Sometimes I feel like my brain is filled with puzzle pieces. Separate and distinct elements that fit together into something bigger, something essential, some larger than life truth that only I can pull together
This latest puzzle has been a tough one to crack. Like any good puzzler I have been looking for the connections. The similar pieces—those with flat edges, or colors that appear to mesh in just the right way.
The elements of the puzzle are widespread. They include the near destruction of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Susan Orlean’s The Library Book and the damage to swaths of intangible heritage with the Universal Music Group fire, where the masters of a whole range of popular (and lesser known) music were engulfed in a flame. There is an even clearer picture when you toss in elements from Yesterday and the The Band’s Visit into the fray.
And perhaps all of these are funnels into my reaction to the film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which collectively summarizes the idea of loss and cultural heritage in a single remarkable package. Continue reading “On Cultural Heritage & Loss”→
Many fans of fantasy and sci-fi fall into two different camps: those who love time travel and those who don’t. For those who love it, suspension of belief is sufficient to get through the paradoxes that these narratives develop over time. The inverse is true for those who abhor stories that change the past, because repercussions from the butterfly effect leads to stories that are convoluted and messy.
I thought about this the other day when watching Rogue One, last year’s Star Wars movie about a group of rebels plotting to retrieve the plans for the first Death Star. While thrilling in its own right it is only through the final minutes (the final, last ditch, effort to escape Darth Vader) where we see the connective tissue between this film and 1977’s A New Hope.
In some ways it feels like a historical document. A primary source that fills in a missing piece — why everyone fears Darth Vader, just how desperate Princess Leia was to get the plans away from her ship, the absolute critical nature of C3PO and R2D2’s mission. It puts things into perspective and provides insight into a story that captured my imagination for the past twenty years. Continue reading “Journey to the Past: Timeless & the History Film Forum”→
“When we worked here together we fought, scratched, and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better. That’s what public service is all about. Small incremental change every day.
Teddy Roosevelt once said ‘far and away the best prize that life has to offer is a chance to work hard at work worth doing.’ And I would add what makes work worth doing is getting to do it with people you love.” — Leslie Knope
Yesterday we said goodbye to the loveable crew from Pawnee, Indiana and I literally got more emotional than I thought I would. And so, in the spirit of farewell, I pulled together my favorite things, moments, and thoughts from Pawnee, Indiana (with some helpful suggestions from my friends on Twitter and Facebook).
This is perhaps a post more about narrative than anything else. As I work on another story for May I am ruminating on how to pull together disparate pieces into something coherent and meaningful. And so for this post I thought I would take a look at methods of storytelling in film and theatre. Specifically, the role of the fourth wall in narrative.
The first is a look at the recent book turned into film The Hunger Games, followed by a reflection of a recent adaptation of Eugene O’Niell’s Strange Interlude at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC. Finally, I wanted to look at the role of participant theatre through my experience at the creepy, yet satisfying production, Sleep No More, a version ofWilliam Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The Hunger Games
A story about a world controlled by violence where children are held hostage to a Capitol determined to hold society under their thumbs through an annual gladiator style rite called the Hunger Games. By now, most of you know about this series, andthere isn’t much I cansay about this book that hasn’t already been addressed by others….
Do I recognize the stories precedents in classics such as the Lottery and to some extent Lord of the Flies (and, yes, Battle Royale) Check.
Do I see in the narrative a reflection of our obsessions with 24 hour news, and reality television? Check.
From a storytelling angle, I have to approach the book and the movie separately. The book looks to tell the story from one point of view. We only see and learn what Katniss understands, we know what she knows. It’s like looking at the history of a town or a place and using one person’s diary to tell the tale, sans broader political or social context. We know she is only a piece in a larger machine, but we don’t know what role she plays until later.
In the movie, this tale is approached from two or three different perspectives. We still have Katniss’ point of view—primarily in the arena, but we are also given information as a part of the viewing audience along with glimpses of the undercurrent of malevolence by President Snow and company. And here is where the fourth wall comes in (props to my friend Rob for bringing this up). In the film adaptation we’re pulled into the film primarily through the use of the “hand held (shaky) camera.” The fight scenes feel un-choreographed – and we are amidst the chaos, grappling for some purchase and an upper hand.
The fourth wall is a theatrical term that refers to the barrier between the audience and the events on the screen or stage. “Breaking through the fourth wall,” is when that audience is acknowledged directly, no longer invisible. While the Hunger Games film never directly acknowledges our presence, I did feel at times that the camera work, and the “reality” based storyline made us more than just an unwitting audience member – and made you think of how complicit we are, in our world, of feeding the unreality of reality television.
