Friday, June 25, 2010

Cirque du Soleil

It's rare as an adult to have an experience that takes you out of your sense of the world, your constructed reality with all the bits and pieces of information that you're constantly assessing and aware of. It's something we form as we grow older and wiser - we see what works for us, in action and conception. We derive theses in accord or opposition to those around us and we test and refine them until they get to a point when we decide they work for us, and then we have beliefs. Beliefs become rigid over time and, like old rubber bands, increasingly less flexible, brittle. I think this is somewhere near what people are talking about when they wish upon you to be childlike, to stay young, to be young at heart, and so many other teeth-grinding abstractions.

Children are able to slip in and out of different realities easily. The dark corner of the house that is mundane during the day can suddenly become filled with terrible and unspeakable creatures when you get out of bed to go to the bathroom in the night. The kitchen cupboards and your parents closet can suddenly hold all manner of treasures when you find yourself home alone for an hour. People on the street can be spies, monsters, aliens, supporting actors in your story. Once a year a man slides down your chimney to give you presents and another hears your thoughts and helps you when you need it. This slipping between worlds is an endearing trait in children and a certifiable one in adults. Even while we adore it in children and mourn its eventual loss, we expect adults to be able to function in society, to be responsible and see themselves as part of a whole, with consistent and very nuanced sets of norms, values, behaviors and codes. For people who don't quite get these nuances, or openly defy them, we have a spectrum of means to acclimatize them of increasingly degrees of severity.

So why is it that the best experiences are experiences that seem to release us from this sense of reality? Those that artfully and utterly allow us to step outside the set of factors we're constantly assessing and taking information from and briefly experience that simple sense of wonder, of the unknown, of disorientation.

Cirque du Soleil is one of these such things. I've also experienced this with music, live and recorded, movies, books, live theater, religion or spirituality, drug use. Perhaps any art form, done well, aspires to create an alternate reality and draw us in to it. Perhaps as adults this is what we're ultimately seeking - to feel as though we don't have all the answers, as though everything in life isn't a known and accounted for quantity. Although maybe there's a way to see these greater shades of complexity and wonder within the everyday, without having to abnegate it, which is a different line of thinking that I'd like to explore more sometime.

I was fortunate enough to attend my third Cirque du Soleil tonight. It's a completely amazing thing that exists, and I recommend it to everyone with breath to sharply draw in and forget to exhale. There's something spectacular about seeing people who are the best in the world at what they're doing, who are defining the very boundary of what the human body is capable of in front of your eyes. As consumers, we're lucky to have the opportunity to witness these acts and I appreciate that someone thought to put together a multimillion dollar multinational circus troupe to make it happen. It fits its niche so well, it's hard to imagine there not being a Cirque du Soleil now that I've seen it.

The funny thing about it is, I always find myself watching the rigging men during the show, observing what the actors are clipping the caribbeaner on that pencil-thin, barely visible steel cable coming down from the ceiling on to. I find myself wondering where the performers stay when they're in town. Do they stay in hotels? Do they have roommates? Do they go out to bars after the show? Do they feel lonely and isolated from the town? Do they get along? Is there a hierarchy of importance among them? Do the clowns or the acrobats get paid more? Do all those fit, flexible specimens have spectacular sex? What is your life like growing up as a physical phenom? Do you have to start training before you're 5 to be that good at anything? Do you basically have to be forced into it by your parents or can someone actually figure out who they are, what they want, and develop the skills before their body loses the ability to learn such things? I guess I'm not entirely drawn into the reality that the show is presenting, but that is what I love about Cirque du Soleil.

In every show I've seen, there's a (very) loose narrative structure that gives the show backbone. There are usually 5-8 characters who make recurring appearances and perform skits between the acrobatics. There is usually a young, Innocent who is a conduit for the audience themselves entering this world. There is a mysterious, confidant Guide who introducing/creates the world. There are clowns who act as a foil to the more serious guide. Occasionally others, but these are the basic types. The acrobatic performers are more or less nameless characters who come and go in different costumes; there is usually a supporting cast and individuals who are highlighted in very specific acts you can tell they've spent their whole lives perfecting. Or maybe when you're that good, who can basically pick up any physical feat just by watching someone else do it and trying it a couple times.

I think Cirque du Soleil succeeds where it creates this narrative and atmosphere (including live music, dreamy singing in a language I never understand, excellent lighting and stage sets), drawing you into its world. From the big swirled yellow and blue tent to the clowns wandering around harassing audience members before the show, it is a very well crafted experience. I was trying to think of comparable events you can attend to have such an atmospheric experience, and I've come up with haunted houses and Wolves in the Throne Room shows I've been to (a Northwest black metal band). And this is what I always want from Cirque du Soleil. I always come away wanting it to go further. I want it to be darker, more complicated. To not have to cater to family audiences and undercut the intense and beautiful atmosphere with garden variety clowning, or delude it with feats performed purely for their skill that aren't worked in to the narrative. I want it to feel like it cuts you, to feel dangerous, like it threatens your sense of the world. To have moments of utter and profound beauty, to rise and swell and drive to a breathless tension just before it completely cuts away, like a Godspeed You Black Emperor! song. To be cut up and disjointed and uncomfortable like experimental short films. I want to leave thinking not, What a great time that was, I'm glad we did that, but to leave in a stunned silence, unaware of the throngs of the crowd around me, trying to puzzle through a flash flood of feelings built up over the last hour. I always prefer performances that leave you so caught up, it wouldn't occur to you to clap. I guess I want it to take what it's so good at and do it completely unapologetically.

