Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Crime Against Reality

In the midst of his review of the film The Chronicles of Narnia, Isaac at Parabasis (see sidebar) find himself musing on the effects of realism in film and theatre:

"The problem is, by literalizing all of this on film, the reader's immense imaginative capacity is replaced by that of the director and his (in this case, his, anyway) design team. As it must be in most film. The more literal an image becomes, the less the audience's imaginative capacity can be realized. This is not bad, it is simply the trade off. This is why some in the theater are getting very sick of realistic sets (see George's review of Celebration and The Room, Will Eno's interview in American Theater, or, well, my own directing work). The more realistic the set, the less complicity with the audience... the artist does too much work for them and their brains stop working on some level. It also becomes a much less wonderful experience for the audience, because watching someone else's complete imaginative act can at times be about as interesting as listening to someone else's stories about their children."

While we could have an interesting discussion about the different imaginative demands of books, theatre, and film (and I hope we might have such a discussion in the future), the phrase I find most interesting in Isaac's post is "The more realistic the set, the less complicity with the audience." Complicity. My dictionary defines this word as "Involvement as an accomplice in a questionable act or a crime." Perhaps Isaac did not consciously mean to use a word with such nefarious, transgressive overtones, but he did use it nonetheless, and it set me to thinking.

The "questionable act or crime" with which the audience is complicit in this case, is a crime against realism, against reality; it is a crime of imagination. A visit to the thesaurus' listing for "reality" revealed the following:

absoluteness, actuality, authenticity, being, bottom line, brass tacks, certainty, concrete, corporeality, deed, entity, existence, facts, genuineness, materiality, matter, object, palpability, perceptibility, phenomenon, presence, real world, realism, realness, realness, sensibility, solidity, substance, substantiality, substantive, tangibility, truth, validity, verisimilitude, verity, what's what

The listing for "imagination":

acuteness, artistry, awareness, castle-building, chimera, cognition, conception, creation, creative thought, creativity, enterprise, fabrication, fancy, fantasy, idea, ideality, illusion, image, imagery, ingenuity, insight, inspiration, intelligence, invention, inventiveness, mental agility, notion, originality, perceptibility, realization, resourcefulness, sally, supposition, thought, thoughtfulness, unreality, verve, vision, visualization, wit, wittiness

An interesting contrast: "what's what" versus "what might be." Is imagining what "might be" a crime in contemporary America? Is "castle-building" a crime against the "bottom line"? On the one hand, we are always searching for the next Big Thing, the new invention or idea that will catch fire. This is corporate imagination, firmly tethered to the reality of the market. In the theatre, corporate imagination takes the form of shows that take formal or stylistic baby steps: The Lion King or Avenue Q, for instance. Audiences flock to them because they can get a whif of the bracing air of imagination, even if there isn't so much that their hair will get mussed. The come to the theatre filled with hope that they might be transported.

Americans (and even American artists), however, tend to run from imagination that strays too far from reality, that dares to imagine a new reality, a new way of doing things, a new way of being, and of being together. We want it so badly, but we are so afraid. Kushner's Angel crashes through the ceiling, promising a new American beginning, and we hold our breath in anticipation. But the Angel never really gets around to describing what the shape of the approaching millenium looks like. She's a tease, an angelic Tony humming "Something's Coming" without ever delivering. "It's only just out of reach, Down the block, on a beach, Under a tree. I got a feeling there's a miracle due, Gonna come true, Coming to me!" Ultimately, for all its good intentions, this is a failure of imagination, an unwillingness to take the leap of faith necessary for imagining a better tomorrow, the portrayal of even a small slice of utopia.

We use our imagination in a limited way by inventing dystopias. I say limited, because dystopia is firmly tethered to reality. It takes the current situation and magnifies it until it is monstrous (and these days, the magnification required for monstrosity is not very great). But at root, it is realism nonetheless. We are much more comfortable excoriating reality, denouncing its injustices, condemning its abuses. We are much happier pointing at the ugliness and shouting, "See! That's how it is! That's what's what." Pessimism is based in material reality; it takes optimism to imagine something different.

Gandhi once said, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world." But before we can be it, we must imagine it. Nothing comes into the world without it first being imagined. And imagination takes courage -- the courage to defy the crowd and free ourselves from reality. Artists dream, it is their primary skill. But it is so easy to lose courage. In The Master Builder, the architect Solness says that he started off his career building churches, but following a crisis of faith, he began building "homes for human beings." The young woman who bursts into his life, Hilda, inspires him to build "castles in the air," but after so much time on the ground, Solness finds the view from the top dizzying and he falls to his death.

It is a powerful metaphor for the theatre, which has its early roots in religion, but has come over time to focus on homes for human beings. You can sense playwrights like Kushner and directors like Taymor eyeing the castle spire, and even beginning to climb, but ultimately backing away in the face of Solness' plummet. At the bottom, most of society stands shoulder to shoulder, thrilling at the ascent, but also shouting "You're a dreamer" at the top of their lungs. It is no wonder artists get dizzy.

In this month's Utne Magazine, there is an interview with activist Robert Gass, who says that it is necessary for activists and leaders "to really become part of the solution rather than part of the problem, we must, even in the midst of chaos and struggle, go beyond railing against what we don't like. We must learn to keep our hearts open, and to dream the positive future we want to create." In other words, we must use our imagination, not our realism. But we don't have to do it alone.

Going back to Isaac's word "complicit," by definition it involves being an accomplice, "one who aids and abets a law breaker in a criminal act, either as a principal or an accessory." The artist and the audience are accomplices in an act of imagination, a crime against reality. It is a partnership, a relationship, and a unified assault on the way things are, a breaking and entering into the possible. This is why, it seems to me, true artists form the avant garde: they imagine what isn't, and they lead search parties into dangerous, new places that only they have explored.

