Friday, December 26, 2008

Lonliness Ends

Someone on a message board threatened to commit suicide because he was so alone. I wrote a response to him and got a lot of positive email about it. I really just tried to write what I wish someone had said to me back when I was 22, single and convinced I would be alone forever. As it turned out, the suicidal guy requested that the posts be removed, so the moderator deleted them. That's fine. I hope he's getting the help he needs.

In case it helps someone else, here's what I wrote:

I was alone for decades, and I learned something really important. I'm not going to tell you "you can be happy alone." I think some people can and some people can't. I feel in my bones that I'm meant to be coupled. That's just who I am. And (too bad for me) I don't couple easily. I'm not one of those people who is happy being with just about anyone. So I NEED to be coupled and I'm also INCREDIBLY PICKY about who I'm coupled with (added to which, women have never been lined up around the block).

So what have I learned? I've learned that though loneliness is agonizing, being in a good relationship IS WORTH WAITING FOR NO MATTER HOW LONG YOU HAVE TO WAIT. I'm so glad I didn't do something stupid when I was in my twenties and miserable. And I might have, even if a fortune teller had convinced me I'd be happily married in my 40s. Back then, I might have said, "Fuck that. I want to be in a relationship NOW!"

If -- God forbid -- my marriage ended and I found myself alone again. And if I didn't find anyone else to be with until I was 70, I know now it would STILL be worth it. Love at 70 is still LOVE. In other words, if that fortune teller came to me now and said, "Sorry, your marriage will end in two months and you won't find another partner for thirty years," I would wait out the 30 years. They would be worth enduring. Not that I'd just endure them. I'd thrive as best as I could. But my point is that love doesn't have to happen NOW to be worth waiting for.

So while you're alone, work on yourself. Become an interesting person. Become a kind person. You WILL find a companion. The odds are in your favor, even if you're ugly, even if you're not super-confident. The odds may not favor you finding someone tomorrow. The odds may favor you finding someone in five years, ten years, fifteen years or whenever. But it will happen. And when it does, it will be sweet.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Top Ten Insane Things I Did Most Days In 2008:

1. spent twenty minutes reading, trying to ignore the tiny scrap of paper on the floor, the crumb on the table or the blinking light on modem, until my head felt like it was going to explode, and I realized I'd read the same three words over and over. Finally I got up and picked up the paper or crumb -- or moved the modem to face the wall.

2. watched my wife throw a tissue in the toilet that she'd just used to wipe off some lipstick. Had to flush and wait for the flush to finish so that I wouldn't pee on the toilet paper.

3. double-checked that the front door was locked before going to bed; then went upstairs, got into bed and got under the covers. Couldn't sleep because I kept thinking maybe I only imagined I'd locked the door. Finally couldn't stand it and went downstairs to check the door. Went back upstairs, tried to sleep, once again worried that I hadn't ACTUALLY locked the door...

4. got bent out of shape because someone next to me on the subway was humming really quietly. I could just barely hear it. But I couldn't stop hearing it. I couldn't think about anything else except for the humming. If it's not someone humming, it's someone drumming or shaking his leg. When I was on jury duty recently, I had trouble concentrating because the lady next to me kept shaking her leg.

5. Couldn't sleep because the sheet was rumbled under me. No matter how many times I tried to straighten it, there always seemed to be another rumple. Or I couldn't figure out what to do with one of my arms. How can I now know how to arrange my arm when I'm in bed? I've been sleeping with my arms all my life. Still, I can't figure out how to lay them so they're comfortable.

6. Turned the volume down on the TV because it was too loud. Turned it up because it was too quiet. When it's too quiet, I strain to hear it and that gives me a headache. When it's too loud, it feels like a tumor in my head. But I can't get it just right. Just right seems to be in-between two volume settings that are right next to each other. The remote won't let me set it to in between. It bothers me just as much when I'm not even paying attention -- when my wife's watching. I say, "It's a little mumbly. Can you turn it up? Now it's too load. Can you turn it down?" She sighs.

7. little specks of dust on my iphone screen drive me crazy. I try to wipe them off, but every time I do, rubbing the screen scrolls the text or starts up an application.

8. I can't stop itching. I try to just let the itch itch. I say that no matter what, I won't scratch it. After about three minutes, I feel like I'm going to blow a gasket, so I scratch. Then I get another itch somewhere else. I realize that I'll keep having itches as long as I think about itches. How do I stop thinking about them?

9. I'm watching one of those commercials where there's an extreme close up of someone talking to me about their upset stomach. I feel like they're invading my space. I tell them to back the fuck up. I don't get why they think I care about their heartburn. I don't KNOW them. "I DON'T CARE ABOUT YOU," I scream. "BACK UP!"

10. I lay in bed at night and an image of a spoon comes into my mind. It's bent. I try to mentally straighten it out. It won't straighten. This bothers me. It's an imaginary spoon, and I'm the one imagining it. I should be able to straighten it out. But it won't straighten. So I try to put it out of my mind. But I can't stop seeing the bent spoon.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mrs. Key

Mrs. Key taught 3rd grade, and she turned my little life upside down. I remember, back then, we stayed with one teacher for almost the entire day. We'd have special teaches for Art and Gym, but other than that, one teacher would teach us everything.

