Oskar Eustis: Theater and Democracy

A long time friend of this blog sent me a link to a TED talk by Oskar Eustis called “Why Theater is Essential to Democracy.” He wrote that he thought I might find Eustis’ thoughts “useful or at least interesting.” Right he was!

It’s a short piece, only 13 minutes instead of the 18 allowed by TED, and, as you’d imagine, it celebrates live stage performance and the outreach efforts by the Public Theater in NYC, which Eustis leads as their Artistic Director. He is an unapologetic missionary for Culture. I admire him for his zeal and concern for the Great Unwashed, if at times I admit I had to grit my teeth at the condescension for the Deplorables in Flyover Country he sees as his mission field.

What I found “useful” and “interesting” in the talk was the distinction made between watching a movie and watching a live performance on stage. For years I have said in talks and written here and in my books that movies are not an imaginative experience but sensation, and, as such, they are incapable of transforming audiences in any meaningful, lasting way. All film can do is scare us or move us to a sentimental moment, not just tears and smiles, granted, but the sentiments of rage and pity as well, none of which, however, last very long.

I have found that this assertion about film, the distinction between active imaginative experience versus passive sensation, really annoys people that prefer screened images to reading books or who “just love movies” (which is to say “almost everyone”). One of the more interesting counters to my thesis I’ve heard through the years is the question, “Well, what about the stage? That’s not imaginative, either; you watch the characters rather than imagining them. Are you saying contra-Aristotle and millenia of experience that audiences at live theater are not experiencing catharsis?”

No, I’m not. With Oskar Eustis, though, I am saying that the experiences of staged drama and screened images are fundamentally different — and the effect of this difference is that one is an individual’s sense experience of little effect on the person watching and the other is at least potentially transformative. We imagine, Eustis says, ourselves as the speakers in dialogue on stage, which imagining in conjunction with our being part of an audience witnessing a live event exercises our empathy, the experience to be had in fiction read in books.

Let me know what you think. Does Oskar Eustis have it right about the difference between film and stage? Does that or does it not confirm my disregard for the movie medium relative to book reading or play watching? Let me know what you think!

Fan-Made Voldemort, Origins of the Heir, a Dazzling Surprise

Image may contain: 1 person, textIt’s no secret that I generally have little patience with fanfiction in its various forms. Though I know that some fanfiction is not bad, and some is even pretty good, I am generally turned off by the fact that so much of it is bad for so many reasons: poor artistic and grammar skills, juvenile wish-fulfillment that is not appropriate for a public readership, failure to understand or respect the author’s original vision, and an appalling amount of outright pornography and other filth.  Thus, it always a delight when I see “fan-made” work that impresses both with its technical accomplishments and faithfulness to the work from which it springs. This week, an Italian filmmaking team, Tryangle, released their film Voldemort: Origins of the Heir on youtube. It’s really quite an accomplishment, as demonstrated by the fact that it garnered 4 million views in its first 24 hours online. I do have a few quibbles, of course, but also some kudos, and a few questions (Yes, alliteration is fun. No, there just are not enough words in English that begin with “q”). [Read more…]

Voldemort: Origins of the Heir

Attack of The Last Jedi

SPOILER ALERT: Go see Star Wars: The Last Jedi already, will you? Quit dragging your Jedi boots! Then come back and read this piece, and tell us what you think in the comments.

My favorite Star Wars movie is Episode 2: Attack of the Clones. Wait – don’t go! Let me explain. First, please note: I didn’t say “Attack of the Clones is the best Star Wars movie.” I said it was my favorite. I understand and to some extent agree with cinematic critiques of that film, and I’ve only ever watched the film on DVD, which means I can easily skip all the romantic scenes with Anakin and Padmé, which are, admittedly, difficult to watch. What’s left of the film – Obi-Wan Kenobi (played brilliantly by Ewan MacGregor) on an extended Dick-Tracy-esque sleuthing adventure, the backstory of the villainous bounty hunter Boba Fett, and best of all, some important advances in the Prequels’ subtle and complicated subtext of the Jedi Order’s downfall – is pure heaven to me, despite disagreement, even derision, from many Star Wars fans.

So I’m fine with liking a movie that isn’t perfect. I find perfection a bit boring, honestly. But the bones of a film have to be good, like the bones of a well-built house. The Last Jedi, while an imperfect film in some ways, gives us that solid space in which our imaginations can dwell, even as it challenges and shocks us. In this way, it’s not unlike Attack of the Clones, with its misdirective title and its quite nuanced subtext. The difference is with Clones, we knew where we were headed: the creation of Darth Vader, the birth of Luke and Leia and the destruction of the Jedi Order. With The Last Jedi, we’re in uncharted territory; we’re vulnerable, floating in space with no space suit. Characters we revere aren’t who they were, characters we trust make bad decisions, and characters we don’t like turn out to be right. Events seem only to lead to devastating failures for the Resistance, for the First Order, for the Jedi (whatever that is anymore), and we do not know where the franchise is headed at the film’s conclusion. When the credits roll, we have more questions than answers. [Read more…]

Three Spoiler-Free Reasons to See The Last Jedi

Fresh from my first viewing of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, here are my relatively spoiler-free impressions of the film. (Read on if you’re okay knowing some generalities about the film, with the promise of no specific details.)

I must state categorically that I loved it, and I can’t wait to see it again. I had heard that the film would “shock” me – that it takes the Skywalker saga in an unexpected direction. I am not as shocked as I was prepared to be (perhaps sheer expectation prevented that), and the film did not satisfy every question I had hoped it would (perhaps the filmmaker’s strategy to keep me coming back, and if so, as young Anakin once said, “It’s working!”). But on the whole The Last Jedi is excellent, thrilling, moving and satisfying Star Wars. Read on for three reasons why you should see it: [Read more…]