Saturday, March 15, 2008

An oft-told tale

I saw Macbeth a few nights back in Brooklyn. I am not a Shakespeare scholar so, unlike the play, this review will be short.

Sorry, I couldn’t help the little joke. Although it came in at just under 3 hours, the production moved right along and I was never bored, at least not for long. Had I been able to understand half of what they were saying, I probably wouldn’t have been bored at all.

As long-time readers are aware, I am a shallow critic. Hell, even if you just came here and read the above paragraphs you probably figured that out. I don’t have any grand theories about the stage or screen. I’m not a member of the genius director’s school, nor the great actor’s. Mainly I am interested in story. I can appreciate good cinematography or stagecraft as well. But it usually comes down to I liked it or not.

Why or why not? The answer is almost always found in the writing. Great acting, directing and stagecraft certainly enhance a well-written work, but can rarely, if ever, save a poorly written one.

Macbeth? I thought the stagecraft great and the acting fine. As a writer, it’s difficult for me to do justice to the staging, you really have to be there and see it for yourself. I’ll just say that I liked it. A lot.

The acting? It was marvelous. Frankly, I’m impressed that anyone can memorize so many strange words, much less pronounce them coherently. The actors did both. Well done, I say.

But the writing? I’m sorry Mr. Shakespeare but that play sucked. As poetry, I grant you, it had its moments, But a play is not a poem. The plot is a tired retread of the writer’s better work. The characters are whiny and unsympathetic. Their motivations are a complete mystery. Oh, sure, plenty of people want to be king and you might say that’s an obvious motivation, but you would never get that from the words of Macbeth. More likely he was just motivated to find something else to whine about. The question that drives the plot is “when will someone shut these people up?” The answer? Not soon enough. I tell you.

A big part of what makes me such a shallow critic is that I refuse to do research or consider any kind of historical connotations around a work. I would say “it is what it is,” but then I’d have to bash my brains against a wall for using the cliché of the day, so I’ll just say that I believe that the best criticism comes from total ignorance. I don’t give a fuck who wrote the goddamned play. I don’t care what history has to say about it. If it doesn’t work from a perspective of total ignorance, it just doesn’t work. Well, maybe sometimes, but for now that’s my story.

Yea, yea, yea. I get up on my box and say all that so righteously, right, but in this case I actually did some research.

The thing that struck me most about Macbeth was that it told the exact same story as Richard III except from the perspective of a pathetic whiner rather than an unrepentant schemer. That and Macbeth wallowed in special effects and violence. My thesis was that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth when he was young and then grew as a writer and produced his masterpiece -- Richard III.

So I looked it up and, as is not unusual, got it entirely backwards. Richard III was one of his first plays, Macbeth one of his last. That makes sense as well. Apparently in his dotage, Shakespeare cribbed from his earlier, truly great work.

Like many washed up writers, he added violence and special effects to try to cover the lame-assed writing. Where Richard III was fiendishly twisted and direct, Macbeth is loaded up with witches, ghosts, silly prophesies, and sword fights. I’ll be a dollar to your dime that the next remake ends with a mushroom cloud over Dunsinane.

Anyway, although I thoroughly enjoyed the theatre-going experience, I genuinely detested the play. Unlike normal people, however, that made me want to see it again and as fate would have it, TMC had a Shakespeare night and I caught the end of Orson Welles’s Macbeth and the entirety of Olivier’s Hamlet. This was an interesting juxtaposition because just days before I had read an article in an old New Yorker (abstract here), which discussed Olivier and Welles’s claims to greatest Shakespearean actor ever and discussed those very movies.

So for good measure, I actually bought Welles’s Macbeth and watched the Richard III that features Ian McKellen for like the hundredth time. All that to get a little more context.

You must understand. Although poor chuckling is a clown as well as a shallow critic, I am aware in some deep dark corner of what passes for my mind that all serious people consider Shakespeare to be one of the greatest writers ever and Macbeth to be one of the great masterpieces ever produced by humankind. Ninety-nine out of one hundred and five historians included Macbeth as an example of what they would give superior beings from outer space to demonstrate our worthiness to life in this galaxy. So I ask, who am I, poor chuckling, to belittle the master’s masterwork and piss urine most foul on five hundred years of learned critics? And it’s not just Shakespeare upon whom I pee, but the great Lawrence Olivier as well. His Hamlet blew chunks. And Welles’s Macbeth? Let’s not even go there. The headgear was interesting. Beyond that, I shall not speak.

So to sum it all up, if you haven’t seen Richard III with Ian McKellen, go out and rent it immediately. As I said above, I am a story guy and rarely moved by great acting. Well, Richard III is one of humanity’s great stories and McKellen’s acting is possibly the best I’ve ever seen. The staging is quite good as well.

I’m sure if Macbeth were alive he’d whine about it. Richard, however, would dispatch him with a smirk and some pointed snark. Hamlet would also do well to steer clear of good Richard.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Photo of today

The subject of Barak Obama's race comes up so frequently already that if some unforeseeable miracle occurs and he is allowed to run for President as a Democrat, then questions of his "blackness" will dominate the airwaves thirty seven hours a day, eight days a week until early November.

So answer me this: What is the child in the photo above?

Click on it to see a larger image. Then take a moment. Take a breath. Give it a little thought. Try to empathize. We are not talking about a national figure. This is not a blog fight. This is a child.

A little background: both of his parents are college educated professionals. One was born American with a heavy dose of Dutch ancestry. The other is from a somewhat illustrious family in Africa that includes lawyers, professors, high government officials, even an economist. He goes to one of the better schools in the world, not primarily because of affirmative action, but by merit. His friends are a diverse group, their parents have similar bios -- educated, well-traveled professionals, often one parent from a different part of the world. His closest friends are some combination of Chinese, African, Jewish, Italian and other European mixes. In those respects, he is much like Obama. Kinda looks like him too.

