Honest Audience - Dishonest System

Daisey Attack
This week the performance community rallied around a hurt friend, and the film community mourned the passing of one of their most influential members. Far be it from me to rain on anyone’s parade of outrage and honors. Yet, there is a strange connection between what happened at Mike Daisey’s performance and the death of Jack Valenti. In one instance, an audience is taken to task for being honest, and in the other a vast commercial enterprise is given a free ride for being dishonest.

As covered in our fest news throughout the week, Mike Daisey’s performance at ART (American Repertory Theatre) was interrupted by a mass exit of an audience group; one of them stopped by the stage to pour water on Mike’s script.

A caveat: I am a big fan of Mike Daisey and ART. He is one of the funniest and most insightful writer-performers, today. If you haven’t seen him perform, do. If you want a taste of his work and approach, check out the podcast interview on our site. Moreover, ART is one of the truly great theatres. Throughout its history, they have presented some of the most significant and remarkable productions not only in America, but often in the world. If you are ever near Cambridge, MA, you must go to this theatre.

At his performance a high school group become increasingly uncomfortable by the language used in the performance (or was it the image of Mike having sex with Paris Hilton?). Although the theatre maintains that it informed the group’s leader of the nature and tone of the performance, they decided to leave en masse during the performance because of their surprise at what was taking place. They identified themselves as a Christian youth group on a school trip to the theatre (even though they came from a public high school — oops on that separation of Church and State). As they were leaving, one of the adults with the group came on stage and poured Mike’s glass of water onto his script. (Want to see it? Check this out.)

The water pour (a “script baptism” to cleanse the sins?) in a moment: first, what is with the wounded cry of the arts community against these I-believe-simple-minded-never-saying-let-alone-hearing-the-word-”fuck”-Christians who marched out of the theatre? They paid their money. They did not ask for it back. All they did was to get up and leave. Clearly, they decided there were better ways to spend their time — having already spent their money. As they were leaving, Daisey stood up and asked that they explain themselves. He was in the light on the stage; they were in the aisles and lobby.

Don’t you think that they were under no obligation to explain themselves? Don’t they have a perfectly legitimate right to get up and leave if they think the performance is not for them? Why ridicule them or make fun of them because they didn’t — in that moment — provide an explanation? Can’t an audience express its own point of view — by leaving — without being ostracized for their choice, i.e. statement? Don’t we want to give the same rights to an artist? Simply put, this audience group provided an honest reaction to what was taking place.

As for the baptism of the script: Is it really worth the ensuing outrage? Although silly, it is a rather tame response, especially in light of the format of the evening. Daisey claims that this action ruined his copy of the script. (Only one copy? Monks in the Middle Ages I get; today?) This same week off-off-Broadway has the return of the legendary Living Theatre who have resurrected, literally and metaphorically, a production of The Brig — an incredibly powerful experience of the inhuman nature and ethos of the military. In the good old days, audiences would rip off their clothes and join Le Living onstage; or the cops would storm the stage and arrest them. How far have we come when pouring a small glass water becomes the defining act of today’s audience rebellion?

The flip side of honesty is bowing down to the accomplishments of lobbyist Jack Valenti. Valenti had been the leader of the Motion Picture Association of America. Thirty eight years ago, Valenti established the Classification and Rating Administration. The original goal, in 1968, was to create a system that would prevent local communities from developing their own approach to showing “appropriate” films. (Remember, the times were a-changing in the sixties — after all, that’s when the Le Living was having so much fun onstage.) In reality, the ratings system created a control of the few for the kinds of movies we see. Without a doubt this sytem favors the big studios. If a movie doesn’t have the clout and insider connections it suffers; if a movie gets an “X” rating, newspapers won’t take its advertisements, and the theatres - the distribution market of the studios - won’t take the films.

Take a look at This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary about this secretive and, at times, thoroughly silly anonymous board of supposedly good-taste judges. In the end, the ratings system gives easy ratings to films with incredible amounts of blood and gore, and cracks down on films with any mutual — i.e. normal — sex.

