Archive for July, 2004


Friday, July 9th, 2004

I wrote that last blog while watching Monk. Actually I was trying not to watch Monk, but it was being played on a 6 foot TV and at 112 dbs, so I kinda had to watch it. So, I’m sure it’s lame. I reserve the right to write an entirely different blog on the same subject.

Method to Madness

Friday, July 9th, 2004

To answer Kent’s response about Brando, I’ve decided to dedicate a few blogs to a couple of different acting techniques and talk about their relative merits.

Brando embodied what has become known as “Method Acting”, although he was by no means the best practitioner of it. Dustin Hoffman’s entire career is a better example of what method can bring to an actor. There is a famous, and probably apocraphyl, story that is set behind the scenes of the movie “Marathon Man”. Hoffman and Olivier, the latter being not at all from the Method school, are in a scene together and Hoffman’s character was supposed to have not slept for several days. Hoffman decided that, in order to stay tue, he himself would not sleep for several days and in fact spent the days preceding shooting running for hours and hours to make sure he would be completely exhausted. When this was explained to Olivier, he turned to Hoffman and said, “my dear boy, have you considered *acting*?”

What Hoffman was doing was a rather wild example of “sense memory” which is one of the celebrated clichés of Method, but the more central aspect of method is asking for truth. What is true? That’s the central question. It’s why Hoffman spent all that time killing himself, he didn’t know what the truth of the scene was and he was trying to re-create it for himself so he could play it effectively.

This creates amazing performances in a lot of situations. Actors learn to drag themselves through the very worst of themselves, and the very best. They learn how to filter the characters they play through their own lives. It’s moment by moment, and it can be incredible. It isn’t just remembering your dead dog, as the cliché goes, it’s every little thing. A person plays every single level of subtext because they can access it. You might think to yourself that you know what it is to not sleep, but Hoffman actually knows, he knows that you get the shits, he knows that your eyes hurt, he knows that your sense of smell takes over wildly, etc. It was true.

Here’s the problem. A lot of young actors learn the method without learning basic stagecraft and without learning much about imagination. What this means is that if an actor is put in a situation where they are expected to do something outside the realm of what is real and normal to the actor’s real life, they generally suck. If it seems that every movie star plays the same damn character every time, a lot of that is typecasting, but it’s also Method.

One of the most famous and celebrated scenes ever in the history of Method acting is the cab scene between Brando and Stieger, the “coulda been a contender” scene. Here’s the problem, Brando improvised much of the dialogue. The way he did in most of his movies. Improv. Don’t get me started on improv

His next movie was Guys and Dolls. He is completely charm-free and humorless in this movie. Why? It’s a musical. He had no idea how to play circumstances even slightly outside his truth. In college, and honestly long since, there have been Method practitioners complaining about scripts and delivering muttered sotto voce lines under their breath while staring upstage in a hundred shows I’ve seen.

De Niro and Hoffman are examples of the best of Method acting, because there is more to it than just truth. There is also massive research. See Rainman or Awakenings for performances that go completely beyond anything the actors have ever experiences. See Hoffman in Wag The Dog or Ishtar for performances that understand the complete scope of performance. See De Niro in his more recent comedies. These guys both know how to act, not just be.

More later on questions, inention and imagination.

Beatles, Heifetz and Brando

Thursday, July 8th, 2004

There are two ways that art and artists are judged, their initial impact and their historical impact. We have become a world, over the last fifty years, where initial impact is hard to define because “buzz” has taken it’s place. If I were to say the names “Harrison Ford” or ” Tom Hanks” or “Dustin Hoffman”, you would either be thrilled or roll your eyes depending on what 6 to 18 month period we’re talking about over the last thirty years.

So, I look to the Beatles. Obviously, we are going to be talking about Lennon/McCartney/Harrison in two hundred years the same way we talk about Mozart now. They were a marketing magnet, four handsome and charming young men who were exotic, foreign and somehow still human, but we won’t remember the interviews or the exit from Candlestick Park or Bag-ism. People will still be studying their “aeolian cadences” and backwards looped caliopy music, along with the incredible simple elegance of “Across The Universe”, “I Will”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “She Said, She Said”.

But these were guys who wrote music, and you can’t judge them the same way you judge an actor. An actor has a job that is much smaller and more specific. I think I’ve quoted Jascha Heifetz here before when he said that he had no legacy because he had never composed.

