Archive for January, 2013

Acting that “isolates and intensifies” the truth

January 22, 2013

Everyone remarks on Craig Horner’s extraordinary work portraying the experience of physical pain as Richard Cypher. This performance challenge is most spectacular in the episode “Denna” (directed by Michael Hurst). Craig describes it as the greatest challenge in filming The Legend of the Seeker, but also the episode he considers the best out of both seasons.

Standard acting advice on portraying pain or suffering is to resist the temptation to make it loud. In the words of Peter Hall, “A child who comes toward you trying not to cry (but who is filled with suppressed tears) is incredibly moving. But a child crying his heart out, a child in extremis, is less certain of our acceptance.”

Craig found a way to bring out the extreme nature of the pain in the torture sequence without violating this rule of drama. Of course, a magical weapon like the agiel helps. There are no points of comparison for the wise-asses in the audience to insist they could endure the same with more composure, because the hypothetical potential of the agiel’s magic is “unimaginable.”

But perhaps more importantly, he has a well-developed political torture sequence to work with in “Denna” – a full complement of psychological torture techniques enrich the exposition of the idea of torture in images.

denna_knife

In a book on acting first published in 1925, Stark Young wrote: “When an actor does a torture scene we are harrowed and sickened not because we think him tortured, but because we receive from him at that moment an idea of torture so compelling that it moves us, moves us more powerfully, perhaps, than the same blood and wounds in life might have done. He does not blur any truth but that of mere accidental externality. He does not, in so far as he is good, blur truth at all, but isolates and intensifies it to fuller power.”

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that a torturer’s power is the true instrument of totalitarianism, destroying the freedom of the individual mind one person at a time. The threat of further punishment is internalized, until any built environment that once would’ve seemed benevolent feels exactly like a cell. Political refugees far from their tormentors see the shadow of that same fear everywhere, reliving the same nightmares awake or asleep.

Actress Jessica Marais describes Denna’s psychological strategy in breaking Richard as “nonreactive,” keeping her tone and facial expressions unreadable, and so exploiting his warm and friendly nature by heightening his sense of isolation. Even when encouraging Richard’s compliance when he stops resisting, she doesn’t seem genuinely impressed. She is free to hurt him whimsically, instead of keeping a score card of whether or not he “deserves” any punishment, though she may tantalize him with a sense of having something to look forward to for good behavior when she turns to seducing him.

Is it strange to warm to someone capable of this? Not when you are otherwise isolated, no.

Lear
.. My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. – Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
And can make vile things precious.

But to exploit necessity this way, as isolation torture does, is yet another level of monstrosity. Coldness is not disgusting when it’s ugly. A garden slug is disgusting, but this is not a strong enough word for someone who would salt one. Such an act is better described as repulsive.

How then can walking away seem unacceptable, even if the monster inflicting such pain cannot be overcome or redeemed? Rilke wrote, “Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” As if this were the sticking point for those entrapped by every coercion known to their assailant to be at hand – that out of awful familiarity, looking inside, they confront the soul that would be held to account, rather than spared such honesty out of disdain for the wicked.

As the Mord Sith Cara says in Temple of the Winds, “We always let our captives keep their weapons. It’s a constant reminder to them they are helpless, that even their weapons will do them no good against us.”

It is at first bizarre to watch the deleted scene in the episode “Denna” that reveals she may be falling in love with her victim. Mord Sith madness entails affectionately enjoying instances of showing mercy to a “pet” one is torturing (“training”), but every act of kindness is really intended to cultivate false hope and maintain sensitivity, the better to inflict further pain and catch the victim off-guard.

Being repulsive in this way is something Denna takes satisfaction in, because it serves her purpose – it makes bonding with her excruciatingly difficult, so that a slave she has broken is more completely broken. This is her job, and she is good at it.

Mord Sith know how to co-opt a captive’s pride in his willingness to resist torture, punishing them until they no longer wish to fight back, but then needling them to find another trigger for involuntary reactions that resist again, until in the confusion of pain and self-sabotage they only know for certain that resistance is futile. All sources of pain can temporarily inflict this sense of being at war with oneself and unable to win, but the victim of a Mord Sith knows she could change her mind, and so comes to look to his tormentor as his only hope of any reprieve.

