With the help of Margaret Osburn’s Deepdene Writers’ Group, I’ve recently been working on the first draft of what I hope will be the third play in a trilogy. It’s called “Kitty.” The first play in the series, “Cecil Virginia, 1964,” was produced by the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival in 1985. (Click City Paper 8/30/85 review, above). The second play, featuring Kitty’s violent husband and his male friends, titled “Joe Pete,” was produced by the BPF in August, 1999, some fourteen years after the first one. As of this date, it’s been over 16 years since play number two appeared on a local stage. Assuming I manage to finish the third play in a year or two—and assuming I’m lucky enough to have it produced—I’ll have proved that in addition to my many other theatrical limitations, I’m one very slow writer of dialogue.
David Lean was known to say this about the film making process: “I love making motion pictures . . . I love getting behind a camera and trying to get images on the screen. I love cutting and editing. I love putting all the parts together at the end: The sounds, the music, the dialogue. Making a movie is the greatest excitement of my life . . . I love life and I don’t want to die. I want to go on making movies.”
I’m no filmmaker myself, but Mr. Lean’s words give me a sense of what it must feel like to be one. A good quotation can do that. Here are several more small gems of wisdom from famous filmmakers, beginning with that genius Ingmar Bergman, who tells us what he thinks film isn’t: “Film has nothing to do with literature; the character and form of the two art forms are usually in conflict. This probably has something to do with the receptive process of the mind. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act of the will in alliance with the intellect; little by little it affects the imagination and the emotions. The process is different with a motion picture. Putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings.”
Meanwhile, movie director Robert Penn put’s his attraction to film this way: “In the theater, the reliance is on the verbal. Film is how one looks, as against what one says. On the stage, you can’t document that. You’re too far back. So what one says is what one is . . . You don’t have to say it in a film. A look, a simple look, will do it.”
Milos Forman, points out the difference, in terms of reality and unreality, between theater and film: “ . . . you know, in the theater you don’t pretend that what you see on the stage is reality. But in films. . . . automatically the photography enables you to pretend what you see on the screen is reality. So I am disturbed when in that reality I see theater.”
Bernardo Bertolucci seconds that: “My primary choice is one against the theater. I believe it is easier and better for me to shoot from reality, to take a position in the geography and environment of real space.”
Director and former standup comic, Elaine May, also compared film to life, and found life wanting: “Yes, there is truth in movies. No, movies are not like life. They are constructed in advance. They have a beginning that has probably been rewritten several times, a middle that has been cut and reshaped, and an end that often has music over it. Most movies . . . have a confrontation scene that provides some kind of insight that affects the characters or the audience, or both. In life we have hundreds of such scenes, scenes in which we say the worst thing we can say, in which each person tells what he thinks is the whole truth. Two hours later we have the same scene again. Nothing has really changed. You can’t get any insights. You usually just get mad. Movies or plays can sound natural, or seem real, or have truth, but they can never be like life. After all, they’re not supposed to run over two hours. “
For some, film offers a unique opportunity to explore the unconscious mind. “I think that the nature of movies is images that are more concerned with our desires than any other part of reality. The nature of movies is to connect with our unreal selves. Freud said that every unexplained dream is a letter from the unconscious which is not opened. Dreams can put us in touch with deep realities, and films are very good nightmares.” Dusan Makavejev, Yugoslav director, offered that pithy opinion in Ciné-tracts, the Spring, 1977 issue.
That master of cinema surrealism and automatism, Luis Buñuel, agrees: “The screen is the superior way of expressing the world of dreams . . . . The cinema seems to have been invented for the expression of the subconscious.” But he thinks films often fail to do this: “My aspiration as a film viewer is to have the movie uncover something for me and this happens rarely.”
Director Arthur Penn, says: “Film offers the opportunity for constant contradiction between what is said and what is done. It’s closer to how we really experience life. I’m saying that, but I’m really feeling this. And these two things are going on at once. Ambivalence is closer to the human feeling than the simple Eugene O’Neil statement: ‘My father was a bastard.’ That sort of statement that says everything and nothing. Well, film is the exquisite medium for expressing ambivalence. A man says one thing, but his eyes are saying another thing.”
The great film director and former cartoonist—and therefore, beginning with the walls of caves, one of the original image makers—Frederico Fellini, adds this: “Indeed, what is it to make a film? It is naturally, a question of trying to bring order to certain fantasies and of narrating them with a certain exactness.”
