James Joyce: A Master Improviser?

Quick: tell me the plot of Ulysses.

Haven’t read it? I have, twice. I’m not trying to brag. I was actually forced to read it, twice, in grad school. It’s dense, thick, referential, and most professors of English would snort in derision at the adjectives I just chose to describe it. Trust me on this: I am not a fan of this novel, and I don’t feel intellectually enriched at all for having read it, twice. In fact, having read Ulysses is a lot like *not* having read Ulysses. Er, twice.

But others feel differently: it’s widely considered one of the greatest works in English literature (or any literature, for that matter), the pinnacle of artistic vision and accomplishment in the novel genre. Entire cottage industries in scholarship and publishing exist in academia because of this one work. Influence? Don’t get me started. When one of those lists (you know, one of those lists) of the greatest novels ever written was published a few years ago, there was Ulysses, poised dependably as ever at the top, the one novel that everyone knows about, few people have actually read, and even fewer understand.

Having read Ulysses is a lot like not having read it

Having read "Ulysses" is a lot like not having read it

So: what’s the plot of this novel, perhaps the greatest novel ever written?

Since so few of us have actually read it, I’ll tell you:

A guy comes home from work.

That’s it.

Yep, you read that right. Leopold Bloom ventures (muddles?) through his daily activities on his way back home to his wife, Molly. Granted, there’s other stuff going on–plenty of it–but at its elementary level, that’s the plot.

So…what does this have to do with improv?So many times beginning improvisers (and even those who should know better) fetishize plot in improv. They think their job involves tying up the loose ends of all the concentrated chaos that came before. They want to make sense of it, resulting in scenes like this:

Actor One: So….[why must all improv scenes begin with this annoying word?]...we need to get Sam back to his hometown.

Actor Two: How do we do that?

[Pause. Pause. Pause. Silence. Again, not the silence that’s contemplative: the silence on an improv stage that immediately makes you worry for the actors, rather than the characters…]

Actor One: I’ve got. Let’s go steal a car [forgetting that he had already endowed himself, his fellow actor and Sam as being in the remote jungles of India, which they had to get to on foot. BTW, whenever you hear or say the phrases “We should…” or “Let’s go…” you’re watching/playing plot]

Actor Two: Yeah, let’s go steal a car. [Remembering the early endowment] But how are we going to find one here in the jungle?

Actor One: Easy. We’ll just time-slip to the nearest car [forgetting that this so very clever, non-sequiterish, in-the-moment choice would rather easily solve Sam’s problem]

And so forth. Welcome to Wackytown, population you. And your scene partner. And whoever has to follow you to help clean up that godawful mess.

BTW, even though I don’t actually believe in “denials” (more on this later) if it were up to me choices like these would be considered macro-level denials, punishable by permanent improv exile until you can cut it right the fuck out. Why? Because this is why a lot of people *hate* improv. Hate it with a passion normally reserved for cheating ex-lovers or totalitarian dictators. Choices like the above detract from the overall narrative being created, leading to digressions that have to be explained away by some swiftly tap-dancing actors. But, more importantly, they lead to confusion among audience members, confusion that leads to their resolving never to shell out hard earned bucks for it again.  It’s why improv as a theatrical endeavor will never be in the big rooms. Just the little black box theaters that attempt to supply this magical experience but only end up providing something that all too often appears to be exported out of clown college.

The cardinal sin in the above scene is that two actors decided to play plot. They decided to try to solve Sam’s problem (needs to get back to his hometown) and only ended us digressing even further  from the primary storyline and into a realm in which fantastical choices can be made (“time slips”), fantastical choices that could have solved Sam’s “problem” in the first place. Hence, the audience stopped caring about the characters (because they stopped finding out about them), and stopped believing in the world that everyone had worked so hard to create. They think they’re getting ripped off:

And they are.
So what to do instead? Easy. The solution is in the first line.

Actor One: We need to help Sam get back to his hometown.

That’s the most interesting line in the scene. Why does Actor One’s character feel so strongly about Sam? Why is he so determined to help him? Does he or she love him secretly? Are nefarious things waiting for him once he returns? Does he want the rest of the town to know that he’s been traveling with Sam? There’s plenty of non-plottish territory to be mined here, territory that would allow us to discover so much about both Actors 1 and 2, their relationship to Sam, and their relationship to each other. But the more often the choice that gets made is the plottish one.

I recently saw (and cannot rave enough about) a movie called “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”

Given that title, it’s easy to guess what the movie is about. No need to type “spoiler alert”: Robert Ford shoots Jesse James. That’s the schematic of the movie. But, of course, those of you have seen this movie know that the movie isn’t about that at all. It’s about what it means to try to kill someone who was already become mythic within his own lifetime, and what helping forge that myth meant. It’s about the complex relationship between a young tormented man who admires from afar, then meets, comes to know and then eventually betray a man he loves more than any other. (It is, of course, a retelling of the biblical tale of Judas and Christ…) Again, the “plot” of the movie is no more what the movie is about anymore than your official “biography” (“Born in Medford, NJ; educated at Princeton, etc.) is “who you are.”
Ulysses too highbrow? “The Assasination….” too middlebrow? Okay. “Rocky.”
Whats this movie about? It aint about boxing...