To stop resisting the use of operand conditioning to enforce compliance with simple commands is one degree of surrender, which Richard gives Denna when he partitions his mind by “locking his dignity away.” This surrender comes with a heavy price – he is suddenly quick to reveal his feelings for Kahlan, when before he had the presence of mind to hold back, knowing his feelings could put her in danger. But it is not like flipping a switch, for Denna is an expert at finding chinks in a prisoner’s armor. The secret to staying the course is Richard’s insight that through partial surrender, something inviolable can be held back and preserved from Denna’s effort to corrupt it.

Denna will not settle for anything short of breaking his will. What a Mord Sith expects of her slaves (and what Darken Rahl expects of all Mord Sith) is that they embrace contact with the agiel merely because she wishes to use it on them, and compliance with those wishes is all they desire. These bonds are hierarchical, with none of the ethics of equality and reciprocation.

dragon_goltzius

The viciousness defining what a Mord Sith is telescopes our darkest motives and deepest cruelties, as efficiently as the image of the dragon whose teeth were sown at Thebes.

Several linked but different features occur in brutalization: 1. Pleasure in the pain of the victim or victims. 2. The formula ‘I am not going to suffer’ is pervasive. ‘You are going to do the suffering’ is implied and acted upon. 3. ‘I cannot contain what I feel in the way of fear, anger, or persecution’ … 4. Some people do suffer but cannot digest or metabolize the internal situation and it appears that instead of being resolved, old hurts get worse .. until what is acted out is far worse than the original suffering. – Cruelty, Violence and Murder

Not to wince away from the contact through the agiel with the tormenter is a gesture that embraces the shared experience of pain, as the way “out” that obliterates the horror of instinctively trying yet failing to escape. This is what Denna is getting at when she coaxes Richard to appreciate the metaphysics of pain, to use the profound nature of the experience of suffering as a way of escaping the worst.

As Weil says, likening all human experiences of pain to the passion of Christ, the divine spirit “shudders before suffering and death and feels itself in the depths of anguish isolated from man and from God.”

Craig’s decision to show extreme muscle tension by flexing all visible muscles to show maximum definition and strain when grasping the agiel creates a visually stunning effect true to the mechanical “vicious cycle” in which pain magnifies itself, which can be exacerbated when physical torture is combined with psychological torture. “Pain leads reflexively to counter-tension and this, in turn, to renewed pain, so these events continue in a kind of vicious circle.” – At the side of torture survivors

The deep muscle definition Craig uses in this scene also taps into the ability of the audience to relate to the experience of exertion/strain as causes of physical pain. There are also disturbing connotations of sexualized exploitation in this image, evoking the sense in which “violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing,” as Weil puts it.

There is also restraint in Craig’s performance. Richard’s tone of voice is strangely guarded when he reveals that he wishes to spare Denna pain at his own expense. But he has seen the fawning sycophantic behavior she is accustomed to from her slaves. He knows these gestures are really just an elective humiliation in their systems of adaptive depravity, expressing self-loathing as the last refuge of interpretation, to despise their own fate. He clings instead to the last shreds of compassion, hanging by the flimsy thread of unconditional love.

Given the opportunity, before facing the final test, Richard begs Kahlan to stamp out all that is left of his vulnerability, and take his soul with the magic of confession. She refuses, and he calls it a betrayal. But she has hope, guarded though it may be by ignorance of what he has really endured already.

richard_kahlan_episode_denna

After recognizing all this in the performances at the heart of “Denna”, there is something distasteful about Rilke’s gentle consolation, “Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.” The story, Richard’s journey of the mind, gets under your skin, and then you recoil from the nicer ways of putting it.

This is the difference between perpetrating life-like illusions and the actor’s work as an original artist: “the actor gives you the eternity of love, grief, and death; … The art of acting in that scene is ultimately to be judged by the completeness and significance of its idea. Every work of art endures at last not by its likeness to things outside itself, but by the depth and freedom of the content that it embodies and expresses.”

“I don’t want to read between the lines”

January 22, 2013

Anne Carson describes in the audience a preference that unwholesome truths be articulated at a safe distance from the blunt encounters of everyday life – as the meat of catharsis in tragic drama, a blood price paid by the actors. “You sacrifice them to action. And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacy with your own life. … The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours.”

Aaron Swartz (1986-2013) wondered if learning to lean into the pain of cognitive dissonance helps, if it means not flinching from perceptions that challenge your self-assurance, not reaching for ways to rationalize the discomfort away, not trying to shrug off any challenge that was made.

But for all intents and purposes, there are silencing spells in real life, junctures of pain and denial at which the intensity of cognitive dissonance can make speaking out (or being heard) seem impossible. Moving around them is one thing – but pushing through them is considered a condemned effort.

