" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

CULTURAMA: "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival: Perfect fools

Comedy is hard. Shakespeare is hard. Therefore, Shakespearean comedy carries the highest degree of difficulty possible, for performers and audience members alike.

Luckily, Shakespeare’s comedies are, by and large, actually funny. It takes an astute director and ensemble to flesh out the promise of those gags and the real feelings couched in that antiquated language. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of the romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” is blessed with that – and it’s triumphantly hilarious, one of the best shows they’ve staged in recent memory.

This show will cure anyone with Shakespeare-itis. You know if you’re afflicted – your eyes begin to roll back into your head when you hear iambic pentameter, doublets and hose give you the conniptions, and you fall into a narcoleptic coma well before the end of Act V.

Well, there are reasons the Bard is the Bard. He knows how to tell a story, he knows how to write dialogue, his characters are lively and intense. No amount of horrible English classes or other forced indoctrinations to his work will change that.

At CSF, everyone from director Lynne Collins down to the humblest supernumerary is focused on the same thing – making us laugh. They succeed splendidly. Collins has set her ensemble free: free to find the funny and work it. The dreaded Shakespearean language barrier is vaporized; you can follow the action with the same kind of relaxed clarity the players being to their performances.

The production is set in summery Spain in the mid-1930’s, a time when liberalism and conservative values warred bloodlessly, until the region tipped into civil war at the end of the decade. The warm, bright colors of Andrea Bechert’s attractive, straightforward set, anchored around a functional fountain in its center, give the proceedings a cartoonish flush.

The gist of the matter is love lost, found and confused. Geoff Kent and Karen Slack are perfectly matched as the witty, warring Benedick and Beatrice, two madcap personalities who are tricked into revealing their true feelings for each other. Neither is afraid to bend the play’s language, play with its rhythm, bring the audience into their confidence, or break up a speech with an apt bit of business or touch of physical comedy.

The play’s second, “serious” couple, Hero and Claudio are equally well-drawn by Caitlin Wise and Ben Bonenfant. The paterfamilias of the piece, Leonato, is played so adeptly and with such gravitas by Sam Gregory that he seems to gather the moral focus of the piece. Whether the trickster or the tricked as the plot demands, he radiates authority and emotion in clear and ringing tones.

Steven Patterson is just great as Don Pedro, the brother-in-arms of Benedick and Claudio. His rough-hewn, teasing soldier’s wit is pitched perfectly. The biggest surprise of the night is Michael Kane. He begins the evening as the peevish villain of the piece, Don John (his agonized melancholy is a great choice for the character) and then reappears, unrecognizably, as the affable, demented and stooped constabulary sidekick, Verges.

His crime-fighting partner is Chip Persons, as wonderfully daft a Dogberry as I can remember seeing. Clad in beret, luxuriant mustachios, and crossed bandoliers, he murders the language and the crowd with his stylized gestures and blissful ignorance.

It takes great diligence to strip away the layers of scholarship, and the intimidating reputation of Shakespeare, to get to the essence of his work and make a compelling show out of it. “Much Ado” does. Anyone who needs a laugh should snap up tickets for this show as soon as possible.

"Hell's Hinges"

This analysis first appeared in Senses of Cinema in June of 2005.

Hell’s Hinges
(1916, 64 min.)
Directed by: Charles Swickard, (William S. Hart, Clifford Smith)
Written by: C. Gardner Sullivan
Produced by: Thomas H. Ince
Cinematography: Joseph H. August

