Monday, August 24, 2015

The Amazing World of M.C. Escher

When we got to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, and started walking around, we were excited to see the Modern Art Museum featuring an M.C. Escher exhibition. I was weaned on Escher at a young age, sitting in my grandfather Emil’s armchair by the fireplace and carefully paging through his big coffee table books of Escher’s works. It was exciting to visit this exhibit and see the prints up close – they look so much more detailed than the reproductions I have seen. Being able to see Drawing Hands, Snakes, and my personal favorite, Castrovalva, up close was very special. Even more special was being able to see the letters he exchanged with Coxeter and Penrose about mathematics and technique. Also, I never really understood his business model before, never understood how much he was very much trying to make prints that people would buy, and trying to maximize their value. His work always had an incomplete quality, to me. He wasn’t really building a world, just giving glimpses into something. When I was young, I always assumed the rest of the world was out there somewhere – that the books just only showed small fragments of it, for some reason. To be an adult now, and to realize that no, these few fragments are all that exist is very sad. To think that a relatively small number of these beautifully rendered, but somewhat sterile fragments are all that exists to represent a human life, and that there never was any more to that world, and there never will be, just an eccentric artist trying to make what people would buy is somewhat disheartening. I guess the other side of the coin is the insane perfection in his work. Doing that kind of work as ink, and as lithographs, and some even more esoteric methods, sometimes spending months on a single print, requires a level of perfection that is hard to even think about, And while his small collection of pictures might seem a little sad, how much sadder are the thousands of artists who slave their whole lives and are not remembered at all? His combination of unique perspective and intense perfection has ensured that his work will live on. I think that Escher is best remembered for his limited collaborations with mathematicians. The lesson I take away most of all is this – if you work alone, your work will be limited. If you would build something large, if you would build a whole world, you must work with a team, and accept and embrace everything that entails.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Back to the Future

In our attempt to properly educate our daughter about the foundations of nerd culture, Back to the Future seemed pretty necessary. And it worked to good effect – she stayed interested, and appreciated the jokes. One thing that had not sunk in with me about the movie – how much it keeps moving! It barely stops for a moment, and tries to tell a slightly complicated story, almost never stopping to recap, which makes it an impressive piece of storytelling. When I advise my students to create “impossible” situations for their characters (novice storytellers never want to create these situations because they can’t see a way out), I think I’ll show the five minutes leading up to the climax, where it seems like there is no conceivable way for Doc Brown to get everything hooked up properly.

One thing that really startled me – I watched the “deleted scenes” – had those been included, it would have been a very different movie! In them, Doc Brown is lecherous and foul-mouthed, the neighborhood cop takes a bribe, and Marty’s Mom cheats on a test for no obvious dramatic reason. They were wise to cut all that, it would have made the film seem grubby. Although, I always had wondered how Doc Brown got rid of the cop… now I wish I didn’t know!

Monday, August 17, 2015

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

I had heard of this show, and have always been fond of spelling, and this high school production seemed family friendly, so we thought we’d check it out. After all, a spelling bee is a good idea for a stage show – it’s already on a stage, already has tension and eccentricity, and everyone understands what it is. And the show was decent. I can’t say it was great, but it was pretty good. The kids did a nice job with their songs and bits, and I think most of my concerns were with the script. It was enough to make me wonder if we were seeing some strange abridged version of the show, since the main weakness was that character relationships did not feel fully developed, and as a result, the characters sometimes did things that didn’t make sense. But the show has a LOT of characters, so maybe that’s just how it is? The show was 90 minutes, which was plenty for a musical – I don’t know how they would have fit in more without cutting something. I found myself wishing for a 35% reduction in characters with a corresponding increase in depth. The school group was from the US (Alexandria, Virginia) and it must have been so exciting for them to come all the way to Edinburgh to perform. Overall, it was about as good as one could hope for a high school production to be, and I’m glad I got to see it. Still, for a musical about spelling bees, I'll take "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" every time.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