We'd quickly learn our teacher's favorite topic. One would lean more heavily on science; another more heavily of history; Mrs. Key -- Lord, save her -- was a fanatic about spelling. And I am the world's worst speller. Even to this day, I can barely spell the word cat. Nowadays, we have spellcheck, so it doesn't really matter. Back then, it was more of a problem. Mrs. Key turned into into a catastrophe.

She gave two spelling tests each week. You took home a list of words on Monday, memorized them, and then on Tuesday you took the first test. She marked them, returned them to you, and gave you one more night to study them. Then on Wednesday you retook the test.

Mrs. Key put up a huge scoreboard on the wall, so that we could all see how well or poorly kids were doing on their spelling tests. My rank was always way down at the bottom. At that age, any sort of ranking system hooked deeply into our DNA. I actually got taunted on the playground for my bad spelling.

Mrs. Key hit students with a ping-pong paddle. She would take offenders out in the hall. The rest of us would sit in the room counting the whack! whack! whacks! and giggling, but it was nervous laughter. I never got paddled, but I lived in fear. I was sure my day would come. In my mind, it had nothing to do with transgressing. It was just something that happened to you, at random.

Mrs. Key chastised you if you asked to go to the bathroom. She did this in front of the whole class. I remember one kid standing in front of her, holding his crotch and jumping up and down while Mrs. Key delivered a long lecture about how recess was for taking care of business, not for playing.

One day, about an hour after recess, I realized I had to pee. I looked up at the clock. Still two hours before school ended. Would I be able to wait that long? Twenty minutes later I was in agony. But I didn't dare ask Mrs. Key if I could go. So far, I'd managed to avoid the humiliating lectures, and I didn't think I'd be able to handle one now without crying in front of the class.

I started shivering. My body was actually going into little convulsions from trying to hold my pee in. Then, in a rush, it came out. The warm pee ran down my leg and formed a puddle on the floor by my desk. I looked around. No one had noticed. Slowly, inch-by-inch, I pushed backwards with my feet until my desk wasn't immediately near the puddle. I managed to maneuver myself and my desk so that it looked like the puddle could have come from one of several kids.

It was getting near the end of the day, now, and I thought maybe school would end without anyone noticing the puddle or the wet stains on my Pants. Then a little girl named Cindy got up to sharpen her pencil, almost stepped in my pee, screamed, and said, "There's water on the floor!"

Mrs. Key glanced up from her desk and barked, "Well, get some paper towels and clean it up!" And I sat and watch -- horrified -- as Cindy mopped up my pee. I was too much of a coward to take responsibility.

That year, I developed stomach problems. I had a three-block walk to school, and halfway there, every day, I would throw up. My mom kept making my breakfasts lighter and lighter. She even tried serving me ice cream for breakfast. I threw it up.

I remember feeling that if I kept myself really calm, I might be able to hold my breakfast in. So I'd keep my breathing regular and walk to school really slowly. I felt like a bubble that just might not pop, as long as no one touched it. But if anything jostled my senses -- A loud car going by, a kid saying hi, a thought about Mrs. Key's ping-pong paddle -- I'd barf.

Finally, my mom took me to the doctor and be prescribed what I called "the yucky green medicine." I had to drink a small cup of the vile stuff every morning. I'm surprised it didn't make me throw up. In fact, it steadied my nerves and allowed me to get to school with my breakfast in my stomach. I didn't know until I was grown up that the green meds were tranquilizers.

The next year the faculty did some shifting around, and as if I was cursed for something bad I had done in a former life, I got Mrs. Key again.

At the time, my best friend was Joe Frommer. Joe and I had sat next to each other in 3rd grade. We spent every recess playing together (instead of taking care of business) and we rushed off to each-others' houses after school. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Joe's friendship kept me sane throughout 3rd grade.

But in 4th grade, Mrs. Key specifically demanded that Joe be moved to another class. She felt he and I were unnaturally close, and she wanted us separated.

Something in me snapped. I couldn't have put it into words, but I just knew I couldn't let this year be like the last one. So I made my mom drill me on spelling words. I don't remember having much of a social life in 4th grade. I remember going home after school and memorizing lists of words, and then making my mom quiz me on them until I was perfect.

That year, I went from the bottom of the scoreboard to the top. I aced test after test. I became the class champion. Mrs. Key used me as an example. She made me tutor other kids.

I decided I loved Mrs. Key and that she was the best teacher ever. I used to go over to her house after school. We'd sit, drink lemonade, and watch her husband mow the lawn. Once, Mrs. Key took me out to a malt shop. This was the 70s, not the 50s, but Mrs. Key knew where there was this throwback soda-fountain store. She took me there, bought me a root-beer float (which I didn't like, but agreed to drink because Mrs. Key said it was good), and showed me off to the woman behind the counter. "This is my best speller," she said. The woman asked me if I could spell foreign. I tried but couldn't. I hadn't practiced foreign with my mom.

