Monday, September 28, 2015

On Danny Pintauro's Face

I must have been three years old.  I was sitting on the children’s seat in the back of the car.  The interior was dirty and an ugly tan.  I stared at the floor in front of me and studied the shadow underneath the front seat.  I turned my head and looked at the overgrown bush growing over the brick fence.  The radio was playing “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”  The car was parked in our driveway. 

I’m in a café.  I’m 34 years old.  The café is playing eighties pop tunes and “What’s Love Got to Do With It” comes on.  The song is evacuated of all its intended meaning.  It does not mean heartbreak.  It means ugly, dirty tan car interior, green shrub, red brick.  It means tan, green and red. 

This is a universal experience, I’m sure.  The culture of the first few years after one is born connect with the primal state of any toddler, whose brain is developing at a rapid rate, whose perception of the world is still wrapped in synaesthesia.  A man born in 1961 may have a similar reaction to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”  A child today, poor soul, may one day have a similar reaction to Taylor Swift. 

This effect slowly dissipates throughout your childhood and probably disappears around the time of puberty.  My mother’s boyfriend was a Dylan fan.  I remember hearing Bringing It All Back Home on a cassette tape during a trip when I was nine years old.  When I got the album on CD when I was 16, the lyrics had a political meaning, but hidden within the sounds of those words and of Dylan’s voice then and to this day, was the cramped backseat of my mother’s boyfriend’s black Porsche.      

It takes awhile for visual and aural sensations to carry political meanings.  I don’t know when a child breaks out of the pre-political state.  Is it when he first recognizes an injustice in his own life, the first time he declares something “unfair” for himself?  Is it the first time he declares something “unfair” for someone else?  Who knows.  A good part of my childhood was spent at a computer and in front of the television, reading comics, reading Shel Silverstein.  I didn’t listen to much music at all during this time, other than Billy Joel, and the soundtracks to musicals. 

The visual sensations on television ran together.  In Media Studies, we have described the “flow” of television programming of this period, by which any number of sounds and visual sensations of various sitcoms, commercials, sportscasts and news shows flow into each other into a singular almost infinite entity that the viewer dips in and dips out of.  After awhile, it’s hard to distinguish between the various sensations.  It may be even harder for children.

So in the late eighties there was “Who’s the Boss?”, which I didn’t watch very much at all, but did feature a young blonde boy named Danny Pintauro.  I don’t remember a single line he spoke.  All I remember is the visual impression of his stature, standing behind a living room couch staring at a tall likable man played by Tony Danza.  I also remember any number of AIDS PSAs from this time, which seemed to show up periodically in commercials.  I remember sitting with my mother and brother at age 7 and watching the 1988 presidential debate in which George Bush said AIDS was related to behavior.  It all flowed together.  There were inputs from the ages of 5-10 that meant something to me close to their original meanings: G.I. Joe, Little Shop of Horrors, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Princess Bride, He-Man and The Legends of Zelda. Pintauro, “AIDS”, George Bush and Alaska oil spill did not.

In the late ’90s, Danny Pintauro came out as gay.  This meant something in as much that an image of a young man, who was only slightly older than me, from a distant recess of my youth was admitting to a sexual desire I was just beginning to accept for myself.  I thought he was very good-looking. 

This weekend, Danny Pintauro admitted to having HIV for at least 12 years and to his struggles with meth addiction.  He’s older and he’s less pretty, and his face seems to contain the ravages of either the side effects of HIV medication or meth addiction, or both.  Of course, those markers could just as easily be the natural markers of aging.  In his confession, he uses the political language I have been hearing since my teenage years.  He wishes to be a beacon of light for the gay community.  He talks about how gay people’s desires for acceptance eclipsed gay people’s realization that they need to take care of one another.  Danny Pintauro’s aging face and his words now have distinct political valences. 

I wish him well, of course.  I’d be a monster not to.  But when I watch and listen to him now, my primary thoughts are not of his well-being.  His voice, his body and his words break down and remind me of a primal state before Danny Pintauro’s face had been cursed with any political meaning.

Friday, September 25, 2015

On a Bad Teacher

I have had many great teachers.  I have had many good teachers.  I have had many bad teachers. 

Students, and I was one of them, often make the mistake of believing that a bad teacher is also a bad person.  I believe this is related to the teacher’s power.  A teacher issues a grade, which can affect the student’s future educational and professional prospects.  A teacher can grant or withhold approval, which can affect the student’s sense of himself.  If the teacher does not effectively teach algebra, the student does not learn algebra and then he does poorly on a test.  The student believes he has suffered an injustice.  He was never provided the tools to do well by the person who was supposed to give him those tools.  And now that same person shirks his own irresponsibility and punishes the student for not having those tools.    

Students, and I was one of them, often make the mistake of believing that a great teacher is also a great person.  This is the teacher that connects with the student in extraordinary ways, who changes that student’s view of the world.  This is a teacher who helps a student who believes he is incompetent realize that he's actually smart.  The student does not know that such a teacher may be a terrible father, that the love he grants his student is the love he denies his own family.  The student also does not know that the generosity a teacher grants all his students may manifest itself as abuse in particular cases. (Think of the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in Doubt, although it can be much less extreme than that.)

