Friday, January 26, 2007

friday ledger

The ASS truck - On my way to work today, a van pulled up next to me with the logo “Affordable Sewer Service” on its flank. I thought I’d misread it, but no, I looked them up in the yellow pages and discovered that Affordable Sewer Service is all too real. Has no one ever pointed out that their company has ASS for an acronym?

I really want to phone them up and ask about it.

"Hello, Affordable Sewer Services? Yes... no, it's not an emergency. It's just... yes, I know it's two in the morning... I just thought you should know you've got ASS. That's right. ASS. See ya".

The food court – Today the food court was full of children, middle schoolers and up. I have no idea what they were doing there or why they wanted to ruin my lunch, with their braying chit-chat, their downy moustaches, their misshapen faces, but they weren’t successful. They tried to block my way no matter where I went, loose little knots of them tangling up traffic and putting out that goaty subsmell. Most of the kids had just hit that age when their bodies were shooting upward and outward in all directions, all uncoordinated growth that made them look like animated specimens from the Mutter museum. A few of the older children had cleared that Elephant Man hurdle and looked like normal human beings, but already you could see that they were calcifying into adult forms. There were the plain girls trying too hard for a style who would eventually give up altogether and collapse into dowdiness; jocko homos with artfully mussed hair who would end up running a Hyundai dealership or getting a business admin degree; and here and there, a young boy or girl who looked just a little bit stupefied or thoughtful, signifying the off-chance that they would grow up and do something interesting. It was to them that I raised my glass of green tea and took some muscle relaxants.

The locked door on American Idol – Cruelty has never been tempered to such a fine tone. On the opening episode of American Idol, the entrance to the audition is a set of double doors – one of which is bolted in place. Nothing gives you that blast of Schadenfreude like watching a humiliated contestant (who has already made it through two filters to stand before the celebrity judges) stumble out of the room, lost in a private agony of dashed dreams, only to propel themselves into a locked door. “Other door, honey,” Simon drawls. If the game weren’t already given away by the camera’s lingering takes of hapless wannabees finally figuring out that they’ve been strung along, that unmoving door tells you everything you need to know about the desperate need for fame. As yet, nobody has screamed (as far as I know) “Why’d you lock the door, you fucking sadists?” Instead, they back up, thoroughly beaten, and shuffle shoulder-first out of the room.

As always, it’s best to bear in mind that reality shows are edited carefully to portray everyone and everything to conform with the show’s creative mandate. Maybe the locked door provoked an outburst or two. But I’m always astounded at the losing contestants’ inability to perceive the joke - they’re the punch line, after all. I’ve noticed the same tendency on almost all reality shows: the strange willingness of participants to accept the rules of the highly artificial universe into which they’ve been plunged. Cover yourself in ground beef, say the producers, and jump into that hornet-filled tank. Okay, says the participant. And how do they express their misgivings to the camera? That’s the rules of the game, they say. No matter what the scenario, them’s the rules. So that’s the way we do it.

In most reality shows, the game is played for money and a brief bit of television exposure, a way for non-celebrities to get a little taste of the televised life, but in American Idol, celebrity is the prize. What boggles the mind is that so many kids, lining up in malls across the country, being herded into groups by weary production assistants brandishing megaphones and clipboards, seem to think that the Idol franchise is their best road to fame. Never mind building up your talent, courting other musicians, recording demos, or even getting on Myspace and selling your homebrew CD on Lulu – these kids seem to think that it only takes discovery. As if their own personality and (maybe) talent were reason enough to make them adored of millions.

Even in this age of manufactured singing stars (although what were the Monkees, the Sex Pistols and a thousand other bands if not manufactured?), there’s often a bit of history behind the act. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera had been plugging away since childhood; Jennifer Lopez started out as a dancer. But the masses of Idol contestants, the brace-faced girls and mirror-trained boys, in the hormonal fug of desire, hope that all that grunt work is unnecessary. Some people even claim that Idol is their only chance, their last chance at fame. How is that eighteen year olds from Sudbury or Fort Wayne or Tallahassee have run out of chances so tragically early?

The truth is that these people have even less of a chance than they think. Over the last few seasons, Idol finalists have displayed a professionalism and a maturity that the hopeful masses can only grow into over the years. Taylor Hicks has grey hair and a Joe Cocker shtick that seems decades out of date. Far from a democratic free-for-all, a dramatization of American mobility, Idol seems increasingly like an alternate route to fame for people who were likely going to get there anyway. Those people know instinctively which door to choose on their way out of the room.

My one-act play – I’ve had something approaching a breakthrough with my play. At first I feared that I hadn’t developed the characters thoroughly enough to give them enough dialogue to get through 30 minutes of stage time. But I don’t need to develop their characters – I just need to give the characters something to react to, an object that will frustrate or fulfill their goals. Their reactions will give me the nuances of character.

The object is a time machine that can get the doctors and their daughter Charlton back to civilization. Dr. Wilder wants to get back, but Dr. Savage has grown accustomed to the place. He enjoys living out the twilight years of humanity in their jungle lab as he pursues his projects as a gentleman scientist. Dr. Wilder, on the other hand, wants desperately to return. He particularly wants to get Charlton back to civilization, as he is a) a sort of scientific breakthrough himself, the product of same-sex reproduction; and b) like any parent, Wilder wants something better for Charleton. Better than composing horrible poetry and cavorting with the genetically degraded valley dwellers. And on this point, even Dr. Savage is willing to concede, although he’s more interested in Charlton’s happiness than having him accomplish something by the standards of civilizations past. Living at humanity’s end has given Savage a certain disdain for the notion of civilization, since he can see its ultimate product unraveling before him every day. Wilder entertains a notion that he can prevent this horrible fate by going back in time and taking steps to keep humanity on track.