What Jack Valenti has taught my children:

  • Making violence is good for you; Making love is not.
  • Blood is ok for you; Semen is not.
  • Seeing bodies blown apart is good for you; Seeing bodies naked is not.
  • It’s good to see bullets, weapons, and power tools go into a body; It’s bad to see a man entering a woman (let alone power tools).
  • Seeing a woman being carved up is good for you; Seeing a woman in ecstasy is not.
  • A woman’s breasts are good for you to see as often as possible; A woman’s vagina must never be seen.
  • It is good to see a fully clothed man make love to a naked woman; It is bad to see a man naked under any circumstance.
  • It is good to see Halloween Part 27 and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 335 and Grindhouse I; Whatever you do keep away from Bertolucci and Passolini and Godard.

Not exactly news that Hollywood creates a way to enforce big bucks investment over outsider art. The legacy of Valenti’s system, though, is more pernicious and dishonest. It is not about the stated goal of helping the community make informed choices. He did a good job for what he was meant to do: maximize profit for the big studios. End of story; end of accomplishment.

Was art produced along the way? Sure. Good intentions don’t make good art, just as bad intentions don’t necessarily make a profit.

Still, Valenti’s system was a dishonest sell to help us decide what to see. His system helped favor, and therefore define, American films as more often than not crude, violent, loud, crass, and inhuman.

Do you know the old joke: How can you tell when someone in Hollywood is lying? Their lips move.

At least, Daisey’s audience was honest.

- Bill Reichblum

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6 Responses to “Honest Audience - Dishonest System”

  1. Mike Daisey
    April 30th, 2007 09:45

    I appreciate how even-handed this assessment is, and I think the connection with Jack Valenti’s passing is very interesting, but there is one piece of misinformation that keeps propogating-I have clarified this all over the web, so I’m not certain why it keeps cropping up.

    I do not work with a script. Ever. I’m an extemporaneous performer who works from a handwritten outline that I refine from performance to performance. What was destroyed by the individual were my handwritten notes that I had been working on, for that monologue, for three years. I can’t even fully explain the importance of those handwritten notes to anyone else, and I’ve given up trying.

    Had it simply been a script I’m not certain I would have been nearly as furious and outraged, or felt nearly as attacked.

  2. Bill
    May 2nd, 2007 09:06

    Thanks for the clarification!
    In this podcast interview, Mike talks about this point exactly - how he uses these outlines to construct to a present tense theatrical experience: Go ahead and listen: http://kadmusarts.com/blog/?p=177

  3. Jonathan
    May 3rd, 2007 08:14

    Having worked with Mike I can attest to his use of handwritten notes as a basis for his performance. Strange, but true. But Mike you must have at least one copy??

    I did not realize until now that thee folks that left were High School students. Don’t know if this makes it more justifiable or just sad. Sad that they were brought to a show that someone must have know would be found objectionable without the appropriate insights provided ahead of time.

    I agree with Bill that the time honored tradition of just walking out is a right that theater goers have, and should have. It is too bad that if this was part of an educational experience the school did not insist on them fully participating in conversation on what they found offensive and why.

    And though in Shakespeare’s time physically abusing the performers, and their notes, might be acceptable, I do think that Mike has a more then valid complaint in people breaking the fourth wall to physically assault the work.

    Keep up the discussions.


  4. KadmusArts - where culture speaks » Blog Archive » No Smoking While Naked
    May 14th, 2007 04:42

    [...] Week before last, the blog highlighted the dishonest system of the Motion Picture Association, which favors a certain kind of artistic expression (big studio, bigger technologies, and biggest violence) over art that is on an intimate human scale. For a quick reference, you can see the list of What Jack Valenti Has Taught My Children. (Valenti, who as the former chief of the Motion Picture Association was responsible for their ratings system, recently passed away.) [...]

  5. Francesca
    July 22nd, 2007 08:59

    Pasolini, not Passolini.

  6. Pages tagged "dishonest"
    April 5th, 2009 22:54

    [...] bookmarks tagged dishonest KadmusArts - where culture speaks » Blog Archive … saved by 5 others     gdsouljah74 bookmarked on 04/05/09 | [...]

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