Sunday, June 25, 2006

dark at the end of the tunnel

How is a book like a TV show but different from a film or a play? Give up? When you read a book or watch a TV show, you know when you're nearing the end. You also know when you've reached the middle and when you're two-thirds of the way done. When you go to the theatre, unless you first check the run-time and then keep monitoring your watch, the end could come at any time. As could the middle. In fact, the middle will probably sneak by without you even noticing it. Middles don't register unless you know the distance to the end.

In a theatre or cinema, you sit and let the story take over, and you don't focus as much on "the goal," because you don't know when the goal is nigh. When you watch TV, the clock on the cable box or DVD player continually reminds you of how much of your half-hour, hour or two-hour show is left. When you read a book, you can feel how many pages separate you from The End. That stack in your right hand, which was once so thick and daunting, grows flimsier by the minute, until it's just a few postcards wide. Sure, you often get a sense that a film or play is winding up for a big (or small) finish, but you're not continually aware -- as you are with books and TV -- how how many steps you have left in the journey. And any sense you do have, in the theatre or cinema, is based on intrinsic elements of the story (swelling music or the heroine gasping her dying breath), whereas with a book or TV show, you're tipped off by an emotionally neutral feature of "the interface," the pages or the clock.

This difference is profound. It affects (or should affect) both audience and writer. Consciously or not, good authors are aware of whether or not they're writing for a medium with predictable . And they shape their work accordingly. It's easiest to see this with the most bounded medium: painting. A painting exists within a frame. Both artist and audience are aware that the "story" comes to an end on all four sides. There's no hiding these ends, so the expert craftsman makes use of them. Some paintings, like Magritte's famous apple-headed guy, come to a full-stop at the edges. Magritte centers the important details, drawing your eye inward and killing any mystery about what lies outside (though there's mystery aplenty INSIDE).

De Chirico does the opposite.

But both paintings are supremely aware of their borders and make full use of those boarders to achieve their goals.

Cinematic (and theatrical) craftsmen beware! Your process usually starts with a manuscript. Deceptively, the script has a page-count. You can thumb through it as you work. Your co-workers will blithely refer to the kiss on page 57 or the car chase on page 123. But theatre goers won't flip through pages. They whine like kids in the back of the car, "Are we there yet?" To strengthen your work, either throw in some signposts or purposefully manipulate the audience by keeping them guessing -- or by lulling them into a trance state, in which they no longer care about (or are aware of) the time's ebb and flow.

Kubrick played with the seeming boundlessness of film. "2001" is either trance-inducing or interminable, depending on your taste and attention span. In "The Shining," Kubrick strived for the opposite effect. He punctuated the movie with title cards which count down increasingly smaller and smaller units of time: Monday, Wednesday, 2am, 4am...

Here in the infancy of the 21st Century, we're in the thralls of a great convergence. No medium is an island. The tectonic plates of art are shifting and colliding. Movies are released concurrently with DVDs. TV-shows are downloaded from the web. Albums are broken up into songs, which are sold for 99 cents on iTunes. Books are read on screens or heard on headphones.

For several years now, I've been a devotee of audiobooks. I download two each month from I generally read a printed book during the day, at my lunch hour during work, on my subway commute, and on lazy Sunday afternoons. At night, when I'm lying in bed, lights off so as not to disturb my wife (but in the throws of my chronic insomnia), I listen to books on my iPod. Sometimes I go back and forth between the audio and printed version of the same book, reading it during the day and listening to it at night.

I enjoy "reading" either way. I like being able to linger over a passage of text, which I can only do when I'm holding a printed book in my hands. But the truth is, I don't do it all that often. Generally, my reading (at least of fiction) is linear. I start at the beginning and plod through until I get to the end. I like the voice-characterizations in the recordings (when a book is read by a good actor), but the truth is that I can do these pretty well in my own head. In the end, the differences between reading and listening -- for me -- are minor. In either case, I absorb the information, I laugh, I cry, I wonder, I dream -- and then I move on to the next book.

