Tuesday, November 21, 2017

An Alternative to the Novelette - The Screenplay

Yesterday I finished the third of three screenplays by Paddy Chayevsky found here.  I've been reading the Kindle version.  I especially enjoyed the last one, so downloaded the next volume for reading over the rest of the holiday.  Apart from reading Shakespeare and Marat/Sade back in high school, I don't recall reading many plays thereafter - maybe some Tennessee Williams and perhaps one or two others that I can't recall now - but those were stage plays.  I don't believe I've ever read a screenplay before.  It is an interesting alternative to the novel because it really wants you to visualize certain dramatic aspects.  Otherwise, it differs from the novel or short story because dialogue is the main vehicle for communication.  There is no narrator to explain things and no voice in the head of a character that we hear to explain things.  Of course, the physical behavior of the characters matter too, so their posture and their actions are part of what gets communicated.  That may be the case with novels too, but here it seems more integral to the story telling.

I want to consider my reaction to these screenplays.  But first, here's a bit of how I came to read this, stumbling into it by looking at something else first.  I had recorded Altered States on the DVR.  I tried watching it while doing the treadmill, but it doesn't work well that way.  It sat there for quite a while after that, until I could I watch it, giving my full attention to the viewing.  Then I got into it, a very strange movie.   It is William Hurt's first screen role and his manner of speaking and acting are odd.  He is deliberate in the extreme and that deliberation conveys an intensity that is unusual yet entirely fitting for the story.  As it turns out Paddy Chayevsky wrote both the novel and the screenplay.  So I go in search of things written by Paddy Chayevsky at Amazon and found the screenplays that I linked to above.  I can't recall whether I thought Altered States was in Volume 1 (it isn't, it is in Volume 2) or if I simply assumed you should start on Volume 1 and move on from there.  Looking back at this now, it appears the screenplays are ordered chronologically. 

Marty is the first of the three screenplays in Volume 1 and the only one of them where I had seen the movie version.  It won several Academy Awards.  Fundamentally, it is a story about loneliness and human decency.  Chayevsky seems to have unusual insight here into the indignities experienced by a lonely person, who is otherwise very warm and giving.  And he also has insight into the life of adults living at home with their immigrant parents.  For those of us who moved out of the house, first during college, we may have forgotten what it was like to be in the company of our parents on an everyday basis.  All of that is there in Marty.

The Goddess, which is the second screenplay in Volume 1, is loosely based on the life of Marilyn Monroe.  It is also about loneliness, the type that comes from a dysfunctional family, where there is no love between the mother and the daughter.  The child wants some attention but gets none of it.  Growing up, the child learns how to use others but not how to love others.  To substitute for this, the adult (though still a child emotionally) seeks out fame and glamour by being in the movies.  The story has insight into the life of starlets and others in the film business in the late 1940s.  It takes on an added poignance in light of the events surrounding Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign.  My economist take on this is that the film industry is characterized by chronic excess supply.  So many people want in, as that would offer validation for them (let alone fame and fortune).  This fact alone gives the producers enormous power.  The sex part is only hinted at in the story.  The shallowness of the interactions is the main thing; it is omnipresent.  On a human level the people don't really connect at all.  Everyone ends up using everyone else, an utter tragedy.  In the process the heroine has a nervous breakdown and becomes addicted to dope and alcohol.  There is no uplift to this story, but it is oddly compelling.

The last screenplay in volume 1 is The Americanization of Emily.  Chayevsky wrote the screenplay, fitting the novel by William Bradford Huie for the screen.  It is nominally set in England in the days before D-Day, where the high command is planning for the invasion.  But the perspective is unusual.  The protagonist is the adjutant to an admiral, one who arranges the admiral's living situation, his food and drink, drawing his bath, etc.  (The adjutant had worked at a fancy hotel in Washington before the war.)  He is something of a wizard in securing the finer material things in life for his boss and all the people his boss entertains, things otherwise not available during the war.  He is also a flirt and does the sort of grabbing that would get him in trouble were he to operate today.  One woman who reacts negatively to his advances is Emily, a driver of a military car for the brass.  Yet he and Emily fall in love.   Part of the oddness of the story is that the protagonist is a complete coward.  He is not there to fight in the war, anything but.  From there the plot twists in some ways that are hard to guess at.  I won't give it away, but it is a very well crafted story and leaves the reader satisfied in the end.

Each of these stories provide social commentary, so none would I describe as light fiction, even when the dialogue is full of banter, as it is between Emily and Charlie (the adjutant).  The stories provide the social commentary by personalizing the issues to the extreme.  Further, because the reader is temporally removed from when these stories are set, one can see all the disappointments without letting it impact our own sense of well being.  There is virtue in this, which is unlike reading the news nowadays.  That is so depressing.  I did not feel depressed reading these screenplays, even The Goddess.  Having some distance between the reader and the story is very good that way.

