Sunday, November 12, 2006

what is this thing called love?

In response to this post, Rowan (from Australia) wrote me this terrific letter:

I have to disagree with something you wrote. You said that in real life, the fact that people can't know intent (your mind will never truly touch another mind) is shocking and tragic. I agree that it's never possible to know another person's intent with certainty, but I don't see that as a flaw. So much of human interaction is made difficult by this fact, which leads to all the false assumptions, empty accusations and unspoken suspicions that cause pain in the world. But, like most other aspects of the world, this down side is more than made up for in the moments when the impossibility of knowing intent is surpassed, is irrelevant. I have been in situations where I have felt closer to another person than I even knew possible, and when I am experiencing a incredibly unique rush of emotion as the mundane, everyday workings of the world suddenly appear new and beautiful, in every way. It's called love, but that word gets used so much it dilutes this one particular aspect of it.

Of course, not every moment that you love someone is quite like that. There are disputes, there are irritations, there can be those assumptions and suspicions. In those rare moments though, there is something special to be found. I don't think you are knowing their intent any more than you can normally, because the same barriers are in place. But you don't need to know their intent. You don't need to have this false reinforcement of your belief because that belief, in itself, is perfect. There is something in the very fact that you cannot know if it is reciprocated that makes it better. Instead of a flawed human emotion where you need support and constantly doubt yourself, this is the one moment where you transcend that anxiety, because the sheer power of the moment takes you beyond concerns. I think a similar thing happens with very religious people, which is why any amount of argument about the lack of a God will, in the end, be futile. The moment of pure love doesn't listen to evidence or reason, or care about knowing intent. It is, in itself, perfect.

Perhaps in 20 years I'll look back and think that this is just me trying to 'flee from the truth' about intent, and that it is truly terrifying that we can't know another's intent. But until then, I'll happily see it as something that is an obstacle to human interaction, but that it can be overcome (not in the sense that you can know another's intent, but in the sense that it doesn't matter to you) in those rare and wonderful situations.

Here is my reply:

We're actually in agreement about love, but you expressed it better than I ever could. I agree that whatever shortcomings love may have, it's enough. Which really means, for all practical purposes, it doesn't have any shortcomings. Enough is enough.

My point wasn't that we can't feel connection, but rather that we're scared of not feeling connection. And that this fear causes people's knee-jerk reaction to my statements about intent. If I can't know an author's intent, then his mind isn't really touching my mind. And if his mind can't touch mine, can anyone's?

Let's not discuss whether or not we can truly connect with other minds. That opens up a gigantic philosophical can of worms. It's an interesting can, but I think there's a can on the other shelf which is much more relevant to everyday human existence: do we FEEL that we can connect with other human minds?

Well, there's no "we" when it comes to things like this. You and I might feel entirely different things, but I'd wager that the general answer -- the answer for most people -- is "yes and no" or "sometimes yes, sometimes no."

Whether it's illusory or not, we sometimes fell amazingly close to other minds. This is the feeling called "love," and it's the best feeling there is. At other times, we feel completely cut off from any mind except our own. This is called ... what?... loneliness? being alone? It's the worst feeling there is. We're not always pushed to these extremes. Often, we feel somewhat connected or somewhat alone. But we know that the extremes exist, and we fear one as much as we long for the other. Sometimes it's surprising which one we fear and which one we long for.

In a way, all stories are about these two feelings. Stories are about people striving to connect and succeeding -- or failing. Obviously, this is true about love stories, but it's true about other stories, too. Ghost stories, for instance (can we connect with the dead?). And sci-fi stories (can we connect with alien minds?). There are also stories about people trying to disconnect ("The Misanthrope"). There are stories about people who are tormented by other people's too-strong desire to connect ("Fatal Attraction").

Naturally my statements cause anger: I'm toying with the most important aspect of the human animal -- the fact that we're a social animal! I may be right (naturally, I think I am), but it doesn't matter. For me to casually say, "you can't know intent" is like someone casually saying, six million Jews died in the Holocaust. It's true, but it shouldn't be casually uttered. (And I try not to be casual about it.)