The only REAL difference is that when I'm reading a book, I know exactly when it's going to end. When I'm listening, I don't. Yes, there's a readout on my iPod that tells me how many minutes I have left, but since I listen in the dark, I don't see the readout. On those rare occasions when I do see it, it is meaningful, but not as meaningful -- as quickly perceivable -- as a wad of pages in my hand.

When I listen, I "read" in a very different way. My main concern is, "where is the story going next?" I experience in-the-moment and worry only about what's happening now and what will happen in the very next instant. When I read, I have an additional concern: how is the story going to resolve itself in the X number of pages remaining? With the goalpost always in sight, the entire journey is an arrow pointing towards it. When I read, I can often feel a structure: a five-act structure or a three-act structure (I feel it figuratively and literally). When I listen, I may sense the passing of episodes, but I have no idea how many of them there will be in the whole series.

It surprises me that this difference -- the most profound difference -- is rarely mentioned in the endless discussions about media convergence. As a lover of stories, it's the only real difference I care about. Though my whole life is about stories, I'm not one of those people who are romantic about books. Yes, when my library becomes paperless, I'll miss the smell of paper and the snobbish pride at my shelves, filled with heavy tomes. On the other hand, I'll be able to collect many more books when they're all digitized. Hard drives are so much more spacious than my Brooklyn apartment. And I quit sentimentalizing print pretty quickly when I'm stuck on the subway, unable to get a seat. It's nearly impossible to hold "The Riverside Shakespeare" and a pole at the same time. It's so much easier to read "Hamlet" on my palm pilot. I only need one hand.

Screen readers give me a page-count: 122 out of 279. An attempt to simulate the printed experience. Close but no cigar. Maybe it will be more meaningful once I get used to it. After all, a clock is just as artificial, and yet I've lived with them for so long that they nearly have the authority of pages in a book. Which is why TV shows feel more like bounded books. Counters just aren't the same. When the counter says 210 out of 211, I DO feel a quickening in my pulse. But when it says 87 out of 249, it's just numbers. Whereas with a clock or a heft of pages, I'm gauging my progress during each step of the journey.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


I exchanged emails with a fellow who questioned my ethics. When I mentioned I was against infidelity, he accused me of being swayed by Christian doctrine. To an atheist like me, "them's fightin' words." As we discussed it further, he explained that though an affair might cause my wife pain, NOT having an affair might cause me pain. So by choosing not to have an affair, I'm putting her needs before mine. He thinks this is a perverted version of "love thy neighbor as thyself." For many people, he claims, this has morphed into, "love they neighbor MORE THAN thyself."

I replied as follows:

I agree that it's very important to take care of yourself. I'm not religious, and I don't believe that morals/ethics exist in the cosmic sense. But I do believe that we must develop some sort of rules to live by. At rock bottom, the specific rules we choose are arbitrary. Without being able to refer to a god, I really can't prove that my rules are superior to your rules.

My rules are pragmatic, based on this goal: maximizing the total amount of happiness in the world. I can't defend this goal. If you say that under your system, happiness is not important (or it's less important than other things), then I must grant you the right to disagree. Or I must use force to compel you to follow my rules. (If I was religious, I could say that my rules are correct, because they are God's rules. But, being an atheist, I don't have that option.)

So under my rules, my happiness doesn't count per se. Nor does my wife's. Both of our happinesses count only in-so-far as they add to the total amount of happiness in the world.
Now there may be some situations in which I enter a zero-sum game: if I engage in behavior X, i wind up happy and my wife winds up unhappy; if I DON'T engage in behavior X, I wind up UNhappy and my wife winds up happy. In either case, the total amount of happiness remains the same. So I need some method of choosing an action when all options lead to the same amount of happiness/unhappiness.

Whatever method I choose is arbitrary. I could flip a coin. Or I could follow some rule, like the "Christian" one of my neighbor before myself. I don't necessarily follow this rule, but I don't see anything wrong with it. Under my utilitarian system, I must have SOME way to make choices when all outcomes lead to the same amount of happiness/unhappiness. So why not the Christian method? Or why not choose, as you do, to put yourself first? (The anti-Christian method?)