So what is he? I have a little experience with this question. On more than one occasion, a small child, much like the one above only younger, has asked me "what am I?"

So what do you say? A child asks you "what am I?" After you've thought about it and decide, or more realistically, speculate, realize that your answer should apply equally to Obama.

I'll tell you how I answer.

Q: What am I?
A: American.

Q: I mean, am I black?
A: No, you are mixed.

That, followed by a little demonstration that everybody's skin is a different shade of earth tone, and that's the end of it. At least through high school. It's really not that difficult.

Or it shouldn't be. But I know it is. At least it used to be.

And that question: what am I? has played a vitally important role in Obama's life. In a fascinating article about his mother in yesterday's NYT, he is quoted as saying:

[I was] “engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America.”

I find it so odd that he has that attitude. As far as I can tell he has absolutely nothing "African-American" in his background. Yet he consciously chose to become one. I always read that many kids who are labeled black but are not from an African-American background suffer identity issues and often feel pressure to "be black." What does "be black," or "be black enough" even mean? In that context those phrases seem like code for "poorly educated criminal," or "nigger."

Although reading a politician's self-serving campaign autobiography goes against my deepest moral beliefs, I guess I'm going to have to read Obama's book and find out more.

Was he a black man wannabe or a black man havetobe as he made his way through one of the better prep schools and became a superstar at Harvard? As many point out, the cop who pulls you over for driving while black doesn't know where you went to school. Society decides who we are and an individual with dark skin is black. Would people do well, as Obama has done, to embrace it rather than fight it? (In general I'd say no, but people will obviously decide for themselves)

The larger question, for the kid in the photo at least, is whether things have changed since Obama's character was formed by whatever experiences he had being labeled black by society.

What is he? Yes, he is American. Yes, he is mixed.

And yes, society categorizes him as black. At some point, will he, like Obama, feel great pressure to become so?

The question will never change but it's meanign will. For a child it's what am I (physically)? Later on it becomes what am I (culturally)?

I'd like to find a better way to put it. I am open to suggestions. Middle class educated? Maybe, but the best way I can think of to phrase it so that everyone understands is to say that culturally he is white. So is his 100 percent African parent. And so is Obama.

For the child's sake. For the world's sake, I hope times have changed and those stupid questions are moot. They haven't of course, but I am actually optimistic that they are changing and that ultimately they will change. Although there is still pre-judgement and prejudice against people perceived as black, I believe that it has become much more of a cultural thing these days. I also have quite a bit of experience being pulled over for driving while black. Although the cop doesn't know anything about the victim's education, my experience has been that once they figure it out they treat you well, even perhaps a little better to make up for their initial suspicions. I know there are still Klan types and Nazis out there, but their numbers are small. The great majority of society judges a person more by how they speak than how they look.

That's what Obama's got going for him. I'm not the first to note that he speaks very well. And I think he would actually have a chance if more people heard him speak, but as the campaign goes along, I think that will happen less and less. It's already happening less and less. Instead of hearing the guy talk, we get people talking about the black guy. Is he black enough? Is he too black? Does it help him? Does it hurt? What are the demographics? Is American ready for a black president?

I think when we phrase it like that, when it's all about blackness, we'll find that no, America is not ready. I think we are ready for an extremely talented, well-traveled and well-educated president with a strong moral center, but unfortunately we'll be stuck with one of the Republicans, Hillary or John.

The kid in the picture? Well, here's hoping things are different when his generation runs for president*.

* This wouldn't be chuckling on-line magazine if I didn't add "if we still have any kind of even barely functioning democracy at that time. More likely by that time President George Bush VII will have succeeded President George Bush VI and we'll all be living in cardboard boxes, if not concrete cells.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No news is good news (for Republicans)

The national press, as well as the rest of the chattering classes, seems to have missed the fact that Obama just won two more primaries by landslide proportions. He won Saturday's Montana caucuses by 17 points and Tuesday's Mississippi primary by 24 points.

Doesn't that strike you as a bit odd? Such a well-publicized, closely fought election, few remaining primaries, one candidate gets wiped out in two of them? If Obama had lost by those margins, if he had lost at all, do you think it might have been reported differently? Hmmmmm.

Nonsense about the liberal media aside, I suspect this fits the pattern of the corporate media pretty much openly supporting Republican candidates. I realize I don't get a lot of love for commenting on the obvious fact that Hillary is a Republican. I am open to argument that she is not a Republican, but so far no one has made a convincing one.

And the facts supporting the contention that she is a Republican continue to mount. From the Guardian UK:

According to anecdotal reports in the Mississippi press, the end of the Republican presidential contest saw GOP voters crossing over, and it appears that a substantial number of them voted for Hillary Clinton. The exit polls show that 12% of voters overall were identified as Republicans, and three out of four them backed Clinton - a strong contrast to most previous primaries. Call it the "Limbaugh effect" - after the radio shock jock who urged Republicans to vote for Clinton prior to the Ohio and Texas primaries last week. For further evidence, around one in five of Hillary Clinton's supporters told the exit pollsters in Mississippi that they had a "strongly favourable" opinion of John McCain, while district maps show Clinton's best results in strongly Republican counties. If we assumed that Republicans had voted in similar numbers as in Louisiana and Alabama (only 5% of voters in both states), then without them Clinton's loss in Mississippi would have savage, tipping her toward 30% and an even wider loss in delegates.

Even if you ignore all the rest of the mountain range of evidence, doesn't the fact that Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter actively support her tell you something?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Photo of today

I had an interesting, though ultimately unsuccessful photo day today. I'll try to put together a little slideshow tomorrow, but for now, this provides a clue.