Up to this point, our film directors have been dealing, mostly, with abstraction. Now giving his view on the story—the creative “spine” of the film as some might call it—here is actor-director Dennis Hopper: “I believe that you start a movie very slow, very slowly drag people in up to a certain point. Then, just as they get a little restless, you start socking it to them. This makes me favor the episodic structure, like music—something that moves along with short breaks in it: you keep giving people something new, keep building pressure. The you cut off, relax, go for a ride.”
Robert Bresson claims he drags people into his movies: “As Dostoevsky frequently does, I present the effect before the cause. I think this is a good idea, because it increases the mystery; to witness events without knowing why they are occurring makes you want to find out the reason.”
And finally, directly addressing our original question, former standup comic (with Elaine May) and award-winning film director, Mike Nichols, defined film most simply and perhaps best: “Movies are mood . . . . The thing about something that’s made right—whether it’s a novel, or an opera, or a film—has to do with being hung on a spine . . . The more solid it is, maybe the truer it is.”
“Elaine May has a wonderful motto: ‘The only safe thing is to take a chance.’ “I think she means that if you stay safe, and don’t take a chance — don’t do something that’s different from the last thing, something that makes you nervous and holds dangers — if you keep trying to do the thing that worked last time, the encrustations of mannerisms begin to take you over. And pretty soon you’re no good at all — and therefore not safe at all. The longer you play it safe, the less interesting is what you do.”
Mike Nichols, the Director’s Art, by Barbara Gelb
NYT Magazine, May 27, 1984
By David Mamet
“The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. . . . Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. . . . People only speak to get something. . . . They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective.”
From the Hilton Als commentary, “True Lies”
The New Yorker, June 29, 2015
Bad Actors II
This is an edited re-post. Click images to enlarge.
Joe Pete, staged by the Baltimore Playwrights Festival in 1999, was my second theatrical attempt to get into the head of the man who, in real life, murdered my favorite first cousin. That man was Phyllis Jean’s husband. In the play, I call him Joe Pete. Since I knew nothing about the real man, the character, except for the crime, is a total fiction. (He is also the same character that was in Cecil Virginia, 1964, my first produced play by the BPF, in August 1985. See Bad Actors I, for details.)
Joe Pete is Kitty’s husband. He’s a working man, inarticulate, violent, someone we come to know through a web of conflicting stories, verbal games played-out among his drinking buddies, and later during interviews with a prison doctor. My goal with this play was to use drama with darkly comedic shadings to deal more directly with the killing of Kitty, to move in for a close-up of Joe Pete, so to speak. And this time, I swore to myself that there would be no off-stage climax.
The following lines are from a scene in a local bar, the afternoon before Joe Pete kills Kitty. The tavern is a hangout for paper-mill workers. Here we find his friends, Ray and Byron, and Jack, the bartender. The first two are waiting for Joe Pete to show up so they can make plans for a hunting trip. The scene begins with a stage direction:
BYRON takes a sip or two, then smacks his half-empty glass down on the bar, splashing beer.
RAY (pointing): I’m writin’ a song about that.
BYRON: My damn beer glass?
RAY: Not just that, no. It’s about a guy drinkin’ in a dim joint in the bright afternoon. Just sittin’ and drinkin’ and talkin’. Maybe playin’ some pool. Bright sunlight outside, dim bar light inside. (pause) All stuff like that.
JACK (working behind the bar): Yeah. Sure.
RAY: Well, I am. (points again) How light reflects off the glass, how pretty that is?—and that bottle! Ever see anythin’ so—
BYRON (overlapping): What’s the song called, Ray?
RAY (mild pride): “She Took My Love and Took Off.” But all I’ve got so far is—
JACK (overlapping): Ha! Shiiiiiiiiiiiiii-IT!
JOE PETE enters.
BYRON (waving): Hey—Joe Pete, old buddie!
JOE PETE (ignores BYRON, ranting): That Todd is one sorry son-of-bitch! Sorriest no-good son-of-a-bitch that ever lived!
RAY (lightly): What’d the bastard do this time?
JOE PETE: Usual sorry-assed shit.
RAY (remaining positive): Todd get you that straight day work yet, like he said?
JOE PETE: Even if he does, he’s still one schemin’ no-good sorry son-of-a—
BYRON (overlapping, gentle): Word at the mill says Todd put you in for a raise, too, an—
JOE PETE (overlapping): Look, if I get it, it’s ‘cause I deserve it. Don’t have to kiss Todd’s ass for what’s rightly mine. (pause) Son-of-a-bitch calls me in his office. Says he’s talked to the big bosses. (reciting) “Told ‘em your situation, Joe Pete, It’s up to you now,” he says. “Can’t protect you no more.” (pause): Ha! Who the fuck needs ‘im?
RAY: The man just wants to know what exactly it is you’re after.