What's this movie about? It ain't about boxing...

What’s the plot of Rocky?” Mr. Nobody from Nowhere, who had potential years ago and is past his prime, gets picked out of a hat to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, where he might or might not win.

But, of course, it’s not about the fight. The fight scenes in the film are montaged. They take about 15 minutes of the movie. Notice also that some of them happen in real time, some are sped up. But those that happen in real time, are consistently hammering away at the emotional terrain that Rocky is experiencing. Not the fight.

In both Ulysses and in “Assasination,” the narrative arc of any story you tell is an emotional one. What “happens” matters little. Why it happens, the effect on everyone involved, is what the movie is about. The same holds true for any improv scene you’re in.

There are plenty of things going on in an improv scene. Plot shouldn’t be one of them. The narrative arc of any improv scene is an emotional one led by a character or characters facing a dilemma. Remember this: Character is plot. Always will be. All novels, all movies, all TV shows, all plays, most newsmagazine profiles are actually character studies. Wanna write an unforgettable novel? Write an unforgettable character (cf. Leopold Bloom, Ulysses, above). Want to do compelling unforgettable improv? Create unforgettable (read: bigger, broader, complex, larger than life, dilemma ridden, fault- ridden, desire-ridden) characters.  Have them want things. Badly. Don’t solve their plotty little problems. Instead, let us discover things about them other than their logistical difficulties. Show us how they feel about others in the scene. Show us that. We’ll be too fascinated and compelled by your creation to notice the plot, which is, again, superfluous to what we’re doing up there.

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Brideshead Revisited Revisited

Brideshead Revisited Revisited

I don’t understand the necessity of remaking what is clearly Waugh’s worst novel (“Waugh’s snobbery is allowed to rage unchecked,” was Kingsley Amis’ summation of the book) into a movie/miniseries yet again. Slate agreed with me.

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I’ve Been Saying This For Years about Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress)

I’ve been saying this for years…

Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) was one of the best novelists of the 20th Century. Finally, the Atlantic’s taste has caught up with mine.

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What Is It About The Hold Steady?

A friend wrote me the following inquiry about my obsession with The Hold Steady:

OK, I know I’m not as hip as I used to be or at least as I thought I was back when. But I’ve been trying out The Hold Steady per your advice and the advice of many others whose musical tastes are usually spot on. And I think I’m missing something.

Don’t get me wrong, the lyrics are clever and funny, but the music itself sounds rather pedestrian and the melodies tend to blend together. I like it, but it reminds me of how I feel about Beck albums: good for a couple listens and then I will never play them again.

What am I missing? Too many people who like the same stuff I do love this band and I want to like them too. Am I lame now?

My response? First, I reminded him that I teach an improv class and I’m 43 years old. If anyone’s lame, it’s me.

He’s probably right about The Hold Steady’s music sometimes sounding pedestrian. And The Hold Steady has the same problem that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have — namely, if you don’t like the front man’s lyrics or voice, you’re not going to like the band. I think Anthony Keidis is one of the worst frontmen in rock history (that paper-thin voice, those puerile lyrics), and despite the obvious musicianship of everyone else in the band, I find them unlistenable. On the other hand, I love Craig Finn’s voice (I don’t think the man has actually sung a note on any album) and I adore his lyrics.

Here’s my suggestion to anyone wanting to “get” The Hold Steady. Download “Separation Sunday” and listen to it “front to back” (as if we can do that anymore) in one sitting. It’s a concept album, but not in the pretentious ham-fisted way that Pink Floyd’s or (gasp) Styx’s albums are concept albums. It’s what a concept album would sound like if some mad scientist combined Jane’s Addiction with Bruce Springsteen into a single band and that band made a concept album. I’ve actually compared it — out loud and in public, no less — to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (which, if anything, makes ME sound pretentious — but making myself sound pretentious isn’t all that difficult for me to do, as some of you may know).

I probably should add, in a bit of intellectual honesty, that part of the appeal of this band for me is that I look like I could be a member of it. These guys ain’t the Jonas Brothers. No Tiger Beat covers for them.

Catch The Hold Steady on the David Letterman show tonight. A few hours, in fact.

