Archive for February, 2010

What makes things “dramatic”?

February 22, 2010

The following two random pieces of text offer some bizarrely similar insights here.
First, from a recent Onion AV Club interview with Olivia “Teacher from Rushmore” Williams:

“We had an ancient Prussian acting coach at my drama school who said the worst offense you could commit was to let your subtext show. He would say: [Prussian accent] ‘Your subtext is showing.’ That is the point of acting, it is to be saying one thing and not be allowed by society or your predicament to show what you’re reallying feeling. In a way, I think that’s why the therapy generation has killed scriptwriting, because all you ever get is people going, “Hi, I’m feeling really angry right now.” And if you say that, you’ve got nothing left to act. The excruciating moments of drama are when people are allowed to show or way what they feel.”

Second, from an article on Mad Men that appears in the latest issue of Jump Cut — (if you haven’t seen Season 2 of the show, watch out for SPOILERS):

“In season 2, episode 8 (A Night to Remember), when Office Manager, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), temporarily takes on the job of script reader for the newly formed TV sales department, the opening may be in part due to Peggy’s earlier successes. It’s easy to project some proto-feminist movement, even as the harsh sexist environment reasserts its dominance through the hiring of an inexperienced man to permanently take over the new position. The department has become successful because of Joan’s insight into how to sell soap to women and when interest will be piqued on daytime TV. When Joan discovers that she has been unceremoniously replaced — the torpedo bra torpedoed — and is expected to train her replacement, her disappointment is overwhelming. (Or is that our disappointment?) The emotion is allowed only the briefest moment of escape before Joan’s façade reasserts control.

The program’s richest moments are ruptures like these, brief moments when the characters experience confusion or disappointment but then struggle not to let it show, when their real selves and the images they have constructed come into conflict. These are moments of vulnerability, of reality asserting itself briefly into the world of the image. Our clean, colorful 60s fantasy is interrupted by such casual brutality. We are reminded of the real constraints under the binding clothing, the actual challenges and limitations of the period.”

Mad Men is set in a world where social norms that we take for granted haven’t arisen yet, so it’s doubly poignant when Joan gets passed over for that promotion and can’t do anything about it. I’d argue that you also see this effect in non-Mad Men period pieces where great attention is paid to courtly facade — Jane Austen adaptations, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, the movie version of Remains of the Day…etc.

So, with respect to Ms. Williams’ remark, *is* acting all about hiding the character’s feelings while also expressing them? Or could it simply be the case that British actors are trained with a certain type of drama in mind?

Advertisements

The “Real” Tibet

February 15, 2010

It’s fair to say that the goal of articles in Foreign Policy magazine is to clarify, to elucidate, to let the light of rationality shine upon some murky issue in the field of foreign policy. This being the case, I was intrigued by the recent article “Tibet is no Shangri-La,” which has no penetrating vision or fresh policy prescription; instead, it simply asks us to think about Tibet as if it were a real place.

The essay opens by taking Westerners to task for creating hopelessly nostalgic “new Orientalist” representations of Tibet and glorifying the famous Dali Lama. It then points out not only that Tibetans aren’t all orange clad Buddhist monks, but also that some Tibetans seek to profit from the Western image of “Tibetan-ness” by creating old-timey Tibet theme tourist traps. The essay also notes that folks who consider themselves ethnic Tibetans in fact hail from various locales in the vast expanse of western China, and that, while they tend to be practicing Buddhists, they’re not necessarily pulsating with noble religious fervor 24-7. (Nor are they, as the Chinese media would have you believe, separatist terror mongers.) Instead, they have fairly reasonable grievances against the Han settlers and the Chinese government, which quite clearly discriminates against them. To the degree that there’s a point, it is that Tibetans inhabit reality, not some colorful metaphysical realm.

I would like to take add a couple points about how we formed this image of Tibet in the first place: when the Dalai Lama and his followers escaped Tibet in 1959, they got a few inches of print in Western newspapers — but that was it. The US was ambivalent; the CIA secretly provided weapons and funding to Tibetan guerrillas during the 50s and 60s, but the Dalai Lama was consistently refused a US visa and occupied essentially zero space in the American “popular imagination,” if you’ll allow the term. After Chinese rapprochement in ’72, the US was happy with this obscurity. After decades of activism, along with media coverage of demonstrations in Lhasa in 1987 and 89, Tibet still wasn’t the cause celebre that we know today. It was only in the early 90s, when Richard Gere and others (most notably Steven Segal) became interested in Tibetan Buddhism, that Joe Sixpack saw these sad images of Himalayan tranquility. What I mean to say is this: it wasn’t just traditional “Orientalism” that made us suddenly feel sentimental about Tibet — it was a sustained and expensive PR campaign orchestrated by Hollywood insiders who happened to be enthusiastic about Buddhism. In this way, the DL was annointed as as a public figure (in the West) and began to receive his controversial White House invites.