In theory, I can't fault that method. It's just as good/bad as the "Christian" method or flipping a coin. In practice, my concern is that -- unless practiced diligently and objectively -- I might start to fudge, acting selfishly when the situation is NOT a stalemate, but justifying it in my brain AS a stalemate. Since I've set up a system that allows selfishness in stalemate conditions, it's very tempting to SEE stalemate conditions when it serves my purposes.

But regardless of what tie-breaker you use, it's best to look really closely at the situation and ask yourself, is it REALLY a tie? Is it REALLY the case that any choice will lead to the same amount of happiness/unhappiness? Such cases are rare.

Is there anything I could do that would be a compromise? Allowing both me and my wife some level of happiness. (I should amend my "happiness" rule here to say that two people being somewhat happy is better than one person being completely happy while the other is miserable. Again, I can't defend this rule, but it is a rule for me. Were it not, I would have to allow a serial killer to go on a spree if it would make him very very very happy. It might make him SO happy that his happiness would trump the unhappiness of his victims and their families. I sidestep this by saying that it's better for all the victims to be a little happy than for one serial killer to be extremely happy.)

My first thought is -- BINGO! -- have the affair and don't tell my wife! I'm happy, because I get sex (or whatever I want out of the affair). She's happy (or at least not more unhappy then before) because she doesn't know about my affair. Everybody wins. I'm SURE this is the exact reasoning that many people use in these situations. I'm sure, because I hear people use it: "What's the harm if no one finds out...?"

I will admit that there is no harm -- under my utilitarian system -- in a "perfect world." In this perfect world, we can commit "perfect crimes" and be 100% sure (or even reasonably sure) that no one will ever find out.

But we don't live in this world. Sure, it's possible to have an affair that always remains a secret, but that's not the norm. Usually, the truth will out.

I've been with my wife for 12 years. We're both smart and probably better at subterfuge than most people (we're actors, so you could say that we lie for a living!). And we've both tried to keep secrets from each other. It almost always fails. Even if it's something really small, like a surprise gift, the secret will probably be blown.

And I KNOW -- every time I have a secret -- that my wife will probably figure it out. I've learned from experience that if I try to keep a secret from my wife, there's a 90% chance that my plan will fail. Since I know this, it MUST be factored into my moral calculus. And I have to think long term. Having a secret affair isn't about keeping it secret for the next couple of weeks or months. It's about ALWAYS keeping it secret. So before cheat, I must be reasonably sure that my infidelity will remain a secret until my wife dies. If -- ten years from now -- she finds out that I cheated on her ten years earlier, she'll be very upset.

We can say she's irrational or influenced by Christian ideology, but that doesn't matter (under my pragmatic system). What matters is that, given her psychology, my actions are LIKELY to cause her pain. And I know that her pain will last much longer -- and it will be much more intense -- than the happiness I'll get from the affair. I also know that she'll get really angry at me and cause ME pain. So my affair will ultimately cause a ton of unhappiness for both her AND me. And that's not supportable under my rules.

If you really think you can easily keep secrets from your long-term spouse, then you're smarter (or more cunning) than most people -- or you've never been in a really long-term relationship (with someone with a bit of intelligence and/or gut instinct). There are a million ways I might get caught. My wife KNOWS me. She knows my every expression and micro-expression. She knows when I'm upset and trying to mask it. She knows when I'm lying. Plus, I'll probably trip up and call her by my lover's name or something. Alas, I don't have complete control over myself or what I say in my sleep.

Let me turn the tables and ask myself, "Is it okay for my wife to have an affair if I never find out about it." My guess is that many religious people -- or people influenced by religion -- would say, "Yes, affairs are just WRONG." I disagree. It's FINE for my wife to have an affair, as-long-as I don't know about it and NEVER find out about it. It's NOT fine if I do find out about it. Now, I can't expect my wife to see into the future, but I can (and do) expect her to make reasonable assumptions about the likely outcomes of her actions. And she knows that it's LIKELY that I'll find out if she has an affair. And she knows that when I do find out, I'll be in pain. Therefore, via my ethical system, she's wrong to have an affair.

