BERLIN 1989

Did you think history would cease

then?  Not noticing flooded wastelands

in the not distant landscape, you commandeered

new wreckage by pulling down

more walls.

 

Now like mammals after dinosaurs,

eyes of Socialist discussion peer out

from behind rocks.

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MAMET IS RIGHT, UP TO A POINT

A recent controversy arose when playwright David Mamet threatened to fine  Outvisable Theatre of Detroit in the event that talkbacks were held after performances of his play Oleanna.  Such a measure by Mamet was heavyhanded, as is so much that Mamet does.  It may also be self-defeating, in that such restrictions may dampen the enthusiasm of theatre companies interested in doing productions of Mamet’s work.

Nevertheless, talkbacks after theatre performances are a form of demagoguery.  They come from the institution of play readings.  Readings, which have been prevalent in recent decades, have had a mixed legacy.  They were instituted for the purported purpose of improving plays, but they have most often weakened them, helping to remove what was most original about them.  Contrary to making plays more producible, they have often had the effect of making them unworkable.

Usually it is not the most perceptive person in the audience who does the most talking.  Often it is the least perceptive.  This tends to shut down the critical responses of other people, which is particularly damaging in the theatre.

The theatre exists to make us think, and talkbacks actually have a chilling effect on the thinking that should follow a play’s performance.  For people tend to accept the opinion of the fool who did the most talking, or otherwise refrain from looking into the matter further.

In our current society, we are encouraged to voice our opinions immediately.  Little room is given for the listening, learning and reflection that should go into an opinion before it is expressed.

We would do better to institute the practice of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who had his students remain silent throughout their first year at his school.

 

 

 

 

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SKEPTICISM

They say that there are matters of faith, and matters of science.  Science necessarily involves skepticism.  Tenants, or theories, of science have to be tested.  It is healthy and ultimately productive to dispute well-accepted theories.

Why, then is so much faith given to the theories circulating now?  If one part of a theory is proven correct, why do we so unconditionally accept the whole package that comes with it?

Here are some cultural cows that I struggle with.

  1. GLOBAL WARMING

A few years ago, there was much talk of global warming.  A number of scientists and would-be scientists were glibly saying that ozone depletion was causing this warming, and they went on to closely predict how and when the earth’s current cities would be overtaken by water.

Since then, the conversation has gone to the vaguer term of Climate Change.

It’s clear that climate exchange exists.  Throughout the earth’s long history, the climate has warmed and cooled numerous times.  What we do not know is the extent to which humans contribute to the current climate change.

Nevertheless, we do know that our recklessness and greed are adversely affecting the planet, and compromising its future.  Environmental protections are needed.  The Environmental Protection Agency should remain in full force.

  1. ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER

This has become the coverall diagnosis for any child not performing up to social expectations.  The reality is that the very existence of ADD is disputed in the scientific community.

It’s clear that the symptoms of this so-called disorder do exist.  But they can come from a wide variety of different sources.  Persons with serious mental illnesses now go undetected for years because they’ve been misdiagnosed with ADD or ADHD.

Yet the doctors will quickly prescribe Adderall or another widely used drug.
These drugs are now prescribed simply to enhance academic performance, a practice causing long-lasting addictions.

This medical sloppiness will go down in the Hall of Shame with the 18th century practice of bloodletting.

  1. EVOLUTION

While certain religious groups will argue that dinosaurs never existed, proof of evolution is everywhere.  We have witnessed evolution occurring in our brief human history: the evolution of horses from dog-sized beings to magnificent creatures, and the evolution of dogs from wolves.  Even within our lifetimes, over the last century, we’ve seen the further evolution of humans into taller and longer-living creatures.

We still don’t know, however, how exactly evolution occurred, and there is still considerable room for interpretation.  The evolutionary theory of random selection suggested by some biologists is an interpretation I’ve never bought into.

  1. THE ASTEROID

The reality is that dinosaurs did not quite go extinct.  Some evolved into other creatures such as mammals.  And dinosaurs have down into our world in the birds that surround us everywhere.  The robins and cardinals that serenade us from the trees and ledges near our windows boast the bright plumage, quick movements and lilting songs developed by late dinosaurs.

The giant creatures of the Jurassic period did, of course, become extinct.  But there is still not enough information for us to believe the theory pushed at us by large cliques of scientists: that the dinosaurs perished from an asteroid hitting the earth.

We still have viable alternate theories.  It’s highly possible that the mass extinction was caused by disease.  Or by a significant decline in the once-abundant food supply.  It’s significant to me that Robert Bakker, the bearded cowboy who revolutionized paleontology, disputes the asteroid theory.

Why cover our ignorance in the unconditional acceptance of the hypotheses in circulation?

AFTERDOUBTS

So I have spent my entire life throwing dirt at the otherwise uncontested cultural cows.  All of which has led me to be considered a crank, and one relegated to the margins of society.

Looking back on my childhood, it was only natural that I would not do well in school, or that I would be considered an annoyance by my teachers.  It’s a wonder I wasn’t thrown out.

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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

After a prolonged battle with Hollywood powers over his last film, Margaret, playwright-screenwriter-director Kenneth Lonergan returns to the screen with Manchester by the Sea.  Hollywood ways and theatre ways of working do not jibe, and Lonergan, in the Margaret battle, became a pronounced victim of the film world’s power tactics.  Lonergan is a playwright in the best sense of the word: he is fundamentally concerned with the soul’s struggles.

