and represents Elinor's practical equanimity; "sensibility" means something like "sensitivity", and reflects Marianne's passionate attention to emotion.  I would use those words exactly backwards.  The language of the day is full of this sort of semantic drift -- words that mean something just different enough that you're not *quite* understanding what you're reading, and only klaxoning that something's awry when you hit a phrase like "and then he began to make violent love to her".[1]

Likewise, the way they structure language is different in those days.  Not only is their written register more formal than modern usage -- to say nothing of how modern English is newly split into formal and informal registers, that's a whole different rabbithole -- but the structures they use for putting together formal sentences are not necessarily more complicated than the ones we employ, but it's a different set of defaults.  So with many sentences, you have to slow down and process "okay, they gave me the information in this old-timey, odd order" or you risk skimming ahead and not really 'getting' it.

And this is to say nothing of the wide cultural gulf between there and here.  I'm still at a loss to figure out what the dozen different styles of horse-drawn carriage (each with its own peculiar word) signify about the vehicles' owners, and am only vaguely aware of the zillions of social strictures that constrained the actions of (particularly) women of the day.  (And remember, a full moon means it's time for a ball, because that means the horses can actually find their way home that night by moonlight.)

Anyway, none of that is speaking to this film adaptation. 

Again, what fascinates me about the film is how accessible they make this material.  And as far as I can tell, they've done it with relatively few compromises.  There are lots of good projects that modernize Austen in various ways, but to my mind, all of them lose the tension of this button-downed, class-dominated society.  ("But the modern United States is class-structured, too!"  Heh.  Heh heh.  Let me tell you about Regency England, my friend....)

Romantic comedies are plagued by the "Why don't they just...?" question.  The massive hole in the usual romcom plot is best phrased as "Why don't they just..." followed by some sensible, grown-up plan that involves honest commuciation and reasonable trust.  But a society that puts so many boundaries on what you can say or do cuts down on those options severely -- so you can have intelligent people thinking at the top of their game still getting stuck in torturous misunderstandings.  Modern-day-ing these works often puts you in what Roger Ebert called an Idiot Plot -- where any one character not acting like an idiot would make the whole story fall to pieces, and you just unconsciously suspend disbelief, feeling a little disappointed with the story for reasons you can't put your finger on.

Meh, I've missed this film again.  I'll land on it eventually, I promise.

This version of this book does take liberties for modern audiences, but it chooses its alterations judiciously.  Thompson's screenplay indulges in literally one or two lines of dialog that lay out, with beautiful conciseness, just how few options women in Regency England have.  That's really all the screenplay requires us to know about this world that it can't get across through story, design, or performance.  Wikipedia tells me that they gently soften the two male leads somewhat, making Hugh Grant's Edward Ferrars good with children, for example, to be more in accord with modern leading-man ideals.

But its best asset for making this material relatable is in its top-flight performances.  Many period dramas seem to assume that, well, if the book was so stuffy (again: written in a different, and more mannered, formal register than we use today), then the performances should be stifled and repressed to the point of conveying no emotion at all -- suddenly the performance is about nothing more than wearing a fancy costume and reciting opaque circumlocutions.  But this production embraces that these characters have, as the kids say, all the feelings.  The characters are alive with them, and overhwelmed with them.  These are some of the best British film actors of the 90s, and they can handle letting those feelings peek through the lines, even when the characters are striving mightily to stay on a socially-acceptable even keel.  And the screenplay is spare enough to leave room for the actors to act around the lines, as well.

Also, everyone involved is keenly aware of one very useful fact: a lot of Austen characters are goddamn silly.  Wonderfully so.  Deliberately so.  The arguably-greatest-English-novelist's work has fallen under the same unwieldy weight of reverence that badly hobbles Shakespeare, and we're left feeling like we *couldn't* have a growling, laconic misanthrope like Hugh Laurie's Mr. Palmer because This Is Art, I tell you.  But Lee's production embraces this -- it's not quite so far as the grotesques in Dickens, but it edges close to it in places.

I'm sure there's much more going on "under the hood" here -- Thompson spent five years writing draft after draft after draft -- but it's been years and years since I've read the novel, so the rest of that hard work pretty much eludes me.  I'm sure they've tidied up the dialog to match up, more or less, with modern usage.  I'm sure they've cleaved away subplots and compressed lengthy plotlines.

In any case, all the hard work created something simple, elegant, hilarious, heartfelt, and most of all, alive.

For next week: I'm watching season 5 of Good Eats and season 2 of Last Week Tonight while exercising.  I've started reading The Postman Always Rings Twice as further Fiasco prep.  Next week, I'll catch up on writing about a slew of Coen-brothers movies.

[1] ... which shows up in Emma, if I recall correctly.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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