Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where Do We Go From Nowhere? To the movies, of course: A Theater Review

My friend Ben Blattberg has asked me to describe where I think one goes from rock bottom. Here goes...

On Saturday I felt devastated and was laid low by my grief about Newtown and Everything Else that is Wrong With the World. On Sunday I began to feel better again, largely because of two things: I went to a Quaker meeting, and I went to see a show.

The play was Manual Cinema's Lula Del Ray, and if you are reading and live in Chicago, I'm sorry that you missed it, because it has now closed. But Manual Cinema will live again, and soon, and they could use your support, because they are making amazing original art.

I think because of my own research and thought processes of late, this play hit me with its joy at just the right moment. But it was carefully crafted to do that. I got to talk with one of the writer/producer/directors, Drew Dir, an acquaintance of mine, today, and he confirmed a lot of my thoughts about the play, but left me wanting to hear about it some more. And I'm excited, because they're going to keep working and growing, and if you read this, you'll have heard about them at an early-ish stage in their development. (wink!)

The joy of the play and its originality did not come from any one component of the play, but, rather, from its hybridity. It combined an ancient art form, shadow puppetry, with a relatively young one: silent film. (It is literally manual cinema--completely hand-made shadow puppetry, projected by those overheads that we teachers don't use anymore, and the effect looks like the earliest moving images, like stop-motion photography.)

The play told a story that we've heard since time immemorial: Lula Del Ray, a young (wo)man with a lot of hope, leaves home, goes on a long journey, finds out that what she was searching for is not what she thought it was, realizes that she has lost everything, and then finds hope again. The play used that story to offer an overt critique of capital, which plays have been doing since the 1930s. And the play made that critique by using our love of authentic folk music and turning it upside down, just like a true hipster. Plus, the music was live, and mostly singer-songwriter-style whispery scoring on a cello. The whole thing was a pretty terrific experience.

So, with all of this derivation, what made the play so amazing and original? It was just that: it amazed while also feeling comfortingly familiar. It was a beautiful and jarring thing to watch. It told the story so well, in such a gorgeous and fascinating way. The whole time I was watching, I was thinking two things: I love this, and I hope Chris (my husband, the musician/therapist) doesn't hate it, because he likes original stories and original music and he already knows that the music industry is bogus. And then I knocked over my empty beer bottle, which was embarrassing. Afterwards, I found out that Chris loved it too, because the whole time he was watching, he was thinking: this story is not new to me in any way, but the way it is being presented is wholly engrossing, except: I want to know how they're doing that! And also, it's so embarrassing that my wife made such a loud noise.

This is a classic example of a technique and theory of art that the German theater artist Bertolt Brecht called Verfremdungseffekt, which gets translated several different ways, usually as "alienation effect" (and it was sometimes abbreviated in English translations as A-effect, I think even by Brecht himself), but also as "estrangement effect" or "disillusionment effect" or "distancing effect." In the German, obviously effekt means effect, and fremdung means stranger (which the author learned from the lyrics to Cabaret), and ver is a prefix that means something like "the opposite" (I think). For example, the German word verboten is a cognate with the English word forbidden. 

I don't read German all that well, and I don't know anything about German etymology except for one undergraduate course in historical linguistics. But I do know that Brecht re-invented the word Verfremdung when he used it, and he was trying to create a German version of a Russian word. That word was ostranenie, usually translated in English as "defamiliarization" or "estrangement." (And I know absolutely no Russian, so you can forget about (thankfully for all involved) the Cyrillic alphabet or any further commentary on translation).

"Defamiliarization" was coined by Viktor Shklovsky, a Russian poet and critic from a school of Russian poetry critics that English literature critics now call the "Russian Formalists." Shklovsky first started working on the concept of defamilarization in 1916, but he happened to be living in St. Petersburg at the time, so he got busy with the Russian Revolution, decided to turn against the Bolsheviks, got in trouble, fled Russia, went back, fled again, and went back again. The essay that presents the idea, "Art as Technique," was first published in Russian in 1925, though it is usually backdated in anthologies to 1917, the year it was completed. Like many intellectuals, Shklovsky was persecuted by a regime he initially supported. Unlike many intellectuals, he was lucky to live to a ripe old age (a Russian-born-German-Jew living in Berlin in 1923. Moved back to Russia that same year, and managed to survive the Second World War and die in his 80s in Russia. Some people have tried to call him an opportunist. I say he decided to live, and got lucky.)

Anyhow, Brecht was trying to translate a word that was somewhat untranslatable, so he created another untranslatable word, a German pun. Literary Theorists do this all the time. The V-effekt is what happens when theater is alienating, but also familiar. In my writing, I have stressed that it's important to remember the familiar part. A lot of Brecht's followers and critics (interpreters) tend to harp on the de- part, the ver- part. But if theater is totally alienating, it's not going to get its message across, it will just piss off its audience. It's like how I used to feel sometimes when I would go see my friends' shows as an undergrad: I sometimes thought, but was afraid to say, that their work was pretentious. Now, I'm glad I didn't say anything.

