“Sleep No More” and Being Manipulated

“Sleep No More” is a play currently running in New York.

That is probably the most boring way to describe what is, to date, my most enjoyable theater experience in New York. “Sleep No More” is performed by Punchdrunk, a British site-specific theater company. I have no idea what else Punchdrunk has done. What they have done with “Sleep No More” is take over three abandoned warehouses on the west side of Manhattan and convert them into a 100,000 square foot set. Inside the set, which includes part of a 1920s era hotel, a lunatic asylum, a graveyard, an English high street and a lot more, Punchdrunk performs a play inspired by “Macbeth”.

If you are having trouble imaging how a play takes place on such a complex set, then I should add that the audience, wearing identical white Venetian carnival masks, wanders around the set during the three hours of the performance. You are allowed to wander in and out of rooms and up and down the (I think) six levels with only minimal interference from from stewards, wearing black Venetian carnival masks, who are standing silently throughout the set.

The actors are not wearing masks and they move around the set, interact with other actors and sometimes with the audience members and sometimes disappear through doors through which the audience is not allowed to pass. Certain scenes repeat themselves until the final shocking scene that ends the night. My wife and I went twice and combined we had four different experiences. Our friends have gone and they had different experiences. I still not sure what exactly happens or why and although I think I’ve visited every corner of the set there are a number of scenes that I’ve never experienced. There are other scenes I’ve experienced two or three times. It is weird and brilliant and disorienting and I can’t imagine it’s like anything else. It is so enjoyable that the run has been extended at least twice. It is the type of thing that makes you feel glad to live in New York and glad to have the types of friends who tell you about such things and glad to be able to tell other people about. My only misgiving is that it is so interesting that I bet there is someone who right now is trying to figure out how to bring this show or something like it to one of the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.

The only problem that I had with “Sleep No More” is that it is my nature to start trying to bring order to the chaos. On my first visit, I was lucky enough to know very little about what I was getting into. I wandered around and was never completely sure what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to go. When the performance was complete I was certain I’d experienced something great but I didn’t know why. It stayed in my head for days and when I learned that it was having the same effect on my wife we decided to see it again.

Armed with the knowledge from my previous visit, I set out to see new things and also see again some of the things that I’d seen the first time. I was a different participant than I’d been the first time. I started constructing what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. I started noticing the stewards moving into place during certain scenes. I noticed props being put into place. I saw scenes repeated. In short, I started to notice the manipulation that goes into putting on “Sleep No More”.

As I’ve said before, all art is manipulation. The artist tries to get the audience to feel something. In some cases, the artist doesn’t want you to consider that there is an artist. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Ideally, the artist would prefer you didn’t know there was a curtain. (Alternatively, in some art the point of the show is the curtain, or lack thereof.)

In trying to bring order to chaos, in trying to understand how I’m being manipulated, I subconsciously start taking myself out of the moment. It can be frustrating. While watching a movie I’m thinking about how the director got that shot or why the actor made that choice. When listening to music I start to notice how I’m being set up for the climax. Lucky for me, I don’t do this while I’m reading. It is a blessing as it allows me to be surprised when other readers think something is so obvious. (Of course Ned is his father. What?)

This is not to say that I am always successful at sussing things out. “Breaking Bad” has never let me behind the curtain. I still have no idea where Bon Iver is going once the song starts. But other times, like in my second trip to “Sleep No More”, I can’t not see what’s happening. I suspect if I went again that I’d deconstruct the entire show in my mind. So maybe it’s better to stop at twice.

If you haven’t seen it, see it at least once. If “Sleep No More” ever closes in New York (and never opens in Las Vegas) then you will have missed something unique.

Just Like Home

I have now lived in Europe for over three weeks. It is the longest I’ve ever been out of the country, beating my previous record of two weeks. It probably has not yet set in that I’m going to be here for a while, at least nine months or so not counting trips abroad, including back to the US. However, when I go to the US I won’t be staying in my apartment as it is currently occupied. For the time being, I will only truly be at home here in Europe.