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Top Four Cool, Tragic, Weird Literary Events of 2007

1. The Success of God is Not Great

Last year, high atop his perch in Adams Morgan, Christopher Hitchens put his finger to the wind and concluded that religion wasn’t as important as people thought, certainly not as important — or even as influential — as those on either side of the political spectrum believe it is. Perhaps the Hitch was on to something, because his broadside against the Almighty, God is Not Great, shot up the bestsellers’ lists and received generally favorable reviews. But adding even more credence to Hitchens’ point was the noticeable lack of a backlash against the book. In an age when cases regarding the teaching of “Intelligent Design” are making their way into the courts, I don’t remember reading or hearing of God is Not Great being banned in ways that other books critical of religion sometimes are (something that, I suspect, probably disappointed Hitchens on some Puckish level). Perhaps Hitchens gets a pass from the religious right because, despite his atheism, he’s one of the Iraq War’s most vocal proponents.

Or perhaps it’s because Hitchens did what some rarely do: take religion’s arguments seriously, so seriously that he brought all of his rhetorical and critical faculties to the table in a book-length polemic. Whatever you may believe about religion or about Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great is an object lesson in what public discourse on the important issues of our day should resemble, but rarely does.

Verdict: Cool, with a small side order of Pleasant Surprise.

2. Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke wins the National Book Award

Remember Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier? Great. Now: name the novel he followed this with. Yeah, I can’t either. But, then again, I never thought he’d have a follow-up to begin with. I remember attempting to read Cold Mountain when it came out, discovering not a novel but a lot of purple upchuck book ended by incomprehensibility and pretentiousness; I thought it was a slavish attempt at out-Faulknering Faulkner that would hardly place in, let alone win, that Bad Faulkner competition held ever year. Of course, I was wrong. It won The National Book Award in 1997. By the way, Frazier’s follow up was called Thirteen Moons. I didn’t read that one, either, and neither, apparently, did a lot of people.

This year, both The Washington Post and The New York Times short listed Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke as one of their ten best books of the year. And, like Cold Mountain, the book also ended up winning the National Book Award. So, it must be good, right?

Not so fast: at least one person had a reaction to Tree of Smoke that was similar to mine regarding Cold Mountain. Writing in the December issue of The Atlantic, B.R. Myers shellacked the novel, providing a shortlist of howlers, incomprehensibilities, and plot occurrences and characters that, despite the novel’s pretense toward realism, in no way resembled anything approximating real life. Myers’ conclusion: “Once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there.” While Charles Frazier appears to have been exiled, the jury’s still out on Denis Johnson.

Verdict: Weird.

3. The Death of the Book Review/The Death of Reading

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times decided to merge its book review section with its Opinion section, setting off a firestorm of controversy in the literary world about the future of Sunday book reviews, including speculation that The Washington Post’s Book World’s day are as well numbered. Book World underwent a redesign in January of this year, one that included more art, graphics and photos, which, on the face of it, certainly must limit review space in some way (though so far no one’s done the math to determine if column inches have actually decreased). Of course, there’s no need for book reviews when no one’s reading anymore, as this highly publicized study from the National Endowment for the Arts highlighted (from the study: “on average, Americans spend only seven minutes of their daily leisure time reading”; “reading scores for American adults of almost all education levels have deteriorated, notably among the best-educated groups”).

Verdict: Tragic, utterly.

4. Oprah’s Book Club’s selection of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Early last year, Oprah Winfrey selected the paperback version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for her book club.

I’ve read it. It’s just dark. And I don’t mean dark the way a Frank Miller graphic novel is dark. I mean the book is existentially and relentlessly bleak: in a lawless post-apocalyptic land, human beings reveal their true nature, which is shatteringly and irredeemably evil. How dark is it? Here’s how: I have a friend who’s a volunteer paramedic. There’s very little broken, mangled human carnage that he hasn’t seen up close, having been onsite for accidents that have happened only minutes before, accidents where people have literally died in his arms. Again, he volunteers to do this: clearly this is a not a man sensitive to loud noises or bright light. However, my friend confessed to me that, while reading The Road and a for a significant amount of time thereafter, he “wanted to keep the book in view and closed just to have reassurance that it was a mere physical object written by a man,” and not instead an idea pervasive enough to infect his and everybody else’s soul. That’s how dark.

Again, Oprah chose this book for her audience, an audience that generally turns to her for advice on decorating and weight loss advice or how to reignite a boring relationship or marriage.

Verdict: Either cool or weird. I can’t figure it out.

Perhaps even weirder or cooler? McCarthy, except for J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon the most missing man in the history of American letters, gave his very first televised interview to Oprah as well.

In 2007, truth was indeed stranger than fiction.

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A Fascinating Correction

A recent Slate article contained the following correction at the bottom of the page:

Correction, Feb. 25, 2005: This piece originally used the word “imprecations” incorrectly, to mean “suggestions.” An imprecation is a curse. Slate regrets the error.

I’ve seen newspapers and publications correct misstatements of fact, but never the misstatements themselves. First time I’ve ever seen a published article admit to a solecism.

Good God, were I to do that, I’d have about five corrections for every post [note the proper use of the subjunctive “were” in that previous sentence…]

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My Oscar Predictions

Who Gives A Fuck?

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