Dialogue 6: Defining magic
First off, I don’t think we live in a uniquely uncurious time – I think we live in a typically uncurious time. Choose a historical era of dynamic cultural life at random – the Renaissance, Elizabethan England, Greenwich Village in the 60s – and I would guess that the level of genuine creative curiosity was probably about the same. A tiny group of people taking real risks, a somewhat larger group around them invested in being part of that scene, and a great, oblivious mass of people who are still just trying to pay the rent, plow the fields, and feed their kids – whatever recreation they get, if they manage to get some, is going to be sports or pop music. The audience for challenging art has probably only ever fluctuated between .5% of the population and .01%.
Which, if the Minneapolis and St. Paul together have about 600,000 people, is a number between 3000 and 600. Which, depending on your definition of “challenging,” to me sounds pretty accurate. I’m not counting the greater Metro Area here, which technically contains 3 million souls – it seems like a safe assumption that the audience we’re talking about is self-selecting their residence within the city limits.
SO, I think my assignment here is to convince you to move to LA. Okay, I’m game. Film is far more magical than theater. But let’s define magic.
To take a stab at a provisional definition, I would say that magic is the act of manipulating reality. When I go to see a show in the theater, I never physically leave the theater, but if the show is good I’m “transported” elsewhere. The people on the stage are definitely pretending to be somebody else, but if they’re good I believe it, I forget that they’re actors, and I lose sight of the fact that any of this has ever happened before. So great, theater is magic.
Film, though, goes much further in manipulating reality. It hijacks my eyes and ears, places me in a synthetic subjectivity that, not only isn’t mine, it literally belongs to no one. To be the audience for a film is to observe events that never happened from a floating perspective that no one ever had. Everything, every element of every scene, is manipulated to create something perfectly calibrated for my optimal, seamless viewing and listening experience.
The slogan for the USC film program, where I was an undergraduate, is “Reality Ends Here.” I’m not sure if they simply don’t notice how ominous that sounds, or if they do notice, and that’s part of why they like it.
So, there’s magic (manipulation of reality) in both theater and film. The magic of film – or, let’s say, constructed moving images, to add tv and video games – is, I think, far more intense and powerful.
If you want access to that more powerful magic juice, yes – go to LA, write for the screen.
I think that culturally, we naturally equate more powerful to better. Call it capitalism or modernism or neoliberalism – greater impact, greater control, greater sway, more money, more agency, more success = better all the time, right?
Except that the power we’re talking about is, at best, ideologically neutral, as a tool. Much ink has been spilt about the uses of the moving image for propaganda since the beginning – D.W. Griffith, Leni Riefenstahl, “Why We Fight” WWII films made by Frank Capra, etc., – and certainly, there are abundant “softer” examples besides the most overt propaganda – does anyone really believe that Marvel Superheroes are ideologically neutral?
But beyond all that, some pretty compelling arguments have been made by philosophers from Plato to Marshall McLuhan that any kind of media is the opposite of neutral – that the written word itself, the printing press, radio, movies, tv, the internet each have fundamentally changed the way we think as a species, how we understand ourselves, our experience in the world, and each other.
I believe that the power of the movies is inextricably connected to control and manipulation – a product of the modern, industrial 20th Century - and evokes in the viewer a weirdly disconnected, passive state. We observe without being present, we are essentially disembodied and elsewhere, and the events unfolding are digitally etched in stone, so we can be sure that not a pixel will shift from one viewing to the next.
Whereas in theater, however scrappy and small the company and the venue, we are physically in the room with “really smart, talented people, playing; and negotiating ideas; and throwing their talents together into a pot they hope steams and ignites.” Yes, we are being shown a constructed series of fictional events, but no, we are not being bossed around from afar. The people magicking us are right there. They showed up to be a part of the experience with us, here, today.
The one other word I want to introduce into this conversation, which will hopefully be the dealbreaker that starts you packing for your westward move is: “content.” It seems to be a part of every article I read about the Golden Age of Television™ that we are currently experiencing… to which your Jerome buddies are no doubt currently contributing… i.e., “there is so much good content being created for all of these streaming platforms, not to mention the hundreds of cable stations all of which need content to fill their programming schedules so the audience will have an endless supply of content to meet their content needs.”
To me a person’s reaction to that one word (content) pretty quickly and clearly determines whether they can hack it in LA or New York or wherever. Content is the currency of streaming media, the stuff, the widgets that are flowing back and forth, making all of the pixels light up in pleasing patterns. If the Medium is the Message, per 1960’s era McLuhan, then to me, the message that all of this content whispers is “stay home, be isolated, remain distracted… shh…”
Make no mistake, whether your screenwriter friends are brilliant or just competent, I can guarantee that they hear and utter the word “content” in meetings about their work multiple times per day. They are constantly reminded that their labor is generating content for streaming to viewers. They are industrial content generators. They may be paid quite well for all of this content creation, and it may all be deeply Magical, but the main question is, what kind of magic are they making? Is it Magic that makes people feel something, that perhaps even challenges them to see new perspectives and/or think new thoughts? Or is it just safe, isolating, entertainment?
Whereas, I’m guessing that as part of the Minnesota Theater Scene, you aren’t forced to think about your work in terms of generating content. You are probably too busy writing “plays” with “stories” and “characters.”
That seems like a good ranty, cranky place to leave things – if this is the end of this exchange – though I would certainly be happy to hear your response, if you want to write one. Oh, and I do want to close with a beautiful quote by James Baldwin from his book The Devil Finds Work – he says more with fewer words than I have here, unsurprisingly.
As LeVar Burton would say, “…you don’t have to take my word for it!”
“The distance between oneself – the audience – and a screen performer is absolute: a paradoxical absolute, masquerading as intimacy. No one, for example, will ever really know whether Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable – or John Wayne – can, or could, really act, or not, nor does anyone care: acting is not what they are required to do. Their acting ability, so far from being what attracts their audience, can often be what drives their audience away. One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be.
The tension in the theater is a very different, and very particular tension: this tension between the real and the imagined is the theater, and this is why the theater will always remain a necessity. One is not in the presence of shadows, but responding to one’s flesh and blood: in the theater, we are re-creating each other.”
You're right. You and James Baldwin. I have nothing to add.
I think I'll stay in Minnesota, for now.
Thanks for answering my letters to you,
Happy New Theater Season,