This isn’t to say that this is a hardship. The apartment we are in is slightly larger than the one we have in Brooklyn, and there is an extra bedroom. There are windows in the front and back and even a small balcony. There is a flat screen TV and wireless Internet. I can say for certain that the apartment has exceeded my expectations. Still, it is not in Brooklyn. But the other night, I forgot that.

My wife and I were watching TV. Thanks to our VPN and sites like Hulu and Netflix, we are able to watch as much American TV as we have time for. The other night we were watching “Parks and Recreation” and “Fringe” and “Boardwalk Empire”. At one point I got off the couch and got something to eat from the kitchen. On my way back to the couch, I realized that I had forgotten that I was in Europe, at least at the conscious level. I could have been anywhere. It made me realize that the main thing I need to make me feel at home while living abroad is familiar television.

During my time here, more than one person has told me about a store that sells American products. I know these people mean well and can’t possibly know that I don’t need to see shelves of American junk food to feel better about being here. Reasonably priced Tabasco would be enough. One person told me that there is some kind of women’s club that my wife may want to join. (Not if all they talk about is their children.) Others have told me about bars or restaurants that feature American food or people or at least fanny packs and white sneakers, but we are eager to try restaurants where none of the food looks familiar. (I am trying to be sure not to eat horse.) But no one has mentioned how comforting watching American TV could be.

I think part of the reason that this hasn’t come up is that people here probably don’t love their TV shows like Americans do. So far I’ve met one person who has more than the 20 or so channels that you get with cable. He has satellite and he gets over 150 channels. I would feel more smug about how happy he is to have access to such a paltry amount of channels if Europe wasn’t already way ahead of the US with regards to cellphones. The Superior Technology Card will remain in my hand, at least until I visit a place with worse cellphone technology than the US. Maybe the Moon.

It also may not occur to people that it is possible to watch American TV while abroad. It was certainly my thought on a previous trip to Iceland when I discovered that Netflix won’t work there. Before coming here on this trip, my wife read about something called a VPN that could address this problem. I pretended I knew what she was talking about and then read up on what a VPN is. Basically, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a service that tricks the Internet into thinking you are in the US even when you (and your computer) are not. There are probably other uses for a VPN and there is probably a bunch of technical explanation for how this works but none of that matters. What is important is that with the VPN I can use Hulu, Netflix, and other legal sites to watch my favorite current American TV shows.

I am up to date on “Breaking Bad” and “Dexter”. I am looking forward to diving into “Homeland” and (eventually) the new season of “Mad Men”. True, I am now watching these things while drinking wine and eating a baguette, but it feels the same. While I am watching these things I could be anywhere, which means I could be in Brooklyn. We made sure to bring our clothes and certain other items that would remind us of home but the best thing we brought is the ability to watch our TV. It makes everything much easier.

Now I know there are people that don’t watch much TV and I know there are some people that don’t watch any TV at all. What advice do I have for those people who want to know how they can feel more at home while living abroad? None. What can I say to people who are obviously more sophisticated and more well-adjusted than I am? No doubt these superior people who already figured it all out. But for the rest of us who are dealing with foreign language fatigue and strange customs, TV is invaluable. If you are thinking of living abroad, sign up for Netflix and Hulu Plus and other legal sites and sign up for a VPN. Then just sit back and forget where you are.

I Have to Say His Name

Clarence Clemons died on June 18. As a long-time Springsteen fan, this was just as sad as the death of Danny Federici. Another part of what made Springsteen’s sound so distinctive is gone. I imagine that, as with Danny, Bruce will replace the Big Man. But just as without Danny, it won’t be the same.  It will be strange to have “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” without the band introductions which would end with Clarence, and what is Scooter without the Big Man.

I’m not qualified to opine on the musicianship of Clarence. Mike Appel once said that Clarence could only play in a live setting and that he was terrible in the studio. One story is that Bruce had to take Clarence step by step through the solo in “Jungleland” in order to get the performance he wanted for the album. What I do know is that the sax was as important to the E Street sound as the organ and the accordion and the glockenspiel. It made sense to me that rock bands had a sax player, and I just assumed that they had to be black. (At that point I’d never seen Bobby Keys.)

