Saturday, February 21, 2009

On the Dirt on Dirty Dancing--The Classic Story on the Stage

Loved the colorful, swirling skirts with crinolines. Admired the hunky physique of the man who played Johnny Castle (understudy Easton Smith). Was dazzled by the ever-changing scenery that cleverly used video, especially in the water scene where Johnny finally teaches Baby the dance lifts. Mouthed the familiar lines and tunes to myself. “Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story on the Stage” is entertaining, but it doesn’t quite work. I am a HUGE fan of the film, which I saw when it first came out and have probably seen a couple of dozen times. If this had been my first time seeing “Dirty Dancing,” I might have liked the show even less.

The stage versions of both “Dirty Dancing” and “Legally Blonde,” another film on my “favorites” list, were largely faithful to their respective “books.” But “Legally Blonde” morphed into an exuberant musical that took me along for the ride. Of course, it used the traditional formula of having its characters burst into song and dance at appropriate times in contrast to “Dirty Dancing,” where the music served more as a sound track, even at those times when the songs were sung live (but not by the main characters). So why does the film of “Dirty Dancing” succeed where the stage play falls flat, even as the actors spout the same lines and mimic many of the same actions, the scenery tries hard to please, and many of the songs are replicated?

A big reason, I believe, is that the show kept us at a distance. One of the great successes of the film is its sense of intimacy and place, established during the opening credits with the sexy, slow motion dance moves of the young staff of Kellerman’s to the tune of “Be My Baby.” We can almost smell the sultry summer air, feel the hormonal surges. Whatever their lives are away from the resort, whatever is happening in the world at that moment doesn’t matter. (The stage show tries to make the story seem relevant by adding references to the civil rights movements. Injecting the larger issues of that era into this most personal of stories was one of the play’s missteps.) As Johnny and Baby rehearse for their upcoming dance number at another resort, the heat increases. Although their class differences are part of the dramatic backbone of the story, within the confines of this sequestered place, they connect in a believable way.

Marshall McLuhan, media and popular culture guru of the 60s, once pronounced, that “the medium is the message.” Although we might assume that a live play should be more intimate than a film because of the flesh and blood presence of the actors, that is not always so. Because of the camera’s ability to focus in, the medium of film can make us feel that not only are we in the room but that we are almost inhabiting the characters’ bodies. A stage play can do that same thing, but without the shifting lens, it must rely on other means. Sometimes plays do not make the transition well to film because they try to do too much, to be in too many locations, so we lose the focus we need to establish the relationship with the characters. In this case, the reverse happened. Maybe if I’d been in one of the $135 dollar seats, I would have felt more bonded with Johnny and Baby, but even the binoculars didn’t help. During their intimate moments, I felt like I was spying on them. At others, I had to chase them around the stage to keep up.

As a fiction writer, I need to understand what my medium conveys and how I can get the most from it. How do I establish that sense of intimacy with my characters? What kinds of details will provide an appropriate sensory experience since you will have only the words on the page and your imagination to pull you in? At what point will I lose you if I provide too much detail? Fiction writers have the added luxury of being able to take you inside our characters’ heads to show how they are reacting to a line of speech, a situation, another character. Again, we must decide how much internal dialogue is enough, and how much we should convey through showing you and not telling you.

Maybe with its fast cut scenery, as clever as it was, its mile long playlist, and its dozens of dance numbers, the stage show of “Dirty Dancing” put me on overload, so I no longer knew where to focus my attention. It never slowed down enough to let me in. The familiar dialogue seemed strained at times, out of its element. In short, “Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story on the Stage” still thought it was a movie; it forgot the strengths of its medium and as a result it failed to win the heart of this audience member and give me the time of my life.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

On Endless Love and Vampires

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I’m hooked on the Twilight saga (by Stephenie Meyer), a tetralogy about a turgid romance between a human girl and an ageless, but breathtakingly handsome vampire who quenches his thirst by eating animals not people. The series has been an enormous hit with tweener and teen girls, and the first book was made into a movie (confession #2, also seen). But like Facebook, I think there are signs that the adult population is catching on. The books are classified as romance/thriller/fantasy, three genres in which I’ve had very little interest. While many of my aging friends lapped up the Harry Potter series, I shook my head. No 750 page wizard stories for me. So what was my attraction to this tale of teenage angst set in the rain-soaked town of Forks, Washington?