In class, Mrs. Key started this ritual: when we'd finished taking our spelling tests, we'd all turn our papers in, and she'd put the stack on the side of her desk, to grade later. Except for my paper. Mine, she'd grade right then in front of the whole class as I stood by her desk. When she was done, she'd hold it up so the whole class could see another perfect paper. Then she'd take it over to the wall and tape it by the scoreboard.

This went on for weeks, and I started to feel sick again. I started to worry that I wouldn't be able to keep up my perfect score. And I was confused. I'd never been perfect at anything else before. But I sort of wanted to fail, too.

And one day I did. I was standing by Mrs. Key's desk, as the whole class watched her grade my paper. My eyes drifted a little ways ahead of her pen, and I saw that halfway down the page, I'd misspelled Saturday. I didn't exactly misspell it; I just forgot to capitalize the S. But that was an error in Mrs. Key's class. So all I could do was to stand there and wait for her to notice it.

When she finally did notice it, I saw a huge grin form on her face. And I realized then that she wanted me to fail! I remember her writing a big -1 across the top of my test, and that's about all I remember except for floods and floods of relief washing over me.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd" [SPOILERS!]

Everyone I know loved Tim Burton's adaptation of "Sweeney Tood." I'm the exception. But, like all my friends, I found it visually stunning: meaning that each shot looked like a arresting painting or photograph. On top of that, I've always loved Sondheim's music and lyrics. And the story moves me. So, a great story, fantastic music, stunning visuals... what's not to love?

Redundancy. Rather than finding a way to make the visuals add a new element to the music, Burton uses them to illustrate the music. One example: in the song "By the Sea," Mrs. Lovett sings,

In our cozy retreat kept all neat and tidy,
We'll have chums over ev'ry Friday

Burton decides to show us what's in Lovett's mind's eye. He cuts to a fantasy image of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett entertaining some friends. But that's unnecessary. The image is already in the lyrics. Burton doesn't need to illustrate it. (I'm surprised he doesn't place a calendar in the shot, showing that it is -- indeed -- Friday.)

Okay, maybe he doesn't need to illustrate the lyrics, but what's wrong with doing so? Ultimately, I can't defend my view, other than to say my aesthetics don't allow gratuity or redundancy. But I think most people would cringe at prose that said, "One upon a time there was a little girl named Margaret. She was little. Also, she was female. When she was born, her parents named her Margaret." Perhaps to those who aren't cursed with my redundancy-radar, such lapses are less noticeable when a visual duplicates a lyric.

If you give people enough treats, they tend to ignore (or not notice) that the treats could be better. So if you're sufficiently dazzled by picture, story and music (and acting, etc.), you may not be bothered by redundancy, even if you admit that, on some level, it's a fault. The movie is good enough to entertain you.

Yes, but it could be better.

Music is wonderful because each instrument adds something unique. They don't just ape each other. And all the unique sounds work together to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts. We especially feel this when music has lyrics. For instance, "Eleanor Rigby"'s sad music doesn't illustrate its sad lyrics. The lyrics are sad in one way; the music in another way. Both of these ways work together to create something deeply moving.

Now, I like The Beach Boys. But I think they're much stronger musically than lyrically. I don't think their lyrics are redundant; I just think they're weak. "Good Vibrations" is a stunning piece of melody, harmony and timing. But the boys could have done better than, "Im pickin' up good vibrations. / She's giving me excitations." To be honest, I'm so dazzled by the tune, I don't generally notice the lyrics. I simply enjoy the song. In this sense, I'm like my friends who are so dazzled by Burton's eye candy and Sondheim's music, they don't notice the flaws in "Sweeney Todd."

But that doesn't mean it couldn't be better. I'd be even more thrilled by "Good Vibrations" if its lyrics matched the brilliance of its music. So even if "Sweeney Todd"'s flaws don't disturb you, I hope you'll see that it is flawed -- and that those flaws could have been (and should have been) dealt with. And the movie would have been better without them. I don't think it's good. You may think it's good enough. But dammit, it should have been great!

I'd like to focus on Burton's handling of the song "A Little Priest." In the song, Todd and Lovett try to outdo each other with gruesome puns about pies made out of people:

TODD: What is that?

LOVETT: It's priest. Have a little priest.

TODD: Is it really good?

LOVETT: Sir, it's too good, at least!
Then again, they don't commit sins of the flesh,
So it's pretty fresh.

TODD: Awful lot of fat.

LOVETT: Only where it sat.

TODD: Haven't you got poet, or something like that?

LOVETT: No, y'see, the trouble with poet is
'Ow do you know it's deceased?
Try the priest!

TODD: (spoken) Heavenly!
Not as hearty as bishop, perhaps,
but then again, not as bland as curate, either!

Burton films this by placing the characters in a room surrounded by windows. Before each person-in-pie pun, one of the Todd or Lovett happens to look out a window and see the sort of person he or she is singing about. So, for instance, Mrs. Lovett looks out the window, sees a priest, gets the idea, and sings, "It's priest..."