Whereof one cannot speak,
thereof one must be silent.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

This preference not to have uncomfortable truths articulated in a way we cannot pretend not to understand is a sorry reason for the doctrine “show, don’t tell,” or the article of faith that some truths are the business of God to impose on each of us through revelation alone.

Can this be logical? Aristotle’s grammar of meanings in qualitative reasoning (The Categories) uses living beings as “primary substance” examples, not rocks or fingernail shavings, unlike the definition of substance used in thermodynamics to which the principle matter cannot be created or destroyed applies.

In this approach to logic, a living subject capable both of reason and of misunderstanding or dissimulation is implied. For such a subject, being and not being are unambiguous – only from outside the box is the existence of Schrödinger’s cat in living form uncertain.

Perhaps we have always known how to get ourselves boxed in by these irrational fears, and exasperate the man of action with notions about “not being” as an alternative to having substance that is possible to experience, and is to be feared. Of course, Herakles has a retort no different from the question for this commonplace: “Being and not being are very different things .. We’re all mortal you know. Think mortal.”

For believers like Aquinas, the coming into being and passing away of these observers meant there must be an untouched survivor and initiator of all effects – a magician or mathematician, but above all, one who knows better than the rest of us, whose view of the cosmos is not petty or defensive, one who has nothing to fear. A prior cause in a receding series of origin stories for cause and effect paths that seem to draw thin lines across the darkness in the passing along of perceptions that seem to have more than continuity of experience tying each to the next when ascertained in passing.

prestige

How can he not know?

Fear of some unspoken-for uncertainty that stands in the way of acting on reason for what it is worth? We want to see such a further capability in ourselves, but risk abandoning all that we are able to do in favor of what seems impossible, to wait on the unprecedented to show itself within ourselves instead.

In the Pythagorean cosmos described in The Republic, “the harmony of the parts of the cosmos, on the one hand, and of the parts of the human psyche, on the other, were seen as the basic elements of the same universal order” (from The Untuning of the Sky). All earthly music was an effort to evoke the more perfect music of the spheres, that is, the great sounds caused by the rushing past of the other planets.

None of us can see much of what lies ahead. What we do see coming can feel deterministic, but secrecy, miscalculations and ignorance hardly give rise to free will.

And even in “real life” there can be such a thing as a definite experience, a sense of certitude that defies all recourse to learned skepticism about one’s ability to make sense of the world as it really is. Something to write home about. Actors know too well that just because there are multiple solutions to the true interpretation of a role (hence, multiple solutions to the authentic delivery of a line), doesn’t mean the players can suit themselves.

Subjectivity by degrees, rather than an absolute sense of incommensurability, is how perspective-taking can be grounded in a shared interest in the real – instead of relying on the assumption that word games are played with tokens for which there are no shared understandings about their referents.

One foot on sea, and one on shore

January 22, 2013

The magic of confession in The Legend of the Seeker is severe and lasting. While the confessed remember their past fully, they confront it only to answer in interrogation if their mistress bids them. Otherwise they don’t see an immediate need to revisit such things for their confessor’s sake. They become indifferent.

As Isak Dinesen wrote, if “no art has more severe laws than magic; no artist is more severely bound by his laws than the magician.” Quoting Piet Hein, she closes one of her essays with the cruel efficiency of these clipped lines:

Training for the magic habit,
fail not to insert the rabbit.

Like a Wizard with only one terrible ability, but sworn to uphold justice with a militant indifference to flattery among the afraid, the Confessor is expected to use power judiciously for some greater good than acquisitiveness on her own part.

But as in all things, some habits don’t break at the opportune moment; some needful things will not be learned in time. As Kahlan says: “We can only be what we are, no more, no less.”

kahlan_prophecy

Prophecy, first episode of two-part premiere in Season 1

Take Susie Bright’s words, “women thrive on exuding as well as seeking masculine energy. It’s like a Valkyrie demanding her due.” To disregard the loss of power in such choices of words is bravado, from a growing indifference to the allotment of gendered pronouns. But it’s a nonverbal world now that traffic lights have evolved to meet us where we’re at, with signals that make hieroglyphs look sophisticated.

Though Kahlan’s perspective on having someone under confession is sympathetic, she is never really as patient as could be, compared to Narcissus conversing with Sir Philip Sidney’s Echo:

“Faire rocks, goodly rivers, sweet woods, when shall I see peace?

Peace.

Peace! What bars me my tongue? who is it that comes me so ny?

