Theatre Thursday: On the shoulders of giants

Quarantine is hard, so in lieu of not posting anything, here’s a blast from the past, an article posted one year ago but which is still relevant today.

A while back, I wrote about two writers who had a big influence on me, one directly in real life, and the other stylistically. But I’ve also been influenced by four film directors, one of whom directly inspired me to stupidly pursue a career in this business. Unlike one of the writers above, I never met any of them, and they all also happen to be dead now.

In a nutshell, and in order of influence, those directors are Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ken Russell, and Nicolas Roeg. Sure, four old, white British men (Kubrick being an American ex-pat), but I didn’t know better as a kid, okay? All I knew was that my dad took me to see Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during one of those many times when the Cinerama Dome opened a would-be blockbuster that bombed, so they had to fill time with something else — and this movie blew Star Wars right out of the water. It was Science Fiction that felt real. There was no sound in space, the movie took its time, the soundtrack was mostly classical music in a future context, and I walked out of that first viewing thinking, “Yeah. I want to do this.”

Present me would love to time travel back to then, grab that kid by the shoulders and shout in his face, “No, dumbass. You want to figure out how to make enough money to pay other people to do this for you so you’ll be richer than Croesus.”

Young me wouldn’t have listened.

Anyway, a few years later, I discovered the several “Art House” cinemas in Los Angeles like the Nuart Theater, mainly because I noticed that they showed other Kubrick films. They also didn’t seem to really pay a lot of attention to ratings, so I could get my young ass into R-rated films. Note: There are absolutely no penalties, legal or otherwise, for a theater not following the MPAA ratings when they sell tickets. None. Nada, and one theater openly defied an NC-17 rating. It’s all smoke and mirrors, folks. So anybody can go to an R-rated movie. It’s just the idea that ratings are some legal bar that makes them effective. But I do digress…

So I worked my way through the Kubrick oeuvre, then stumbled into Hitchcock, and while he created in a G-rated world, his films were just as amazing for different reasons. Kubrick’s works are all about Big Ideas passed through the filter of human experience. 2001 deals with the evolution of the human species, past and future; Clockwork Orange handles crime and punishment; Dr. Strangelove takes on war and peace; Barry Lyndon is all about the class system, and so on.

Hitchcock, though, was all about plot, especially when layered with suspense. Kubrick would make you think. Hitchcock would make you sit on the edge of your seat and clench your butt. Hitch was also far more prolific than Kubrick, which is why I think that there isn’t a single Kubrick film I don’t love, but I’m not a fan of every Hitchcock film.

The ones that really bowl me over, though, are North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Rope. Oops… Psycho isn’t on that list? Well, for me it’s not, because it really doesn’t stack up against the others. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great film, but in the context of the rest of his works, it’s actually on the lower end of the scale.

The other thing that struck me about both of these directors, though, is that they were technical innovators. Both of them constantly came up with new ways to do things on film. Hitchcock actually has a particular shooting technique named after him, and Kubrick managed to out-Star Wars Star Wars a decade before Star Wars without a single computer in sight.

After Hitchcock, though, those art house movies led me to another director who worked on a completely different plane, but to whom I clung immediately: Ken Russell. And if Kubrick specialized in ideas while Hitchcock mastered in plot, I’d have to say that Russell’s playing field dealt with emotions in general, or fantasies specifically. His biopics were amazing exercises in giving us emotional truths through metaphors.

Three in particular, each of which dealt with famous composers, run the scale (pun intended) from lightest to heaviest in fantasy: The Music Lovers, about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with some fantasy sequences, but not a lot; Mahler, about the composer Gustav Mahler, about half and half; and Lizstomania, almost entirely fantasy and, while it seems to be the most off-the-rails of them all in covering the life of Franz Lizst, it is actually the most accurate in its metaphorical way, because Lizst really was the first rock star, even if it happened 120 years before the Beatles.

Russell used fantasies and dreams to explore the emotional life of his characters, and it is beautiful. He’s another director with an oeuvre limited enough that I think I’ve seen almost all of his films, and while I have ups and downs, I don’t think there are many I don’t like. For calibration purposes, I’d rank Lair of the White Worm as worst, and the aforementioned Mahler as best.

After Russell, the art houses introduced me to another influence, a director named Nicolas Roeg. And the thing he specialized in was playing with time. Not a single one of his films took place in chronological order, and this was what taught me the power of editing. He’s probably best well-known for a film that most people haven’t seen but only know about because David Bowie starred in it: The Man Who Fell to Earth. And here’s the thing. This is one damn difficult movie to sit through, and it wasn’t my first Roeg film, so I came to it knowing his style.

Here’s the order I learned Roeg, as far as I can remember. Don’t Look Now, which is an amazing and stylish suspense horror film that isn’t gory, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie; Walkabout, which deals with issues of privilege at a time when that wasn’t even a concept, as White Girl and White Boy (literally their names in the credits) are dumped in the Australian outback by their suicidal father, only to be saved by an aboriginal Black Boy who is on his Walkabout, which is a right of passage for his belief system. Needless to say, guess who it doesn’t end well for.