Aside from being redundant, this destroys the fun. The fun -- besides the fun of gallows-humor -- is hearing two smart people, Todd and Lovett, on a spree of pure invention. It's like you're watching what you think is an actor doing brilliant improv, then all of the sudden you see he's reading cue cards. It was much more fun when you thought he was making it up. In Burton's version, Lovett isn't smart enough to think up "priest" on her own. She has to see one.

Given Burton's interpretation, I'm not sure what to make of lines like this:

LOVETT: (spoken) Now let's see, here... We've got tinker.
TODD: Something... pinker.
LOVETT: Tailor?
TODD: Paler.
LOVETT: Butler?
TODD: Subtler.
LOVETT: Potter?
TODD: Hotter.
LOVETT: Locksmith?

Isn't the whole point that they're brilliantly trying to stump each other? It's not brilliant if they can see a parade of London professionals walking by at opportune moments, giving them hints. A clever scrabble match gets reduced to one in which each player gets to consult a dictionary before taking his turn.

But the worst sin is that by turning the song outward -- by focusing on what Todd and Lovett are looking at -- Burton misses how deeply this song illuminates character. We don't care about priests and tailors. We care about Todd and Lovett. This song is about two people who have been talking past each other coming together and forming a cohesive unit.

Before "A Little Priest," Lovett moons over Todd, but Todd barely registers her. He's too caught up in anger and lust for revenge to care about her. Sondheim paints this picture beautifully in the song "My Friends." The "friends" in the song don't refer to Todd and Lovett. Rather, Todd is singing a love song to his razors. Never once does he refer to Lovett, though she's is in the room with him, simultaneously singing a love song to him, which he doesn't notice:

Todd (to his razors): You there, my friend,

Lovett (to todd): I'm your friend too, Mr. Todd.

Todd: Come, let me hold you.

Lovett: If you only knew, Mr. Todd.

Todd: Now, with a sigh,

Lovett: Ooh, Mr. Todd,

Todd: You grow warm in my hand...

Lovett: You're warm in my hand...

Todd: My friend,

Lovett: You've come home.

Todd: My clever friend...

Lovett: Always had a fondness for you, I did...

And so it goes. In fact, even "A Little Priest" begins with the characters talking at cross purposes and misunderstanding each other. Shortly before the song, Todd kills his first victim. He and Lovett are trying to figure out how to dispose of the body. Todd suggests waiting until dark and then burying it. But Mrs. Lovett has a better idea. She explains it to Todd obliquely, hoping he'll get it. But he doesn't.

MRS. LOVETT: Seems a downright shame...

TODD: Shame?

LOVETT: Seems an awful waste...
Such a nice, plump frame
Wot's 'is name has...
Nor it can't be traced...
Bus'ness needs a lift,
Debts to be erased...
Think of it as thrift,
As a gift,
If you get my drift!


But then there's finally that golden moment when the lightbulb goes off in Todd's brain. Suddenly, he's in same time and place as Lovett.

LOVETT: Seems an awful waste...
I mean, with the price of meat
What it is,
When you get it,
If you get it...


LOVETT: Good, you got it!

And for the first time, he sings to her as if he's noticed her, as if he appreciates her:

Mrs. Lovett, what a charming notion
Eminently practical
And yet appropriate as always!
Mrs. Lovett, how I've lived
Without you all these years, I'll never know!

And this leads them into the partying and punning (the music, by the way, is a waltz). They hatch their great idea. Todd will murder people; Lovett will dispose of their bodies by making them into pies. The perfect crime, each member doing his or her part, each needing the other. It's appropriate that this song ends Act I (of the original stage version). The whole act has been about the two characters dancing around each other. Now they are dancing with each other. Act II will be about how their union falls apart. (And, at the end, right before Todd pushes Lovett into the oven, he reprises a bit of "A little Priest," this time sung mockingly. He re-interprets their former union as a sham.)

Even within "A Little Priest," Todd and Lovett have a complex relationship. True, they come together. But Todd's obsessions risk ripping them apart:

LOVETT: Try the friar,
Fried, it's drier!

TODD: No, the clergy is really
Too coarse and too mealy!

LOVETT: Then actor,
That's compacter!

TODD: Yes, and always arrives overdone!
I'll come again when you have JUDGE on the menu!

Todd's last line kills the game. Musically and lyrically, it doesn't rhyme. It's "out of tune" with the rest of the song. [UPDATE: in a comment to this post, James Troutman pointed out that the line contains an internal rhyme ("you" and "menu"). He went on to say, "Musically it provides a modulation from E flat to D flat and the song stays in that key until the end. To me it conveys a sense of moving towards the conclusion, as opposed to moving in a totally new direction."] Luckily, Mrs. Lovett distracts him, getting him back on track. And by the end, they're a couple again:

TODD: Have charity towards the world, my pet!

LOVETT: Yes, yes, I know, my love!