I.

Oh, I do know what guest I have met, it is Echo.

’Tis Echo.

Well met, Echo, approach; then tell me thy will too.

I will too. –”

Her moon is a sow, she grumbles because it is too far off to bite, and her grunt is enough song for any Ishtar, the rocking of her ass is her dancing and it is shiny. Resist, petty lady, crime is never nothing, attempt larceny before deciding whether you want to quench a flame by starving it of air, or feeding it fermented ambrosia until it swallows its own feet – out of complacent indigestion, gurgling on mead, mistaking them for a chaser.

Maybe the same kind of ruthless naiveté had to do with the death of the gifted son of a girl who sought to hold the feet of a king who was under such a dire spell, that he could not survive if he failed to lay his feet always in the lap of a virgin. Fled by his own mother on the day of his birth, he was cursed in her parting words because she was bitter to be disqualified for the virgin’s post by such an unexpected delivery.

“Well, is it dark enough? Can you see me?”

Though adopted since his mother would not give the father’s name, the boy had to succeed in many adventures to gain a name for himself and a bride in spite of his mother’s strange invocations, and it helped that the king’s magician raised him and taught him magic.

His very last adventure is mentioned in troubadours’ lines like “men were deceivers ever, one foot on sea and one on shore,” lines the Celts associated with a woman conjured out of “the flowers of oak and broom and meadowsweet” to be the boy’s wife. Since his mother took revenge on her unwanted child by cursing him to be unable to wed a woman of any race in the world, he had to invent another to find love.

He learned how and married well except the wife was innocent, and spoke too simply to be understood in time by men who were too used to reading between the lines when women speak. While her husband was away it seemed to her that a passing hunter should be invited into his home, and she was plain with him about her admiration because she found him beautiful and saw he was trustworthy, so without hesitation she became his lover.

Knowing and fearing what could occur if a woman already married preferred another, she asked her lover too many questions about whether he would slay her husband in order to marry her himself.

will_ryman

Will Ryman, “Anyone and No One”

Now she learned soon that there was only one way to kill off her husband in favor of her lover:

I cannot be killed indoors or out of doors, on horse or on foot … Make a bath for me on a river bank, with a good snugly thatched roof over the tub; then bring a buck goat and put it alongside the tub. If I put one foot on the goat’s back and the other on the edge of the tub, whoever struck me then would bring about my death.

– Penguin edition, Mabinogion

But the part of the flower girl’s story that surprises and confuses everyone was that she quickly persuaded her husband to stand just so, with her lover waiting nearby armed exactly to the purpose, not for her own peace of mind and yet just as if she needed to see it for herself – so that she could fully appreciate the slimness of the probability he would ever be caught off guard in such awkward circumstances.

The lover no doubt found the flowers innocent, so kept from her knowledge of what comes of killing kings.

Your high heel
shoes evoke
a narrow
stair, resounding
curlicue
tower for a
bell. Consentingly
tied hair the
larger than
life image
of unerring
pride in a
black bird at
rest, at ease
your skirts a library
of roseate leaves laid out
in eloquent marble
that receives the voice
of public men and
magnifies their speeches
while it elevates
men’s eyes, your waist a
famous line still whispered
by young husbands
patiently seeking a sigh.

Your voice is
that which lives inside
this room, a space for
talk as measured as a loom, and
like a silhouette in stone, body
and clothes belong more to the
garden’s tree than to the echo
of the child I knew, repeating “ear” and “lips”
with lips made new by listening
and learning undisclosed
allusions etched in half-forgotten
etiologies. Just then,
your innocence of mysteries, false
speech, deceit and innuendo
kept your peace – love slept.

Today you speak with reservation
learned at knee, ankle tucked behind,
kind, forgiving, you unwind
yourself from me with delicate
regard. I am no more inside.

The transformations of young Arthur in The Once and Future King (and The Sword in the Stone) also resemble some of the misadventures of a magician in the service of the same king of ancient Britain, whose friend was beloved of such a virgin as kept the feet of the king.

mice

Sumi-e painting of mice

The young lady in question, when no longer qualified, honorably confessed in time to save the king’s life, but at the magician’s expense (and her lover’s). Rather than squirrels and fish, the friends were made wolves and stag and hind and so on until they had children between them either way to satisfy the king, who married the girl in the mean time.