And before I got to The Man Who Fell to Earth, I also saw Roeg’s first big “Hey, look at me” movie, Performance, which actually gave us an incredible, well, um, performance from a young, often nude, and sexy Mick Jagger.

But the most important takeaway for me from Roeg’s films was this. Do not tell your story in chronological order. Tell it in emotional order. If the thing that happens in normal Act 3 seems meaningless then, but can serve as set-up for later, then move it up. And if the thing from Act 1 that seems meaningless up front takes on power later, move it down.

Put them all together, and this is where my playwriting goes: Stories about big ideas that are still very plotted, but which also use fantasy and surrealism to explore emotional truths, and tend to not take place in chronological order. In fact, only one of my produced full-length plays takes place in literal time, and that happens to be the first one produced.

And so there you go. I constantly play with ideas, plots, emotions, and chronology. The big idea comes first, and I build the story from that via plots that are driven by emotions. Once that’s in place, I chop the story up and order it based not on when, but on how the emotions drive the timeline and the plot. And this is how four very different directors created my artistic vision.

(Not noted above, Terry Gilliam, who I didn’t realize really was an influence at first, but taught me the idea of not taking anything too seriously, least of all yourself, and also confirmed that I was playing the game of cut and paste creativity properly.)

So who are your major influences? What have you taken from them, and how do you use that? Tell us in the comments!

Sunday Nibble #13: Taking pause

I don’t know what designation historians will come up with for the year 2020 — or even if it will be limited to just one year — but it will definitely be one of those great cultural markers that represents a hard stop, an irrefutable before and after point in human history.

It’s also going to have that significance in every single country and culture on the planet, and I can’t even think of a precedent in all of human history. There are certainly hard stops that had far-ranging though limited effects, like the fall of the Roman Empire, the end of the Aztec Empire, and the Reconquista, to mention three that mostly affected the western world.

Larger regions were affected by things like the Napoleonic Wars, and both the Great War and its unimaginatively named sequel World War II — but there were places that largely escaped the direct influence of those events. Asia, Australia, and most of Africa were untouched by Napoleon.

The World Wars may not have directly threatened every country on every continent, but may have indirectly changed things for them. It certainly changed world politics forever by leaving us with the Cold War and its aftermath.

This current plague is different in that no country on the planet has escaped it, and no person in the world is unaffected, period.

It’s as if the entire planet has become London in 1666, when the entire city was shut down by plague. The bad news there is that the thing that effectively ended it was the Great Fire of London, which destroyed densely populated and impoverished areas, driving out the rats that carried the fleas that were the ultimate cause of the disease. The true human death toll isn’t known.

Contemporary writers claimed that few people perished, but the fire burned so hot that entire communities could have been cremated without leaving any evidence behind.

It does feel, though, like we’re going to see another Great Fire in a metaphorical sense, as old institutions and ways collapse, never to exist again. If the lockdowns and lack of governmental help last long enough, then we may see widespread revolutions. At the very least, there may be general strikes that will starve the ruling classes of their income.

There is hope in the darkness, though, and I see it whenever I take the dog on a very limited walk and look up at the sky to see how clean it is. We’ve also had a lot more rain here than we’ve had for a while, and it’s unseasonal. It feels like the planet has decided to take a shower and clean up while we’re all inside.

I have friends who are at home sewing masks and others who are making videos or hosting shows on Zoom to keep people entertained. Still others are making sure that friends get things they need if they don’t have them, all while social distancing.

My improv group has been meeting regularly on Mondays via Zoom for some mutual self-care and to perform, and the main ComedySportz L.A. improv company itself has been having online shows that have been selling out every Saturday night.

I’ve seen very little in the way of stupid directly and for the most part people are maintaining social distance and wearing masks. The few moments of stupid I’ve seen haven’t been recent, and were in the grocery store, when a large group of people, generally youngish, and clearly probably not all living, together would come in to hit the liquor aisle and then all stand really close to each other.

Currently, the only stupid I’ve seen are the very few people who’ve gone to the grocery store without a mask or, extra special stupid, they’ve had a mask, but it’s pulled down so that it doesn’t cover their nose.

Sigh.

I do think that there’s a special place in hell, though, for a few Instagram “influencers” I’ve noticed who are still going out into the world to shoot their “OMG this is so fucking important” bullshit. I won’t mention names of the offenders, but one in particular was stupid enough to post time-stamped video of a bunch of unmasked people working in what I assume is some sort communal office space, or a group of people riding in the same van very close together.

Oh yeah, in that one, the person shooting also shows the speedometer, and ass-boy is doing 125 mph down the highway — while one of the group is standing in the back of the van.

I will mention one influencer who’s doing the right thing: Juanpa Zurita, who is stuck in isolation with his entire family somewhere in Mexico. They’ve been spending their time making masks and face guards for health care workers, not going outside, as well as pranking each other, and otherwise just being entertaining.

So, I don’t know. Maybe future historians will call this period “The Year When the World Stayed at Home,” or “The Great Pause,” or “The Global Reset.”

Another name for it might be “The Darwin Awards Ultimate World Championship.”