One of my earliest non-musical memories of Clarence was a photo in Time magazine that showed Bruce and Clarence kissing on stage. I was a teenager when I saw this and the photo confused me. I was just a kid growing up in Vermont and two men kissing each other in public was confusing. As I got older, I was less confused by mundane things and remained a Springsteen fan. Clarence’s solos are part of the soundtrack of my life and things are a little bit better because I heard those solos.

In his concerts, Bruce would save Clarence for last when introducing the band. As with the other band members, he’d give Clarence nicknames, like the Minister of Soul and Secretary of the Brotherhood. Then he’d always end it the same.

“Do I have to say his name?”

His name was Clarence Clemons. Thanks, Clarence, and good-bye.

The Danger of Expectations

Recently, HBO aired a fourteen minute preview of the upcoming “Game of Thrones”, a series based on the first book of the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin. The preview was only part of the long line of promotion that HBO has been providing in a effort to generate interest in the series and to reassure the hardcore fans out there. (Does science fiction and fantasy have anything other than hardcore fans?) I was introduced to the series a few years ago by a good friend and have been excited for the series ever since it was announced. I have read everything about the series and watched every preview and featurette. I am pumped for this series. So why, while watching the preview last night, which is basically the first fourteen minutes of the first episode, did I feel anxiety about how good the series will be?

The obvious answer is that those fourteen minutes weren’t any good, but that’s not the case. Aside from not caring for the look of Winterfell, I thought everything else looked spot on. I like the casting decisions and I thought that the pacing was very efficient, covering the prologue and half of the first chapter in one quarter of an episode. The initial critical feedback has been positive. So why was I worried? Simple. I have trouble just being in the present, enjoying what is happening now and not worrying about what may happen later.

With regard to “Game of Thrones” there is plenty for me to worry about. Will the series be any good? Will people who haven’t read the book like it? Will my wife like it? Will it get renewed for a second season? Will the things that I loved on the page have the same impact on the screen? How will I feel about the changes? How much will I have to explain to my wife while we are watching it? (The early answer is, quite a bit. Even in the preview last night my wife had questions.) The list goes on and on.

This is the way my mind works. This is why when I was at Old Trafford a few years ago, I didn’t enjoy the match as much as I wanted to. (United won.) This is why I end up feeling vaguely unsatisfied when I finally get to do something that I’ve always wanted to do. I’m always thinking ahead, trying (and failing) to anticipate the next thing.

But life isn’t about seeing it all coming. Life is about what happens to fuck up whatever plans you have. And life is about feeling that thing when it happens and riding it, whether its good or bad. I have trouble doing that when my expectations are too high. Yet I don’t have the discipline to stop myself from building those expectations. I’m not sure what the answer is but I need to deal with it as “Game of Thrones” is set to begin on April 17 and I really want to enjoy it. The memory of my vague unhappiness with the three “Lord of the Rings” movies is still fresh in my mind. It would be nice not to ruin something good for myself.

This Isn’t Your Living Room and Its Not Mine Either

I love movies. I the dark theater and the sense of anticipation right before the movie starts. I love the communal feeling, of experiencing something in a crowd that makes everyone laugh or cry (or just get misty) or scream. I love when you are walking out of a just finished great movie and you look at a total stranger and you see in that person’s eyes that he or she just had the same experience as you and you know that you both understand that something meaningful just took place. Watching a great movie is one of the pleasures of life. Still, I rarely go to the movies anymore.

I have many problems with going to the movies. For one, it’s impossible to know beforehand if the movie is going to be satisfying or not. I hate to sound like an old crank, but movies in New York are expensive and it’s disappointing to spend the money and then leave dissatisfied. But this never used to bother me, so what changed?

I think people changed. People now think its okay to talk during the movie as if they are in their own living room. They think its okay to put their feet on the back of your seat or kick your seat. They think its okay to make a lot of noise opening the packages of food that they smuggled in from outside the theater. In general, the behavior of the movie-going public has deteriorated to the point that I’m tense from the moment I sit down in the theater. I’m looking and listening before the movie starts, trying to figure out from where the problems are going to come. Maybe its confirmation bias, but it seems like the problems always come.