I know that in my most intimate relationship -- my relationship with my wife -- pretty much every moment is about trying to connect (and very occasionally about trying to disconnect, as in "I need some space, honey!") and terror of losing the connection. Sure, I'm terrified that my wife will die, but this terror reveals itself in more mundane ways, too. Because I'm so close with her (or feel like I am) it's horribly frustrating when we have a misunderstanding -- when I try to connect with her and fail.

The whole "battle between the sexes" is about this conflict. It's summed up in the trite saying "Can't Live With Them; can't Live without them."

So I think you're right that we can touch other minds (or that it feels so much like we can that we might as well say that we can). And I think I'm right that we can't (since it often feels this way, too). Which is the true feeling? Which one is more valid? I think those are silly questions. Or maybe they are religious questions. If there's a God, maybe we're created for a purpose and so there's some truth about the way we really are.

But I believed that we evolved through the accident of a Darwinian process. We evolved to be -- more than anything else -- social. So naturally we're going to care about other minds and fear losing connection with them. Evolution is a cold, unintelligent process. It's not trying to be fair (it's not trying to be anything). So I'd say we simply have these feelings -- for no real reason other than as a result of being what we are. And we'll always have them. There's no way to resolve them or to make one of them trump the other.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Are the Arts in peril?

A friend of mine is pessimistic about the state of the Arts. I understand. I will never make money as a director, even though I live in the America's theatre center, New York City. It's mostly filled with tourists going to see second-rate musicals. But I'm not pessimistic. But my lack of pessimism comes with a bite. I can only be optimistic about the Arts when I shine a harsh light on myself.

Artists have always complained about the state of the Arts, but (partly based on introspection), I suspect that these complaints are, in reality, one of four things (and usually all these things at once):

1) Anger that the government doesn't give more money to the Arts. This is a legitimate reason to be angry, but it's not the same problem as concern that the Arts will cease to exist or become "less artistic." If the government stops funding the Arts, some artists will quit making art, because they will need -- or want -- to jump into more lucrative fields. But the loss of some artists -- no matter how unfortunate -- is not the same as the loss of Art.

2) Anger and fear that I -- the artist -- will not be able to support myself by making art. Again, this is a natural concern, but my personal finances have much more to do with my life and comfort than they do with Art.

3) Anger, sadness and frustration that so many people I know don't care about art. This is horrible, but "people I know" aren't necessarily representative of all people. Maybe my "concern about the Arts" is really a concern about my social life.

4) Fear, anger and confusion about aging. Is it true that the Arts are declining? Or is it "just" that the the artists I grew up with -- the ones I'm most comfortable with -- are declining? Am I transferring my fears of aging to less-scary fears about "art" because aging (and dying) is too scary to think about? I grew up reading Raymond Carver's short stories. When Carver died, I pretty much quit reading short stories. But tempting as it is, I can't deduce from this that the craft of short fiction is dead. I'm sure it's alive and well. Rather it's me (or part of me) that is dead.

You could read my list, agree with it (not that you necessarily should) and still be depressed. "Okay, maybe I'm not depressed about the Arts, but I AM depressed about the government, my finances, my philistine friends and growing older." Fair enough, but the good news is that if you DO care about the Arts, you can be assured they will survive and thrive.

I am 100% convinced that making and caring about art is natural to the human animal. It's no more likely to decline than eating or sex is likely to decline. All cultures throughout history have made art. All cultures will continue to make art -- despite the fortunes of individual artists or the whims of particular administrations. Sure, there may be historical blips -- a few decades now and then when the art scene becomes less vibrant -- but then things will bounce back and the arts will be important again.

I often have a fantasy -- and I never admit this to my artistic friends -- that the government will pull ALL support for the Arts. Not only that: in my fantasy, there will be no paid artists. No one will buy art, and artists will never be paid for what they produce. I know this sounds terrible, especially coming from someone who toils in the Arts. Please remember: it's just a fantasy. But I think it would prove to everyone that the Arts are in no danger. Art would continue because it has to. And it would stop the ugly linkage between art and money that does way more harm than good.