The story starts with a man talking about his daughter, Nina. Her fiancé has recently passed amidst the fighting of World War I, and her father worries that she will never rise up from her grief and sorrow.
Over the next 3 hours and 45 minutes (a shorter version of play that is normally almost over 4 hours, and often includes a dinner break) viewers are treated with a strange tale. One of grief, manipulation, love (can you call it love?) and expectation. This is Strange Interlude.
I’ll be honest, when we first heard how long it was my friends and I made an unofficial pact (one we probably would never have gone through with, because we aren’t really like that): if we hated the show we would bail during the first intermission.
Luckily that was never necessary. It’s hard to describe Nina Leeds. On one hand she is held up as someone who will not do what is expected, refusing to listen to her father or to an old family friend until pushed. On the other, she and most of the males in her life believe that happiness comes with marriage and children, a daunting task for someone who lives her life for her lost love. When she finally does wed, she discovers a hidden secret in her husband’s family that forces her to live her life dedicated to putting someone else’s happiness above her own.
I don’t want to give away the story (especially for those who may consider attending this show), but I wanted to look at two specific elements. In terms of set it’s a blank canvas. Three pale walls that take up only half of the stage at the Harmon Center for the Arts (the rest of the stage is dark). During scene breaks, scenes of the time/mood/tension are flashed on these walls through black and white silent films.
Much of what we learn about motivations and feeling come from regular asides from each of the main characters. An aside, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is when a character steps out of the normal conversational dialogue to add….an aside, something only we can hear, but none of the other principal actors can. In Strange Interlude we glean sincerity and a version of reality (as each of them see it). Not quite the fourth wall, but certainly insight that we would not get if this was written as a straightforward play.
Don’t want to take my word for it? Let others sway you, and then go see it yourself. (If I didn’t mention it before, this is also a comedy).
Sleep No More
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word. —
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Picture this. You check in your bags, and receive your ticket – a playing card that leads you up some stairs and through a narrow dark passageway that transports you from there (Chelsea, New York City, New York) to here. You are told it is a hotel…the McKittrick Hotel, but it is also a speakeasy where suited up guides use breaks in the music to call out numbers for the much larger show. This is how we are herded, prepared for what is to come.
You get a mask, reminiscent of the masks from V for Vendetta but much more ghoulish, and are told to stop speaking. No cell phones. No outside communication at all. After all you are no longer there…you are here.
And up, up, we go and step beyond the realm of typical theatrics and into the show itself.
Have you ever watched a play and wondered what it would be like to walk on set, walk through doorways, and wander about fake libraries, dining rooms or battlefields? In the McKittrick that is what we get to do. On one floor we are wandering through a graveyard. Small crosses dotting a hallway that is nearly pitchblack. I can smell the dirt, and hear the sorrow. The graveyard turns into ruins, half built brick walls, with a statue of Jesus (or was it an angel?) raising their arms towards us. (Aside: This would have seemed less menacing had I not recently seen the “Don’t Blink” episodes of Dr. Who.) It’s a maze that ends in a wall of glass doorways, and peering through the frosted glass you are given a glimpse of a bedroom filled with other silent, masked attendees.
We walked through the glass and spotted the white, porcelain tub in the center of the room. Papers lay scattered about, and when you pick it up you see a familiar name. Macbeth, writing to his lady love.
And then, he walks in followed later by his wife – and though they never verbalize the conversation we figure out that this is the moment. When she convinces him that regicide is what he must do to achieve the throne.
Then we have a choice. To stay with the Lady, or to follow him as he runs to his fate. We stay, others go. We wait, knowing that when Macbeth returns he will have hands stained with blood. And so he does.
We are a part of the play. We are the silent observers to the madness. It is truly like stepping in, almost like a voyeur, into the play itself. The actors never really acknowledge our presence, but they react, dance and float. They fight and we are moved along with the motion, physically working to find out what comes next.
If anything comes close to truly breaking the fourth wall, this production by Punchdrunk (who champions this type of immersive theatre) does. In this play, Sleep No More, “Lines between space, performer and spectator are constantly shifting. Audiences are invited to rediscover the childlike excitement and anticipation of exploring the unknown and experience a real sense of adventure.” (www.sleepnomorenyc.com). The sets are meticulous, and successfully provide visitors with the opportunity to investigate, opening books, touching tables and wandering.
It is, however, not for the faint of heart. While I explored as much as possible, the silence is unnerving, at times frightening (especially when you are on the upper floor filled with signs of growing insanity by the inhabitants), and I was grateful to have my sister standing next to me.