JOE PETE: Ain’t what I want. I don’t care. It’s what Kitty wants.
BYRON (innocent): I’m sure Todd knows what that is. I’m sure he—
JOE PETE (overlapping, suspicious): What’s that?
BYRON: I’m sure Todd has the best interests of Kitty an—
JOE PETE (overlapping, cold): How would that sorry shit know what my wife wants?
Trying to write plays, I discovered that if I had an overarching concept, it helped me to proceed without getting too stuck. My vague idea in this case was that the characters Joe Pete, Ray, and Byron each represent distinct stages in the evolution of the human male (primitive, transitional, evolved). In a sense, the characters grew from three parts of my own split self. For me, Ray was the more interesting character. He matures during the course of the play and becomes a thoughtful, creative doubter, who isn’t sure the old “manly” ways stand up even while he’s still attracted to them. Ray is willing to change. He is confused (like me), but that is expressed in a positive form, as a wannabe singer/songwriter, rather than in anger and rage.
Working in theater taught me that collaboration must include tact, something that doesn’t come easily to me. I have a history of getting into scrapes (mostly verbal) with coworkers and others. (My mother liked to say that I was her only son born with his foot in his mouth.) Even now, what little tact I have has accrued over a long life. So when I noticed rehearsal problems with the character-development of Ray, I made an effort to be gentle about getting them resolved. The following is a note that I gave my first-time director.
“I see Ray as a mixture of Joe Pete (lost soul/caveman) and Byron (older/evolved/sweet). Ray, at this age, is still more ‘Joe Pete’ than ‘Byron,’ but at least he’s headed in the right direction. Ray’s tough, but shows softer tendencies as well. I’m not sure I’ve captured this in the text. But if you dig deeply during rehearsals, I think you’ll find places where—through gesture, expression, body language, reading emphasis and clever blocking—you can point up Ray’s humanity and his movement away from the ‘lost soul’ model of Joe Pete.
“When Ray says his wife claims their baby is afraid of him, we need to clearly see real sadness. Another opportunity is Ray’s monologue about throwing their decorated Christmas tree across the room in a rage. At first he talks about the rampage as sort of funny. We need his expression and gestures to show him more sad than amused. There are other places in the script where we can emphasize Ray’s sweeter side. The actor playing Ray is doing a good job, but I would like to see more softness—and have this side of him become stronger as the play proceeds. Let me know if rewrites might help to help achieve this.”
Some critics had problems with Joe Pete’s extreme meanness, and this review from a local paper amounts to damning with faint praise. “‘A man with a rifle is as likely to use it on his wife as on a deer . . .’ (is) basically the attitude toward the male gender in Joe Pete. The titular character even says, ‘A man who ain’t tough with his woman just ain’t a man’ . . . . the playwright’s knack for naturalistic banter proves to be a mixed blessing . . . . the mostly comic bull sessions are meant to incrementally build until the underlying tensions finally explode . . . Joe Pete has a strong theme and solid performances (but) some rewriting could whittle down the redundancies, make the characters more than the sum of a few defining masculine traits, and smooth the transitions.”
On the other hand, one critic said, “The barroom is the classic American dramatic setting for revealing truths . . . where beer is consumed, the talk is aimless and circular, and posturing is elevated to performance art . . . (the playwright) balances the ugly, male swaggering with a rich vein of humor. The oddly catchy language was quoted widely on the sidewalk during intermission (‘available pussy’ seemed to be the favorite). ”
As I wrote the play, I knew I’ve made progress in my own evolution, but also that I still have a way go. For instance, the least perception of unfairness or disrespect can still get a potentially violent rise out of me. It’s happened only a few times, but the fact that I’m still that touchy is troubling. Especially since when it does occur, I also detect, very close to the surface, the icy desire for blood.
I still wonder if I made Ray too goody-goody, sort of over-civilized him. Nevertheless, he is the character with whom I relate the most—not Joe Pete. Perhaps if I had the opportunity to rewrite and re-stage the play (with a different title), I’d make Ray more the focus, since his growth represents the path to a higher plane of behavior toward which I’ve been struggling these many years, albeit with mixed results.
Meanwhile, I remind myself that I could be much worse. The two community theater actor/killers I happen to have known in real life never harmed a stranger, as far as I know, but they brutally murdered people very close to them. (See the Bad Actors I post from 2/28/15). The fact those men resorted to lethal violence suggests to me that, given some extreme situations I’ve been in, I might have gone as far as they did. But I also know that, compared to them—thanks to my still evolving “Ray-like” creative self control—I am very much an amateur.
Copyright © 2015 Jim Sizemore.