Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thin Line

I have often been accused of taking things "too close to the line" in my theatrical work. This means different things to different people, but mostly it refers to my love of the grand emotional moment - one that sits on the razor thin line between comedy and tragedy. This has led many a colleague to worry about my work in terms of its intended tone. Will it be misunderstood? Misinterpreted? Accepted as emotionally truthful? Laughed off the stage as histrionic trash?

I'm entering a third stage in my artistic life. In Stage One, I would receive this sort of criticism and I'd simply blow it off. My wall of arrogance was so impenetrable such comments were brushed off my shoulder like irritating dandruff. As I humbled and worked to develop lasting collaborative relationships, I swung the other way. Stage Two began, and I became terrified of such critique. I became confused as to how I could have such a skewed perception of my own work. And I worried endlessly about pleasing everyone. I worked to imagine scenarios for plays that might please the masses - please the critics. I looked to colleagues who were being produced...who were getting far more acclaim for their that seemed more accessible.

Now I enter Stage 3 - and I'm simply trying to embrace my own taste. Truth is, I love moments in art that push me to that line. It is often a place where the audience member has to choose to "go along" or "check out." I look closely at the horror genre, which I love immensely. You cannot be scared by horror unless you choose to be scared. Okay, I suppose there are those who frighten easily. But what I mean is...if you buy a ticket to see a horror movie and buy a horror are making a contract with yourself to feel scared. You agree to that experience. Otherwise, it would all be comic. I can also look at opera in this way. And that may be the best way to discuss my taste. I love the operatic gesture in sculpting emotional moments. I love the extreme. This does not mean mindless melodrama. But it certainly isn't subtle. And I've come to loathe those who believe that a lack of subtlety means a lack of complexity. Subtle can be beautiful...but it can also be plain BORING.

This came up for me a few days ago when I was watching an interview between Ed Norton and film critic Elvis Mitchell. To my shock, Norton went off for a moment about how great Faye Dunaway's performance is in Mommie Dearest. Mitchell was clearly perplexed and tried to nuance his reaction by saying something like, "But that's more like a Kabuki style..." Then Norton went on to discuss how much courage it takes for an artist to take something to the very edge and how much he admires that. I was tickled, because I have always felt that Dunaway's performance was stunning and quite misunderstood by those who enjoy it merely for camp value. Even the new DVD packaging hails it as a camp classic and is clearly intended to target the drag show audience. But to this day - and I saw the movie about a year ago - I find her portrayal honest. It is not subtle. But I find it filled with integrity.

There are other moments in film/theatre that have divided audiences where it was declared the "line was crossed into absurdity."

--The final scene in There Will Be Blood
--Almost anything in The Exorcist
--The climactic monologue in Suddenly, Last Summer
--George C. Wolfe's staging of Angels in America
--Jack Nicholson's performance in The Shining.
--Piper Laurie in Carrie
--The Tokyo story in Babel

This is a list of some of my favorite artistic things. I find none of them comic or inappropriate to the material or vision. As I look at it, I realize that much of it is immersed in sex/religion/violence. When these things are mixed into the emotional arc of a story do I simply have a high tolerance? As I said in a previous post, it may have much to do with my desire for art to transport me to completely different place. The unreal. And as "large" as these moments are, they are filled with truth for me. They thrill me.

Anyway...point is, I can only create what ultimately pleases me. I'm trying to own my aesthetic and create work that I enjoy. And hopefully, within that is the potential for truth and emotional relevance. And if a few laugh and roll their eyes, ("Oh, WENT there...") so be it.



splattworks said...

In times like these, (cough, cough), I just turn to wise old Dr. Benway, who always used to say, just before he performed abdominal surgery with a rusty can lid: "Everything is permitted. Nothing is forbidden."

Which I take to mean, in society we may be screwed, but in the imagination, everyone is free. If you like it, you got it made. Everyone else just has to catch up.


Jeremy said...

Wow, you listed about all my favorite works. But what happens when you have something absurd that crosses into something scary? Thats kinda what I thought of Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder.