Thank you very much for the opportunity to work on your play, THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH.
Although I have been an admirer of the play for some time, this is my first opportunity to direct it, and the experience has been deeply gratifying, to say the least.
As I studied the piece, I was a bit daunted by the stylistic range the play contained. How would I reconcile the various elements in a production? Should they be reconciled?
I recalled that when you premiered the play, Elia Kazan had cast Frederick March, Tallulah Bankhead and Montgomery Clift in the play. Three actors who could not be more different in their styles and acting approaches.
Of course, since you are dealing the the entire history of the human race, it only makes sense to examine the various legacies of theatrical style and acting process as well.
Then there is the text itself: I can hear your New England rhythm and cadence, your mighty sentence structure, your range of expression that is both subtle and as demanding as Shakespeare.
Speaking of structure, the three acts of the play each stand as towering accomplishments. Taken together they are spectacular to behold. I don't think I have encountered a playwright who has divided three acts of a play into The Ice Age, The Deluge and The War in the manner you have. Yet at the same time, there is a miraculously delicate attention to the smallest of human details in every scene. A hot meal, a sewing needle, bread, a child's report card, the sound of a whistle from an old shoe polish factory.
I have come to understand that in the midst of all the epic sweep of the play, you want us to understand that it is the everyday, the simple, the human relationships that are what matter most, for they give your grand themes a kind of emotional heart that is beautiful to witness.
Let me close by congratulating you for drawing out new possibilities for the stage, new frontiers of theatrical expression and having the courage to not surrender to the demands of genre, style or type.
I think, Mr. Wilder, you have invented something even Mr. Antrobus would envy: you have invented the drama of the possible.
He became aware of the ghost haunting him on a day when he was driving to work as usual.
"This is not me driving. Rather, this is not me who wants to drive, but some disembodied being."
He mused on this as the light turned green.
The only answer he could come to was that he was being haunted. Some spirit was guiding his every movement and action.
Over the next few days, he went about his business: work, the market, home, work, the market, home. It was fascinating, as if living a waking dream. He spoke to people, drove, walked, ate, slept and lived, yet he understood that he was no longer really alive. Everything he did was simply choreography. The movements dictated by someone else. By a ghost.
Once, while sipping a warm coffee and smoking a cigarette, he began to consider when it was that this haunting began. A month ago? On a Sunday? While he was asleep? No.
It was when he realized she was lost to him. Yes. When she became lost.
And when she became lost, he became a haunted man.
The dark city is alive, but not for him. He wanders through the streets and alleys, always accompanied by his haunting spirit. The spirit prods him along, points out things here and there, keeps him alive.
Why, he could not know.
There would be the endless stretch of days, the months and years ahead, to be sure. The haunting spirit would make sure he moved through each day as if he were still a human being, but in truth he would only be a kind of puppet. A silly marionette made of flesh and bone.
What happens when the heart of a man is killed? What happens when the deep shadows behind half closed doors and under stairways are the only places he feels warm? How do we explain the empty character that is played by an actor who knows not what the story is?
These questions would echo off the damp walls and heavy pavements he passed for as long as his machine would last.
In the end, no one would notice that he had vanished. Only the ghost would remain, lonely now with the memories of love he had stolen from that poor bastard long ago.
In the ancient city, there was a well so deep that no one had ever found the bottom.
The water was sweet and plentiful though, so people thought it best to leave a good thing alone.
One day, a young woman arrived from the north. She was from Normandy, and she spoke the Frankish tongue of William the Conqueror. She made her way through the crowded marketplace, her long amber skirts dusty from the road. Merchants and vendors watched as she passed, trying to see her face which was obscured by a deep red head scarf. On her right hand, she wore a ring with a golden animal fang on it.
When she arrived at the well, she took off her head scarf and sat down on the edge of the little gathering pool where for a thousand years the people came for their water.
Her eyes were the color of peridot, that peculiar and beguiling green that often bewitches.
A little girl, braver than the others, ventured close to the woman.
- Who are you?
The woman smiled sadly and said -
- Just a simple pilgrim. I am on my way to the holy land. -
She showed the little girl a pendant she wore around her neck. It was a small silver likeness of Saint James, the patron saint of those who make pilgrimages.
The litte girl sniffled and kicked her bare feet in the dust.
- Why are you waiting at the well? -
The woman looked at the pool of clear water next to her and said -
- I am on my way to the Holy Land, but I will never get there. Instead, I am cursed to throw myself into this well for a crime. -
The little girl startled, her dull grey eyes widening.
- A crime? What crime? Are you a murderess? -
- No, you needn't fear me. I have committed the crime of loving one whom I have been forbidden to love. -
- But...love...how can loving someone be a crime? -
The woman smiled at the little girl and told her the story of the knight who had come to her father's castle on his way to the Holy Land.
- There was a strange light coming from the east the morning he rode up to the castle gate. It was as if the sun was afraid to rise, and the grey dawn lingered far too long. His hair was flecked and tainted like the dusty road, and his skin was the color of ancient parchments.
My father took him in, as is the custom with our people in the north. We would never turn away a knight on the road, no matter his destination or his fealty.
The day before he left us forever, I went to the stables where he was tending to his horse. He greeted me formally, and was careful not to look too long at me. But I could feel his desire, his interest, his affection.
Over a dozen suppers, a handful of simple conversations and one or two glances, we both knew we were going to tempt fate.
Now, in the stables, it was up to me to turn Fortune's wheel, no matter the cost.
'I've brought you bread. I made it this morning. It is flavored with pomegranates.'
I pulled the bread from a woven cloth and held it out to him. He turned and stared at the bread, then brought his eyes up to meet mine.
'Many thanks, my lady. Perhaps another time. This horse needs to be groomed...'
With that, he turned his back to me and began working a brush through the horse's tatted mane.
I stepped closer to him, and almost touched his back with the loaf of bread, still in my outstretched hand.
'You'll stop tending to the mare and eat some of this. I was at the ovens before dawn, and its worth the trouble, sir.'
He froze, the brush in mid stroke. Then he turned, dropped the brush and sighed, his eyes wandering across the empty courtyard beyond us.
'Is it worth the trouble, my lady?'
'Yes. It is.'
That night he came quietly to my chamber. When the dawn came, he left me asleep by the dying fire.
When I awoke, he was already miles gone on the road to the Holy Land. By the dawn of the next day, I knew I was carrying his child inside of me.
When they took the lifeless little body of his son from my arms those months later, I did not cry.
When I heard the sound of the city gates slamming shut behind me, and the din of my father's curses and my mother's wailings atop the city walls, I did not turn around.
When I reached the far horizon, I did not stop walking.
Only now, will I rest. -
The little girl, rapt by the story, was still and wide eyed. After a few moments of silence, she spoke.
- Your eyes are the color of peridot. I've seen that stone in the hills nearby. It is the most beautiful color in the whole world. If you please, my lady, do not throw yourself into the well. -
The woman smiled and took the little girl's hand in hers.
- I am an outcast, a woman without a home. I have brought shame to my father's house and love a man who fights in battles a thousand thousand leagues hence. Perhaps he has already forgotten me. Only this sacred well will redeem my troubled soul. -
- Come with me! - The little girl rose and tugged at the woman's hand. - I have something to show you! -
Despite herself, the woman let the little girl lead her through a turn of narrow streets to a door that led to a small shop. Amid the clutter of countless confusing things, sat an old man with a red cap and frayed beard.
- Grandfather! I have found her! The woman with the eyes of peridot! -
The old man peered through the dim shadows at the woman. He pinched her jaws and leaned towards her eyes, squinting.
- The eyes of peridot...so, you are she? Show me the ring! -
Not understanding, the woman held up her hand, revealing a golden fang on the silver band.
-Yes...yes...it is you. Ha! Miracles! They say the gods are long dead, but still...uncanny! Tell me...do you still know how to make the bread with pomogranetes? -
Later, over coffee and dates, the old man regaled the woman with his own tale:
The knight had stopped at the well on his way to the Holy Land. As he drank, and filled a skin of water for his horse, he heard a voice come from the deep emptiness below him. The voice was nothing more than a whisper, almost a thought carried on the mid day breezes.
- Everything returns. -
The knight then left a sum of coin with the old man, with a promise that upon his return he would reward him with great riches if only he would watch for the woman with the eyes of peridot.
But how would she know to come here? This well? This place? Who will know her from the thousands of travelers who pass by? Who can say if you will survive to return? This is madness!
The knight listened patiently to the protestations of the old man, but was firm in his promise: hold the coins, watch for the woman, believe that what must happen, must happen. The well knows the truth.
For the next few months, the woman cared for the old man and his grand daughter, helping around the shop and baking often in the old stone hearth.
One cool winter morning, the old man awoke to the smell of fresh bread and sweet pomegranate, and singing. She was singing. Singing in a clear, string voice as she baked, a voice of joy and happiness. The woman explained to the old man that she knew today would be special, and she wanted to be prepared.
The old man puzzled at the ways of the universe, where lovers who are worlds apart speak to each other through the colors of gems, the scent of breads, a whisper in a lonely well in a town square. All the learning of all the sages across time was folly compared to the mystery of love.
Late that afternoon, the sound of horses hooves stopped outside, and a knight whose skin was the color of old parchment and whose hair was flecked dark and grey like the northern ocean filled the doorway of the little shop.
The old man and the little girl watched as the woman held out the pomogranate bread to the knight, her hands trembling. The knight took the bread with both his hands, then took up the woman into his arms into a swirl until the scent of the loaf, the green light of the woman's peridot eyes and the laughter of both echoed out into the courtyard against the walls and fell pell mell like stones cast by happy children down the bottomless well.
Some say that on special days, when the breeze is gentle and the day is long, and the sunset flashes peridot green before it sets in the west, one can hear the echoes of their laughter and just catch the fresh scent of pomegranates by the well in the center of the city.
-Everything returns. -
The other day a friend who had no connection to the dramatic arts asked me a simple, but ultimately puzzling question.
"What is an actor?"
Of course, the simple answer is: "Someone engaged in the art and craft of acting."
The complicated answer took some time to sort out.
Once one moves past the basic premise that an actor is someone who acts, there is a confluence of factors that affect a more nuanced definition.
Some of these include the obvious: whether someone makes a living wage acting, whether someone is acknowledged by some level of industry, profession, press and/or audience as an actor, whether someone is able to act in the structures of fim, television, theatre, etc. where actors typically are found.
However, I choose to define an actor in a very different way.
For me, the answer to the question: "are you an actor?" can be measured by a series of pretty basic self-examinations.
- An actor engages in their art and craft every single day of their existence. Like an athlete or musician, rigor and discipline are a part of the profession. If you don't read a play, study other actors, work on something or explore aspects of the world that inform your creativity and acting each and every day of you existence, you are not an actor.
- An actor does not define themselves through external results. They only define themselves in terms of their relationship to the work. Agents, managers casting directors, acting teachers, friends, family, lovers and strangers all see the actor through their own skewed vision specific to who they are. If you think you are what others tell you you are, you are not an actor.
- An actor understands that rejection and failure are all necessary aspects of a larger life journey, just as successes and accolades are, and treats both as distractions, not definitions. If you believe you have failed, and you believe you have succeeded, you are not an actor.
- An actor knows that they are the sum total of their craft, and treats their mind, body and spirit accordingly. Mental discipline, physical discipline and spiritual discipline are the foundations of artistry. If you think otherwise, you are not an actor.
- An actor does not wait for the profession to come to them. An actor engages in their art and craft when and where possible and even where it is impossible, because that is who they are. If you are waiting to act until invited to do so, you are not an an actor.
In conclusion, I would suggest to those who are not actors to stop pretending that you are, and to stop telling people that you are. There are a lot of real actors who have made a true commitment to an honored art form who you are making look bad.
To those of you who have lost their way, for whatever reason, I would suggest you look hard in the mirror and decide. Life's too short to keep pretending. It's not worth it.
To those of you who are living the life of an actor, whether you are in a mansion in Beverly Hills or a barrio in some godforaken village somewhere, I salute you. You are the bravest of the brave, and there are many of us who admire your courage and your passion. You know who you are, and that is enough.
Are you an actor?
"...now is not the time for fear...That comes later." - Bane
The third installment of The Dark Knight fable that ventures into the conflicted heart of The Batman is a fascinating moment of American pop cinema and real life tragedy zeitgeist.
The main theme of the film, which asks us to consider the failures of our leaders and institutions in America and the ethics of individual action for ideals gained terrifying resonance with the shooting that left a dozen dead and 70 plus wounded at an Aurora Colorado screening of the film.
The film itself explores the moral bankruptcy of capitalism, the rising friction between classes due to the global economic crisis as well as the nature of order, governance and personal action in a time when America faces its greatest existential crisis since the end of the Vietnam war.
