When my mother was in her last years, which she knew were exactly that because she had a blood cancer that takes about five years to kill the victim, she wanted to be “taken away” or -- as they say now in the book world -- “immersed” so as to forget the oppression of her fate. She was 89. I would suggest that she watch movies she had loved as a younger person, but she refused on grounds that it would remove the magic, the swelling and swept-away feelings they had given her as a girl.
Modern equivalents of the books and movies she had so enjoyed did not speak to her generation. Romance now is cynical, history is revisionist. Now and then I would manage a success: “Rob Roy,” “Mrs. Brown.” I thought she could have gotten interested in PBS/BBC (she liked the prestige and the fact that things were slow enough to grasp) except that my brother dominated the TV, watching the endless series reruns made for his generation. (How to characterize them? Witty slackers, I guess. Faux community.)
But the point is not who watched what, the point is her refusal to let the magic of her first viewings be touched. It was all mysterious to her and she wanted that mystery to remain. To her it was the value of the art that the machinery should be invisible. I understand what she was saying. I’ve been disappointed by old movies that had previously gripped me so hard that I dreamt about them for years.
“Track of the Cat” was one of those gripping films. I watched it again the other night. It was a little hokey -- like the old man who hid whiskey bottles everywhere -- but Robert Mitchum and Beulah Bondi are as formidable now as then. Wisely, the black panther is never shown so it can never be de-mystified. Clearly the passive youngest son (Tab Hunter before he retired to Kalispell and gained weight) was a little wooden and his girl friend a little too pleased when she roused him to get rough with her. As a child I didn’t know about the Montana connection. (Walter von Tilburg Clark taught at the U of Montana.)
The film as a whole has kept its power because it is in the structure, the ideas being well played out. It’s good luck that I’ve learned to look at shows BOTH as “magic” (virtual realities) and as technical accomplishments. I can switch back and forth in my mind or even to some degree contain both at once. It’s great to have so many DVD’s of excellent movies with voice-overs from directors and actors who truly understood what they were doing. I have little use for the mutual admiration stuff or the joking around by actors who either didn’t know what they were doing or don’t want to appear to be skillful for some reason.
Why is that "joking" thing? Our culture likes to protect the fiction that genius is unaccountable, that it cannot be taught. People say, “Oh, I wish I had talent like yours.” If they worked at it, maybe they would. As I explore the field of acting teachers, I see that one of the constraints is commodification: teachers trying to “sell” their unique ability to make charismatic, compelling movie stars out of run-of-the-mill nice kids. By magic. Or pretense.
Having the POTENTIAL to be an artist who rocks people back on their heels is one thing. For a collaborative art like theatre the most fabulously talented person is still dependent on worthy material and colleagues in the same league. As I work my way through “Law & Order, SVU”, watching Chris Meloni because I followed him over from “Oz” purposely to see where he would develop, I’m realizing how much his gift is being chopped up by episodic plot and predictable moments. He needs material as strong as “Oz”. He knows it. Once in a while he gets a worthy episode. The same was true of Andre Braugher.
I’m convinced that as we learn more about how our body/minds actually work and become more adept at managing our own consciousnesses purposely and with focus, artists and their teachers will be more and more effective. The question is whether the technical means of presentation, the public openness to vicarious life and the trained creators of structure/unstructure will mesh enough to kindle something like the Elizabethan Age or Greek Theatre. The technical part is moving quickly. Our willingness to look at what was once forbidden is growing. But maybe we’ve starved all the writers to death.
Our culture is being re-composed from fragments forced onto us by global economic change, migration, war, and scientific insight that is much different from Fifties confidence that we could just “cock it and pull it,” as Tim puts it. We can’t build ourselves out of the problem. Better machinery won’t do the job. Today the newspaper had a story about the planetary collision that recomposed whatever asteroids smashed together into becoming the earth and the moon we know. Our cultural change is almost on that scale.
This is not new. Elizabethan England and American New England were both transformed by sea traffic. (The whole planet has become a port culture now.) Native Americans and Afghanis have both taught corporate authorities about the power of small, committed, reckless resistance. (Goodbye, Russell Means.) But that always means a lot of crime, disorder, and the destruction of innocents -- a high price to pay but one that Mother Nature imposes all the time and that Shakespeare and Aeschylus documented vividly.
The salvific forces of the world (and Mother Nature knows about them, too) are usually not apparent at first, but are often triggered and driven by the failure of the status quo. For instance, the corporate co-optation of the mega-universities, the prestigious cachet of expensive educations, is destroying student assumptions with debt loads. At the same time, apprenticeships, conservatories, on-line education, and good old-fashioned autodidacticism is developing new and passionate talent. As Broadway sells out, ensemble repertory companies form in the boonies with high idealism and considerable personal sacrifice. Encounter theatre.
Most of this goes right over the heads of standard middle-aged working-class folks with business educations and an addiction to scandals. But there is a new day coming and the youngsters among us will recognize it and rejoice. I believe this. What we need most are the transforming ideas. They are just below the surface, still obscured, mostly by fear. The hardest part of transformation is giving up what “was” in order to take a chance on what comes next. In her last days my mother said, “I hope the next world is as much fun as this one was.” No need to be grim about it. Sing while we row the boat until the wind comes up.