Yes, it is VERY sad that people give up making art because they can't make a living while making it. But -- and this is really harsh to say -- I think such people are not truly devoted to the Arts. The best artists I've met make art because they HAVE to. It's that way with me. I often feel that I'm a lousy artist. It doesn't matter. It also doesn't matter that I hate going to rehearsal about half the time. It doesn't matter that my theatre loses money. I'm compelled to do it. It's like sex. Or eating. And if it ever stops feeling that way for me -- and sometimes I hope it will -- it WILL feel that way for someone else. So I might not continue, but the Arts will continue. I may or may not be an artist. But I am not Art.

And I don't know about you, but the plays I most want to see, the novels I most want to read, the paintings I most want to view ... are the ones made by people to HAVE to make them. The ones made by people who will burst if they don't vomit their demons out onto the canvas, the paper or the stage.

I DO think certain art FORMS are dying. Theatre is dying. That is very sad, but it's just Darwinism. Vaudeville is dead; Silent films are dead; Mime is dead; Medicine Shows are dead... but Art continues. Storytelling continues. As it always will, because people are storytellers. And I don't think the sad stare of Theatre has much to do with the government or a decline of culture. Forms just die. It's the same with languages. People get depressed because Yiddish is dying, and I totally understand that, but Etruscan is already dead; so is Ancient Egyptian, Aramaic, etc. But LANGUAGE goes on. It will always endure and it will always morph.

I am sad because so many of the artists I loved as a child are dying, dead or very old: Stanley Kubrick, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Miller... And I SHOULD be sad. But if I'm feeling up to it, I can put things in proportion. Those losses are personal tragedies for me, but they are not losses to the Arts -- any more than losing Shakespeare or Tolstoy is a loss. People die. New artists -- great artists -- will always emerge. If you think they won't, they you have to explain how the human animal could possibly have changed all of the sudden. When I'm at my most cynical, I think all of this "the Arts are dying" is a way of making ourselves feel like our generation is special and not just the blip in history that it is: I was THERE when the Arts died!

I am in trouble, because I'm moving into middle age. And that's when people make The Great Decision: which is whether to ossify or move forward. Yes, Arthur Miller is dead and Harold Pinter is an old man. But there are NEW artists. And there are many great new artists. And (many of you may disagree, but I mean this with all my soul) this is a GREAT time for the Arts.

The Arts are very vibrant right now: ask a 20-year old who is passionate about the Arts. The trouble is with me. There's a truth about aging that people don't like to admit: it's scary and exhausting to embrace new things. This isn't true when you're younger, but it's true when you're older. Hence the urge to ossify. Most people feel a reluctance to start reading a new novel. Those first few pages are daunting. But if you push yourself past them, you quickly get hooked. If you go out in search of new artists -- if you read the "New York Times Book Review" -- it will seem daunting at first, but you will get hooked, and you'll discover that you could spend the rest of your life, every waking moment, reading great NEW books and watching great NEW movies and tv-shows and you'd die without getting through an eighth of them. So how can the Arts be dying? It's we who are dying. And the Arts don't care. They proudly march on.

I suspect that TV will dominate the next 100 years -- TV seen on an old-fashioned set and TV seen on the Internet. Our generation was told that TV was evil. Of course it's not. It's just a box that displays pictures and sounds, and it's as good or as bad as the particular show that's on it right now. And we're currently in a Golden Age of television. No one is saying this, but it's true. TV artists have finally figured out how to craft stories for their medium. (They didn't get it during our formative years -- the 70s and 80s were horrible for television, so naturally we tend to think it's a bad medium). HBO figured it out. They have crafted quite a few shows that are great art by any standards. And due to HBO, the traditional networks have learned that -- surprise, surprise -- people respond to good writing. So there are now great shows on mainstream TV. And sure, there's also a lot of crap. It's mostly crap. But that's always true in all mediums. Why -- out of a vibrant Elizabethan theatre -- do we now only produce Shakespeare, Marlowe and a few others? Because most Elizabethan theatre was shit. It's hard to make great art. It always will be. 80% of it will always be shit. We need to be thankful for the other 20%.