(Sorry, one other of my favorite Heifetz quotes, “I occasionally play works by contemporary composers and for two reasons. First, to discourage the composer from writing any more and secondly, to remind myself how much I appreciate Beethoven”)

Heifetz is wrong about his legacy. His is the model that all young violinists look to when they are practicing. Not to make this about him, but he said something to the effect of, “If I don’t practice one day, I know it. If I don’t practice two days, the critics know it. If I don’t practice three days, the public knows it.” And his dilligence is what makes you saw away at your scales for hours every day, knowing you are gonna end up in the middle of the second violin section of the Witchita Symphony Orchestra, surviving on $15 an hour students and four nursed scotch-n-soda’s a day.

Actors are in the same boat, pushed on by the same dream. We take every single show we can, and many of us try “teaching”, what amounts to private coaching in whatever “technique” we’ve studied (man, the different techniques and staggering failures of most of them is subject for an entirely different blog), and we do this half because we hope some day to play Richard the Third, but mostly because we hope some day to live lives as actors.

Marlon Brando wasn’t that guy. I’m not saying he wasn’t diligent, by all accounts he was. And his acting, such as it is, is a good representation of a certain theory. But when are we gonna break down and just admit that it was mostly hype? Brando was gorgeous, but he wasn’t any better an actor than, say, Hugh Jackman. The fact that some people mention Brando in the same breath with Olivier is a crime.

Because that is where we mention him, as one of the three or four greatest actors ever. But his work never meant shit to me. Gene Hackman, Ellen Burstyn, Gena Rowlands, Dustin Hoffman (who I know is one of the other names mentioned), Emma Thompson and of course DeNiro have all meant way more to me than anything Brando did. Y’know what? Kevin frickin’ Bacon is a better actor and Nicole Kidman is basically just as good.

In fact, take away the bongo drums and the beat poet, man-from-the-streets bullshit, and Brando is essentially Nicole Kidman. A person of enormous and breath taking beauty who is willing to work as hard as humanly possible on their craft, but whose work will never mean that much to me. Give me Katherin Hepburn and Kevin Kline any day.

My point is this. When George Harrison died, we certainly mourned, but we didn’t recognize the way we should have. Brando was partly responsible for the art of acting being taken away from actors and being handed to models in Method class. The studios get the prettiest people they can and keep the edits short to hide their inability and they make people think Josh Hartnett and Jared Leto are actors. Brando paved the way for every pretty boy who mumbles, and he aint no hero of mine.

The 70s

Wednesday, July 7th, 2004

My wife comes from a line of women who have relentlessly prepared for the apocalypse. I could joke about it, except for the fact that since they are survivors of what damn near was an apocalypse for the Jews, the jokes quit being funny immediately. When I disagree with Jordana’s dad about politics, he smiles and, very kindly, reminds me that there is actually evil intent in nations, and I can’t really argue with him about it.

I come from a line of savages. My ancestors worked in the coalmines and probably smoked pipes when they weren’t breathing in black dust. I’m fairly certain that I would be considered middle age if I went back to visist my family in the 1700s. They were probably eating whatever food they could catch or pull out of the ground and lived to be almost 40. Jordana’s family probably had a modest income and a fully stocked larder.

But it’s simply racist to assume any kind of ethnic identity past a couple of decades, and the truth is that Jordana and I grew up in almost identical struggling middle class families. The comparative wealth that her parents and some members of my family enjoy only came into being once we were nearly out of the house, (if, in our cases, “out of the house” is something either of us has achieved, which is debatable) so we have to go by how the seventies and eighties affected our lives.

I was talking to Ian the other day, and I wondered aloud how the hell we ran out of oil for the boiler in England. Then it occurred to me that it happened not once, but *many* times. In one winter. The frickin’ *heater* *GAT NO HEAT*. We were children and no-one filled the heater. We all slept in one bed with a space heater pointed under the blankets. More examples:

1) I started using the oven in first Iowa, meaning I was less than seven. I remember cooking. I burned myself on the oven door when I was nine.

2) I started blowing off school in fourth grade. Often, I just came home. No-one seemed to notice or mind.

3) Our babysitters smoked pot with us. Of course, some of these pot smoking babysitters were brothers of ours, but still.

(I’m not done with this list, but MAN, I’m enjoying the emails that are currently spinning around in my family’s heads right now, HEHEHE)

4) Friends of ours were either dying or ending up in full body casts. Off the top of my head, I can name five people, close friends and babysitters, who died or who almost died.