Another issue  is that watching movies at home has never been easier or more enjoyable. Movies are available on cable (on demand or at air time), or from the ether through Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, iTunes and no doubt a number of other services. And our TVs are much bigger now. My smallest TV (33″) may be embarrassingly small by today’s standards but it is significantly bigger than any previous TV that I owned. The picture quality in the movies I watch is HD. Plus, I still get all the other benefits of being at home that I always had; I can put my feet where I want, talk when I want (until the wife shushes me), I can pause the movie to use the bathroom or to get food or to send an important text. I miss the magic of the theater but there is a version of that magic in the home now.

The other great thing about watching at home is that the stakes are much lower. By not trying to make sure that I spend my movie money wisely, I am spared having to expose myself to the movie hype machine. I don’t need a bunch of articles and commercials and reviewers and friends telling me how great a movie is, raising my expectations to an unreasonable level. I can go into most movies with a clean slate, with little expectations. My wife and I recently watched two really good movies, “The Secret in Their Eyes” and “Dogtooth”. I had not heard of either movie and I recognized a total of one actor from the two movies combined. It didn’t matter. I watched “Red Road” a couple months ago, same thing. I started watching these movies with little to no expectation and was rewarded.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever completely stop going to the movies. At some point you want to join in the conversation, even if it means sitting through a movie like “Avatar”. Sometimes I want to be part of a community. The good thing is that watching a movie at home no longer means that you’re not part of a community. Thanks to the internet, a community is only always seconds away.

Is This Part of the Performance?

Last weekend we went to MoMA PS1 to see “Laurel Nakadate: Only the Lonely”. Ms. Nakadate is a performance artist who works in photographs, videos and feature-length films.

I’m never sure when I see the work of a performance artist where the performance ends and the viewing of the work begins. At “Only the Lonely” I couldn’t shake that I was part of an ongoing performance, like I would show up in some future Nakadate performance. The presence of Ms. Nakadate only added to the feeling.

The themes of Ms. Nakadate’s work seem to be voyeurism and loneliness. In one work, Ms. Nakadate, behind a camera, walks into the bedrooms of three women and suggests that they strip to the their underwear. Even though Ms. Nakadate’s voice can be clearly heard, the suggestions combined with the repeated reassurances that the girls are pretty builds up to an uncomfortable feeling that you are watching something that you shouldn’t.

Most of the walls in the exhibition are covered with photos of Ms. Nakadate crying, part of a series in which Ms. Nakadate took pictures of herself crying everyday for a year. While the photos made me wonder how someone could cry that much, my wife made a good point: “There’s always something to cry about.” Indeed, there is.

Not everything in the exhibition is as affecting as the videos of the three women or the crying photos. In “Love Hotel”, Ms. Nakadate is filmed in various Japanese hotels, which are used for discrete assignations, simulating the sexual acts she would be performing if only her lover were there. The soundtrack of the film is “Angel of the Morning” and as great as that song is it is not enough to make the video work. Then again, the audience not really knowing what the point often seems to be part of performance art.

On the whole, I recommend “Laurel Nakadate: Only the Lonely.” Her videos of dancing with middle-aged men to “Oops, I Did it Again” and of celebrating “her birthday” with three middle-aged men are interesting and worth seeing. Plus, MoMA PS1 is suggested donation so you can pay what you want.

The Words Had All Been Spoken

The thing that every writer strives for is to depict something in such a way that the reader feels exactly what the writer meant for the reader to feel. If the writer is lucky then there is something universal in what he or she has written and the reader not only feels or understands what was written but recognizes that same thing in his or her own life.

One of the things that is important to me when listening to music is the feeling that I understand what the singer is singing about. One of the reasons that I became a Springsteen fan in the mid-Eighties was that I could identify with his songs. It seems strange now that I, as a fifteen year old, could find common ground with a person twenty years my senior, but it spoke to me. As you can see from the blog’s title, it still speaks to me. As I fifteen year old I understood wanting to change my clothes, my hair, my face. As an eighteen year old I understood the feeling of being two different people, of one part of me doing things that I don’t understand. The connections have continued over the years and it’s what draws me back again and again.