Throughout the first part of the film, we are haunted by the idea that " a storm is coming." There is a thickening sense of dread and forboding over an otherwise peaceful Gotham. When the storm arrives, it brings a level of mayhem and chaos that is epic and disturbing to behold.
This omnibus of terror is juxatposed against popular images of American patriotism and optimism: a football game where a child sings the national anthem, faceless numbers of metropolitan police girding for battle, the stock exchange itself.
Woven into this mosaic of Americana, The Batman tries to discover the secret of literally climbing out of the bottom of a well of despair and back to the daylight of hope above. It must be done, he is told, without the safety rope. There can be no turning back from the choice.
This is where the fear comes in. It must be faced, it must be overcome, it must be reckoned with.
Christopher Nolan understands that his Dark Knight trilogy represents a special kind of mirror for post 9/11 America. In working through The Dark Knight saga, he has woven together an epic fable that borrows from the kind of storytelling we learned from Herman Melville. No, Batman is no Moby Dick, but the echoes of how a sprawling whaling adventure got at the deep heart of something profound about America in 1851 can be felt in Nolan's treatment of the complex superhero and his beloved Gotham City.
Nolan does indict the greed, myopia and lack of true leadership America has been cursed with since 9/11, but he also poses a question about the nature of personal responsibility: is it possible to forge a national identity out of a million individual acts of decency? Since we can no longer trust in any of the institutions we have built, the leaders we have elected, the bosses we have worked for, whom can we believe in?
Going to the movies has now become an act of courage, because we no longer can count on the safety of our common places anymore. The arguments over gun control and violence in America have been reduced to the repetitive slogans and canned responses trotted out every time innocent people are killed. It's not guns, its criminals. It is senseless. It is evil. It is video games. It is....you fill in the blame.
What we learn from The Dark Knight saga is that these arguments are just noise. Hope makes despair all the more anguished, but despair without hope is unbearable. In the repemption of a city from nuclear holocaust or in a small act of kindness to a child who needs a kind word, what we see are choices being made. Maybe a few million of these can define a people again.
"The Batman must come back." Commissioner Gordon
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. - Dylan Thomas
I recall vividly Peter Finch's magnificent rant in the film NETWORK where he declares, "I'm mad as heel and I'm not going to take it anymore." It was exhilarating to be in the audience. We all were delighted by the outburst, all envied his character's abandon to rage. We all wanted to have that cathartic, cleansing, clear moment of rage. Is that a problem?
I have been thinking a lot about anger and rage lately, and about whether they have been the victims of unfair discrimination. Anger management, calming ointments, talk therapy, civil discourse. We are a civil society, where anger is frowned upon and seen as a primitive, dangerous tendency to be avoided and "dealt with".
Of course, I am aware that rage and anger have lead people to do terrible, regretful things. Rational thought is banished, deep impulses are unleashed, often resulting in tragedy.
But what about the kind of anger that can inform certain actions, and even enhance them?
The athlete. The revolutionary. The battle. The competition. Injustice. Change.
Can a dose of old school anger help these?
People are uncomfortable with anger. People are afraid of it. Except when it is channeled towards a goal that is somehow approved. Winning the battle. Breaking a world record. Correcting injustice.
Mob anger is the most frightening kind of anger there is. The frenzied mind of the group when stirred to anger can wield terrifying power. It can topple a government, it can kill an innocent person.
Also, anger can be a mask for a deeper kind of problem. It often is a result of fear, guilt and denial, which are the eternal motivators of all human behaviors.
But anger can also be clarifying. It lets you know where you stand. It pushes past rationalization and equivocation. It focuses you. It is a total physiological experience, enhanced by adrenaline, it increases power and decreases the effects of pain.
Where I work, we are not allowed to get angry. This would be seen as not being "collegial". If you show anger, everyone looks away uncomfortably and waits for the anger to subside. This is reasonable in a work culture, but what about the fact that the passive aggressive behavior of one's colleagues provokes the feeling of anger? Is it possible a sharp, clarifying response could be useful? Do we always have to go so far around the bend of verbosity to deal with such dynamics? Can we once in a while look someone in the eye and just tell them they are full of shit?
Often I find myself yearning for these moments, and yearning for someone to retort at me with the same kind of clarity. At least then I would know where we stood. So be it. We can move on from that.
Watch how professional athelete channel anger in a positive way. Take a close look at the relationship between the weightlifter and the barbell.