His new film features a janitor named Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck.  Lee’s adolescent nephew, who has lost his father and been abandoned by his alcoholic mother, needs him as a guardian.  Returning to his native town, Manchester by the Sea, Lee also encounters his ex-wife, played by Michelle Williams.  The Williams character, despite being remarried, is still in love with him.

But at the frozen core of this story is anguish and guilt over an event that occurred years earlier.  Because of his guilt, Lee cannot remain as guardian for his nephew.  Nor can he come to terms with his ex-wife, or get involved with other women.  He is stuck.

It seems fundamental to plays and movies that they deal with characters who change.  Those changes, or turns in the story, seem essential to the dramatic work.

Is Manchester by the Sea any the worse for centering on a stuck character?  The film has many of the hallmarks of a good, even great, movie.  Its acting, led by Affleck and Williams, is outstanding.  Its use of visuals, showing the sea town of Manchester, is top quality.  It is a story honestly and skillfully told.

Nevertheless, in art as in life, we hope that people will learn from their tragedies and continue their journeys as humans.

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THE STRANGE CASE OF DAVID MAMET

I’ve gone through stages with David Mamet the same as I’ve gone through with Mike Tyson.  Back when Tyson was the best heavyweight, when he floored Michael Spinks in a few seconds, I was a fan.  When Tyson got violent outside the ring, and was having frequent altercations with the law, I lost my enthusiasm for him.  Now that Tyson, long after his boxing days, has himself under control and seems deeply contrite for his offenses, I’m back in his corner.

Back when David Mamet was one of the leading playwrights on Broadway, as well as a leading scriptwriter in Hollywood, I was keenly interested in him.  When he started writing books of essays such as Writing in Restaurants, he seemed to be a philosopher-artist in the tradition of Goethe, Tolstoi and Shaw.

Then there came a long middle period when Mamet was spouting nonsense.  His writing suffered for it.  His plays were negligible, and in film he had the debacle of Redbelt.  Curiously enough, he was still tolerated in the theatre and film worlds, as if people assumed he would come to his senses.

A few years ago, Mamet had an epiphany of sorts:  he realized he was a rightwinger.  He thereafter espoused a conservative ideology.

This mental clarification brought back the quality to Mamet’s work.  He did well in writing and directing a TV movie on Phil Spector.  Ironically, with the ideological lines drawn, he is no longer tolerated.

A few months back, his most recent play, China Doll, bombed on Broadway.  The play bombed because of the acting, but people glibly ran off with the opinion that Mamet had written a terrible play.

I argue that Mamet is being treated unfairly at present.  I also prognosticate that Mamet will remain a force in theatre and film, as well as contemporary thought, for some time to go.  China Doll will get better productions in the future, and will be seen in a far different light.

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ACTORS AND ARTISTS

My father was not an artist, but he understood artists and athletes.  He knew athletes from playing sports in his youth, and remaining a football and basketball fan the remainder of his life.  He knew that college football players were often also on basketball, wrestling or lacrosse teams.  He understood from this that an artist proficient in one art would most often be proficient in others.

We forget that actors are, by nature, artists.  We think of them as celebs, or would-be celebs.  When a film actor plays in a country band or writes a book of fiction, we too often consider such activities as dilettante posturing.

Yet such activities go far back into history.  While recent attention has been paid to the art work of James Franco, Lucy Liu and Pierce Brosnan, Shakepeare’s fellow actor Richard Burbage Burgess, the first Hamlet and Lear, was also an excellent painter.

Recently I revisited the island of Maui in Hawaii.  This island has a major art center in the old whaling village of Lahaina.

The Higgins Harte Gallery in Lahaina features among its artists the work of three film actors, only one of them still living: Red Skelton, Anthony Hopkins and Anthony Quinn.  Probably the most limited in subject matter, despite their skill, are the paintings of Red Skelton.  All of his featured paintings are of clowns.

Anthony Hopkins, the only featured actor still living, is an artist of many talents.  Besides being one of the best contemporary actors, he is also a concert pianist and composer.  His wife has pushed him to show his paintings, and the paintings at the Higgins Harte Gallery show an experimental bent.

But perhaps the best visual artist among these actors was Anthony Quinn, who excelled in both painting and sculpture.  This Mexican artist shows the influence of such early twentieth century Mexican and Spanish artists as Diego Rivera and Salvatore Dali.

It should be noted that Quinn was a visual artist before he became an actor.  After winning art contests while attending a polytechnical high school, he studied architecture with the great Frank Lloyd Wright.  When Quinn had trouble speaking after having mouth surgery, Wright advised him to take acting lessons.  Architecture’s loss was acting’s gain.

The painting of Quinn and Hopkins have been as much a part of their artistry as the guitar playing and fiction writing of other actors.  It’s high time we started looking at such work with a new seriousness.

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RULES FOR ARTISTS

There are two fundamental rules for artists:

  1. Realize that Life is more important than Art. It is this realization that gives Art its value.
  1. If you see that you were made to be an artist, then pursue your art with diligence. The life of an artist is too difficult to pursue if you were not made as one.

 

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