One day, maybe 100 years from now, TV will die, and people will lament. They will look on TV the way we look on live Theatre. But waiting in the wings will be something else -- some new form to take TV's place. And sometimes the new form is a rediscovered old form. Maybe there will be a live-theatre revival. Whatever. Art marches on.

And if our friends don't care about art, that's sad. But those are just our friends. There are art lovers all over the world. The "masses" will never care about art on the level that we do. But they didn't in Shakespeare's time, either. Most people are too busy surviving to care deeply about art. That's horrible. But that's always been the state of the world. But there will also always be pockets of people, all over the world, who do care. There are tons of people who still go to the theatre, read literary novels, visit museums and listen to classical music. One great thing about the Internet is that it lets such people -- who formally would have lived in isolation, thinking they are the only people who care about Mozart or whatever -- meet each other.

Here are some hopeful signs for the future:

TV: Deadwood, Studio 60, The Sopranos, Freaks and Geeks, Lost (not as good as the others, but descent genre work)

Filmmakers: Ang Lee, Wes Anderson, Sophia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson

Novelists: Jonathan Ames, Curtis Sittenfeld, Mark Haddon, Michael Chabon

Theatre: Adam Guettel (grandson of Richard Rogers, mentored by Sondheim -- have you heard his achingly beautiful musical, "Floyd Collins"?) and Conor McPherson. I'm sure there are other gifted you writers for the theatre, but my head is in the sand -- I pretty much only read/watch classics.

my own intent

A reader wrote in response to this piece (in which I am skeptical that we can ever know an artist's intent). He wondered if, when I direct plays, I care whether or not the audience gets my intent. He also wondered whether actors might confuse an audience if they played their characters as confused. For instance, if an character is groping to try to figure out his next word, mightn't the audience think that the actor playing the character has forgotten his lines? Here's my response:

You asked whether it's important that, when I direct plays, audience understand my intent. I assume you're asking whether or not it's important to me -- not whether or not it's important to various audience members. I'm sure it is important to some of them, because many people care about intent. If I felt like confronting them, I'd say, "I'm sorry it's important to you, because you can never know my real intent. Not even if I tell it to you, because I might be lying (or, more likely, I might be mistaken)." Of course, I would never actually say this, because I want people to enjoy themselves. If someone cares about intent and thinks they know what mine is then more power to them!

One of the reasons why I mistrust the idea of mining intent from other people's work is that when I direct plays, I'm not always aware of my own intent. If someone pinned me down and demanded to know my intent, I might tell them something, and it would probably be an approximation of the truth, but I can't really read myself well enough to tell the whole truth. And -- who knows? -- I might just try to say something witty or smart, something that would make me look good, perhaps, but wouldn't help anyone understand what my actual intent was while I was directing. Also, all this talk about intent assumes that the artist has one fixed intent. But during a long rehearsal period, my intent might change from Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday (to later in the day on Wednesday).

Maybe people cling to intent is a desire to simplify human psychology. People really want to believe that they can pack someone's motivations into a nutshell or boil them down to a simple sentence. I fall prey to that desire. It's one of the reasons I direct. You can do that -- to some extent -- with characters in plays, but I think characters (even really complex ones, like Hamlet) are sort of toy people: simplistic models of real human beings. That's not a criticism. I think it's a major reason why we find fictional characters appealing. (It's also why we like plots: even the most tangled ones are never as tangled as real-life plots.)

If an actor takes a character and boils his psychology down to some simple statement of intent, that will help the actor grasp the character and be able to make decisions on stage. But since the actor is a real human being, his creation will necessarily be more complex than his decision. Little random bits of the actor's behavior and psyche will creep into the character. Paradoxically, I think this is another reason we like enacted stories. We like seeing the actor's personality clash a little with the character. What pops out the other end is often very interesting and nuanced. (Though if either side wins, the result is boring.)

