(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)
“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” Alfred Hitchcock
In 1976 I was in New York when the play Comedians by the British playwright Trevor Griffiths opened on Broadway. I was so inspired by the play—I saw it twice—that when I returned to Oregon, I quit my job as a landscaper and moved to Seattle to concentrate on writing plays and trying to get them produced.
Alas, I found no takers for my plays anywhere in America, though I sent them to scores of theatre companies, large and small, and personally delivered them to theatre companies in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Ashland, Portland, and Seattle. The dozen or so theatre people who were kind enough to respond to my plays all made the same comment: no theatre company in America produces three-act plays anymore.
Well, Comedians is a three-act play and I’d just seen it on Broadway. But the play was an anomaly in America, a throwback, and very British. And I should have known better because in the same week I saw Comedians, I attended the play that was the talk of the American theatre world at the time, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, a play of many little disconnected scenes in one fairly short act.
Had I only seen For Colored Girls, I would not have changed the course of my life to write plays, and certainly not three-act plays. But Comedians touched me deeply and so greatly expanded my notion of what a modern play might be, that I ignored the mores of my culture and wrote a trio of three-act plays I was certain would take the American theatre world by storm.
Self-delusions aside, the changes in the American cultural landscape that took place in the first forty years of my life are nothing compared to what has overtaken us since the advent of personal computers and the internet, which might also be described as the coming of universal Attention Deficit Disorder and the attendant SCB: sit-com brain.
“Within the reigning social order, the general public must remain an object of manipulation, not a participant in thought, debate, and decision.” Noam Chomsky
Marcia and I recently went on the first journey I have made away from Mendocino in seven years, not counting a few overnights to Santa Rosa. Marcia has gone on a number of far treks in those seven years, but not I, so our eight-day trip to Oregon was a big deal for me.
Our big splurge was spending two nights at the Crater Lake Lodge, and though the big old lodge was filled to capacity, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. How can that be?
The first night there, we dined in our little room on cold cuts and hummus and other goodies from our cooler, but for hot water for tea we had to make the trek down to the vast lounge on the first floor where two enormous fireplaces ablaze with gas-fueled flames shone on seventy guests arrayed on comfortable sofas and armchairs, some of the guests waiting to go to supper in the dining hall, some drinking wine or beer or cocoa in the commodious surround.
And I felt I was stepping onto the set of the latest remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers because every person in the room, save for the waiters, was staring into either a smart phone or a tablet. Every single person. These were not teenagers or college kids or even thirty-somethings. No, these were people in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, staring zombie-like at little screens. They might have been in a bus station or inmates of a sanitarium for the demented, though I did not see anyone drooling.
The big terrace outside the lounge features several dozen large rocking chairs facing the spectacular crater, and during daylight hours lodgers can eat and drink and rock out there with a fabulous view of the incredibly blue lake and the spectacular rock formations surrounding that blue. Except that all the people in those rocking chairs were looking into screens, too, which is why I say we practically had the place to ourselves.
Why, I wonder, did all those people spend so much time and money to go to Crater Lake and not be there?
“Intolerance is evidence of impotence.” Aleister Crowley
In 1989 the movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape came out and caused a sensation that reached beyond the art houses. I was living in Sacramento at the time and loved the movie for its subtlety and complexity, and because it was so French, yet the actors spoke English. I was writing screenplays at the time, and Sex, Lies and Videotape was the first American film I’d seen in many years with a sensibility kin to my own.
The winter of 1989 was a very wet one, and when I went to see Sex, Lies, and Videotape a second time, the old Tower Theatre where I saw the film the first time was closed due to leaks. So my friends and I ventured far into the suburbs to a multiplex where the kiosk sported the shortened title Sex Videotapes—a foreshadowing of the experience awaiting us in the theatre.
In Sex, Lies and Videotape, you may recall, James Spader plays a reticent man who frequently pauses to think before speaking. Well, the audience of suburbanites at the showing we attended responded to these pauses with nervous giggling and catcalls such as, “What’s his problem?” and “He is so lame,” and the oft repeated, “Weirdo!”
We left the theatre despairing for humanity and desperate to get out of the burbs. A week later I went to the movie again at the Tower Theatre, and the first few times James Spader paused before speaking, I braced myself for shouted insults from the audience. To my great relief, the downtown audience had no trouble with a person thinking before speaking.