Initially, I was motivated as a writer considering young adult fiction. Why were these books so popular that all four have been on the best seller lists (oh, envy) and created such a stir among the blogging public, four years after the first book was published? (See, for example, The Twilight Series: Is It Really Just Soft Porn for Teens? Feb 13, 2009.) As some have pointed out, this is less a story about vampires than a romance. Complaints abound about how the vampires are not accurately represented. They can come out in cloudy days, and they glitter in the sunlight. Do we care? These are mythical creatures, for God’s sake. So how does the saga stack up as a romance? Aside from the grating prose style of the first book, Twilight (beware the omnipresent adverb, looming at the end of every tag line, but virtually eliminated in book two, New Moon), I found myself completing these 500 page tomes in several days, unable to put them down, despite their many writing and story flaws. (As Meyer’s critics point out, why are these two characters attracted to each other, except for superficial reasons—they smell good to each other, she baffles him, he looks good? Why do these vampires go to school anyway? Is a young woman willing to abandon everything for love really such a good role model for young people? But I digress.)

There are a number of factors that make these stories compelling as tales of romance. First, of course, Twilight is the classic story of forbidden love, like Romeo and Juliet (to which the protagonist, Bella Swan, frequently refers, or Johnny and Baby in "Dirty Dancing" (still one of my favorite movies, I admit). Can their differences be reconciled? Second, the two lovers are portrayed sympathetically so that we root for them. (Personally, Edward’s cold skin and marble hard body don’t do it for me. One critic found him too controlling.) Third are the elements of danger. Edward (vampire in question) might lose control, after all, and there are other “bad” vampires, who do feast on human blood, and who may stand in the way. (The introduction of the werewolves was excessive, in my opinion.) Fourth is the overarching question that must be answered—is Bella’s love so strong that she would be willing to become a vampire herself at the risk of losing her human identity and contact with her family? Fifth is the love triangle between two mortal but likable enemies. Who will win Bella’s heart? Can both enemies coexist? And finally, each book leaves the reader dangling sufficiently to want more. (confession #3: I have two more books to go.) The sexual tension is present but not the driving force. This book harks back to the days when relationships were consummated only within marriage. Hardly the stuff of “soft porn.”

So all I can say is good for Stephenie Meyer. She’s figured out a way to keep kids reading, even if it’s not high class literature. She’s got us talking and dissecting and forgetting for a few hours that we have an economic crisis out there. And as for me, maybe it’s time for me to make a date with a little wizard in training.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

On Procrastination and Swiss Cheese

For the last six months a forbiddingly large package has been sitting in my hallway. Although of sentimental value, the painting that was entombed in the package was not something I needed in the near future, and the box was not particularly in the way. But its constant presence served as a reminder of a seemingly daunting task that needed to be completed. This was not an ordinary package. Approximately 40 mammoth staples were deeply embedded through a covering of heavy corrugated cardboard. In short, the removal of the painting seemed akin to storming Fort Knox. Each day I passed this giant object, I felt increasingly annoyed, frustrated, and guilty.

Then last night, as I lay awake, I visualized a process involving a screwdriver and a hammer that even I, a physically small person, might be able to manage. When an enjoyable but long phone call ate into my planned workout at the gym, I decided that the time had come to tackle the monster. Wedging out the staples along three sides, cutting through the masses of tape around the inner cardboard box, and unearthing the painting shrouded in a blanket took exactly one-half hour. Thirty lousy minutes! How many half hours have I wasted over the last six months when I could have polished off this chore and stopped it from haunting me?