4x4 Ephemeral Architectures

I’ve watched a lot of juggling shows. Dozens, probably hundreds. And I’ve put on quite a few. The easiest kinds are the ones where you build anticipation for a difficult or dangerous trick, then do that trick and collect the applause. More difficult are the ones where you weave comedy into your tricks, using the tricks to frame jokes, and using the jokes to set up tricks. Most difficult are the shows where what is happening is simply beautiful. These are so hard because for juggling to be truly beautiful, it must be perfect in a way that evokes an emotional response. You see this most often when a single performer does a very challenging routine against music. But often these routines while technically beautiful, feel emotionally dead. The performer is performing them for you, to impress you, so you come away thinking, wow, that guys is really good. Seldom is the solo performer trying to get you to experience beauty, or an emotional experience. 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures (video trailer here) is like a show I’ve dreamed of, but never thought could really happen. In it, four expert jugglers and four expert ballet dancers perform elegantly choreographed routines by a master choreographer. The entire focus is on creating a beautiful, artful performance, and because there are multiple performers, emotional exchange is natural and inevitable. I have always wondered what it would be like for a really skilled choreographer to work with jugglers to create beauty – the addition of trained dancers makes it even better. The show itself explores the clash of these two cultures, as to fulfill the vision, it was necessary for the jugglers to perform some basic ballet, and for the dancers to perform some basic juggling. Clearly great pains were taken to build routines around what each performer was best at. I can’t imagine how long it must have taken to develop this show, four to six months at minimum. I never cried during a juggling performance before. When I put on headphones and practice in my front yard, trying to create beautiful swooping patterns that match the music, this is the kind of juggling I fantasize about being able to do, and this show has given me hope that one day I may do it. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Biggest Marionette Circus in the World

We went into this show expecting little. Hopefully some big marionettes that would be interesting and amusing. Well, we got that. The marionette work was not world-class, more at the novice level, really, but the giant size of some of the animals made up for that a bit, and added some novelty. There was a little clowning, which honestly was somewhat tiresome because of a lack of listening between the clowns. They barely seemed to know each other were there, much less to meaningfully interact. An exception to this was a fun interaction between a Strong Man and a butterfly, which was fun, amusing, and had great interplay between actors. The glue that held the show together was the ringmaster. He had a weird, dreamlike quality that made him immediately interesting, and both friendly and alien at the same time. The show starts with two clowns (wearing hats that hide their face – immediately putting them at a performance disadvantage) messing about with a mechanical key, trying to start the show. They wind up the various marionettes, but still no show. The ringmaster, feigning unconsciousness, but winking to the audience, finally manipulates them into winding him up so the show can begin. He then “wakes up”, not at all clear about his identity, or where he is… then finally, in a strange but clear European accent, “Ah! I see! Ringmaster!” and looking out at the audience, “Ah… oh! Yes! I remember! Children! Yes, and parents! Yes, I remember!” This strange introduction immediately takes us to an Our Town kind of place – where could he have been that he forgotten about the existence of parents and children? He then assumes the role of ringmaster, introducing the various marionette animal acts. He is always right there with the audience, wanting to help, but often going into strange asides, where he acts like a trustworthy figure, but simultaneously is the kind of person you wouldn’t want your kids left alone with, as his advice and ideas are strange, and he does not have very good control over his strange show. This weirdness creates multiple levels that help keep adults interested – but I felt like where the show falls down a bit is connecting with the kids. At multiple times in the show, the ringmaster tries to involve the audience in call and response to encourage the performers, but he makes the rookie mistake of vagary, saying things like “Help the strong man out, make some noise!” instead of saying “Clap for the strong man!” or “On the count of three, shout, ‘You can do it!’” this vagary left the feedback loop between audience and actors in a watery state, and denied the audience the rush of power that comes from being part of a mass chant that has a real effect. The show is clever, and has its charms, but it also has its sloppy and amateur side. With some tightening, polish, and a little more meaning (Why are we here? What is the message for the audience, exactly?) this okay show could become very great indeed. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Puddles Pity Party