Yes, humans are animals. We have sexual needs. All this means is that, under my system, we are likely to transgress. But that likelihood is unrelated to whether or not a transgression is a transgression. Yes, I will be tempted, and I may give into temptation. In which case, I will have done something wrong. And it's likely that my wife will find out. So this becomes the new State of the World -- one in which my wife IS going to discover my affair, get deeply unhappy/angry and the result will be tons of unhappiness for her and me (and maybe for my lover). So I now need to deal with that State.

What's the best way to deal with it? There are now two possibilities:

1) I keep quiet, in which case my wife ultimately discovers that (a) I had an affair and (b) I tried to keep the fact from her.

2) I confess, in which case she discovers that I had an affair.

2 is better (less painful) than 1. Of course, if I confess I make it impossible for her to ever not-know, which would be the best outcome. But I've already reasoned that to be an extremely unlikely outcome, so I'm best off confessing.

I'll fess up and admit that even if I knew I could keep it an eternal secret, I wouldn't do it. It hurts me to do things that I know would hurt my wife, even knowing she'll never find out. This is irrational. I suspect that this sort of irrational empathy is part of my (and most people's) genetic makeup. But I stand by my rational reasons, too. She WILL find out.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Thank you, Stanley!

When Stanley Kubrick died, I mourned. This isn't like me. I don't generally form attachments to people I don't know. Yet without ever meeting him, I lived with Kubrick all my life. He -- his films and the rare interviews in which he discussed his artistic process -- shaped me as a person and as an artist.

I was born in 1965. One of my earliest memories is seeing "2001" when it first came out in 1968. Actually, I think I saw it in '69 or 70, in an early re-release. But I was very young, five or six. It didn't puzzle me the way it puzzled many adults. Not because I understood it -- I didn't. But I was at that age when not-understanding was natural. The universe was full of mystery and I hadn't yet swallowed the lie that mysteries are always explained. I was used to embracing awe. But I'd never seen awe on the scale of "2001." Nor have I since. I've heard it in Beethoven symphonies; I've felt it when I've felt love; but "2001" is -- to me -- a uniquely oceanic visual experience.

Younger people have a hard time grasping the impact it had in the 60s and 70s. No one had ever made a "space movie" like that. Its competition was "Star Trek" and "Forbidden Planet" -- both fun, but you never for a moment really believed they were real. They were cartoons. But while watching "2001", you WERE in outer space. (Many Kubric films provide this you-are-there experience. "Full Metal Jack" dropped me right in the middle of a war zone. The first time I saw it, after the movie, I walked out of the theatre and into a busy parking lot. It was night, and cars were zigzagging around me. There were bars nearby, and drunken people were on the street, yelling. There was broken glass. Half my mind was still in Kubrick's war. I felt feral. I felt exposed. I felt I needed to find shelter. Sniper fire could, at any moment, fly from one of the car windows or from inside one of the bar doors.)

"2001" has since been technically surpassed -- though it's shameful how often sci-fi films made 30 years later look fake compared to it -- but only "2001" gets the stillness of space, the loneliness, the poetry.

The movie followed me all my life. My mother, who was once a film historian, wrote a short book about it. And then, years later, I got a job at Sothebys, the auction house. My office was right down the hall from the Collectibles Department. I loved Collectibles, and used to drop in there during coffee breaks to see what treasures they'd received: a Ring Starr drumstick, a Marilyn Monroe dress, a Superman #1 comic book...

One day I noticed something familiar. Could it be? Yes, it was an original spacesuit from "2001." I was stunned! I'd always heard Kubrick had destroyed all the props from the film. But somehow this one suit had escaped. One of the collectible guys told me that it wound up in the possession of some crazy guy in The Village. He used to walk around the streets of "New York" wearing it.

In a box, on the the floor next to the suit, I found the helmet. I picked it up. I'd somehow expected something flimsy and plastic. But it was heavy and very REAL. And extremely detailed. I'd always wondered about the purpose of those little "bugeyes" on the helmets in the film. Close up, I could see they were logos of the fictitious space agency. I snapped a couple of pictures of the suit(1 and 2). Alas, the helmet pic didn't come out.