Of course, this project serves as a metaphor for all those things put off because they felt too time consuming, too overwhelming in scope, or too likely to lead to failure. Sometimes, the build up to the task takes more energy than the task itself, which may be dispatched with a short, concerted effort, as with the unbundling of my package or cleaning the bathroom. We just have to commit that small amount of time. On other occasions a delay of the simplest of tasks may lead to greater problems, such as the fine I once received for failing to affix my new parking permit by the deadline—a parking permit that was already sitting in my glove compartment. A one minute task!

But what about the really intimidating projects—especially the ones we are so personally invested in, like writing that novel or sending the completed manuscript out to agents? Here I like to use something I once heard called the “swiss cheese approach,” which involves breaking a very large project down into much smaller steps—writing the first paragraph of the query letter, writing the second paragraph, etc., giving it to three trusted colleagues for review, revising once, revising again, doing a web search or index review to make a list of five plausible agents, researching each of them and their requirements, addressing five envelopes, etc., each step designed to take just a moderate amount of time. It may be long plod, but we arrive just the same.

The key, as with the big package, is psyching oneself up (maybe through a little visualization? A reminder from a buddy?), not using other undone tasks as excuses (I can’t write until I’ve done the laundry, played solitaire on-line, cleaned out my email box…) and then just getting started. Time management experts suggest that each day, no matter what other expectations await, we aim to check off at least one item on our own “most important” list. (Note: Not someone else’s priorities for you, but your very own—those things for which you live and breathe.) Punch a hole in that project until there is no cheese left! I conquered the oversized package, but the real accomplishment of my day was using my effort to create my next blog entry. However, my self-congratulatory mode expires at midnight. Tomorrow is another day. Now where was that agent list I made a few weeks ago…..?

Monday, February 9, 2009

On Death and the Writer

In the third half of life, we confront death more often as childhood heroes and icons, aging family members, and even contemporaries pass away. I’ve been thinking a lot about the final passage this past month after reacting to the deaths of five people with varying degrees of psychic distance from me, from my 92 year old mother-in-law to the esteemed writer John Updike.

In the hands of a writer, death is a useful plot device to engage or hook a reader. Along with love, it is one of the most common events around which we build stories. Death or its possibility can create suspense (will it happen; if so, how; and if not, how is death avoided?) or mystery (why did it happen, or who did it?), reveal personality (what do we learn about the central figures of the story?), and provoke temporary or permanent psychological changes (how do they react?) that may lead to change or action (what do they do as a result?) The death of a bad guy provides a catharsis while that of the personality with whom we’ve bonded or for whom we feel sympathy prompts a sense of loss. Although it’s not always easy to kill off a favorite character—sometimes they don’t let you, as a writer you are largely in control.

What strikes me now is the contrast between my purposeful and manipulative handling of death in my fictional worlds and the complexity of my emotional states this past month to the five deaths, each touching me in different ways. There was sadness in all cases, though the nature and intensity of the sadness varied. But there was also shock, at receiving unexpected news of a sudden death; anxiety waiting for the anticipated phone call; relief that the difficult days were over; fear of not knowing the right words of comfort; empathy because of common experiences with loved ones’ illnesses; nostalgia at calling up distant memories; regret at not having known someone better; longing for more time; amusement on hearing a funny anecdote about the deceased; envy at a person’s accomplishments; and even guilt at being able to get on with my own life when a friend is grieving.

My reactions are causing me to assess whether I am capturing that complexity of sometimes contradictory emotions or perhaps falling into what Ann Hood (Creating Character Emotions, Cincinnati: Story Press, 1998) calls the “curse of writing like a writer”—of filtering or watering down the emotions of my characters as I write the way I think I am supposed to write. Am I too busy advancing my plot that I don’t give my characters space to react in convincing ways? Hood advises to “write like yourself” without necessarily replicating what happens in real life. This mantra is a great reminder to use my experiences in service of my artistry and to slow down, even if I need to shed a tear of my own while doing so.