I already had pre-purchased tickets for three shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, which felt like plenty to me, but when we arrived, to our surprise we saw posters that Puddles would be performing! I first became aware of him like many people did, through his youtube video of Royals. I’ve always been interested in clowns and clowning, and Puddles seemed to have a special magic about him, and the idea of seeing him live at the Fringe was too good to pass up. And the show did not disappoint! As much as I was moved by 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures, the most memorable experience of our trip was attending Puddles Pity Party. I’ve had to think a lot about what it is that makes his show so powerful. Let me try to break it down.
  1. I hear many people say, “I don’t like clowns, but I like Puddles,” or “Puddles is a singer who wears a clown costume,” or “Puddles is not a traditional clown.” All of these are wrong. Puddles is not just a clown, he is an excellent clown. People who don’t like clowns have never seen a good one, and this is understandable because good clowning is really hard. It isn’t about being silly or trying to get laughs, it is about being a character that is a genuine side of yourself that has all the unnecessary trappings of reality stripped away so that the audience is confronted with nothing but the raw experience of a primal part of the human psyche. Clowns are complex because they are both genuine, because without tapping into something genuine within themselves, their performance is meaningless, but also unreal, because obviously no one could exist like that. They are a pure facet of humanity, with all the aspects that might dilute that purity, their skin, their hair, their voice, boiled away. Doing this properly and well is incredibly difficult. It requires bravery, cleverness, commitment, and ultimately, purpose. Clowns exist to show us something, something about humanity, something about ourselves. All comedy is like this, clowning is just purer, requiring more bravery, more cleverness, more commitment, and more purpose if it is to succeed. It is no wonder that most clowns fail, to the point that clowning has a bad name.
  2. Some people say Puddles is not a real clown, because he talks. But he doesn’t talk – he only sings. Further, he only sings songs you already know. He never uses his voice to tell you anything you don't already know. This is certainly a twist on traditional clowning, but all successful clowns do something unique. In many ways, there is an obvious parallel between Puddles and Harpo Marx. They are both clearly clowns, but both breaking away from the workaday clown mold. They both confront people pointedly, aggressively, and directly, and they both have musical performance at the heart of their identity.
  3. Puddles as a character is surprisingly deep. He isn’t just a “sad clown.” He is clearly wounded, not just emotionally, but physically. He seems to be in physical discomfort for much of the show, constantly adjusting his costume as if it hurts him, as if it is binding him in some way. Even simple things, like removing a piece of gum from his mouth, seem to be a painful ordeal. When he moves his little stool around the stage, he does it in a way that obviously is the most effort. His character doesn’t seems to be doing this to amuse us, or because he is too foolish to do it an easier way, but almost as if to intentionally show us that this is what we all do. He knows he could do it differently, but he knows that he must show us, and he knows that this is the only way to show us.
  4. His singing is incredible. Allan Sherman used to describe his own act as “a fancy window display at Tiffany’s, with a spotlight, and a velvet pillow, and there on the pillow, is an onion.” Puddles is the opposite of this. His voice is an angel in a junkyard. It simply doesn’t make sense that so much powerful emotion could come from a big, grotesque, sloppy clown. But there it is. If he were an ordinary singer, he’d hold our attention, but as Puddles, both in appearance and in affect, we are powerless to look away.
  5. Like Mister Rogers, we aren’t there for him, he is there for us. He isn’t there to show off. He is there because we need help. Helping us isn’t easy – we don’t even believe we need help, and we certainly didn’t come here seeking it. But Puddles helps us, showing us that not only is it possible to love through pain, but as the New Testament points out, there is no other kind of love. Puddles stalks the stage like a wounded animal, practically limping, but never taking his eyes off of us, and occasionally entering the audience to select someone to bring to the stage. I was one of those he selected, and while I was slightly nervous at first, I’ve done enough audience participation work to feel somewhat comfortable in a situation like this. And, after all, I’d seen what happened to the last “volunteer” – puddles sang happy birthday to him, embarrassed him a little, gave him a balloon and a party hat, and sent him off the stage. I figured I could handle that. But I was not counting on what happened next – Puddles set up a microphone in front of me, and sat down on his stool on the other side of the stage. The opening bars of a Beatles song started up, and Puddles pointed at me, with that “go” look. I am not a comfortable singer. Sure, I do lots of stage stuff, I’m a very comfortable talker – but I’ve never felt good about my singing voice. I do lots of singing privately, I like music and songs. But to suddenly be on stage in front of 200 people and be expected to carry a whole song solo was paralyzing. I cannot remember having been that scared in a long time. But a show is a show, and I respect a show, so I jumped in, heart pounding, and gave it my best, thanking God it was a song in my key. I was really afraid that Puddles and the audience would make faces at my singing – but that didn’t happen! Instead, they both seemed quite impressed by my bravery! It was going so well that Puddles started reading a magazine, which made me break out laughing and miss a line. At Puddles’ prompting, the audience sang the choruses with me, and in the end, I finished it, he presented me with a crown, and we took a bow together. I know it sounds silly, but this was a really meaningful moment for me. I’ve always wanted to sing, but I can’t remember anyone ever complimenting my singing. Instead I remember what it felt like to be the only boy to try out for chorus in the 7th grade, as all the girls snickered, and the music teacher suggesting that “maybe it would be better if I did something else,” or being rejected as a candidate to do singing telegrams in high school drama club, or people making faces at my singing at a party, or in church. I never even tried karaoke, I was too self-conscious. But here was a situation where I sang, and it was okay. It wasn’t great, or anything, but it was okay. And Puddles knew what he was doing, the whole time. He knows what it is to sing in front of people, how vulnerable it makes you. And so he created this trust fall exercise. And it worked – something broke through in me, and I see a path forward now – I think I am actually going to take some singing lessons, and do more to build my confidence as a singer. I doubt everyone who has sung on Puddles’ stage has had the same experience, but I’m sure it must be a powerful experience for almost everyone. I would have been terrified just to watch it!
So, anyway, there is my oversharing about Puddles Pity Party. The show affected me another way. I’ve done some minor clowning over the years, recently developing a character I call Bottlecap, who primarily perform as when working my harmonium. I’ve done some stage work as Bottlecap as a silent character, and I really enjoyed that (here’s a video much hampered by lack of a stage microphone to capture the music). But when I work the street, I’ve never been brave enough to stay silent. People come up and ask me questions about the harmonium, and it feels rude not to answer. But after seeing Puddles’ show, I see the opposite is true – it is irresponsible of me to speak. A clown can’t do his good work if he speaks, any more than a mirror could. When people ask about the harmonium, I should do what I do on stage – show them how to play it, which gives me a chance to become their co-performer where I juggle and dance to the music they make. I’m looking forward to trying this.
So, anyway – perhaps I’m making too much of this, but I don’t think so. I think there must be many people for whom Puddles’ message of pain and love has come at just the right time. Thanks for doing this, Puddles – your good work is helping us all.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Minions

