Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Billy Elliot

This will be a bit more personal a post that readers of this blog are used to... I just finished showing the film Billy Elliot to my freshmen honors colloquium on the Hero's Journey in film. It is an amazing film, and I am certain that it is every bit as amazing onstage. I have seen it before, and each time I find more beautiful details in the performances.

Billy's story is my own. I grew up in an industrial town in Wisconsin surrounded by factories, tool and die shops, and taverns. My mother didn't go beyond the eighth grade, and my father finished high school and worked as a bookkeeper in a small factory that made guns; my grandfather had been a lumberjack when young, then oversaw the power plant at the J. I. Case tractor factory in town until heart problems forced him to retire a few months shy of receiving a pension.

Like Billy, for me the arts were a way to escape. While I did not have to overcome the resistance from the family that Billy did, nevertheless for a boy in my town the question concerning the future was whether you were going to work in the factory office or on the factory floor. And like Billy, I had a dream and some talent, andlike Billy my dreams and talent took me away from home and I could never really go back. So Billy's story has a great many personal connections, especially those of channeling my rage and sense of being an outsider into my roles, and of feeling "like electricity" when I was onstage.

But I'm 48 now, and this time when I watched the film I found myself watching Billy's father. I watched his desperation and narrow-mindedness turning to painful bafflement at a son whose passion was released by something totally foreign to him. Whereas before, in the scene on Christmas Eve when Billy's father discovers him teaching his friend how to dance in the gym and Billy performs a defiant, passionate, and committed dance in his father's face, I was focused on Billy; tonight, I found myself riveted by Billy's father, standing stock still like a block of granite, completely paralyzed by the realization of his son's possibilities. I could feel how much it cost him to take the last few pieces of jewelry he had from his deceased wife and pawned them for Billy's audition money, and I thought of my own father, and the fact that I went to acting school on the life insurance and Social Security money he had after my mother's death from cancer when she was 42. I watched Billy's father's awkwardness, and sense of being out of place in the immaculate halls of the Royal School of ballet, but his passionate desire for his son to succeed against all the odds. And his wild and joyous run up the street of the town when Billy was accepted into ballet school.

And then what I felt most strongly came after Billy's departure, when we see his father and brother slowly descending once again into the mine, eyes empty; and his dance teacher alone in the gym. The sense of a light having gone out of an already bleak town.

But then -- then there comes the moment that really hit me hard. The final moment of the film when Billy's father sits in the topmost rows of the ballet waiting for his son to make his premiere entrance. His father looks as if he can hardly breathe as he waits, and then Billy enters with a high, high leap that seems as if he is flying, he is electricity, and he is never coming down -- and his father's eyes widen and he gasps as if he were coming to the surface of the water after nearly drowning. It is a moment that lasts only a split second, but in that moment, in that one sharp intake of breath, I see all the hopes and dreams that he has invested in his son, and in his ability to fly as far above the earth as he himself toils beneath it. It is a moment Billy the artist will never see, and the father will never be able to explain, and yet it is the reason that Billy, and that I, do what we do. When all the theorizing is over, and all the discussion of purpose and aesthetics, the reason I do theatre, and believe in theatre, and try to inspire young people to pursue theatre is to give people the gift of that gasp, of that realization of the wonder and beauty of life, and the possibility of rising above the earth for just a moment and feeling like electricity. That electricity flows through me to the spectators -- to my father and grandfather and mother and sister -- and for a moment lifts them higher than they thought possible. And in that moment, in that single gasp, I know why I spend my life doing what I do. It isn't about me -- I am just a conduit; it is about them.


Don R. Hall said...

Nicely done.

Joshua James said...

Billy's story is close to mine, too, only instead of the mines in the UK, I'm from the farm fields of Iowa, and claiming to want to be an actor was like saying you were gay.

I love that movie, I really do, but I would never see it onstage. It's a movie, not a play. My personal belief is that plays can be movies but movies cannot be plays, but that's own opinion.

You're right about the actor playing the father, he makes it all work.

In my case, unfortunately, my father never came to the top row, nor the front row nor any of them. With all the fifty some plays of mine I've had produced, he's never seen anything I've written onstage, nor is it likely he will, unless something plays real close to where he lives in Iowa. He just doesn't, nor has he ever, cared. Too bad.

