Last week, in the course of my work as a stagehand, I banged up my arm. Might be fractured; might be a perilunar dislocation. First set of x-rays inconclusive; two doctors unwilling to commit to diagnoses, either litigation-shy or stumped. It’s my first experience with Workman’s Comp, and, well, perhaps that explains a lot. Anyway, if I’m at your show and I’m not clapping, don’t panic.
Typing, though, has become a difficulty. As anyone knows who follows this space, an inability to communicate what I consider among the most important ideas on earth (my own) hurts me on multiple hurtful levels of hurt. And what is to me a fascinating corollary discovery: more complicated ideas, as well as being a harder sell, are much more difficult to type.
This week, therefore, I keep it simple.
Shotspeare‘s final performance of Romeo and Juliet plays this Thursday at Skinny’s Lounge in North Hollywood. I’m heading over there; if you miss it, you’ll cry to heaven, with Nurse, “O woe! O woeful, woeful, woeful day!” (or words to this effect. That’s actual dialogue from R& J; and you wonder why kids wonder why we keep making kids read it?).
And a new film noir by Steve Hicks, Fuzz Track City, screens Monday at Mann’s Chinese as part of Dances with Films. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to see it again. I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren I was present at the public unfurling of a filmmaker’s journey. And my grandchildren will say, “Who the hell are you?”
These projects have about them a commonality: each takes a tradition and makes of it something new. I like that. A re-imagining of the old forms keeps them alive, for what grows old must die, but what stays young may grow. Do not quote me on this, as I think I have never written a more pompous banality. Maybe it’s the codeine, or rather, maybe I can blame the codeine.
With Shotspeare, director Matt Morgan has turned Shakespearean tragedy into a drinking game, complete with seriously liquored actors and real steel swords. There’s a wheel of fortune, a soused audience member onstage, crime, punishment, redemption, and comedy. Lots of comedy. Probably the funniest Romeo and Juliet you’ll ever see, which may not seem to be saying a lot. But, see, when you first heard of R&J in 7th grade you might have responded better to something like this than to the stilted scenes from the movie they showed you. You might even have been moved to read the play, instead of Cliff’s Notes. We know better now, though, yeah? We know how it’s really “supposed” to be played. You can see that dismal, plodding tradition most of the time Shakespeare or Chekhov or O’Neill gets produced in America, and especially in Los Angeles. The sense most of the time is that the noble text is all, and anything like interpretation or reinvention or the imposition of a concept is outlawed, or seems not to have been thought of at all, since the play’s the thing (and other cliches). Jesus, it’s depressing to see men in hose simply because the director’s seen pictures of Elizabethan actors in a book. Almost as depressing as turning children off Shakespeare (and literature generally) by shoving at them the apex of the form before they’ve read a hundred books less challenging as a ramp. We do, you know: most American schoolkids read Shakespeare as among the first ten “grown up” books assigned. No wonder we support so many illiterates. When we believe that children may implicitly comprehend the workings of the very complicated, we have lost the meaning of education. And when we believe that the tremendously valuable is easily attained, we are doomed to disillusionment. Any idea this familiar, and this wrong, needs shaking up. That’s what Shotspeare does. It places cultural iconography on a dartboard instead of a pedestal. What gets wounded is the pomp, not the pith.
In Fuzz Track City Steve Hicks takes another set of hallowed rules, those of noir, and marries them to a more personal aesthetic. If that sounds like a self-interested decision, consider how dangerous it is. People who like noir really, really like it. Noir geeks are among the most precious, old-school puritans in the nerdosphere. They get all uptight when you mess with their thing, and have not much of a sense of humor unless it runs to colorful analogies. Just look at what they did to Robert Altman’s brilliant 1973 take on Raymond Chandler when it came out: Jay Cocks, whom we can thank for two of the worst Scorsese movies (he wrote The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York), petulantly called The Long Goodbye a travesty. Why? Because it dared to stick out its tongue at some essentially laughable noir habits. It’s true that noir can be a fun genre, and that its postwar popularity marks a turning point in the conventional American consciousness, from a contrived innocence to a mannered aping of maturity. But that’s all it is, a style, a frame: what matters in the end is whether the story gets across, and Hicks knows that. He’s illustrating a point with a particular set of pencils, but drawing it in a way that pleases him. That’s what artists are supposed to do, and his filmed experiment succeeds on a budget roughly equal to the bus-ass advertising allotment for some of the big stupid showcase stage plays you can see around town. They, thank God, come and go. Fuzz Track City will stick around, and so will Hicks.
And so will I, if somebody ever gives me a straight answer about this fucking arm.
About the Author: Jason Rohrer was educated in California, New York, Russia and Bulgaria. He reviews film and performing arts for stageandcinema.com, contributes to American Theatre Magazine, and co-hosts the podcast Jason and Todd Talk through Lousy Films. He tweets as @RohrerVacui.