Each screenplay takes a few hours to read.  The Kindle software produces the time left to finish reading the book.  This I find kind of odd, since you'd think some of that would depend on the reader.   I used to want the page number that corresponded to the printed work.  I understand now that is irrelevant, but the marker that they have, which is useful if you want to navigate to a particular place in the text, is otherwise meaningless to me.  The software also gives you the percentage of the book already completed, which is a bit more meaningful, but note that with multiple screenplays that you don't really know how much is left in one except for the last. That is okay, but then why have any marker at all?  Does the reader need that to track progress?  I am not sure.

The other thing I will note that I appreciated, because there is so much dialogue, when the speaker changes there is line space between the paragraphs.  So many screens have quite a lot of white space.  I find now that is welcoming.  I wonder why we can't do that for other material.  Some browser pages enable "reader view" which is also welcoming to my eyes.  But Web pages do not.  And when reading a book, while you can adjust the font size, I don't believe you can adjust the line spacing.  (I just learned that you can and I have switched this to wide.  Sometimes I am a slow learner.)

I don't believe I will ever be able to immerse myself in reading the way I could as a kid.  And on the Kindle I'm listening to Chopin in the background as I read, so I hear the ping of email coming in, one of those distractions that it would be better to not have at all.  (The music itself is a comfort, not a distraction, though I found I wanted to know the name of pieces I was listening to so would go back to the music application to find that.)  Yet I think I was more into the third story than I was with the other two.  Part of that is getting back to the routine of reading fiction.  It takes a while to warm up to that.  It is more enjoyable after a while, because there is a rhythm attained that is relaxing and yet stimulating.

Chayevsky is a very talented story teller and he takes strong ethical positions.  That combination is great for me.  Plus, unlike with a novel where you feel obligated to see it through so you end up spending most of your day on it over a few days, with the screenplays you can do other things and still have some substantial reading time each day. All of that is plus.  Later today, I will start reading The Hospital, the first screenplay in Volume 2.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Killing Student Idealism Especially Among Diligent Students

It's hard for me to understand how much of what students report as their world view is shaped by experience with peers and how much of of it comes from experiencing the media, either directly or filtered through interactions in some social network.  Either way, however, in the recent blog posts by some of my students - the ones who come to class all the time and get the work in well before the deadline - there is evident a sense of betrayal by their peers, who don't live to the same standards of diligence as they do.  I have been trying to negotiate with these students in my comments on their posts.  Perhaps there is a different way to consider the behavior and maybe the peers will be more responsive to a random act of kindness than to something else that tries to hold them accountable.  In doing this I've got the feeling of paddling upstream - it is tough work and I'm not getting very far.

I'm now caught up with the current batch of posts (more will come in later today and tomorrow) so I started to read the Times Op-Eds.   Frank Bruni's latest on Sarah Huckabee Sanders now has me scratching my head about things.  It is not just that this seems some Orewllian nightmare we are trapped in.  It's that my students, who may have voted for the first time in a Presidential election last year, might very well have only the Trump administration as a reference point for an adult consideration of national politics.  What will they make of that?

In response to one student's post I brought up the movie Breaking Away.  If you've seen it, you'll recall that the protagonist goes through disillusionment after the bike race with the Italians.

Dave: Everybody cheats. I just didn't know.
Dad: Well, now you know. 

This is a low point for Dave, but he rebounds from it to perform something noble and achieve a better balance within himself.  That, of course, was in the movies.  And Breaking Away came out while Jimmy Carter was still President.  What about now?

I so wish that I could give students a more optimistic view - partly idealistic but also partly based on actual experience.  These students seem to have a much grimmer perspective.  And the dissonance they repeatedly see between their own performance and that of the classmates only serves to reinforce the grimness.

In years past I have sometimes worried that Econ students (and Business students too) were far too mercenary in their outlook.  That doesn't seem to be the issue now, for reasons that I don't understand, though perhaps this reflects some adjustment to the current state of the economy.  In any event, the diligent students aren't money grubbers the way some of my students in the past were.  However, they are lacking trust in their peers and they are resentful of the sloth they see in their classmates.   The feelings are very strong on this point.  It is hard to counter this view and I am struggling to do so.

We often ignore college as a way to shape the moral outlook of students.  Having such a pessimistic view regarding the nature of people surely will shape their own behavior, I fear for the worse.

Yesterday in class we had a little party.  I brought in cider and apple doughnuts from Curtis Apple Orchard and for 15 minutes or so we were in party mode.  (The semester is way too long and this is one way to acknowledge that fact.)  We played a game of Econ 490 Jeopardy - I gave a bunch of wrong answers but that had as their questions terminology from our class.   They guessed as to the right questions They had fun with that.  That only took a few minutes so afterward I spent some time talking about volunteer work I do outside the university and after that segued to what Peter Drucker has argued.  People should have two careers - one the normal career we think of, the other in volunteer activities where the person satisfies the social conscience.  Teaching as a retiree can be a bit of both all wrapped into one - if the teaching is effective.

I don't know whether that message got through at all, but lately I've been quoting The Magic 8-ball when engaging in this sort of casual empiricism - signs point to no. Their most recent blog posts didn't show this sense of volunteerism at all but did reflect a great deal of suspicion with the under performers whom they encounter, with no sense of responsibility to help these other people do better.  If that is an accurate depiction of their current mindset, we should be asking what might be done to make things better.  I wish I knew.