It seems highly unlikely now that William S. Hart could ever have achieved the iconic status he possesses in cinema culture. Even during his heyday, he was viewed by some critics and moviegoers as stolid, horse-faced, with an emotional disposition of slight but disquieting constipation (1).
However, an aggregation of personal qualities and external circumstances propelled him to the forefront of the national consciousness. In 68 films created over a mere 11-year span (1914-1925), he crafted an authoritative and compelling archetype, and created a moral/mythic context for film Westerns that still defines the genre today.
“Hell’s Hinges” is his most emblematic film, one whose simple power and apposite impulses transcends its most egregious clich├ęs. It is at once reactionary and revolutionary, a film in which deeply felt piety gives its bearer license to unleash Armageddon – an emblematic American gesture that would find its way into other genres, and even invade the historical realm.
Like many who upheld the mythos of America’s Old West, Hart was an Easterner. He was born in Newburgh, New York, in 1864. His father was an itinerant miller, and his impoverished family traveled widely during his childhood. Some of this time was spent in the West and Midwest, at the tail end of the frontier period.
Though it is likely that his contact with this rapidly vanishing culture was glancing and superficial, the shy, daydreaming youth later inflated these memories, beefing them up into a recalled childhood that teemed with intimate contacts with Indians and famous frontiersmen. Hart would parlay this sense of anointment into a weighty sense of self-importance and authenticity in his work.
Hart spent nearly 25 years on American stages, working himself up into the leading ranks of Broadway performers. Adept at Shakespeare, he made his name as the original Messala in the first theatrical version of “Ben-Hur”. Then, in 1905, he filled his first Western role – that of the villainous Cash Hawkins in a production of “The Squaw Man.” From then on, “audiences … associated him with cowboy characters.”(2)
In 1913, Hart was on tour in Cleveland, Ohio, when he saw his first Western film. “It was awful! … I was an actor and I knew the West … The opportunity that I had been waiting for years to come was knocking at my door.”(3) Within a year, Hart set out for California and the movie business.
By the time “Hell’s Hinges” was made, Hart had appeared in 25 films, and captured the audience’s imagination, becoming one of film’s first genuine stars. In this, he was fortunate to fall in with pioneer film producer, and former fellow thespian, Thomas H. Ince, who applied the techniques of Ford’s assembly line to the nascent movie industry, cranking out a massive amount of product in an efficient manner – presaging the Hollywood system (4).
Given his head (and grossly underpaid) by Ince, Hart brought new qualities to the Western, which previously had been known best for chases, scenes of gunplay, and the broad emotionalism of actors such as “Broncho Billy” Anderson (another New Yorker, nee Max Aronson). Although the theme of the bad man achieving redemption through sacrifice was not unknown in the Western, Hart’s restrained gravity on screen gave new weight to as-yet-uncliched figure of the domesticated outlaw.
Hart’s subdued intensity was a marked change from the over-the-top histrionics of his predecessors. His practiced skill at manipulating an audience was honed through his incessant film work. Though his hamminess breaks through at times, the essential, “manly” stillness of his screen persona would be imitated by countless followers – most notably John Wayne.
Hart’s performances were also imbued with the sentiments of the Victorian era – giving a strangely stilted, almost Puritanical bent to even his most vicious characters. In the Hart universe, women are either catspaws of evil or vessels of light, to be spurned or worshipped. Children are devices to rouse pity and inspire sacrifice. In “Hell’s Hinges,” the simple cowboy film becomes a vehicle for an epic confrontation between good and evil.
The actions of men, or their tragic inability to act, dominate here. “Hinges” opens with the depiction of an anti-hero in unique garb – that of a minister. “Bob” Henley (Jack Standing), seen preaching to an assembly of adoring women, is characterized in the film’s intertitles as a mother-dominated, “weak and selfish youth.”
His superiors see seem as unable to stand up to the harsh demands of a city parish, and decide to send him West, “where the people live simply and close to God.” This is in keeping with the common cultural assumption of the time that the West was a more “real,” elemental place, simpler yet more challenging, a place where Darwinian processes could work themselves out unhindered. (Henley, told of this decision, fantasizes briefly about ministering to some lovely, flirtatious senoritas.)
Accompanied by his not-so-subtly-named sister Faith (Clara Williams), Henley finds himself in, not Hell, but a remarkable facsimile thereof. (The brother/sister relationship eerily echoes Hart’s own life. Frequently engaged, briefly married, he spent most of his life with his sister Mary Ellen, who jealously tended him. (5)) An introductory gunfight, taken in an overhead long shot, emphasizes the chaotic, antlike scurrying of the town’s inhabitants.