Like Strange Interlude and The Hunger Games the fourth wall still exists, but it is transparent. While we cannot affect the outcome of the show, we are a part of it, and though you do not need to know the story of Macbeth, it helps to make connections and to understand motivations.
At the end of the night as we stepped from here to there—back into Chelsea, New York City, New York, and reality once again.
Sleep No More is currently being shown through the end of June 2012. For more information visit www.sleepnomorenyc.org.
I’ve been angling for a reason to write about Downton Abbey on this blog, and an opportunity presented itself in this fun Friday post that went up today on the PreservationNation.org blog. You can read the post with the awesome-as-usual Downton Abbey images here but I’ve also included the text below.
PS: I also use it as an excuse to mention other awesome shows like The West Wing, LOST, Dr. Who, and Battlestar Galactica. Because what would each of these shows be without the familiar hallways of the White House, the forests of our favorite Island, and a spaceship serving as home for a drifting civilization (or in the case of Dr. Who, the ability to hop from place to place in time)?
Downton Abbey and the Pull of Place in Popular Television
I think by now many of the regular readers on this blog know three things about me. I love history. I love writing about history. And I pretty much think about history, and place, and the past about 367 million times a day.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I think about the power of place and the past when doing the most mundane things — walking, cooking, and watching television.
Like many, many people, I’ve been enamored with the British period drama Downton Abbey, which just finished its second season run on PBS. For those that haven’t seen it, it begins in pre-World War I England and gives viewers a glimpse into the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants through the intervening years.
What I love about Downton Abbey is that the story centers around the estate, a magnificent house full of both grand (for the lords and ladies) and humble (for the staff) public and private spaces that serves as a mechanism for how a family and their employees lived in the early 20th century. The way the building is used over the two seasons reflects society and class as changes in women’s roles, war, and disease take its toll. But Downton is used as more than a set piece. The home is a crucial character in itself, and plays a crucial role for how each of the characters defines themselves.
This isn’t necessarily something new. After all, the whole premise of the show Cheers is to tell the story of a group of bar patrons in a particular space. Then there are three of my favorites — The West Wing, LOST, and (nerd alert) Battlestar Galactica — which are incredibly place-centric, as ninety percent of each episode occurs within their respective main locations: The White House, an island, or a giant spaceship that serves as the only defender against the enemies of humanity (try saying that three times fast).
What other shows out there use place to tell their story? We know of course that there are plenty of serials and sitcoms that use cities as the backdrop to their storylines. The stories in Mad Men, for example, are integrally tied to their place in mid-century New York.
The point, perhaps, that I am trying to make is that as a preservationist and a historian, I’m drawn to shows that integrate where they are with the people whose lives intersect in those spaces. And it’s the same for the real world, since the places we save are often inherently important because of the mark of individuals or groups on them, or our own modern interactions or associations with them.
I recently watched an episode of Dr. Who (a show with a time-traveling theme) where the main character presents a theory that there are fixed points in time that can never change — that events will always happen in this time and this place no matter what tries to influence them. It’s a fanciful idea, one that appeals to me as a historian because of how we think about the “power of place” — that an important way that we can tell the story of our past and make it tangible is by recognizing the confluence of people, places, and events in time.
What do you think? Do you love a television show because it reminds you of history, place, or preservation? Sound off below!
It has been a long, strange, year. On one hand it felt like it disappeared without a fuss, slipping away, month by month, day by day. Winter became Spring, Summer then Fall in a blink of an eye, but so much happened, both in the world and personally that it has its own weight and import.
And now here we are. Over the anticipation and into the 3rd day of the year two thousand and twelve (try saying that three times fast) with resolutions crying to be made, and best of lists flooding the Internet. I’ve had a year of personal triumphs and losses along with professional challenges that forced us to embrace change.
So 2011, Twenty-Eleven 2-0-1-1 I’d like to bid you adieu.
I am grateful for another year of family. For a wedding that made it grow, and for support when personal losses flew in unexpectedly.
I am grateful for another year of friends. As my thirtieth year on earth begins, having known some of these people for up to ten years has enriched my imagination, my world view, and my heart in the ways that only friends can do.
I am grateful, once again, for a year where I could walk into work and write and talk about something I believe in and love, even when it was hard (and at times, it still is). Change is a funny thing. When you know it is coming it can be frightening, a looming monolith–daunting, but as it sweeps in it can force you to look at old ways of working and push you in new directions. Optimism is my greatest weapon.