I think this is why it affects us so much when we learn of a teacher’s death, even those teachers of whom we don’t think all that much.  Throughout your childhood, into your pre-adolescence and then adolescence, you are constantly developing a sense of morality, a sense of decency and of professionalism, and your teachers are the most available examples, outside of your parents, of how one is supposed to conduct themselves through adulthood. 

I had a chemistry teacher in high school.  He was a bad teacher.  He made fun of his students.  He didn’t do much to teach chemistry.  He ignored all the changes to the local school district’s curriculum over the previous ten years.  He told all of us to get old tests from students from previous years, tests which were more or less the same as the ones he still gave.  I’m not sure if that was cheating or not, but I don’t know any other teacher who would have suggested the same.  Most of us followed his advice.  (My high school was not a very ethical place.)  I can also tell you that he was an entertaining character who goose-stepped through the classroom, wore a toupee, developed routines with all of his students.  He always called me Don.  I don’t know where it came from.  He just liked getting my name wrong.  And to be fair, he just smiled when I asked him one day why his forehead was so dirty.  (It was Ash Wednesday.)  He had a sick sense of humor.  He used festive green and red colors when he graded before the Christmas vacation.  If you failed a test then, he rubbed it in by wishing you a happy holiday.    

He hated his job.  He hated that classroom.  He left school as soon as the final bell rang, out before any of the buses left the parking lot.  He smoked cigars, which is probably what killed him two years after he retired. 

Looking back, I can honestly say I learned more from him than I learned from most of my teachers.  I'm not talking about his bad example, about how he represented everything you shouldn't do in life.  I didn’t learn that you must love your job in order to live a full life.  I didn’t learn that it’s foolish to wait until retirement to enjoy your life.  He taught me, better than any other teacher, not to expect any justice in this world.  He taught me the best way to deal with your own pain is not so much to laugh at it, but to cackle at any and everything.  He taught me that no institution deserves your undying respect. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

On Raymond Carver and "He says"

Seattle’s Book-It Theatre is dedicated to adapting prose classics.  In June, I saw their adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five, which I found as uncomfortable and irritating as the source material.  On Tuesday I saw What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, an adaptation of four Raymond Carver short stories.  It’s wonderful.

I have seen a couple adaptations of Carver before, three if you count the play within the movie in Birdman.  I thought Short Cuts reduced Raymond Carver’s cynicism to the trite and the precious.  Robert Altman should have been the one to do Carver well, but his approach to the vignette, always stronger when it emerges out of improvisation, doesn’t work when he faces the precise rhythm of Carver’s dialogue.  The moments of ambiguity in Carver’s stories, the moments pregnant with misery simply because the heroes realize they are at a loss for any easy answers, become easy in Altman’s movie.  I’m thinking here of the final moments in Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing”, in which a bereaved couple confront the baker who tormented them.  The anguish in the original story, the realization of just how much they have lost and how much they can gain from just one small piece of kindness is brutal in the story.  Altman’s adaptation can’t get beyond the story’s punchline.  

There’s also a short film from a local Washington state filmmaker that I don’t remember too well.  

The stage adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” within Birdman was meant to be a joke.  Born showmen, genius hams like Edward Norton and Michael Keaton are the last people you would want in a Carver adaptation.  It may not have been intentional, but they remind you why Robert Downey, Jr., Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits are the last people you would want in Short Cuts.

Of course, you should be allowed all the liberties you want in an adaptation.  If you want to take the text as a starting point and transform it into something completely new, that’s fine, as long as that new thing is interesting.  Still, I have to say Jane Jones’s stage production I saw the other night opened up Carver for me, if for nothing else than for making me understand the power of the word “says.”  Elmore Leonard said that he learned the importance of the word “says” from Carver.  Jones’s adaptation shows what the word can do when spoken out loud, when it becomes a word for the ear, and not something the eye merely glances over on the page.

Jones’s adaptation is fiercely loyal to the text.  I don’t know if she omitted a single word from the original stories.  I don’t just mean the dialogue.  Her principals naturally recite Carver’s narration, looking straight at each other, with the same naturalness and rhythm with which they recite his dialogue.  And that “he says” and “she says” becomes an integral part of that narration.  After several minutes, the narration and the dialogue merge.  How does it work?  WWithout directly quoting from it, this is the general technique that drives the stage script.

Man: Let’s Drink.

Woman: He says.

Man: I like to drink.

Woman: He says.


Woman: I don’t want to drink.

Man: She says.

We hear in each “he says” or “she says” the attempts of each character to receive the spoken word directed towards himself, to process it.  That “he says” is as much for the protagonists as it is for the audience.  The sound reminds us that there is a lot noise within each pause between sentences. 

Those “he says” and “she says” temper the actors.  Even at their most histrionic, those two little words force each of them to ground themselves within the reality of their stage settings, and remind them of the sounds of the voices that exist inside their heads.

There’s much more I could say.  The four actors were excellent.  For what it’s worth, Kevin McKeon, a charismatic chameleon who plays the alcoholic cardiologist in “What We Talk About…”, the blind man in “Cathedral” and the late middle-aged man absorbing the pain he caused his ex-wife in “Intimacy”, was the evening’s star.  There is clearly a showman inside him.  He reveals it in his inability to control a glass in “What We Talk About” and his deadpan deliveries in “Cathedral.”  But he controls that showman.  He withholds himself.  That “he says” reminds him over and over again that there’s power in restraint on the stage, just as it reminds Carver that there’s power in restraining his own voice on the page.