There are just as many stories like that as there are like Billy's, probably more, but less fun since the ending isn't so happy.

Maybe that's why I love the ending of that movie so much, because it ain't real life.

Scott Walters said...

My father has never seen me act or direct since high school. Unlike your father, perhaps, it isn't that he doesn't care or isn't interested -- he's just not interested enough to travel for it. But to a large extent, that is not only about my plays, but about his kids in general -- he never visited much; he visited his mother, and our relatives in the old home town.

And I agree that there are as many, if not more, stories that don't end like that. But perhaps what I am thinking about is a broader concept of Billy's father -- all the people who are not "cultured," who don't really "get" the arts, but who might somehow be reached by an experience that allowed them to experience beyond their everyday life. As a human being, Billy's father would not be someone I would likely seek out -- he is largely narrow-minded and inarticulate and uncommunicative. But the genius of that film, it seems to me, is that we gradually see deeper into that character, and see the pain and conflict and emotion that usually remains unseen. And once you know that is there, you can suddenly see that someone like that can be reached, can be touched, and be opened up. There may be only one such person in our audiences during the entire run of a show, but if they can be held in the imagination while we create... well, I think it might make for greater generosity on everyone's part.

Joshua James said...

I disagree that going to arts events makes one "cultured" or that not going to them makes them "un-cultured" - culture is a word to describe anthrological social habits within certain group circles- the small town I lived in had two cultures, the one that attended one of the three churchs, and the one that attended one of the two bars in town. And there were those seesawing in-between.

That's the culture of that small town. Being that it was an American town, there were other cultural signifiers that belong only to America - big burgers, drive in movies, high school football on Friday nights, etc. No sushi anywhere close. No opera or ballet. Lots of keg beer parties in barns.

My father actually is a country musician on the weekend, so he's involved in the arts, country music, which is not nearly as cool as one would think - that's the truck and gun culture of that area. Cowboy hats and budweiser in the can.

In new york, there is a far different culture. One that includes museums, ball games, different languages and food from any country you can think of. Shakespeare in the park.

I don't think that because someone doesn't go to theatre or arts events, it makes them uncultured. It just makes them simply uninterested. I am also often uninterested in many things cloaked as "culture," because I find them pretentious and hypocrytical. I used to go to poetry readings to read my work years ago and damn, man - the shallow people that were there the times I attended, it was amazing. I've never gone since. it doesn't make me cultured or non-cultured, just discriminate in my taste.

So I don't know that I'd say my old man is uncultured, just set with his ways and cultural choices and very close-minded about it.

The tragedy in my story is that, regardless of whatever it is I'm interested in, he's my father and he should be somewhat interested in me and what I do. He's not, nor has he really ever had been. That's the tragedy of it.

The beauty of Billy Eliot is that hs father was invested and interested in his son, regardless of the death of his wife and the strike and the fact his son was drawn to something so foreign and frightening, in his eyes, that he fought against it and gave in once he realized this was his son, for better or worse, and stuck with him. That's not tragic, that's fucking beautiful. I tear up just thinking about it.

Not to get snitty with you, so I hope you didn't take it that way, just want to point out that culture doesn't equal arts or vice-versa. It's a work to describe anthrological habits of groups either large or small.

Arts is arts. Country music is arts for some folk (definitely not me) and opera is arts for others (not me, either). Not going to one or the other doesn't make one cultured or non.

Scott Walters said...

I totally agree with you, Joshua -- in fact, that was what I was trying to communicate when I put cultured in scare quotes. And you are absolutely right about your father, and I really feel how much that must hurt. It's something one can be angry about, or shrug off, but deep down it feels like shit. I know my father loves me, and wishes he could see me more often -- but I have also had to come to terms with the fact that he has a wide streak of narcissism and just plain spoiled-rottenism (only-child syndrome in spades) that leads him to put himself ahead of others, including me. It is sad, because when I was growing up, we were close, but once my mother died we lost the gravitational center of the family and the whole thing scattered to the winds.

He goes to plays quite often -- not anything I'd really want to see, but plays nonetheless -- but not my plays. It's OK -- my wife goes to see them. But it is hard to pick up where my Dad and I left off, since our only memories of each other are a quarter century old.

Families. No wonder there are so many dramas written about them.

devore said...

That's a lovely, inspiring post, Scott Walters.

Scott Walters said...

Thank you, Mr. Devore.