Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Tale of Two Sidneys

I've been fortunate to have had two mentors, one the writer, Rachel Maddux, the other an actor, Virginia Gilmore.

Many of the things I learned from Rachel had to do with discovering ways to make a character come to life on the page by demonstrating--not describing--what that character wanted, then relating that agenda to the story at hand.

Virginia, an Actor's Studio alumna, showed me the same basic thing: how to focus on the core image of a character in relationship to the thematic and situational pressures of a given story. It was fascinating to hear Virginia speak of her acting class assignments, shared with her close friends, Lee Remick, and Marilyn Monroe. Boarding a Fifth-Avenue bus at five in the afternoon, with nothing smaller than a fifty-dollar bill. Being imperious and haughty to a saleslady at Bergdorf. All calculated to teach the actor how to overcome humiliation, inflict it, empathize with others and, specifically, to project the deliberate avoidance of empathy, which is to say denial.

I have for some time tended to feel a community in which the actor and writer overlap, relying on, among other things, timing. It is no accident that the community has expanded in my view to include the musician and the photographer, each dealing with the way time is spent/employed/manipulated.

Although I have been a music buff from about pre-teen to the present, it was not until I interviewed Leonard Slatkin, Conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, that I even thought of the orchestral policy of manipulating time in music through the simple raising or lowering of the vibrations per second of the note A. The standard A is 440 vibrations per second. Each time you go to a live performance of a n orchestral or chamber group, you see/hear the players tuning their instrument to the A 440. Some European conductors like the results when they tune to an A at 338; some American conductors apparently like the possibilities from an A at 442. Such tweakings can contribute to an orchestra sounding faster or slower. It is not an obvious effect, merely a contributory one, a part of the conductor's personal "take" or point of view on tempo--how time is enlisted for an effect.

A photographer I was watching, particularly after she downloaded her afternoon's digital images the better to discard the ones she hated, file and perhaps Photo Shop those she saw fit to keep, announced with that lovely certainty of understanding and familiarity, "It's [photography is] all about light." A predetermined amount of light, entering a predetermined aperature in order to record an image.

Writer, actor, musician, photographer, using time to inform a desired result. In setting forth on a venture of writing, acting, performing, photographing, each uses time as a part of an element that transcends technique and delivers on the reader, viewer, hearer, audience an emotional impression. Thus does time become a part of a vital technique of narration.

All the user needs is that lovely portmanteau word, the narrator; or that even lovlier portmanteau phrase, point of view. What am I looking for when I expose an image? I heard the photographer ask. She was talking aloud, to herself, working it out--a link in its way to a pair of questions I ask students in my writing classes: Who's telling the story? And why?

On some basic level, I think we come through middle school understanding the persons, first, second, third. At some later point, we find out about multiple and omniscient.

It may take some of us--me included--longer to arrive at what comes next, just as it took me so long to consider what I learned from Leonard Slatkin about the manipulated A. Is the narrator reliable? Is the narrator like, say, Billy Budd, a naive, innocent, giuleless sort? Is the narrator a naif such as Don Quixote? And from that we have the even greater sophistication: Is Forrest Gump really thick in the head or merely (emphasis on irony here) Quixotic?

Do we believe the anchor who reads the evening news? Do we, accordingly, even watch the evening news?

What degree of acceptance do we give a work on, say Reconstruction (as in the United States Civil War), when we know the author is a Southerner or, conversely, a New Englander? Do we want the reader to accept, reject, or question? Relative to the effect we hope to evoke, what steps do we take to provide it--at what aperture do we set the lens, and how long do we allow the light to enter?

Most Homo sapiens appear to be hard-wired with Pairs of Opposites, polar clashes of conscience, emotion, moral gravity. We are at the very least prone to conflicting visions on the same topic. I am at this very moment seeing and feeling the to me dire consequences of Hillary's win of the Democratic nomination for 2008, vowing to write in Ralph Nader, thus not only making a choice but "making a statement" as well.
With the actual ballot before me in this nightmare scenario, will I hold to my resolve or be yanked off course by the voice of compromise.

Who is the narrator or narrators in a given story? This person, these people, need to have enough light allowed to enter the aperture of their personality to provide a vision of the complexity that lives and thrives within each of us.

Sidney Carlton is enough in appearance like Charles Darnay to pass for him in A Tale of Two Cities. Paris and London, the two venues of the novel, are made similar and polar; as well man's nature may be one of self-aggrandizement or nobility of a sort that is a sarcastic footnote to the broader concept of nobility so abundant in England and France at the time.

In order to know our narrator, you need to, as Virginia Gilmore did, put on her fur coat, and board the Fifth Avenue bus with a fifty-dollar bill. It helps that she told me of another story that came when she wore that fur coat--and nothing, absolutely nothing else. Reeled precariously, trying to stay on top of her drunken state, but losing out and tumbling down the long, circular staircase, into the lobby of a posh Swiss hotel.

Who is telling the story and why? For whom do we root? And why?
How much light do we let in? And through what aperture?
What is the key, the tone, the tempo?
Are we as transparent as, say Morgan Freeman or are we caught in the slipstream of some agenda as, say, Jack Nicholson?

Do we try to lull our characters into a false sense of security so that we can verbally capture them on paper when they are no longer posing? Or do we tell them up front?

There are no right answers, but the wrong answers emerge if we fail to take these issues into the crucible of our own creative urges, the better to determine our own motives.

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