TODD: We'll take the customers that we can get!

LOVETT: High-born and low, my love!

TODD: We'll not discriminate great from small!
No, we'll serve anyone,
Meaning anyone,

BOTH: And to anyone
At all!

Like many Sondheim fans, I own the original-cast recording. I've listened to this song dozens of times. The puns were fun at first, and they're still fun, but the don't surprise me any more. What brings me back to the song, again and again, is the delicate balance of Lovett and Todd's relationship. The feeling of euphoria when they come together; the heart-skipping-a-beat feeling when they almost come apart. (And the foreshadowing that they eventually will -- that Todd's obsessions will destroy any chance of harmony between them.)

Consciously or unconsciously, Burton works against this. He's so intent on illustrating, he misses the forest for the trees. It's as if, reading Sondheim's lyrics, he rubbed his hands together, grinning at all the wonderful images they called up, looking forward to displaying them on a big screen. Though Burton will laugh at me all the way to the bank, I'd go as far as to say that he doesn't just misunderstand Sondheim, he misunderstands cinema. He thinks of it as a means to show off cool images. He doesn't think of it as a unique vehicle for story-telling, one that offers the craftsman an orchestra of instruments, each of which should be playing its own tune (though adding to the whole) or not playing at all. There's no room for fat. Fat should be trimmed. "You must kill all your darlings."

How would I have filmed the scene? Well, I wouldn't have shown a single priest, tinker or chimney sweep. If the room must have windows, the curtains would be drawn. Todd and Lovett would have been in Lovett's pie shop. They would have been discussing the body while Lovett got on with her business. She would have been making pies. Todd would have been seated in a chair, perhaps. Maybe staring into space; maybe cleaning one of his blades.

Once Todd gets Lovett's idea, and they go into the punning section, they would use Lovett's pies as joke props. Pretending they are people pies. Eventually, when the punning got fast enough, they would have dispensed with the props altogether. Words would have been enough, their eyes meeting, maybe for the first time. One thing Burton and I agree on: at they height of their unity, they would waltz around the room.

But that's not cinematic! Burton's version is a movie version, not a stage version. You can't just have people in a room, talking (or singing).

Hogwash. Most movies have dialogue scenes. Think of the most "visual" filmmakers. Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick. In "The Shining," the most dramatic scenes involve Shelley Duval and Jack Nicholson talking. Famously, HAL 9000 and Dave talk in "2001." There's plenty of talking in "Taxi Driver" and also plenty in "The Godfather." Not every scene needs to be about "great visuals." A wise artist knows when to pull the camera back and when to push it in. He knows when a scene is about vista; he knows when it's about character.

And if there is no way to make a story "cinematic" (which I don't think is true in this case), the wise artists remembers that not every story needs to be filmed in the first place. Just because it exists, it doesn't have to be a movie.


My idea of a well-filmed musical number is "My Forgotten Man" from "Gold Diggers of 1933." It's the most brilliant (and yet understated) number ever filmed, and Burton should have studied it as gospel. All you would-be Burtons can see it here:

The scene starts with a dumbshow, underscored by a musical prelude. It's the Depression. A sad Joan Blondell bumbs a cigarette off a guy in the street. He seems down-and-out, too. They lock eyes for a moment and then he moves on. None of this illustrates the upcoming lyrics in a literal way. There's no mention in the song of cigarettes or meetings in the street. But it compliments and deepens the song's story.

Next, we get a prolonged closeup of Blondell singing (or rather speaking) the song. Some directors might prefer something more "cinematic," yet what could be more so than a closeup? What other medium allows it? You can't create closeups on the stage. They're relatively weak on television. (I'm sorry you have to watch this one on YouTube.) This closeup forces you to confront Blondell's pain. Her eyes complement the lyrics more eloquently than any other image I can imagine.

Then, in its most brilliant section, the camera moves away from Blondell to a tenement window, in which you see another woman. She too starts singing the song:

Remember my Forgotten Man.
You put a rifle in his hand.
You sent him far away.
You shouted hip hooray.
But look at him today.

The lyrics tell the story of a forgotten man. Yet the camera lingers on a woman. It then moves from window to window. In each window, there's a woman by herself -- in one case, a woman with a baby. These are the "forgotten women" who aren't mentioned in the song, except by the words "my" and "me."

It would have been so easy to show rifles and people shouting hooray. But the director (the great Busby Berkely) went in another direction. Realizing that such shots would be redundant, he opened the song up in an unexpected way. He let the music do its job, the lyrics do theirs, and the images make their own, unique contributions.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

how has art changed the world?

On an online forum, someone asked "How has art changed the world?"

My response:

I don’t think art has changed the world any more or less than anything else (trees, politic, war, germs, rocks…). And I don’t think it’s changed the world in noticeably different ways than anything else. Which isn’t to say I think art is inert.

My problem is with the word art. It’s a useful word, but it’s necessarily fuzzy, and I think it falls apart when you try to use it in big philosophical questions. There is no one thing called art. Art is a collective word used to label a huge cloud of activities. What can we say about all those activities? Maybe only that “art” involves objects or activities that aren’t completely (or obviously) utilitarian yet which seem important. I’m not satisfied with that definition, but it’s the best I can come up with right now.