As was common in the Old West, Placer Centre – better known as Hell’s Hinges – is dominated by the pleasure palace of Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth), who is characterized with casual racism as part Mexican, part snake. As the town’s Mephistopheles, he will bring all his evil talents to bear on destroying Christianity and its followers.
Hart is Miller’s confederate Blaze Tracey, who is indicated as wicked mainly by smoking, drinking, and grinning. (He shoots up a tin can that’s been decorated with a caricature of the new preacher – a nice metaphor for the relative flimsiness of Henley’s character.)
Tracey’s resolve to run the preacher out of town is stymied by his instant attraction to Faith. His poleaxed gaze at her is accompanied by the intertitle: “One who is evil, looking for the first time on that which is good.” At that point, the film’s double set of parallel actions kicks into gear. Henley’s fall is inevitable, as is Tracey’s rise and redemption. Later, in contrast to Henley’s salacious earlier fantasy, Tracey has a vision of the proverbial old rugged cross.
Like a war campaign, the town’s two sides invade each others’ territories. Miller’s soused and rowdy patrons swarm into the barn in which the town’s churchly folk, the “petticoat brigade,” hold their first service – until Tracey forces them out at gunpoint. Later, when Henley is seduced by Miller’s Dolly (Louise Glaum), the church folk, led by Tracey, march into Miller’s saloon as a body and retrieve their fallen shepherd. (One of the strongest shots in the picture is an angled shot that of Tracey marching down the main street toward the camera with the unconscious Henley draped over his shoulders.)
The spiritual coterie builds its church, with Tracey’s help – his conversion process is punctuated by a simple, affecting scene of him reading the Bible, cigarette in one hand, bottle of whiskey at his side. Ironically, Henley’s turn to drink renders him a near-imbecile, and when the town rowdies shout, “To hell with the church! Let’s burn her down!”, Henley gleefully snatches up a torch and leads the way.
A pitched battle results in Henley’s death, the expulsion of the faithful, and the immolation of the church – in one of the film’s many powerful images, Faith weeps over her brother’s corpse in the foreground, while behind, smoke boils and hurtles, wind-whipped, from the isolated figure of the burning house of worship.
The final sequence is undoubtedly what propelled the film to eventual inclusion on America’s prestigious National Film Registry in 1994. “Killin’ mad, and with a gun in each hand,” Tracey, who’s been conveniently out of town during the battle, hears of its outcome from a ragged band of refugees (what happens to the expelled “petticoat brigade”? we are never informed) returns to settle the score.
His extermination of Miller is offhand – blink and you’ll miss it. Filled with a new-found, (self) righteous vengeance, Tracey becomes a bloodthirsty, vindictive embodiment of both the “social gospel,” a popular 19th-century kind of spiritual Manifest Destiny, and its coefficient, “muscular Christianity,” which basically gave its proponents license to whip the tar out of scoffers, nonbelievers, and those of other faiths.
Rivetingly, Tracey backs the saloon’s ne’er-do-wells into a corner and shoots down the oil lamps, turning the building into an inferno (“Hell needs this town, and it’s goin’ back, and goin’ damn quick!”) Shooting down those who try to bolt, he holds the men at gunpoint until the last possible second, then allows them to flee. Remaining behind, Tracey then seems to break focus, wandering distractedly, the flames leaping up behind him. Some judicially placed flares of combustible material to the rear give Hart a hellish nimbus. It’s almost as though his descent into violence has temporarily transformed him into a demon as well, later echoed in Eastwood’s similar climax in 1992’s “Unforgiven.”
Hart strides out of the building and into the streets, moving toward the camera robotically, a death-dealing machine, like some ur-Terminator. Cowpokes and dance-hall girls scatter amid the swirling smoke, “like vague demons in some primitive hell,” (6) as the entire town burns to the ground. There is redemption for Hart alone, and it’s savage. In a peculiar foreshadowing of the Vietnam experience, he destroys the village in order to save it.
No wonder so many claimed the director’s credit for the film – although Charles Swickard is officially credited, it is generally acknowledged that Hart directed at least most of the film, with the help of long-time assistant Clifford Smith. Ince took credit for helming the fire scenes, (7) but the extraordinary strength of the film’s compositions can probably credited to Colorado-born photographer Joe August, who shot over 40 of Hart’s films and went on to be an Oscar-winning cinematographer of such Hollywood classics as “The Informer,” Laughton’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and “Gunga Din.” (8) The climactic fire sequence was shot “day for night,” although prints without the colored gels that indicate day and night scenes make this difficult to remember.
At film’s end, Tracey takes up Henley’s body, and Faith’s hand, leading her into the distance. Though there is a conventional happy ending in sight, what’s gone before has tainted it, and thrown the film’s premise out of joint. Slaughter and wholesale destruction is sanctified by religion … or is it? In this wildly popular film, the audience got to have its cake and eat it too – a dangerous addiction that would crop up, for better or worse, again and again in American cinema.