Then recall the time you tried a little harder, pushed a little further, did one more rep or lap, finished the task you had failed to finish the last time.
Wasn't there a little dose of healthy anger involved?
Perhaps we shouldn't dismiss anger out of hand as a dark mystery to be avoided and shunned at all costs. Maybe small doses can be useful in everyday life. Perhaps a controlled outburst now and then can prevent the pent up explosion that could result in something truly tragic.
Since anger is a part of who we are, we might as well try and understand it, instead of shunning it.
Dylan Thomas seems to imply a healthy dose of anger against the diminishing qualities of life through aging are justified. I like the sound an old lion makes when he roars at the younger lions around him.
I think I'm going to keep my roar, if you don't mind.
In the ur-film, a demonic life form wreaks havoc on an industrial space ship, eventually dismembering and disemboweling all of the crew except for the uber-femi-hero Ripley.
The ALIEN film was a sci-fi spin on the classic monster run amok tale, but transcended the genre through Scott's own ethical and philosophical viewpoints. From "The Duellists" to "Blade Runner" to "Gladiator" and beyond, Scott has always been fascinated by the darker corners of human behavior and morality. Perhaps that is why his films are always lit with such a penchant for deep shadows and murky atmospheres. Scott creates heroes, but then questions their heroism even as they battle their way through ambiguity and doubt. "Black Hawk Down" got to the heart of superpower existentialism, even as it celebrated the nihilistic heriocs of the famed Delta Force soldiers.
In "Prometheus", Scott attempts to move his storytelling into another realm altogether. It is as if the filmmaker, facing old age himself, has begun to "hear the chimes at midnight" as Shakespeare said of our later years. Greek myth and primal moral fable are the stuff of "Prometheus". The title is no accident, but rather a signal to the audience that the film is trying to wrestle with the larger than life questions the ancient Greeks sought to answer through their myths.
The structure of the film mirrors archetypal storytelling through journey, arrival, discovery, birth/death iconography, battle and transformation through violence and sacrifice. This is the template of classic Greek mythos.
The problem with the film is that it is made for adults, but will be attended mostly by post-adolescents yearning for easy gratification and simple solutions, accompanied by quick cutting action sequences with characters whose IQ's mirror their own. Such are the fortunes of making big budget films in Hollywood these days. If "Prometheus" were released between 1966-1980, it would be hailed as a cinema tour-de-force. After all, that era gave us "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Apocalypse Now". Yes, it also gave us the original "Star Wars", but Lucas was living under the spell of Coppola and Kubrick, so there was depth there in spite of his own personal shallowness.
Today, patience, a meditative quality and resonance are bad words in the multi-plex. After all, why wait for anything when you can get fifty thousand calories in a single value combo before you even sit down?
The heroine of "Prometheus" is the anti-Hollywood Noomi Rapace of the original and worthy "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" films. The rest of the cast is understated and devoid of the cliched wise-cracks and pithy sayings that have become de rigueur in any action-style film. The performances are modulated to repel cheap histrionics, allowing a kind of rare maturity to seep into the workings. Even the robotic take Charlize Theron gives to her stoic woman-in-charge is a risk, but better mirrors the kinds of leaders we are actually used to encountering on a day to day basis. Just listen to the icy political speech of Michelle Bachman or Hillary Clinton.
When the blood flows, it is not thrilling. Rather it flows medically, urgently, discordantly. It is as if the literal life blood of human existence spills like so many accidentally tipped cups of wine. The gore is also couched in its relation to afterbirth, primal ooze and unfortunate liquid discharge, almost as embarassing as the traces we leave in our doctor's offices and clinics. You can't look away, but you also can believe it flowed out of you.
The landscape of the film also reminds us of a mythic Olympus, where gods and monsters battled for the souls of men. The massive, albino alien astronaunts recall the Colossus at Rhodes, and the spinning digital effects of star maps and galaxies contrast with the more prosaic illuminated touch screens and sector-grid-techno info that surrounds the earthings. It is when the heirogylphic writings of the alien race are encountered that we understand the link between the discovery of the cave paintings that begin the film and the very idea that humans can somehow write their history down in order to give it meaning.
At the end of it all, technology is used to destroy technology, and the message is clear: we have met the aliens, and they are inside of us. Still, as the heroine of the film sails off to destinations unknown with the only companion she has, a decapitated android, we understand that the questions the film "Prometheus" asks are far more compelling than any simple answer Scott might have given us.