Years ago, I read about frustrated hackers who created a calligraphy program. They spent hours analyzing letter-forms and came up with an application that spat out perfectly-rendered letters. Trouble was, they were too perfect. They were so perfect, they looked fake (like much computer animation). To "fix" the program, they made it introduce tiny errors: they type made by even the best human calligraphers. This made the output more aesthetically pleasing, and more seemingly the work of a human. I've heard that the same problem plagues computer-generated music. Programmers have to add auditory glitches, the type that real musicians make (even super-talented ones), or the result sounds cold and mechanical. I'm not musically gifted, but I once heard a sax player say something really interesting. He said that unlike older instruments -- the French horn, say, or the trumpet -- the saxophone was never really perfected. So part of what you hear, when you listen to a musician playing the sax, is the sound of him wrestling with the instrument, trying (and failing to some extent) to get the sax to do what he wants it to do. And it's this struggle that arouses us when we hear a sax. True or not, this is an apt metaphor for what actors do: they struggle with their characters, in real time, in front of us, on stage. We may not be aware of this consciously -- and in fact, I think it's much better if we're not -- but it's what makes great acting seem complex, conflicted, nuanced and endowed with hidden depths.)

Anyway, back to your question. Is it important to me that the audience gets my intent? Well, to avoid your question for one moment longer, I'd say -- given my view that it's impossible to really know someone's intent -- if it is important to me, I'm out of luck. Important or not, it ain't gonna happen.

Now I'm a human being, and humans like to communicate, and when we do, we often are trying to communicate our intent. Directing is a form of communication, so -- yes -- if I think a scene is about revenge, and the audience watches it and afterwards several people tell me they loved the "revenge scene" ... sure: I'm pleased.

I'm also a little disappointed. It's been so many years since I embraced the notion that people can't know intent. And whereas I find this really shocking and tragic in real-life interaction (my mind can never truly touch your mind), I find it liberating in art. My real goal is to plop something very interesting in front of an audience and let them mine whatever they want -- or whatever their mind wants -- out of it. If they mine exactly what I intended ... well … that's a little boring. What's really exciting, and what often happens, is that people come up to me and tell me things about my own show that I didn't know. That's awesome!

And note that some of these audience interpretations are better and more profound than my thoughts were, while I was crafting the play. Hopefully, I am better at directing plays than the average play-goer, otherwise I should hand the reins over to someone else. But assuming I am a good director, that doesn't mean I'm necessarily an insightful critic (especially of my own work). It doesn't mean that what I have to say about my own work is better -- more interesting or more meaningful -- than what someone else says. Often, it's not. So that's another reason I don't care about artists' intents. Other people may -- and often do -- have much more interesting things to say about the work than the artist himself (though hopefully the artist is the best person at creating the art). I think people confuse brilliant artistry with brilliant insights about art, but these are two very different talents.

I also think that, just as people want to simplify psychology, they often want to simplify art. If we can't trust the author's statements about his intent -- or our own notions of what his intend might have been -- what can we trust? Where can we look for the ultimate, definitive guide that will tell us what a work of art means? I'd say, "no where." Art is interesting only when it can't be pinned down in this way. But perhaps this elusiveness makes art frightening (or frustrating) too.

The reason I put months into a production, and the reason I go over a scene over and over again, is NOT because I want to be sure some point flows across the footlights. It's because I'm trying to "polish the machine." I'm trying to craft something so perfect, nuanced, entertaining, provoking and sensual that the various people in the audience will all react in some way (maybe each in a different way). I don't care how they react. I just want them to react.

I take that back. I don't care how they react, as-long-as they're reacting TO THE STORY. I'm disappointed if they're reacting to ME. I don't want them to think, "Interesting choice. What a brilliant director!" (And, of course, I don't want them to think "Terrible choice. What a horrible director!) I don't want them to think about the director at all, because I want them to be totally immersed in the story. And the director is not part of the story. Stanley Kubrick isn't a character in "Full Metal Jacket" (though an "authorial voice" may be a character) and Alfred Hitchcock isn't a character in "Vertigo."

(Oops. Yes he is. Even though most people think they're great fun, I hate those Hitchcock cameos. I revere Hitchcock, because he was such an immersive storyteller. Everything he did seemed an attempt to get you to believe in his storyworlds and to forget that they were fake -- except for those damn cameos. They are glitches -- maybe fun glitches, but glitches all the same -- in otherwise perfect worlds. I suspect he left them in because they were so much fun for him (and for his audiences), but as Hemmingway (or Falkner or whoever) said, "You have to kill all your darlings." Darlings are those fun, clever things that are, nonetheless, gratuitous. They don't further the story. In fact, they detract from the story or highlight the fact that it is a story.