I know I haven’t made mention of some of the larger events of the year—of stories that we’ll be talking about as historians for years to come. Tsunamis, Earthquakes, Tornadoes changing the narrative of nations and small towns for decades to come. Believe me those larger events made an impact on how I view the meaning of place and where we came from in a new light. And the death of a friend this summer emphasized that life is fleeting, and that so much of what we have needs to be embraced right here, right now.
And then there are the typical “best of” lists. As always this is a reflection of things I’ve discovered/read/listened/saw this year.
Many of the items on this list I wrote about on the blog this year, while others have flown in under the radar (including my recent love for David Tennant and Dr. Who. As a historian, watching a Time Lord fly around space during different historical periods is amusing and at times, surprisingly poignant.) Downton Abby (Season 2 starts January 8, Season 1 is available on streaming via Netflix Instant and PBS.com) and The Hour are two other series that I haven’t talked much about on the blog, the first has been written about in many places—great acting, great drama. The Hour, a six episode series set in England during the 1950s about a one hour news program, has an intensity that surprised me.
Each of these pieces of pop-culture fed my creative soul, made me learn something new about storytelling, and were, above all else, fun to listen to, watch, and see.
So….Twenty-Twelve, what can I expect from you?
My resolutions for the year are complicated. They range from the personal (eating habits, work out goals) to the aspirational (write more, dream more). Above all else I see 2012 as the year of getting organized, to continue to live my life in a way that helps others and sends love, peace, and kindness out in the world.
It is certainly going to be an exciting year. The Olympics, the 2012 Presidential Elections (to name two) that are sure to make headlines. There will be stories to be told, and lives that will be changed.
It is also a year of moving the needle, and raising the bar. Challenging myself to take risks and leaps that I have only taken tiny, hesitant steps towards in the past. Figuring out what does come next for me personally, professionally, and creatively. So no matter how we write it 2012, Twenty Twelve, 2-0-1-2, this is the year of living life.
As I mention in the description of …and this is what comes next (and perhaps as can be evidenced by my inordinate love of the television show LOST) I am both a historian and a pop culture fanatic. This year one of my favorite shows, How I Met Your Mother had a long running story line about an old hotel and one woman’s fight to save it. There are lots of hijinks along the way, but in the end the way the storyline portrayed preservation wasn’t pretty.
I am a sucker for a good book, especially stories that are steeped in their own…history. There is one part of me that lives firmly ensconced in reality where I constantly think about our own past and its public component, but then there’s this other half that becomes engrossed at made-up worlds and marvels at how writers are able to create complete visions filled with music, art, and culture all through the written word. And when that vision integrates a mythology with heroes and morals like our Greek/Roman/Etruscan/Hindu myths it is all the more fantastic.
When those books end up on the big screen, I find myself thinking about how the director’s imagination measures up (of course, no movie is ever quite as satisfying as a book for me). That being said when the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out I was floored.
I’m not the most critical movie watcher. Generally, I’ll always try to find a reason to justify sitting in the theater for 2.5 hours (Though Avatar, the 3D is the only thing that saved you.) Anyway…when I saw Harry Potter 7 (Part 1) a few weeks ago I realized that the strength in the narrative came from J.K. Rowling’s ability to create a wholly believable world. When reading the books the reader is bombarded with the tools of the historical trade to tell the story–and each step hearkens back to something that had been prophesied not only when Harry Potter was a young boy, but even further back through the veil of mythology.
What are some of the key primary sources we use in writing about the past? Objects, written sources, art, music. Material culture includes things like jewelery, funerary objects, items from everyday life that ultimately create meaning for an individual, a community and a nation. In terms of the written word we look to the text in the form of diaries, newspapers, and books for contextual clues.
So in order to understand the wizarding world of Harry Potter we are pulling from the stories told in the last six books, but Rowling also pulled together tools of historiography to tell her story.
In terms of material culture we have the standard trappings of the witch or wizard, but more specifically there are the Horcruxes–magical objects that hold individual pieces of Voldemort’s soul, objects that hold an overarching meaning for him due to their connection with his own mangled past with Hogwarts. Then we have pieces from Harry’s own past–a golden snitch which holds his key to survival, the diary of Tom Riddle, and the three Deathly Hallows.
Of course this final chapter of the Harry Potter saga is not bereft of textual sources. Dumbledore’s last will and testament plays a role in setting the three on their journey, not to mention the actual gift to Hermione–The Tales of the Beedle the Bard which adds yet another rich layer to the world. Then we have the book written by Rita Skeeter, which uses (albeit doctored) oral history from Bathilda Bagshot to put together Dumbledore’s past connections to Grindlewald a history that is also told by Elphias Doge. Competing sources of the past, both with kernels of information that are hidden by the other individuals bias. To some extent the last Harry Potter book finds Harry, Ron and Hermione playing the historian and try to suss out the means to destroy Voldemort in the end.