Now, I admit that’s its possible that Springsteen doesn’t really have any insight. Maybe I changed and now view my life through the ideas in Springsteen’s music. That could be valid. I do believe that language can determine how we think about things. For example, does desire really behave like fire, or do we just think it does because the two words rhyme? Flames of desire, consumed by desire, my heart is on fire. If you really think about the feeling of desire, is it a burning feeling? (A burning thing?) Or is it a cool ache that won’t go away? I’m not sure.

At any rate, it may not make a difference if we change or if some things really are universal. Even when we talk about universal we really don’t mean universal, we really mean something that a critical mass of people identify with. Even if that critical mass seems large, it is still a minority of us who connect to it.

At any rate, the reason this is on my mind today is because of “Late for the Sky”. Sometimes songs pop into your head and you’re not sure why. In this case, the most recent episode of “Men of a Certain Age” pushed Jackson Browne to the forefront of my mind. That episode featured “These Days” and it made me realize that I hadn’t listened to Browne in some time. I listened to his greatest hits and again was struck by “Late for the Sky”.

I’m not great at deciphering what songs are about but “Late for the Sky” pretty clearly appears to be about the end of a relationship. Browne couldn’t have been more than twenty-six when he wrote that song but everything in it is really on point. “You never knew what I loved in you/I don’t know what you loved in me/Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be.” It’s hard to believe that at twenty-six, Browne could have seen so clearly what it is that can drive people apart. If you’ve ever been in a relationship that crumbled then you will recognize plenty in Browne’s masterpiece.

The connection I have with “Late for the Sky” and with countless other songs is part of the explanation of why I feel the need to write this blog. Maybe there will be something in here that someone will read and it’ll explain something in their life that they couldn’t quite understand or articulate. I think its a worthy goal, maybe the most worthy goal of any person who practices art.

Read it or Watch it First?

Fantasy geeks like myself can’t wait until April 17. That is the date that the new HBO series “A Game of Thrones” debuts. The series is based on the first book of the scheduled seven book A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin. (Four of the books have been published so far.) Martin’s series was no doubt partly inspired by Tolkien’s but there is also plenty of what Tolkien left out, namely characters who are neither wholly good nor wholly evil. And sex, plenty of sex.

As most people have not read the book that the first season of the series is based upon, the natural question is should I read the book first or should I watch the series without having read it?

I’m not sure there is any right answer. A book is always going to be more detailed than a movie or a TV series. It’s the stock answer for those of us who like to read books first to say “There was so much more in the book.” “You should read the book, it’s so much better.” Saying that polishes my elitist credentials, but its really beside the point, isn’t it? A great movie or TV series should be able to stand on its own and not rely on having foreknowledge from having read the book.

What it comes down to is what you really want out of a book or movie or TV series. If you haven’t yet read A Game of Thrones then you have to decide which you want to enjoy more, the book or the TV series. As much as I enjoyed the book (well before the TV series was picked up by HBO), there is something to be said about going into the series cold and experiencing it without preconceptions. From what I’ve read and seen, the adaptation appears to be faithful to the book. If you are like me and don’t have a extra time to bang out the first book before the series starts then I recommend not worrying about it. Relax and wait for April. After all, there are three more books out there for you to fill the time between the end of the first season and the (hopefully) second season.

Just know that the books are so much better.

I Need a Drummer (But Not a Bass Player) to Make Me Happy

So I just finished reading Life, Keith Richards’ autobiography. Along the way I learned some interesting stuff about how Keith gets that sound out of his guitar, how the Glimmer Twins wrote songs and I learned way more about heroin addiction than I ever wanted to. But the most surprising thing I learned is that Keith apparently didn’t think much of Bill Wyman, the Stones’ original bass player.