We can give each other courage -- the courage to imagine. The courage to free ourselves from reality, from realism. Let films fill in all the blanks for us -- the theatre can ask the audience to use its imagination to create a new world, and once they have done so in the safety of the theatre, then perhaps it will be easier to use its imagination in the world. As Willie says to Sam at the end of MASTER HAROLD...and the boys, "Come on -- let's dream."


P'tit Boo said...

Scott, what a truly beautiful post.
So inspiring and hopeful. I envy your idealism. And I am , myself a big idealist !
But positive thoughts like you bring up here make me cry these days. They make me cry because I am having a really hard time reconnecting to my imagination lately. And that's a personal issue but mostly it's a larger issue. I wonder how you're able to keep having faith in theatre and what it is to do in the future.'
And I know... I know... this is a beautiful world. There are many amazing things in it and about it still.
I wish your post had made me excited instead of nostalgic and weepy. I will try to look at why and hopefully I'll come out with more imagination on the other side...
In any case, thank you.

Scott Walters said...

Dear, dear p'tit boo -- The nature of faith is to believe in something without evidence of its existence. When I look at theatre, and the arts in general, I can sense within it so much power -- power that is often overlooked. A week ago, I visited Old Salem, a preserved Moravian town in Winston-Salem. One of the exhibits took us through a half dozen 18th-century rooms that were filled with original furniture from the period. The guide pointed out that most of the desks from the period had hidden drawers built into them where papers woucl be hidden. If you didn't know they were there, the drawers were almost impossible to identify. There was one hutch that had fully 19 secret drawers in it! I think the theatre is like those desks -- filled with hidden drawers that have yet to be discovered, but willbe discovered by the person who possesses the key.

Kyra Bobinet (founder of a non-profit that helps at-risk youth), in Utne Magazine, says: "The biggest challenge for an activist is to be fully applied and yet not allow your effort to be fueled by negative emotions. You willburn out if you use rage, retaliation, or feelings of being the underdog to fuel your work." That is why I fight against the fashionable nihilism and despair that I see so rampant among young people, and among artists. I'm not talking about deeply held beliefs such as those of George Hunka, but rather the pessimism that, to my mind, plays into the hands of those who would grow rich from the status quo. So in order to fight, I focus on what is best in the world: the love, community, and hope that I think lies just beneath the surface of almost everybody alive. Sometimes I lose my focus, and I become tense and angry and despondent. And then I rely on my wife to remind me of who I am and what I believe, and to reconnect me to the world of love and happiness. Sometimes, I also find inspiration from books -- at the moment, it is Exuberance: The Passion for Life.

You just have to hold on, fix your mind on something beautiful, and remind yourself that this, too, exists in as large a quantity as those things that seem ugly.

You'll find your way. Just believe that their IS a way.

Thank you so much for your comment. It meant a lot to me.

Anonymous said...

Isaac wrote:
"The problem is, by literalizing all of this on film, the reader's immense imaginative capacity is replaced by that of the director and his (in this case, his, anyway) design team."

Don't forget, this same standard should also be extended to theatre artists who try and adapt novels. I have seen stage productions that were based on Robert Penn Warren's All the Kings Men and John Irving's The Cider House Rules. I love each of these books but was turned off by the stage productions for precisely the same reason that Isaac described in relation to The Chronicles of Narnia.

You could also look at the recent stage failure of Alice Walker's brilliant novel The Color Purple.

Of course, I have also seen film adaptations that were far superior to the literature on which they were based: In the Bedroom, Eyes Wide Shut, and the recent Brokeback Mountain, in my opinion, are each more effective than the original materials on which they are based.


parabasis said...

Hey Scott,

Thanks for the shout out in such a wonderful post. I'm glad that my musings could in any way inspire you to such thoughts.

Just to answer a quick thing you raise... I used the term complicit on purpose, with all of its dark connotations intact. There's something about the artist-audience relationship that has to do with being partners in crime. YOu've helped me figure out exactly what that crime is. Thanks.

Freeman said...

I love this post, Scott. Great insights.

I will say, though, that my one disagreement is that we use our imagination in a "limited way" to create "dystopias." I don't inherently think dystopias are borne out of a sense of pessimism. If anything, some of the most startling dystopias are those that create a sense of vigilance against the worst of ourselves. They are warnings that are worth heeding, and require a sort of bravery of imagination that I think is respectable. Take, for example, the novel I'm currently reading: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Terrifying and beautiful. Not perfect, but certainly an act of imagination that is every equal to the invention of a Utopia.

One of my favorite commentaries on the concept of Utopia is short story of dystopia in disguise: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuinn.

That being said, I'm not failing to see the broader point, which is that we often fail to make the leap that optimism requires to invent something "better" than what exists in reality.

Crime, by your definition, is a necessary act. It goes something like this in my mind: If Gravity is a law, then it is a crime to fly.

Thanks for this. Gave me a lot to think about.

P'tit Boo said...

Thank you so much for your response.
The topic of belief and faith has been everywhere in my life this week. I am sure that's a sign...
Don't know if you 've seen the short lived tv series by josh whedon "Firefly" but it's amazing and in the movie "Serenity" , the preacher dies and before he dies he says to the captain of the ship "Just- believe- i don't care in what -but just figure it out and keep believing."
This message has been coming my way all week.
And the funny thing is, I never had trouble believing in a billion things and following through until last march, when I lost a parent.
Now I am walking backwards towards the source...
Thanks for being part of the source for me.