(I was so mesmerized by the suit, I didn't pay attention to the dress behind it. Later, I learned this is an original Scarlett outfit from "Gone With The Wind" -- a film I also love and one that is oceanic in its own way.)

I wound up getting a theatre degree and becoming a director. But I learned more from Kubrick than I did in college, even though he directed films and I direct stage plays. Kubrick spent years in pre-production for a Napoleon film, which he never made. Studios feared it would be too expensive, because Kubrick would -- of course -- insist on filming huge battle scenes with hundreds of extras (in the days before CGI). Kubrick solved this problem by calling armies all over the world and asking how much it would cost to rent a regiment. Eventually, he got a really good deal (I think it was from Bulgaria.) Then there was the question of colothing. Putting hundreds of extras in period costumes? Too expensive! So Kubrick found a printer who would make costumes out of paper. He figured he'd have real costumes made for the foreground actors and use the paper ones for the extras in the distance. This devotion to problem solving -- to finding a WAY -- taught me a lot about the role of the director.

More important, I learned from Kubrick that a director could -- maybe should -- use all his resources to express a deeply personal vision.

I'm fascinated by the bi-polar reactions to his films. In my experience, people are more divided by Kubrick than any other filmmaker. Some people, like me, were scared witless by "The Shining." Others find it silly. Some are awed into a trance by "2001." Others find it boring (as they also find "Barry Lyndon," which is my favorite Kubrick film.) Some people think "Eyes Wide Shut" is sexy, profound or troubling; Others find it stupid or stilted. Some people love "A Clockwork Orange." Others find it deeply offensive.

All these people are right. They are right in the sense that it's both right to like a steak or hate it, depending on one's taste. What's NOT right is to try to cook a steak in a way that will please steak-haters. Sure, you can smother it in sauces to the point where its original taste is unrecognizable, but what's the point. THIS is what I learned form Kubrick.

By relentlessly following a personal vision, he made movies that some people will never relate to. Presumably, these people are fundamentally different from him and would probably be turned off by him if they met him at a dinner party. But because his films are so pure -- so undaunted by "sauces" -- when they click with a like mind, they REALLY click.

Few artists work this way. Most try to please everyone and wind up pleasing no one as fully as they could. They put a little sauce on the steak -- not enough to totally offend the steak purists, but not enough to really thrill them, either. And the steak haters enjoy the meal somewhat -- but they always detect a faint taste of steak.

To me, this is the chief difference between a Kubrick and a Spielberg. Spielberg reaches out to the audience and says, "Please love me! I promise that I'll throw in something for everyone!" And he does: the cute robot for the kiddies, the mild sexual innuendo for the parents, the rebellious teenager for the rebellious teenager. Spielberg can't possibly be all these things himself, but instead of relentlessly following his own inner truth, be panders. It's a shame, because technically, I think he has the brilliance of a Kubrick or a Hitchcock. Very occasionally, he WILL make something personal ("Schindler's List" / "Jaws") and it's like a totally different filmmaker has taken over his body.

By a strange coincidence, I started a theatre company in "2001." We produce only classics: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, etc. When we produce Shakespeare, we do it on a bare stage without using sets or lighting changes (lights up the whole time). No costumes, either -- just the actors in their street clothes. We use very few props. It's just the actors in an empty room and Shakespeare's text, which we usually do uncut. This means our plays often run over three hours.

When we first started this work, I knew some people -- maybe most people -- wouldn't like it: no sauce on the steak. But I like it, and I'd learned from Kubrick that if I was going to be the director, I had to share MY vision -- not something I thought or hoped the audience would like. And so I did. I was scared, but I was relentless.

And yes, some people don't like it. Occasionally someone walks out during intermission. But to my great surprise and joy, most people love it. One common reaction is, "You know, I don't usually like Shakespeare, and when I heard how long your production was, I thought 'Oh boy...,' But I LOVED it. I understood everything, and it just flew by. I can't believe that was three hours long!"

Thank you Stanley. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.