For Marxists, like me, all art always has a message. Sometimes the message is WAKE UP!, and sometimes the message is pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, and usually it's both. But, as W.E.B. DuBois once said, "All art is propaganda." He was talking about the art that we might, even today, consider "neutral" (not didactic), or "merely beautiful," or "just for fun," what the French called l'art pour l'art and what English-speakers called "art for art's sake." DuBois was talking about jazz, or Hemingway's fiction, which both seemed (in 1926) plain, authentic, and unadorned, while also being deep. DuBois argued that even this art was propaganda for a certain way of life, a certain type of man, and a certain definition of beauty. We know that now, thanks to English teachers.

Shklovsky noticed that the Russian novelists and poets got the reader's attention, broke her tendency to become entranced when she was reading realistic fiction, by describing ordinary things very closely, like Anna Karenina's outfits, or the living room furniture in War and Peace. Shklovsky argued that this kind of re-viewing of something that we normally take for granted, that we normally don't even notice, causes us to notice and appreciate the beauty of those things anew. That, he argued, is why humans love to create art. Art is something that makes ordinary things either beautiful or strange, or both.

When Brecht took up this flag, he wanted to re-frame what Shklovsky was saying about art. Brecht said that traditional "high" or "legitimate" theater, like the theater of Broadway, put us in a trance. It provided an escape from life, instead of a new view on life. Like Shklovsky, he wanted art to be jarring and beautiful at the same time. Unlike Shklovsky, he argued that this kind of art would wake people up, not to art, but to society and all of its madness. I've noticed, in my lifetime, that people tend to forget that Brecht believed that familiarity and fun (Spass, also translated as "play") were important sides of defamiliarization. (Credit where very much due: Loren Kruger taught me this.) A lot of theatre that is made in Brecht's name is designed to just GET IN YOUR FACE. And some people like that. But not everybody.

Lula Del Ray was both lovable and alienating for its audience of about 50 hipsters from the north side of Chicago. The problem with all art-against-ideology is that it runs the risk of having its audience miss the point. And this is actually even more risky if the audience is very educated, like hipsters and academics are, because they love to congratulate themselves on "getting it," without thinking too hard about what exactly it is that they're "getting."

According to the theater critic and performance studies professor Jill Dolan, there is also a way around that sort of self-satisfied mis-reading, and Drew and his partner, Sarah, took care of it. After the show was over, they invited the audience to come backstage and look at all the puppets. At the very least, even the self-congratulatory could be amazed (again) at all the hundreds of hours labor that had gone into producing their 90 minutes of enjoyment. It's pretty easy to buy a song on iTunes these days. Most hipsters know that the record industry is a scam, and that $1.99 per song is causing poor musicians to be unable to make money from just selling their music. Katy Perry, on the other hand, doesn't have to tour much. Maybe then they would examine their "guilty" love of bad Top-40 music, or their "ironic" clothes that were made in China. I thought about those things. And I felt bad about them. But, then again, I also believe in forgiving myself (and others) for being inconsistent.

For Dolan, the "utopia" that we find in the pleasure of performance provides an escape from the world that is also educational. The subtitle of her book is "finding hope at the theater." When Brecht's theories first came to the United States, they were called "educational theatre." Now, I have friends from undergrad who actually do educational theatre for children (this one loved Pynchon and Nabokov when we were younger, proving yet again that knowing some stuff about postmodernism and being a great elementary school teacher are not contradictory). When we know that the world is rotten, possibly even rotten to its core, and we've learned to hate everything and believe in nothing, and to be suspicious even of our pleasures (so suspicious, in fact, that we feel "guilty" about them all the time), we can find hope in art that teaches while also comforting us.

When I entered graduate school, I started learning to Hate Everything, or, at least, to feel ashamed for loving all the things I had once loved, because I had been "duped." Atticus Finch, my hero, was a white supremacist. F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner were, too, and so was everyone. And comics and cartoons just reproduced capitalism, except for early Mickey Mouse and early Bugs Bunny. The most crushing "discovery" was that James Weldon Johnson was secretly a white supremacist! Later on, I forgave myself for believing these half-truths and being really disappointed in myself.

People aren't usually "duped" when they love something. They just love the thing because it speaks to them. In teaching, we call this "meeting students where they are." My grad school friends who are still teaching and I have talked about how long it takes to figure out where students are, and how frustrating it is to try to meet them in the middle. I have tried, but have never succeeded, in teaching a child to tell the difference between an adjective and an adverb on a multiple choice test. But I do have students who can use adverbs and adjectives correctly in their writing. It just takes a lot of time for them to learn it, especially if they're 17 and they didn't learn it the first 8 times.

Students don't like being told that they're stupid, and adults don't like being told that they've been tricked. And teachers hate it when other teachers badmouth them. Everyone makes mistakes, and most people like figuring it out for themselves (which is what good teaching helps them to do). When I read Dolan's book after two years of intellectual despair, I found hope. So I wrote my dissertation about a theater movement that also gave people hope. We live in dark times. I watched Thor (the 2011 Marvel movie) for the first time tonight, and I thought it was brilliant. Maybe art can give us hope again, while also teaching us to notice things better.

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