I went into this film with really low expectations. Sure, I enjoyed Despicable Me, and I heard the sequel was okay, but the minions, though mildly amusing, were hardly my favorite part of the film. And when I heard that a film featuring the minions was planned, it just sounded like a kind of sell-out idea. How could they possibly carry a feature film? They only speak a kind of gibberish, and their individual identity is very limited. On top of that, they are helpers to a villain, so there is a challenge getting the audience to empathize with them. I can understand some amusing shorts featuring them, but a Hollywood film would require a kind of hero’s journey, and that just seemed kind of ludicrous.
Well, wow, was I wrong. This film is something of a magic trick, achieved through bravery and cleverness. The keys to success, as best I can pick them out:
  1. An incredibly strange premise: The minions have always lived on earth, parallel with dinosaurs and the evolution of man. They seem to be immortal, or at least living hundreds of millions of years. Where they came from is left a mystery.
  2. The minions seek out the biggest, most evil entity they can find, and endeavor to help it. It isn’t clear why they do this – it’s just what they do.
  3. It isn’t explicitly mentioned, but it is clear that the minions, in the traditional way of clowns and fools, bring bad luck to those around them, but are always lucky themselves in the long run. Weirdly, since they are attracted to villains, this makes them an unwitting force for good.
  4. In the story, the minions simply run out of villains, and become quite bored and dismal. Accordingly, three of them set out on a journey to find a new villain. This simple move allows for a hero’s journey to happen.
  5. We then are confronted with the strange world of the villains, and a story happens. The storytellers are completely unconcerned with reality – this is very important – as some very improbable things happen – Minion Bob becomes the King of England, for example, and somehow the story world doesn’t break – it just keeps stretching, like taffy, because everything just happens so fast, and is so funny, that it doesn’t much matter that what’s happening is impossible. It’s like a funny uncle telling an absurd story to six year olds at a birthday party. They keep laughing, so he keeps making the story more absurd, and they laugh all the more.
  6. Amazingly, there is never some weird misunderstanding separating the minions (see The Muppet Movie, The Three Stooges Movie, etc.), leading to some powerful moment of reconciliation. The minions also do not befriend some cute little girl who has to hide them in her bedroom closet. All the tropes I would have expected just aren’t here. And somehow, the whole thing works… I can’t exactly say why. I guess because the goal of the minions is always very clear, but very challenging, and when things go wrong, we’re pleased to see it. I keep thinking of a story structure I know that’s like this one. Some Marx Brothers movies, say, Horse Feathers, bear some resemblance – but the problem there is that the clowns are helping someone we care about. Typically, in those stories, the clowning makes things worse, and then a stroke of luck + more clowning saves the day. In the beginning it makes the clowns seem insensitive – we feel bad that their clowning is making things hard for the princess. And in the end it often feels like a cop out – they only helped the princess because they were lucky. But here it is all backwards – they don’t realize they aren’t helping the villain, and we don’t mind, because, well, villain. And in the end, yes, there is a stroke of luck + clowning, but it only serves to finally defeat the villain.
  7. Oh, hey, I should mention – since this is a prequel, and mostly happens in England, they went for a whole sixties rock and roll thing – which on one level has nothing to do with the minions, so on the surface, it seems like a tacky choice. But it is so well executed and fun, that it adds a nice dimension to the film.
  8. So, finally, the thing I should really call out is the cyclic nature of the minion’s backstory. They necessarily repeatedly go through the cycle of finding a villain, trying to help, and ultimately destroying the villain. This not only opens them up as a long term franchise, it does a lot to strengthen their story relationship with Gru, from Despicable Me. We now see the minions for what they are – a curse that seeks out and destroys whatever villians it comes into contact with, which makes us wonder how they will inevitably bring down Gru, who we have developed empathy for. So, ultimately, the film fosters interest in another sequel.
Whew. I know that seems like too much analysis for a goofy summer movie, but I take storytelling seriously, and Minions is a storytelling feat! It shouldn’t exist, but there it is! Story is like that – it is so malleable that amazing structures can be built if you create the right foundations. I wish the Tomorrowland team could have been as masterful at storytelling as the Minions team.