5) We ate candy.

6) We played a game wherein the object was to jump off the stairs. Sounds simple right? Yeah, well, it was. You just kept jumping off the stairs until something happened. I ended up in a wheelchair.

7) I started drinking in Junior High. Everyone else I knew did as well.

8) We stole my dad’s car and drove around all night. He basically caught us, but didn’t really get all that mad. We were 13.

Okay, okay, enough. This whole list is mostly a joke, because I have a fucked up sense of humor. But the fact is, I rode my bike with no safety helmet from the time I learned how until I was in college and learned better. But, that was the 70s.

Jordana’s family had some of these things (I doubt they had bike helmets either)(in fact, it was only kids whose skulls hadn’t fully developed that wore bike helmets), but her parents were obsessed with making sure nothing bad happened to her, while mine were just trying to survive themselves.

So, there comes the debate. If I just toss my kids in the lake to teach them to swim, but Jordana’s got them wearing water wings (and sunblock)(and insect repellent)(and a snorkel)(and she dives in after them to make sure they don’t drown) which one of us is right? Will they learn to swim, or learn total dependence? Jordana is a million miles ahead of me in taking care of shit, she’s got her everyday and extraordinary emergencies dealt with before they happen. But she sometimes has a hard time letting go and enjoying stuff. I’ll be the life of the party, having a ball and making everyone laugh, only to find myself vomitting all night because I didn’t take even a moment to plan ahead.

My guess is that it’s our job to do it Jordana’s way, and it’ll be the theoretical kids job to take ridiculous chances. Plus, with the way I was raised, there will probably be lit candles in the nursery and unmarked bleach containers right next to the formula. And, if Jordana doesn’t remind me to take care of it, at least one winter, our heat will be turned off.

More like *Crap*…

Tuesday, July 6th, 2004

I found myself in the familiar position this weekend of defending hip-hop, although not nearly as familiar as it is to some people who have actually bought into the hip-hop lifestyle. I have actually gotten to the point now where I would rather listen to bad hip-hop than average pop music, I’m finding that pop music is saying less and less to me and I just cant’ stomach it.

The truth is, for a lot of my family and extended friends who don’t listen to hip-hop, there is nothing on the radio for them. It’s hard to learn to like rap music, you have to spend a few months getting what you’re listening for and for people in their thirties and forties, there really isn’t any point. Everyone in my family has a musical point where we intersect, we all tend to love jazz vocal standards, although my guess is that Ian and Kent vibrate the least in this circle. From there, we all kind of spiral off.

My Dad- loves the big boys. It’s actually from him that I get my love of hip-hop, although I’d never in a million years even try to play anything for him. He loves dynamic rhythmic beatings, he loves it when composers lay it down hard. Rite of Spring, baby, Eroica. It doesn’t need to be bombastic, that’s not what I mean, he loves the great arias as well, but not the Queen of the Night stuff as much. Gymnastics don’t mean as much to him as elegance and strength.

If he listened to hip-hop, he’d like it when people represent. He’d like Ghettomusick by Outkast, the fast switches from 4/4 to 12/8, the anti-melodic lines. He’s got Tchaikovsky, he doesn’t need Big Boi, but it’s also why he doesn’t listen to the radio.

My Mom- loves smart. Her own music is as smart as it is heart wrenching, and her love of word play is as keen as her love of melody. Her lyrics are informed on every possible level, there is never a forced meaning and there is also *never* a forced rhyme or a reversed verb-noun to get the rhyme. She is the ultimate improviser, always saying “yes, and?” at the end of a musical phrase. She loves the joke in fugues, she loves the rhythmic power of 60s guitar music, but she is demanding as hell of a higher thought applied to theory. She sweats her music like TS Eliott did his poetry.

If she listened to hip-hop, she’d like No Regrets by Aesop Rock. You’d have to explain to her that the rhymes are forced on purpose sometimes, like “Bidin’ My Time” by Ira Gershwin, but the spare strings and synth pads sneaking in and out with the layered lyrics, all the while telling the story of a single woman’s artistic pursuit, would fill her cup right up.

Kent- I’ll use his own quotes. One time he said he likes music that sounds like a dishwasher has been thrown down the basement stairs full of cutlery. Another time, he said he likes music that sounds like you’ve been sucked out the window of an airplane and went through the jet engine. He was much younger when he said these things. He seems to have taken this sensibility and married it now to melody, but he comes by it honestly. I think, while making incredible tracks of music noise, he heard my mom’s voice say “what’s next?”

