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Jeremy's Ramblings, Babblings, and Other Pretentious Bullshit.
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
 
Why is it that most of the new movies and plays nowadays are so freaking obvious? Whatever happened to ambiguity, one of my favorite of all English words? How come we live in an age where we're just given answers, instead of being asked questions? Why am I asking so many questions?

Last night I went to see Sarah Ruhl's "The Clean House" at South Coast Repertory, the leading developer of new theatrical voices in Orange County. It was a funny play with great characters and a lot of interesting ideas in it. However, the message at the core of the piece (we try to make our lives clean and tidy, but life itself is very messy, so we should just embrace the messiness and die laughing) was revealed in rather obvious ways (a notoriously clean woman going crazy and dirtying up a house; being stricken with cancer; a love triangle; a woman literally dying of laughter).

In the end there is a "happy tragic" death (in which it is sad that the character is dying, but okay because they are cheerful and accepting about it. Very few characters in plays nowadays leave this world screaming and crying), a reconciliation, and a closing line about heaven being "a sea of untranslatable jokes, but everyone is laughing."

The last show that I saw at South Coast Rep was Donald Marguiles' "Brooklyn Boy", which is currently playing on Broadway. It had a somewhat predictable plot, but the characters and dialogue were extremely engaging, and I was hooked wholeheartedly into the story throughout most of the play. At the end of the second act, Adam Arkin sat on an armchair in his recently deceased father's Brooklyn apartment. He is bitter, stressed and, bathed in the glow of the television screen, seems to exude a faint glow of anger, and we realize that he has become the last thing he wants to be: his father's son. I got ready to spring to my feet and give raucous applause to all involved with the show. It was a glorious final image...or so I thought.

All of a sudden, an elderly man strolls into his room. It doesn't take much for the audience to realize that this is the ghost of his father. They proceed to have a conversation in which all loose ends get addressed in orderly fashion. Suddenly, I was disappointed. My applause was not raucous, nor was my standing in a springing manner. After having given me an excusable amount of predictability and a surprising lack of urgency, I'm rewarded for sticking around with a plot device that's been in so many stories from "Hamlet" to, I don't know, "Ghost Dad"?

I compare, perhaps unfairly, all plays I see with the following scripts, which I think, in some way or another, are among the most perfect scripts that I have come across:

- "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "The Zoo Story", both by Edward Albee
- "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Oleanna", both by David Mamet
- "Topdog/Underdog" by Suzan Lori-Parks
- "The Gog/Magog Project" by Jason Lindner
- "Angels in America" by Tony Kushner

These plays have urgency, they have humor, they have sadness and most importantly, they don't have a simple moral. You can't say at the end of these plays, "So this was about...". They explore a variety of themes and ask the audience to pick what they want from the pack. It was as if the author had several personalities that were all fighting to get this story made, and each one is represented in a part of the text.

This is also why I like movies like "Magnolia", "Taxi Driver" and "Pleasantville". These are not movies that can be wrapped up easily in one singular message. They, along with the aforementioned plays, are...let's say it everyone....ambiguous! We need to see more of that. Don't play down to the audience. Don't pound issues into the ground (I can't wait to see the political play that actually serves more as a debate than a lecture).

So where do I go to find ambiguity? You'll never guess.

Today at work, they had a training on sexual harassment. What constitutes as harassment, how to spot it, what to do when it happens, etc. And surprisingly, it wasn't composed entirely of extreme scenarios ("A boss grabs his employee's boobs and says that she got the job because of her 'boner-inducing knockers'. Does this constitute as sexual harassment?"). This training actually covered the ambiguities found in sexual harassment suits, and what can constitute harassment. Good work, Evelyn Eads.

Perhaps part of the reason why I like ambiguity is that I am not very good at discussing a play right after I finished watching it. Last night, several people were discussing whether or not they were liking it at intermission. Not exploring any of the themes presented (since themes were few here), but just whether or not it was amusing him.

I honestly did not know at that point where I stood on the play, as with most plays that I see. It took me a night of thinking for me to come to a conclusion. Maybe it's just me, but I like a play that leaves itself so open that the meaning that I'm able to pull from there would be just as right as a different meaning someone else would pull. Something that promotes discussion, not simply relaying a message.

What do YOU think?

Comments:
American popular culture, and philosophy for that matter, has no room for ambuguities. There is Good and there is Evil(yes, in capital letters). The Good shall be rewarded and the Evil shall be punished. It is assumed and it is ingrained. Any kind of popular entertainment that contradicts this paradign (Paradign, Hell! It's now Policy!), leave us feeling vaguely uneasy.
"That can't be the end!"
What troubles me nowadays is that 40 years ago at the end of a suspenseful movie, the hero sent the villain to Jail to face Justice. Today, the Hero simply kills the Villain and Justice is served. An Eye for an Eye, baby!
"When Justice is Outlawed, only Outlaws shall have Justice."
 
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