As a young music fan, I naturally worshiped the lead singers and lead guitarists. To make a sports analogy, these guys are the goal-scorers or the guys that hit home runs or the guys that take off from the foul line and dunk it. When I got older and fulfilled my lifelong dream of learning how to play guitar, I had the good fortune of being taught guitar by a bass player. My teacher opened up a new idea to me that the rhythm section of a band, that is the bass player and the drummer, are the bedrock on which the band’s sound is built. Someone has to keep time, someone has to make sure that there is a rational place to come back to after going off on some attention-getting tangent. My teacher told me about the great James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, who of course I’d listened to for hours but didn’t realize it. I learned about Carol Kaye. I learned about Paul McCartney as a bassist. I can’t really hear (or feel) what the rhythm section of a band is doing, but it opened my mind to the possibility.

So even before I started reading Life, I was aware of a quote from somewhere that stated that most bands follow the rhythm section while the Stones follow Keith. With all this in mind, I expected Keith to confirm this. Instead, Keith repeatedly mentioned the genius of Charlie Watts and how they worked together musically. For Keith, the musical foundation of the Stones is he and Charlie. I don’t remember any comments about Bill Wyman as a player. I think Keith had nicer things to say about Bill’s replacement, Darryl Jones.

The legend is that Bill Wyman was wanted as a member of the band initially because he had an amp. Maybe to Keith, that’s all he was.

And the Award Goes to Someone, Anyone

Around the time the old year turns into the new, people get busy giving awards and making up top ten lists of various things. Critics list top ten books, top ten TV shows, top ten movies of the year. Magazines and newspapers list the top ten stories. Around this time of year, the best soccer player in the world is crowned and the baseball writers make their decisions about who gets in the Hall of Fame. Hours are spent writing and reading and debating these awards and nominations which all have one thing in common: Identifying the best is beside the point. The reading and writing and debating is the point.

Sports award are never identifying the best players. If that was the case then you would expect to see players win the awards for defensive as well offensive excellence. This is rarely the case. The FIFA World Player of the Year and the Balloon d’Or awards (now combined into one award) have been awarded primarily to strikers and offensive midfielders. While no one can argue that Lionel Messi, the winner of the FIFA Balloon d’Or is undeserving, the key player on Barcelona, his club team, is Xavi, a midfielder who’s main talent is passing the ball to his teammates. Xavi was as important to Barcelona as was Messi, plus Xavi’s national team, Spain, won the World Cup. But Xavi doesn’t score goals so the casual fan doesn’t appreciate Xavi. Casual fans are more common than hardcore fans so the awards have to go to someone that the casual fan can appreciate. In soccer, this means players who dribble through people and score goals.

In American sports, the awards are the same. NFL MVPs go disproportionately to quaterbacks and running backs. NBA MVPs are often the top scorers and no one cares if the MLB MVPs can play defense or not. Again, giving the award to the best player is not the goal. The goal is always to generate interest which will generate revenue. The sports leagues want people to tune in on TV, to show up at the arenas and to buy merchandise, all so that the next TV contract will be larger, the advertising sold during game broadcasts will be more expensive and, ultimately, the value of the franchises will be greater.

The goal of the organizations that give awards to movies and television shows is also to generate dollars. How could anyone be expected to determine who gave a better performance? Is it the performance that involved mastering another activity like singing or dancing? Is it the performance that required the most difficult accent? Is it the performance that was the most uncannily similar to the real person that it was based upon? And how do you compare someone who had to look credible as a dancer with someone who had to seem credible as a well-known public figure? Plus, the voters take into account extraneous factors such as whether or not an actor was unfairly overlooked previously, is the actor nice or nasty in interactions, does the actor come from an award-winning family. Also, if the actor is from a movie that is being given a lot of awards, undeserving nominees in other categories may benefit. In 2004, no one reasonably believed that “Into the West” from “The Return of the King” was the best song. Yet the Academy was intent on giving every possible award to the last of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, so the song won. Again, none of this is to identify the best.

It’s fun to read these lists and to be reminded of things that you may have seen during the year but there’s no reason to get emotional about any of it. No amount of awards can make you enjoy a bad movie and no athlete can be fully appreciated only by looking at their silverware.

As I mentioned, at this time of year people love to post their ten best lists. Some years there are more than ten and some years there are less than ten deserving recognition, but people list ten. Sometimes, people list 100, which of course is 10 times 10. The decimal numeral system (base 10) is the most widely used numerical base in the world. Do you want to know why? Look at your hands.