In any case, since art is a fuzzy catagory, when you try to build grand statements on it, you’re building on a really unstable scaffolding. It’s much safer to talk about how individual works of art have impacted the world: how “The Rite of Spring” changed music; how Shakespeare changed the language, etc. But that’s not as interesting as “a grand unified theory” of Art.

Why do people make art? I think they do it because they have to. Not all people have to, but enough do. It’s an urge — an itch. Where does it come from? I have no idea. My guess is that it’s a byproduct of other, more utilitarian processes: the need to communicate, the power of emotions and sensations, etc. For whatever reason, peoples in all cultures throughout all times have produced art.

Each piece of art impacts different viewers (listeners, etc.) in unique ways. How does art change the world? Ha! We can’t even say clearly how a single Picasso painting changes the world, because it changes the world in a zillion different ways. It changes the world by the sum total — or by the individual amounts, if you’d rather think of it this way — of the ways that it changes each viewer (and the artist).

You can say, “Yes, but how does it impact Art History?” And it’s fine if you care more about that than how it changes my grandmother. But that’s your arbitrary interest. The fact is, it changes both in some way.

Does art change in people in unique ways — ways that non-art objects don’t change them? Maybe. Maybe some people. But not necessarily in uniquely powerful ways. I’ve been destroyed by art. But I’ve also been destroyed by sunsets, love, kittens and really good cheeseburgers. Art goes into the mix like everything else.

What fascinates me is the fact that you asked this question. People ask variations of it all the time. I have a theory about it: I think we have two conflicting urges. One is to engage in activities that are more or less about pure sensation. These activities seem to have very little utility, especially when you separate them from their traditional roots in religion (which itself may have little utility). But that doesn’t stop us from wanting (needing?) to make and view art.

At the same time, we have another powerful urge to discard anything that’s not clearly useful. We could call it the Protestant Work Ethic, but you can be a Jew or an Hindu and still feel its profound tug.

We have a profound need to work; we have a profound need to play. We have a profound need to not-waste-time. We have a profound need to waste time. I think this tug is immensely important to human history and to individual experience. I’m not sure how it’s important, but I know that I wrestle with it every day. And I see everyone I know wrestling with it, too. (You even see it WITHIN art, where you have the Hollywood excess on one hand and the “Kill all your darlings” minimalism on the other.)

Ultimately, I think it’s impossible to harmonize the two forces. The tug between them is the Human Condition. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. Maybe trying is part of the Human Condition, too! The desire to pound art into a pragmatic framework often leads to questions like this (though it may not have been your motivation). It also leads to actors feeling guilty about not contributing enough to society, which is why we all have to suffer through Ben Affleck (or whoever) making public service announcements. It’s why people don’t want their kids reading a book unless it has “a good lesson in it.”

Here’s a thought experiment: what if I could conclusively prove to you that art had no purpose beyond hedonistic pleasure? What if art is like pot or sex without procreation? Would you think less of it? Would you stop viewing it? Stop making it? Would you view or make art anyway but feel guilty while doing so? I’ve heard people say things like, “art isn’t art unless it has a moral aspect” or “art isn’t art unless it makes you think.” But when I see a child finger painting on an easel, I doubt he’s trying to overthrow the government or muse on Existentialism. He’s scratching an itch.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

will I or won't I?

I've been thinking about my state of mind when I first wake up in the morning. Due to my workload, I set my alarm for 6am every morning. This wouldn't be such a big deal, but I'm unable to get to bed before midnight, and I generally don't fall asleep right away when I am in bed. I know this isn't enough sleep. I said "yes" to too many projects, and this is the price I'm now paying for it. Come March, things should ease up a little bit.

I used to try to work out between six and seven. Now, since my publisher is chewing me out for being late on some chapters, I use that time to write. I write from six until eight. Then I get ready for work. Or at least that's the idea. Some mornings, the alarm goes off, and I hit the snooze button and stay in bed.

I've come to feel that I have no control over whether or not I'm going to get up and work. In fact, the night before, when I'm setting my alarm, I get this feeling that whether I'm going to get up or not is totally random. I've reached a detached state, where I think, "Okay, I'm setting the alarm. I wonder how I'll react to it." (Is this how drug addicts feel? "I'm trying to quit. I wonder if I will? Oh, damn. I'm reaching for another hit!")

It's easy for me to understand the mental mechanism when I stay in bed: the alarm goes off, I'm exhausted, I say, "screw that!" and I roll over and go back to sleep. What fascinates me are the times when I get up and start working. I wish I could say that I master myself. "Yes, you're tired, but you have work to do!" In fact, I do say that, but it seems to have no effect on whether or not I'll actually get up and do the work. It will make me feel more guilty, as I'm lying in bed, drifting back into a slumber, but it won't necessarily guilt me out of bed.