I am doing my best to not win any awards in that competition, and I hope that you are, too. Tomorrow was originally supposed to be the end of the lockdown here in L.A., but it was extended to May 15 over a week ago. I’m not holding out any hope that that date won’t be extended, either.

But whatever it takes to pull the planet through this, let’s just team up and do it.

Friday Free-for-All #6

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

Is there any art or artist you are really into?

Oh, there are a lot, and it depends on the medium. I’ll start with a link to an artist I’m a big fan of because I’ve been a close personal friend of his for pushing two decades, and that’s Michael Lightsey.

And I’m not just saying that because we’re friends. I also happen to think that he is one hell of a talented artist, and I envy his abilities. I have two of his works hanging in my home — one a large abstract canvas and the other one of his amazing pencil portraits of me that is so accurate in its depiction that it’s uncanny, and which  was a Christmas gift at the end of the year in which I almost died.

Other visual artists I’m really into are a nice example in contrasts. I’m a big fan of Salvador Dalí, for example, for his surrealist works, but I’m also a huge fan of Michelangelo, mainly because he focused on the representation of human beings, and did it so well. Of course, he’s tied in this category with Da Vinci and Caravaggio. And yes, the homoeroticism of the works of the latter three have a lot to do with my interest in them.

If we’re going for pure modern kitsch, then yes, I have a soft spot for Norman Rockwell, but he could also be quite politically progressive.

Moving from visual media, let’s go to music. My three “classical” influences (although that just means “stuff before the 1950s” nowadays) would be Beethoven, actually classical composer who created romanticism; Gustav Mahler, a late romantic composer who ushered in modernism; and Dmitri Shostakovich, a modernist who has had more influence on modern Hollywood film scores than you’d think. Hint: Everything John Williams has ever written came out of a blender loaded with Shostakovich, Gustav Holst, and Carl Orff.

Moving into the truly modern and post-modern age, I’d have to give you Pink Floyd, Godley & Crème (who created the idea of morphing long before CGI in their video for Cry), and OK Go, who just blew the socks off of the idea of what could be done in music videos over a decade ago and haven’t stopped since. Not to mention that they are all just the nicest guys ever.

As for movies, give me my quartet of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Russell, and Gilliam, each of whom made pretty much nothing but perfect films, and three of whom are, sadly, dead.

All four of them had a huge influence on my creative life. Hitchcock taught me how to build suspense and raise the stakes while also subverting the usual tropes by playing into them and then making a big left turn. For example, one of his most suspenseful chase scenes doesn’t happen in a claustrophobic space. It happens in a wide open field in North by Northwest. And in what is probably his most well-known work, Psycho (spoiler alert for a 60 year-old film) he kills off the heroine played by the big-name actress in the first thirty minutes.

As for Kubrick, he taught me that films and all art should always be about big ideas, and that every story was more than the sum of its apparent parts. A lot of critics accuse him of being cold, but I never saw that. In fact, my favorite work of his is 2001: A Space Odyssey, because it spans the course of hundreds of thousands of years, doesn’t have a single protagonist, and asks really, really big questions while attempting to give answers.

Plus it created my love of science and science fiction. I didn’t really get into his other works until I was an adult, and by which point he’d created all but one of them before dying, but I devoured them all and could find no wrong in any of them. And each one is about something much bigger than the apparent genre.

Ken Russell, meanwhile, taught me to take no subject seriously, and just have fun with it. One of the things he frequently did were biopics, and he loved to do them out of order, or in the style of the art of the artist he was portraying. Go figure. Again, as with Kubrick, I don’t think I’ve ever met a Russell movie I didn’t love. Well… theatrical release. The stuff he started to shoot once he retired to his estate and thought he discovered green screen and social media is, well… kind of bad. But we don’t speak of that.

Otherwise… he banged off a series of solid hits that I devoured on the revival circuit (because, for some reason, most of his stuff never hit home media, and still hasn’t) He managed to turn a really shitty rock opera by The Who into a fairly decent movie called Tommy (although Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Alan Parker’s adaptation of it in the early 80s would blow Tommy out of the water), as well as create brilliant adaptations of the Weekend at Byron’s during which Frankenstein and Dracula were conceived (Gothic) and a mostly exacting staging of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome as a play-within-the movie Salome’s Last Dance, in which the conceit is that Oscar’s banned play is being staged in a Cleveland Street brothel (i.e., gay boy whorehouse in an area that the law was about to come down on hard because several politicians had been indiscrete.)

Finally, there’s Terry Gilliam, who started out with a silly comedy troupe you might have heard of, but then he went on to direct some really amazing shit. Where he really caught my attention was with Brazil, the best version of 1984 ever made, but he just kept getting better. 12 Monkeys knocked it out of the park, plus it proved that Brad Pitt could act and Bruce Willis could play more than Bruce Willis on screen.

Then again, Gilliam has always had a knack for actors. After all, he cast Uma Thurman in one of her earliest roles, and likewise cast Jonathan Pryce, and Andrew Garfield as leads. He also cast Heath Ledger in the lead before Brokeback Mountain and long before The Dark Knight, but also had the distinction of having directed Ledger’s last film. Oops.

And the only remainders, who were influences on my playwriting, you can look up: Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, and Joe Orton.