-- Brad Weismann

Brad Weismann, a cinephile and former comedian, is a journalist, arts writer and playwright who lives with his wife and children in Boulder, Colorado, USA.

1. As cited in “Shooting Cowboys and Indians,” A.B. Smith, pg. 183

2 Smith, pg. 160

3. “My Life East and West,” Hart, pgs. 198-199

4. “The Complete Films of William S. Hart,” Diane Kaiser Koszarski, pg. xv

5. “William S. Hart: Projecting the American West,” Ronald L. Davis, passim.

6. “The Western,” Fenin and Everson, pg. 91

7. “The War, the West and the Wilderness,” Kevin Brownlow, pg. 270

8. Arthur Edelson, www.theasc.com/magazine/aug04/founding/page3.html

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness: Belonging

Part of an ongoing series.


CAVEAT LECTOR: This story contains toxic levels of self-pity. Forewarned is forearmed.

" . . . the school would impose a discipline of speed and uniformity, and those individuals which would not or could not meet the school's requirements would be killed or lost or left behind. The overfast would be eliminated by the school as readily as the overslow, until a standard somewhere between fast and slow had been attained. Not intending a pun, we might note that our schools have to some extent the same tendency. A Harvard man, a Yale man, a Stanford man -- that is, the ideal -- is as easily recognized as a tuna, and he has, by a process of elimination, survived the tests against idiocy and brilliance. Even in physical matters the standard is maintained until it is impossible, from speech, clothing ,haircuts, posture, or state of mind, to tell one of these units of his school from another. In this connection it would be interesting to know whether the general collectivization of human society might not have the same effect. . . . The slow must be speeded up or eliminated, the fast slowed down. In a thoroughly collectivized state, mediocre efficiency might be very great, but only through the complete elimination of the swift, the clever, and the intelligent, as well as the incompetent. Truly collective man might in fact abandon his versatility."
John Steinbeck, "The Log from the Sea of Cortez"

"Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend." -- Wallace Stegner, "Angle of Repose"

Why does the very first memory have to be of exclusion, abandonment, scorn, and isolation? Just lucky, I guess.

I must have been four years old or so. I was playing on a wide, quiet, leafy street lined with big beautiful houses, stoops, wraparound porches. This would have been Monmouth, Illinois, where my family lived for a brief time. A bunch of neighborhood kids and I were playing hide and seek. I was nominated as it, first. They ran and hid. And stayed that way.

I finished counting. I searched and searched. They were gone, I never did find out where. Or why they left me. “Olly olly oxen free!” I called over and over and over, to no effect, until I was hoarse. No kids reappeared, no adults emerged to find out what was the matter. I don’t remember the aftermath. It was a scenario that would repeat itself throughout my life.

Now, looking at my account of this little incident a half-century later, it seems ludicrous. How could such a small thing have affected me so strongly? But hurt it did, the worst kind of hurt. It was a burning, palpable, shameful, lingering kind of agony, the kind that I internalized, roasting and crackling away inside me, a living perpetually stoked hell, one that kept me awake at night, wondering what kind of atonement, what fundamental change, what pretzel shape I would have to contort myself into in order to be accepted, to life the curse.

True, I did not have a lot going for me at the time. I was four, for fuck’s sake. I was puny, with no social skills, and little common sense. I was horribly near-sighted and didn’t realize it until two grades of agony and not being able to see what was going on around me had only augmented people’s idea that I was a congenital idiot. I had a hyperactive imagination and mouth, so that when I articulated whatever was going on inside me I was stared at like I was a little nutjob, or told to shut up. Whatever I was, the message I got was that it was not OK.

It extended to my extended family. I was one of a horde of male cousins, all of whom were outgoing, well-adjusted athletic types who all grew up and became shatteringly normal. I was a creepy little twerp.

I made friends here and there, usually fellow freaks. It seems that when a kid is an outsider, he or she is tagged with a radioactive signal that kids everywhere can pick up on immediately. I was soon the pariah of any neighborhood into which I moved. I pretty much learned to duck any group of two or more kids coming down the street toward me. At school, at camp, in church, on the playground, I stuck to myself.

I bonded much more easily with grown-ups, mainly teachers, but that had its obvious limitations. By the time I was mid-way through junior high school, I was thoroughly miserable, so tense that my head was permanently skewed to one side, pulling my hair out in patches, pretty much ready to be institutionalized.

Thank God for music, and theater. We didn’t have enough money to afford instrument lessons, but I could sing, which took me out of myself and allowed me to integrate my efforts, however briefly, with a larger group in the pursuit of beauty. For the first time I was literally and figuratively in harmony with others. I took to it immediately, hard. Also, I auditioned for the lead role in “The Music Man” and somehow nailed it. I could perform. I had integrity onstage, in the spotlight. I was suddenly somehow engaging, talented, entertaining. I was hooked.