I think one of the additional strengths of the story, and why it resonates with some many, is how it emphasizes the importance of place and that subsequent connection to a community, family, and a people. I know that the sadness I felt (both in the book and the film version) of going back to Godric’s Hollow is directly related to knowing the ‘historical’ moment that happened there. I loved how in the book at the home of Harry’s birth there is a monument to the sacrifice–and how those pilgrims have written of their connection to the events that occurred there. This isn’t all that different to the writings at Abby Road near the Beatles studio, or the guest books at any major historical site around the world. Good fiction, often makes connections to reality. (As an aside, I also love how cemetery markers provided Hermione with a clue re: the Hallows. As a primary source, gravestones can tell you a lot about the people who lived there).
As I mentioned, part of the reason my blogging has been slow the last few months is because of my participation in National Novel Writing Month. I tried to integrate some of my favorite things about history (material culture, landscape analysis, and mythology) with a kernel of a story. While I’m not sure about how successful I ended up being (while I hit 50k words, the book isn’t done) I did gain a new appreciation for J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, and of course J.K. Rowling. I definitely recognized that history isn’t just about revealing fragments of the past, but about trying to engage with and embrace the whole story–in the fictional and non-fictional realm.
On a side note, here is my work blog post from PreservationNation.org. If you didn’t know already the Historic American Landscape Survey turned ten this year. I also took a trip to Baltimore to learn more about preservation efforts by Baltimore Heritage, Inc.
I’m writing this as a blizzard comes down outside my house and I figured its as good a time as any to write out the last of my movie posts. It will come as no surprise that I have seen James Cameron’s latest blockbuster Avatar, and like most viewers I was blown away by the 3D special effects and just how it transformed the movie experience. I’m also not surprised to hear that a sequel is already in the works.
That being said, at some point I heard some reviewer or the other (probably from Entertainment Weekly) pose the following question: Is Avatar a bigger movie than Star Wars?
It is a hard question to answer. First off are we comparing the first Star Wars movie (the one we know now as Episode IV, A New Hope) or are we comparing the whole series? Are we doing an overall comparison or just a technology to technology comparison? That is are we looking at how transformative the technology in Avatar is to the movie industry in the same vein as how path breaking the technology from a galaxy far, far, away was to special effects? If that’s the case then Avatar has only been out a few short weeks so can we really tell what its impact is, or is it simply amazing since it is the first to truly use 3D technology for the entire movie?
I’ve discussed this with a bunch of friends, some of whom see it as transformative only in the fifteen minutes of fame sense—that is, until the next 3D spectacular film comes out. Others, including me, see a story that pales in the face of even a surface scrutiny, especially sine the plot is reflective of Dances with Wolves and Disney’s Pocahontas put together.
But all of that has been talked about ad nauseum. My favorite thing about science-fiction, and one of the particular aspects of Avatar that I liked the most was the world-building. That is the creation of whole new cultures and histories that are, really, based on actual histories and stories from our world. True, many of them carry the same trophes (all knowing mystical energy that can be felt by a specific group of people), or try and successfully pull their own twists to a previously created tale (the recent Battlestar Galactica).
To some extent we see this process with historical fiction. That which looks at events like the Civil War and asks the infamous “what if” questions to create a new world that is still grounded in reality. Science Fiction, on the other hand, takes that question a step further, masking the harder questions in the cloak of something magical and mystical.
Avatar to some seemed a loose metaphor on our dependence on oil (unobtanium), while Star Wars has clear elements derived from Hitler’s Germany. One of my favorite things about the latest iteration of Battlestar Galactica is how it takes what we as a culture finds abhorrent (suicide bombings) and puts the good guys, the humans in the position of resorting to that violence, and for a moment, just one sliver of a moment you find yourself seeing the world through their eyes. BSG had no qualms about beating us over the head with their historical references, and analogies to the present and in the end just made me think.
It also might be said that these narratives are about the search for Utopia in the face of chaos. Looking for perfection when our own world seems to be rife with environmental destruction and political mistrust. I know one thing though—I think movies and stories like Avatar and Star Wars, and television shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica give us a change in perspective and ultimately let us take a step towards understanding what makes us human.
I think I was in a mood when I wrote this. All these icons were passing away and it made me think about how we would be remembered. Would it be things connected to popular cultlure like our obsession with reality television (ugh), or will it be the politicial reality we now live in. Which naturally led me to think about how this new media would be saved and documented for us to remember it.