A more complex example is the red-coated girl in Spielberg's "Schindler's List." Though I'm not generally a Spielberg fan, I love "Schindler's List." I think it's a brilliant, almost perfect film. It's shot in black and white, but in one scene, there's a little girl wearing a red coat. She moves around all the black-and-white people, and she's impossible to miss, because she's the only one in color. In her scene, the Nazi's are massacring a Jewish ghetto. There's much violence and confusion, but the red coat lets you follow the little girl and see her fate. It's a clever (and even poetic) device, and I think I'm the only person on Earth who hated it.

I hated it, because up until that point, I was totally immersed in the movie. I was feeling the storyworld so intently that it might as well have been the real world. Then all of the sudden, the red coat appeared, and I thought, "How clever. Spielberg made a really interesting choice!" And at that point, I was thinking about Spielberg the director (and his choices), which means I was suddenly very aware that I was watching artifice. I could talk about how well-meaning and "artistic" the artifice was, but the truth is it was no longer affecting me as strongly as it did before I became aware of the artifice. I was now less immersed. A dream is more powerful when you don't realize it's a dream.)

That's the closest I'll get to a statement of intent: I love the story of whatever play I'm working on, and I want to share that love with the audience. I want them to love it too. I don't care how they love it or what they get out of it, but I DO want them to love it. I can't make them love it, but I can do whatever is in my power to make it compelling, and my slight grasp of human psychology tells me that people usually like compelling things.

You're right: there's a danger that the audience will mistake character stutters for actor stutters. I've actually seen that happen, and if it happens, it's a problem. But it's a very rare occurrence. If the audience thinks, "that actor just made a mistake," then it means they're thinking -- to some extent -- about the actor, and not the character. It means they realize that what they are watching isn't real. And it's probably a sign that there's a deeper problem. There's something profoundly wrong with the production -- something that's not allowing people to engage in it fully.

(It also might be a flaw in the audience member. Some people -- for whatever reason -- can't (or don't want to) really engage with a story. But as a director, I can't control that. So I ignore it. If my story doesn't engage someone, I find it useful to take responsibility for their lack of engagement, even if it's "not my fault." If I take responsibility for it and try harder next time, I will mature as an artist.)

I know what I've written sounds a little nuts. Surely, people always know that what they're watching isn't real. Well, that may be so (though, I think, at least for short periods, people do tend to forget that fiction is fiction: think about when you've been really scared by a horror film). But I'm not chiefly concerned by "knowing" on an intellectual level. Whether or not people know they are watching fiction, I want them to FEEL like they're watching real life. I want them to be emotionally engaged with the characters as-much-as they would be if the characters were real people. I try to stamp out anything that will keep them from this state. That -- as I see it -- is my job.

This is another reason why I rehearse for so long. Step one is to get the actor to really feel he is the character (I don't care whether or not he "knows" he's not the character). He has to get deeply inside his character's skin. He has to know his character intimately. This sometimes leads to confusion in rehearsal. We'll be talking about some tiny bit of psychological nuance, and the actor will say, "But how will the audience know that I'm feeling this?" (Actors are just as wrapped up with intent as anyone else.) I have to explain that the audience may not know, and it's fine if they don't know. The point isn't to get them to know. The point is to create a rich characterization. If you think about the really great performances you've seen, I'm sure you don't know what's going on in the character's head in each moment. But you know that SOMETHING is going on. You know that there's LIFE IN THERE. And that's what compels you. And you're free to read whatever you want into it.

Too many artists are egoists. They want to convey some idea to their audience and that's all they care about. But I don't think that's why people like art. I think people like art because art helps them learn about THEMSELVES. It helps them feel their OWN feelings -- not the artist's feelings -- and have their own ideas. It helps them sense! As an artist, what I most want to do is to help people engage with their own sensuality. Not with mine