On a related note, I once read a pretty neat article about how Tibet activists try to constantly manage and negotiate the image of the Dalai Lama. In particular, some of them are angry that “culture” and Buddhism are the main elements of Tibet discourse in the West, and hope instead to re-brand the DL as a political leader — which, from their perspective, he obviously is.

In sum, I enjoyed this FP essay, but I think it should have talked about how the prevalent image of Tibet is actually a commodity. The article seeks to challenge false images of Tibet, but it doesn’t talk about how those images were amplified and perpetuated by a massive PR campaign. (Meanwhile the Chinese are waging an equal and opposite PR campaign, but that’s another story.)

Postmodern Basterds

February 7, 2010

I’ve seen appallingly few of the 2009 Oscar nominees, but I did manage to catch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds yesterday. QT has been called a “postmodern” director because he loves parody, he loves to re-imagine the film genres with which he youthfully and nerd-ily fell in love — the samurai movie, the exploitation movie, the heist film — and to amplify their characteristic cheese into slick, Tarantino brand meta-films.

What’s interesting about Inglorious Basterds is that, although it was (sort of) billed as a revisionist historical film, it’s actually QT applying his formula to Hollywood’s WWII genre films of the 40’s and 50’s — which were themselves pure propaganda. So you end up with Brad Pitt doing a John Wayne impression for two hours; one film icon impersonating another.

On a related note, Essayist Lee Sandlin wrote a brilliant piece exploring, among other things, the disconnect between the historical reality of WWII and the American popular perception of it:

Out of idle curiosity, I’ve been asking friends, people my age and younger, what they know about war — war stories they’ve heard from their families, facts they’ve learned in school, stray images that might have stuck with them from old TV documentaries. I wasn’t interested in fine points of strategy, but the key events, the biggest moments, the things people at the time had thought would live on as long as there was anybody around to remember the past. To give everybody a big enough target I asked about World War II.

I figured people had to know the basics — World War II isn’t exactly easy to miss. It was the largest war ever fought, the largest single event in history. Other than the black death of the Middle Ages, it’s the worst thing we know of that has ever happened to the human race. Its aftereffects surround us in countless intertwining ways: all sorts of technological commonplaces, from computers to radar to nuclear power, date back to some secret World War II military project or another; the most efficient military systems became the model for the bureaucratic structures of postwar white-collar corporations; even the current landscape of America owes its existence to the war, since the fantastic profusion of suburban development that began in the late 1940s was essentially underwritten by the federal government as one vast World War II veterans’ benefit. (Before the war there were 3 suburban shopping centers in the U.S.; ten years after it ended there were 3,000.)

Then too, World War II has been a dominant force in the American popular imagination. In the mid-1960s, when my own consumption of pop culture was at its peak, the war was the only thing my friends and I thought about. We devoured World War II comic books like Sgt. Fury and Sgt. Rock; we watched World War II TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and The Rat Patrol; our rooms overflowed with World War II hobby kits, with half-assembled, glue-encrusted panzers and Spitfires and Zeroes. I think I had the world’s largest collection of torn and mangled World War II decal insignia. We all had toy boxes stuffed with World War II armaments — with toy pistols and molded plastic rifles and alarmingly realistic rubber hand grenades. We refought World War II battles daily and went out on our campaigns so overloaded with gear we looked like ferocious porcupines. Decades after it was over the war was still expanding and dissipating in our minds, like the vapor trails of an immense explosion.

(Read through the Sandlin piece if you have time, or you can listen to an excerpt in episode 195 of This American Life)

Psychology, Biology, Politics of Food — take the course!

February 2, 2010

Not only has Food (with a capital F) become a big draw for punditry and political debate in recent years, but food (with a small f) is also probably the thing I love the most. Having come to this realization, and having run afoul of a glaring lack of watchable TV (at least until new episodes of Glee and Mad Men come out), I’m going to be using some of my free time to “take a course” on food and related topics over at Open Yale courses.

If you too are unemployed, you should take it as well! Hopefully it’ll be fun. And given the recent controversy surrounding China and its poorly enforced food processing sector(s), this course may even generate ideas for a viable term paper…hmmm…