Kent is hip-hop. I can’t point out anything I like that he hasn’t already heard.

Steve- likes drama. Steve is probably the best musician in the family, and the first one to be disenchanted with it. He hadn’t played violin in years when he grabbed mine and launched into the Bach Double, a piece I had struggled with for months, and played it like he was humming along with a tune in the car. It could be that the single voice of a single instrument never made enough tension for him, even multi-timbral instruments weren’t going to make the sweeping rhapsodies he heard in his head. Steve seems drawn to guys like Verdi and Thomas Newman more than Mozart. He actually has a lot in common with my Dad.

If Steve listened to Hip-hop, he’d like the entire Aquemini album by Outkast. I actually think their later stuff would be too poppy for him. He’d also like The Roots, anything by them.

Ian- The famous pop apologist. Ian taught me to love The Brandenburg concertos because he wouldn’t stop playing them, and then he’d turn around and make me listen to Utopia’s “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” when all I wanted to listen to was early Prince records. He has the same question in his head that comes from my mom when he makes music “Then what?”, which actually can be a hell of a ghost haunting your brain. After playing a song for him about fifteen years ago, he said “Why don’t you try writing in a different key” and I said, “This is just the song, I can capo it in any key” and I think we both realized we weren’t speaking eachother’s language. He was asking why I didn’t try harder, and I was wondering why he wanted it to be so hard. I sometimes wonder if I love his music because I’m hearing it through my fondness for him, or if I actually love it like he does.

If Ian listened to Hip-Hop, he’d like “Dooin It” by Common. It’s possible that the first words (mother fucker, move back…) might make him wonder what the hell I’m talking about, but actually, that whole album “Like Water For Chocolate” is all stuff he’d love. Sean Patrick dumped that on my hard drive for me, and it is the JAM.

Michelle- likes it woodsy and chunky and full of raisins and berries. This is a person who is genuinely touched to the heart by the sound of an acoustic guitar and two harmonic voices. She likes celebration, hates overt aggression, and likes the sound of ringing strings and air through brass. How do you tell a granola girl that scary black men with machines can speak to her?

The Roots. P.M. Dawn. There are a bunch of groups, new and old, that are wrapped in paisley and don’t use machines. More than that, though, Michelle could use a dose of anger in her music, and there are lots of ladies out there who are all about empowerment. If she heard the unedited version of “Work It” by Missy Eliott, I can assure you, she’d be smiling.

I don’t think any of this is going to happen. The truth is that if any of my family (except for Kent) heard these songs, they wouldn’t make it to their Ipod favorites, because it takes some inoculation, it takes some sitting in the choir listening to the sermons. It takes some getting used to. I’m grateful that friends like Mike and Ehren made me listen to stuff, Mike sometimes holding me hostage in his car until the song was over, not allowing any talking. I was converted pretty easily, but I’m also the dumbest, by a wide margin, guy in our family so getting me to drink the Kool-Aid is as hard as handing it to me.

Tuesday, July 6th, 2004

I ought to write more.

I’m having some problems with my shoulder that are feeling more like actual problems than “faggotry”. I wish I could just go in to a doctor and have him start with one end and work his way all the way up and give me pills and stretches so everything would get fixed.

Of course, what would he do to fix my heart?

I sometimes get uncomfortable at parties where there seems to be people who can help your career. In fact, I become belicose pretty quick. I also seem to have a deep and abiding dislike for most people who share the exact same passions I do, and I’m not sure why. I can sit down across from someone who has a passion for producing and acting much like mine and realize I have *nothing* to say to them.

I also tend to have more disrespect for decorum than most artistic people I know. I don’t feel things as keenly, or rather am pretty unaware of how keenly other people feel things, so I generally say something to alienate someone. Which is nice.

I said, what would he do to fix my heart?

Spiderman Two was just fine, but I’d like to go to no more movies in fucking Queens. The burroughs are starting to weigh on me. I don’t want kids around me anymore. Little kids are fine, but I don’t want to have to put up with assholes like me. If 34 year old me could see 16 year old me, I’d hope I’d kick my ass, and I mean it the other way. It’d be cool to punch myself in the face and watch 18 year old scars appear under my eyes.

My Ipod brings me great joy. More joy than a doctor would, I believe.

Okay. Lame update, I know, but I’ll post more tomorrow, seriously.