No. On the days that I get up, I just ... get up. I'll be lying there, mulling over the possibilities: "I'm so sleepy... I could get up ... or I could sleep more ... or I could ..." And then suddenly, I just bound out of bed. Before I know it, I'm slipping my arms into the sleeves of my bathrobe and padding downstairs. It feels like something that just happens, that just comes over my body. It doesn't feel at all like a decision.

It doesn't always happen. And I haven't figured out anything that will make it more likely to happen (or less likely). It appears to be utterly random.

I'm not worried about myself. I know that if something really important was going on -- a fire in my apartment or a plane I need to catch -- I'd get up. I always do in those situations. But though the writing is important, it's not vital that I do it on any given day. It's just vital that, in general, I keep at it. Which makes the get-up/don't-get-up decision harder to make on any given day, for whatever is making it.

I'm never been much of a believer in free will. But I do believe in the feeling of free will. I think this feeling is based on an illusion, but it's a strong feeling none-the-less. I'm not used to not feeling it.

My guess is that when one needs to make a decision, two opposing modules in the brain duke it out. I'll call them the yes and no modules. They both vie for dominance, and somehow one of them wins. The body makes a move. Or not.

After the fact, the winning module hands over his data to the "I" part of the brain. So I -- the conscious part of me -- feels like it has made a choice. This makes sense from a Darwinian perspective (I think), because if the choice winds up being successful, and I feel like I've made it, I'll be able to "make the same choice" in the future, in similar situations. The "I" module will trump the no module, saying, "I'm not going to listen to you. This worked well last time, so we're doing it again!"

But I guess that, when I'm awakening, the part of my brain that gives ownership of the winning solution to "I" isn't activated yet.

Or that theory may all be bullshit. But it's very odd to feel like a spectator, waiting for something else in me to make a decision!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

what if you knew God's purpose?

I just finished reading a fun, forgettable sci-fi/thriller called "Blasphemy." In it, a group of scientists seem to have contacted God. God explains to them His reason for creating the universe, which is, essentially, to help Him think. The universe is like a giant computer. All of the galaxies, stars, planets, people and animals are the "ones and zeros" in this computer, and we're all working together to solve some great problem.

This got me thinking about the so-called "meaning of life" that many people search for and wonder about. If they're searching for it, they must think (or at least suspect or hope) that it exists. It exists; they're just not sure what it is.

Imagine someone revealed it to you. Imagine someone was able to categorically inform you that the meaning of everything -- or the purpose of everything, which I think is a better way to put it -- is to do X, Y or Z. To All Work Together On Some Big Project. To Help Defeat An Evil Demon. To Transcend Matter And Become Pure Spirit. Whatever.

Let's say someone proved this purpose to you, and you had no doubt in the validity of the proof. You now know the purpose of living, the purpose of everything. Now what?

I can't grasp the concept of a purpose without some sort of intelligent designer behind it. As I see it, it makes sense to speak of a hammer or a teapot as having a purpose, because someone designed those tools with a goal in mind. On the other hand, a rock doesn't have a purpose, though an individual person can choose to give it one. Even in that case, purpose is endowed by a thinking mind.

(People speak of evolved traits as being purposeful: "ducks evolved webbed feet in order to propel themselves through the water." But I interpret such statements as metaphors. Traits evolved due to a cause-and-effect process: some ancestor species to the duck lived in the water. Individuals of that species that happened to have webbed feet were able to swim better, which increased those individuals' chances of survival. There was no purpose; there were just events that happened. And the outcome of those events is that ducks now have webbed feet. Saying "ducks evolved web feet in oder to..." is a shorthand, metaphorical way of describing a purposeless process.)

So since (in my thought experiment), we've proven that the universe has a purpose, it must be somebody's purpose. Keeping with tradition, I'll call that somebody God. In fact, one might define God as the "person" who created the universe and gave it a purpose.

Fine. So we "know" that God created a universe and gave it a purpose. And we now know what that purpose is. Let's say that we even know how to best live our lives to help further that purpose. (I can imagine a no-free-will version of this thought experiment, where we have no choice but to further the purpose. We're simply cogs in a machine, running according to spec. But to keep things interesting, I'm assuming that's not the case. We can choose to work for or against the purpose.)

My question is: now that you know the purpose and how to further it, do you care? I suspect that there are two sorts of people: those who, given this knowledge, would gratefully fall in line with the purpose and those who wouldn't. I wouldn't. And I didn't realize that until I read "Blasphemy."

Remember, I'm not saying I wouldn't further the purpose because I don't believe these is one. True, in real life I'm an atheist, but for this article, I'm assuming I'm a believer. Someone has proved to me that God does exist and that he has a purpose in mind for us and for the universe. My honest gut response is "Why should I care?"

Let me pause to clarify a couple of things: first of all, I wouldn't cut of my nose to spite my face. If it so happened that God's purpose aligned with my personal goals, I'd be fine with it. If God's purpose for me involved staying with my wife, directing plays, and other things I'm already doing (or want to do), I wouldn't perversely stop doing them, just to be contrary. Still, I'd be doing those things for the same reason I always did them -- because I like doing them. If they furthered God's purpose, that would be coincidence. (Remember: I'm assuming free will, not some physics in which we can't help doing God's work.)