This opened a treasure box for me. Humanity wanted something to do with me. My presence was needed. I told jokes that people got, I shared feelings that friends understood, I came up with ideas that people wanted to help make tangible. I could pitch in and be welcomed. It was great. With the crazy, dysfunctional home life I endured at the time, it kept me out of the house for long hours and probably saved me.

It didn’t last. I resumed my outsider status in college. I couldn’t take the super-serious business of becoming an actor . . . seriously. I couldn’t join a group, I couldn’t network, I couldn’t do the things I needed to do to advance myself. I wandered all over New York City when not in class, on my own, toting a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter so that I could spend the rest on theater, galleries, museums, films . . . learning much more than was probably good for me. God takes care of idiots, which explains how I was able to hang out in places such as the Bowery, Harlem, Old Times Square, Hell’s Kitchen, and Tompkins Square at all hours of the night and not gotten my throat slit.

Looking back on it now, I can see that I was suffering a kind of slow-motion nervous breakdown. My family at home blew up, our finances went south, and I quit school, coming home to catch-as-catch-can work in menial jobs and small roles in local theater. It took trying standup comedy to lift me out of myself again and put me in another brother- and sisterhood that I could hang with. With the help of plenty of booze and pot. Until, of course, the maximal limit of my talent was reached and I was slotted into the proper designation.

Of course, hand in hand with this were the repeated attempt to go straight, as it were. Time and again, I would latch onto “regular” jobs in various organizations, looking for a stable career path, a future, trying to fit in with the little cliques and kinship groups that are a part of every workplace. No matter how hard I worked to prove myself, how violently I suppressed my natural tendencies, how badly I ingratiated, it never worked out. How come?

It seems that every group has two conditional elements: a hierarchy, and a need to be taken seriously at some level. You pay proper obeisance to the hierarchy. You reinforce everyone’s sense of identity by obtaining a place in the given constellation of relationships and inhabiting it. If you stayed stuck at the bottom rung of acceptance, so be it. You were not meant to rise, or to alter the balance. When you have fully internalized the code of that particular subgroup, you may be allowed to enter the inner circle. Or not. It’s all dependent on the needs of the group, not the individual.

The behavior patterns, attitude, language, priorities, beliefs, of any given group are codified. These must be maintained as well, or the coherence of the group is threatened. Laughter is nooooot welcome. I was doomed from the start, if you think about it. With humor as my lifelong sword and shield, the tool of dissection of stupidity and cruelty, I couldn’t resist poking holes in the flimsy schemes and structures established to maintain group identity. The impulse to martyrize myself was minimal. I just couldn’t not tell the unjustly dominant to go fuck themselves. It wasn’t a perverse impulse to be a naysayer, a rebel, an antihero. Hey, I would still sell out, given half a chance! Cheaply! Give me a call!

The groups to which I will always belong are those you can’t get thrown out of – the belligerent, the disaffected, the exiled, the strange, the scorned, the discounted, the addicted, ruffians, no-goods, cranks, eccentrics, losers. The fraternities of the terminally insolent, such as comedians, journalists, recovering addicts, and others who well good and finally don’t really give a shit what anybody from the land of consensual reality thinks.

50 years later, this meditation is still ragged and incomplete. I can still feel the pull, the urge to communicate, reach out, make contact, belong, albeit from a safer distance, behind the keyboard. For decades I’ve had the image in my head of me standing outside, looking through the window at the party inside. Tapping, tapping, tapping. Olly olly oxen free.

But there’s no inside or outside, that’s all an illusion, although it is one that hypnotizes us all, the big game that you ignore at your peril, that will keep you marginalized, unemployed, and castigated. Rules that kill.

Life, however, unmitigated wonderful real life, is what is what it is. Irreducible, it can’t be denied you, and if you open up the channels dammed by self-contempt, the waters of life flow to you and through you. Then you bloom, then you feed the sky with your beauty. Then you generate thunderheads and pour down life on the other parched souls and give them hope. The circle of green widens, and the nasty little bastards who want things their way and their way only can only hang their over the fences they built to keep you all out and jaw impotently.

Maybe I had to go through what felt like death in order to know how to live. If you don’t like your society, create your own. I have. It has two rules: don’t be a jackass, and lighten the fuck up.