The issue is that the time machine is not a passive instrument that will whisk them back to the past; it’s a thermodynamic propulsion device that bends the continuum to achieve its ends. If used, it will destroy everything within a sizeable radius. Which means, of course, that humanity will certainly cease to exist, and that the two scientists will definitely be responsible for the ultimate genocide. Wilder maintains that a trip to the past will ensure that humanity never has to suffer such a horrible fate. Savage isn’t sure that he’s right, and anyway, he’s not sure that humanity’s worth saving. It’s certainly not worth destroying utterly on the chance that it can be saved.

To Charlton, the notion of using the time machine is frightful and repulsive. He’s stuffed absolutely full of notions about the primeval innocence of humanity (which is odd, since primeval humanity is a thing of the distant past) and celebrates the lives of the valley dwellers in really, really bad blank verse. He’s also in love with Beckham, a young woman from the valley who speaks a crabbed English, bites the heads off fish and treats Charlton like an indentured servant.

Beckham functions more or less as the audience stand-in, the one who perceives the characters far better than they perceive themselves. She also takes full advantage of the others to achieve her own ends - which, in the interests of keeping some interest in the play alive, I'm not going to reveal.


blackbird said...

We had a little rant against Idol last night over dinner...the cruelty of it - and we didn't even know about the locked door. That's a blood boiler. (we've never seen the show)

oh, and
a young boy or girl who looked just a little bit stupefied or thoughtful -
that would be Middle (with goaty subsmell).

Sue said...

Schmutzie's web site seems to be lost in internet hell so I am commenting here. Didn't she learn from your experience? or must she have her own? Damned internet, such a tease with the promise of individuality and domain stardom. I have not completely let it go myself.

Well, I do have something to say about your post too. There are ironies regarding your commentary o AI. That you are watching. That you wonder why these dopey kids don't get the joke on them when they don't get that only one of them can be made famous and that at the whims of the editor and audience, not being so much about talent. That you are watching. I feel superior to you. For once. Thank you for the opportunity.

Of course in the same post you humble me with your brilliant description of tweeners in the food court.

schmutzie said...

Sue, you are correct. My quest for individuality and fame has led into the gaping maw of apparent serverlessness. If my site does not reappear by Monday noon, has swallowed me whole.

palinode said...

Sue - Actually, I don't watch American Idol. I've seen clips, stood in doorways and taken a minute to see what's happening on the television, and generally managed to absorb, via media osmosis, most of the trivia. When I say that I'm 'always astounded' by the contestants, I mean that the thought astounds, not the experience of repeated viewings.

To be honest, I'm not sure I understand the other ironies (beyond the fact that I'm even watching the show, which, I acknowledge, draws me into the sucker category, even if I only watch a few minutes of it) you mention. I'd guess that all the contestants understand that only one can win, even if each is compelled to say that they are the one and only idol. It's part of Dale Carnegie-style salesmanship, which leads to the strange conviction that sufficient confidence can substitute for talent. For some, it's part of that weird karmic alchemy in which people believe that they can transmute base nothing into something - the philosopher's stone of modern culture.

As for the argument that the Idol game has little or nothing to do with talent, I'm not sure I agree. The contestants are ultimately rewarded for their talent, even if it's constrained and perhaps deformed by the conditions of the show and the mass music industry. Certainly the music is not to my taste, and I'm pretty sure that the musicians I love most would never make it past the initial rounds. Can you imagine Tom Waits or Joanna Newsom singing inoffensive pop versions of Stevie Wonder tunes for screaming teens? Yeah, me neither.

My big problem with the Idol franchise is twofold - one, it gives the false notion that musical fame can be granted lottery-style to some lucky youth with a gleam in her eye and a song in her heart, which has probably crushed the aspirations of some very talented and creative people; and two, the contract offered to the winners has the effect of turning them into indentured servants.

ozma said...

The amazing thing is that you could do this all in one act. I love the description, can't wait for the play.

I think, for inspiration about Beckham, you might want to watch Planet of the Apes. It sort of shows you can desperately love a hot chick even if she is incapable of abstract higher-order thought.

Although, I guess Beckham sounds a bit smarter than that.

palinode said...

Ozma - I'm also trying to design a set that will allow all four characters their proper spaces. Right now it's an overgrown lab that's part high-tech, part jungle. There's a computer, a dot matrix printer, a whiteboard and a wooden table. And of course, there's the time machine itself, which I envision as looking like a lawnmower engine with a big red button.

The remnants of humanity are loosely based on Planet of the Apes (hence the name Charlton), but I'm making Beckham a lot smarter than the mute creatures of the movie. And hopefully a bit funnier.

Sue said...

Schmutzie say it ain't so! I keep checking for your blog. You are totally MIA. But your posts still exist right?

Palinode I bow to your analysis of AI, thereby losing my grip on my momentary sense of superiority. You obviously get it in a way I do not. I don't really have the expertise to judge the existence of talent. It's been too long since I have enjoyed popular music enough to know who is really has something and who is just a good mimic. I have watched very little reality TV because of how contrived it ultimately feels, even when I get drawn in for awhile. I'd rather have my entertainment be honest fiction.

Tintenfisch said...

I just read 'A Scientific Romance,' which bears a slight resemblance to your blossoming one-act (though, not surprisingly, not enough resemblance to cause any problems) - have you heard of/read it? Wouldn't say it was the best book I read this year, or even the best time-travel story (Audrey Niffenegger won that hands down) but certainly creative and has some interesting parallels to your plot.

palinode said...

Tintenfisch - I've read Ronald Wright, but not A Scientific Romance. It sounds highly readable.

Tintenfisch said...

Definitely one of the more readable of the many $3 options at Auckland's biggest book sale. I'll send it to you if you want it. In the name of dramaturgy. :)