Second, I'm not immune to rewards and punishments. I'd probably fall in line with God's plan if it wasn't too onerous and if He (or some of His followers) offered me enough cash. And I'd definitely fall in line if, by not doing so, I'd spend an eternal afterlife in the Lake of Fire. But let's assume there are no rewards or punishments. Or rather, there are no punishments. The reward -- if you think of this as a reward -- is being part of the process itself: being part of God's plan.

Given all this, choosing to follow God's plan strikes me as similar to choosing to follow the president's plan. Or choosing to follow the king's plan. There's a powerful person; he has a plan; he wants you to follow it, though he won't punish you if you don't. Do you? If so, why? If not, why not?

I know God is much more than a political leader, but my imagination is limited. He's an intelligence, and I can only map that onto a human-like intelligence. So the only way I can understand God is as "a guy." A really powerful guy ... a guy who created everything... but still a guy. As a guy, he has his wants and needs. As another guy, I have mine. Why should I care about His? Why don't I care about His?

In stories and discussions about Purpose or Meaning, it always seems like people are searching for it with the intent of living their lives by it, once they find out what it is. There's never a discussion of evaluating it first. People don't seem to worry about whether they'll like the purpose once they know about it. They don't seem to worry about whether or not it will conflict with their personal goals and lifestyles. Why not? I get the impression that there are a ton of people out there who are lost. They are so lost that they want a purpose. Any purpose. And I suppose any purpose is better than no purpose.

In my cynical moments, I imagine God descending to Earth and saying, "My children: in order to fulfill my purpose, I need you all to grab the first infant you see and bash his head in with a mallet!" And that since this is God's purpose, many people will do it.

On the other hand, am I being colossally perverse not to fall in line with God's plan? (Even if His plan turns out to be something that strikes me as repugnant, boring or evil?) If the entire universe is a machine that does X, is it crazy (and selfish) to work towards Y? I can't help feeling like, selfish or not, I didn't ask to be part of this machine. I can't help feeling the desire to escape from its chains.

Or am I being perverse in the same way as the guy who keeps himself awake for five nights in a row? Our bodies weren't built for that. They were built to spend part of each day asleep. It's perverse to punish your body that way. In the same sense, it it perverse -- unhealthy -- to rebel against the machine you're a part of, even if that machine's purpose is unknowable, boring or repugnant to you?

(The unknowable part is interesting: if God said to you, "I need you to do X, Y and Z in order to fulfill my purpose. Unfortunately, I can't explain to you what that purpose is. But rest assured, if you do X, Y and Z well, you'll be furthering it," would this be enough for you? Would you do what He wants without knowing why He wants it?)

I've noticed that many people have a strong sort of respect for creators that I don't share, and I think this difference between them and me is key, though I'm puzzled as to why I'm so eccentric. And I'm puzzled as to why so many other people don't share my eccentricity.

In the theatre, I constantly hear people talk about "what the playwright intended." If they somehow know what Shakespeare or Ibsen or Mamet intended, they think it's perverse -- or disrespectful -- to thwart that intention. I don't.

(You may find my view selfish, and maybe it is, but I extend it to my own work. If I write something and "put it out there," I don't expect people to use it or interpret it "as I intend it." As a director, I consider my job to be telling stories to an audience. Though I often use written scripts to do this, I don't think my job is "to present the playwright's intentions to the audience." My job is to tell a story. If the story is clearer or more evocative when I thwart the writer's intentions, then I should thwart it. In other words, I see my responsibility to the audience as greater than my responsibility to the writer. And I don't see my responsibility to the audience to be to "tell the playwright's story to them, as he intended." I see it as "to tell the them the most interesting story I can tell."

I wonder if respecting the author/creator's intentions, above everything else, is a cross-cultural, pan-historical syndrome. Have we always done it? Will we always do it? If it's a local effect, what started it?)

As I see it, if I create a tool and keep it in my own house for my own use, it's mine. You don't have a right to break into my house, take it, and use it for your own purposes. But if I create a tool and give it to the public, part of that gift is letting go of my purpose. If I make a tool for you, you're free to use it for your own purpose. You don't have to respect mine. If you feel compelled to respect mine, then I haven't really given you the tool. A gift is given freely, or it's not a gift.

So I can't respect God's purpose just because He is the creator. The creation was a historical event, but the creator no longer has special significance or rights. The Chinese invented gunpowder, but we don't have to consult with them and ask them what they want us to do with it. We can use it for our own purposes. If God wants me to follow His plan, he needs to show me how it will benefit me.

Yes, that's a self-centered attitude. I'm not self-centered towards my friends and loved ones. I'll do things for them, even if they hinder my purposes. So maybe if I had a personal relationship with God, I'd feel differently. But since, to me, God is "a guy," and the world is full of guys, I'm not sure why I should choose this particular guy for a friend.