There is nothing to explain
Regard each other as you pass
She looks back, you look back
Not just once, not just twice
… A light, you can feel it on your back…

– Radiohead

Danger lies in the humor that refusal to understand tragedy gives rise to, a kind of irony that can kill with hysterical fits of laughter from which you refuse to resume a dignified response to an impossible situation. Hyperventilation the end of you.

Hyenas cough to give warning when they see the provocation coming from behind you, have no sense of cruelty or needful neglect like the bad conscience that abides in our imaginations.

Another of the Welsh legends in the Mabinogion is the story of a Roman emperor so possessed with love for a girl he only dreamed he had seen, that he could live for no other hope but to find her, and so he found her, and Britain, and made her empress of Rome, and Britain.

“…They’ll seek to find me north and south…”

When news of his dream and intentions first reached her, she remarked to the unexpected emissaries, “Men, I do not doubt what you say, but I do not believe it overmuch either. If it is I whom the emperor loves, let him come for me.” In time he did, and though war was made against him while he was away from Rome, her men returned with his and Rome was won again.

For the Greeks, loss of virginity was officially a kind of death by marriage. Their mythological amazons kept to the edges of the known world, approaching only to steal glory from among men during long-running epic wars. Love kills them, they inspire necrophilia.

“Parting is all we know of heaven. And all we need of hell.” – Emily Dickinson

The whip? “It’s for peace.” The hard truth, we each need a little more peace at heart than we know how to get by asking nicely.

The art of misunderstanding love

January 22, 2013

If the first words you heard from your true love were, “Your head’s a turnip! I’ve always hated turnips,” would you persevere?

Hegel wrote, “Love means … knowing myself as the unity of myself with another and the other with me.” Of the paradox that love can be self-affirming even as it renders one’s independence inadequate and makes one feel defective without the other, he said, “Love is at once the propounding and the resolving of this contradiction.”

When love is on the line, the very idea of it can be enough to inspire flights of fancy that are more willful obliviousness to reality than anything else. The Princess Bride is the absolute worst offender in fanaticism about first love and belying the risk of a Romeo and Juliet- or Count of Monte Cristo-scale disaster in uncompromising romantic adventures.

english_patient

New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything. For the heart is an organ of fire.

The antidote? Johnny Depp’s Don Juan DeMarco takes all the seriousness out of such matters in an escapade through inpatient psychiatry, to the delight of a cantankerous and burned-out psychiatrist (Marlon Brando). No spectacled clinician can argue with a patient who knows Flamenco.

Willow, on the other hand, is delightfully disrespectful of love poetry (“I dwell in darkness without you, and it went away?”). This is a rather important point, but Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing turns skepticism on its head, in a proof that word play can reconcile forsworn lovers in spite of their best judgment.

Happily, the lovers enjoy one another’s teasing far more than the “halting sonnets” their devious match-makers steal from poorly-guarded hiding places and deliver:

BENEDICK
A miracle! here’s our own hands against our hearts.
Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take
thee for pity.

BEATRICE
I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield
upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life,
for I was told you were in a consumption.

Another enchanted moment in the Branagh Shakespeare collection is tucked away at the end of Henry V. At the right moment, it occurs to Henry to make a favorable impression on the princess of unconquered France. The newly-mets are sweetly frank, hence theirs is the humor of ceremonious makers of manners. But manners are not for everyone.

Alatriste is the beautiful maturation of the romantic swashbuckling genre, redeeming the sentiment that burns true, without pretending there is sure to be a happy ending. For more heartbreak starring Viggo Mortensen and Ariadna Gil, Appaloosa is generous toward the notion that romance is defensible, even when “true love” is a difference of degrees in loyalty.

“Bewildering spring ..
And our two horses had traced out the valleys;
Knew the low flooded lands squared out with poplars,
In the young days when the deep sky befriended.
.. and then the counterthrust:
‘Why do you love me? Will you always love me?
But I am like the grass, I can not love you.’
Or, ‘Love, and I love and love you,
And hate your mind, not you, your soul, your hands.’

.. shut up in his castle, Tairiran’s,
She who had nor ears nor tongue save in her hands,
Gone – ah, gone – untouched, unreachable!
She who could never live save through one person,
She who could never speak save to one person,
And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors . . . !”

– Ezra Pound

Howl’s Moving Castle is the ultimate fangirling allegory, with an adventuress at large who is blissfully oblivious to which Prince Charming has been waiting on her Happily Ever After. Exorbitant in the unrealistic charm department, Howl gives Sophie all the excuse she needs to let her spirit blur the attractions of storybook romance with the escapist pleasures of exploring all things make-believe.