Some day, when I'm directing circus performances, this is what I'll try to do. Hopefully it won't be too heavy handed.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Evergreen: The Most Brutal Hippie School

I’ve just returned from The Evergreen State College and my sister’s triumphant graduation into the real world. Evergreen is probably the most out-there public academic institution in the country. The school is known for activism, progressive & radical politics, for students naming their own majors and for giving out written evaluations instead of grades. (The placeholder paper for my sister's diploma had a picture of a freaking VW bus on it.) The graduation was monumental and there were thousands of people on campus for the event, but of course I ended up getting bored with the ceremony and walked around taking pictures of buildings. Here’s what I came up with, thoughts and images.

Evergreen was founded in 1967 with most of the buildings being finished from 1970-73. As you may or may not know, but will surely, surely pick up on, this was the heyday of the architectural style known as Brutalism, a style which especially lent itself to large institutional buildings. What is Brutalism? I think this image of a cast-in-place concrete wall pretty much sums it up.

A Brief History of Buildings with Flat Roofs

Brutalism is the spiritual child of the Modernism that emerged in the 1920s and 30s chiefly characterized by Le Corbusier in France and the Bauhaus school in Germany. The Bauhaus moved around Germany several times in its 24 years before the Nazis ultimately shut it down, causing many of the architects to flee the country, thus enabling the spread of their ideas worldwide. This new style had become known as the International Style, because it was supposed to transcend local traditions and simplify architecture so as to be universally applicable. One of the principle architects of the Bauhaus, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, emigrated to New York and more or less invented the skyscraper as we know it today. So if you don't like Modernist architecture, yes, now you have one more thing to blame the Nazis for.

Le Corbusier's monumental Villa Savoye. Poissy, France, 1928.

Incidentally, Le Corbusier visited the USSR during the 30s and cites this Soviet Constructivist housing project as an influence on his work (Narkomfin Building, Moscow, 1932). According to Wikipedia, the project was designed to create space for / force inhabitants into (depending on your view of Soviet style Communism) communal living arrangements. So, you also have the Communists to blame for Modern architecture.

The central adage of Modernism was "form follows function". Modernists sought to simplify architecture to its pure state. They believed in the honest use of materials, which means no unnecessary ornamentation or attempts to disguise the use of a material in construction. A good example of something that would send Le Corbusier spinning in his, presumably simple, unadorned grave are the fake plastic shutters you see on houses nowadays, hearkening back to the form of exterior wood shutters that once were functional aspects of homes and are now simply placeholders suggesting a form which no longer has application. Form follows function demands that architects not design something just because it looks good, but rather because it has a purpose, and the look should emerge from that purpose.

You should be beginning to see how we get from innocuous drawings and Utopian ideals to the giant glass boxes that are most commercial buildings in the US as well as, yes, Brutalism. It's an interesting history and the ideals were surprising to me, since I was initially so adverse to the buildings they produced.

Here are the buildings of the The Evergreeen State College:

In my opinion, they alternately look like post-apocalyptic bunkers and Star Wars machines. I can imagine Walkers emerging from the trees surrounding the field of the sports complex or Mad Max bandits speeding through the passageways between buildings on motorcycles. And I guess that's what it is about Brutalism, it's so elemental.

The buildings sit very heavy on the land. They are stark and simple. They perform their functions without distraction. And the entire campus is this way. (Well, almost the entire campus. There are temporary construction trailers hiding behind the library and the more traditional cedar longhouse reflecting the school's connection to a local tribe.) The campus is very uniform in the way of something planned and carried out all at once in one specific period and style - a trait you won't find at most older universities.

The overall effect is somewhat overbearing, but it's strangely balanced by the incredible natural beauty of the site - the school's property being around 1000 acres, most of it sizable evergreen forest. Here's an example of a pathway between buildings.

One building to especially take note of is the newly remodeled (2004) Seminar 2 Building.

It is LEED certified, has green roofs, uses 10% recycled materials including fly ash in concrete, salvaged gym floor panels, etc... The building is laid out in 5 pods that connect with walkways spanning four floors, creating something like the impression of a tree house when seen from the ground. The interior of the one pod I went in to use the bathroom was well lite with natural light from a light well that cut through the 3 floors above. The stairway was similarly cloaked in an obscured glass or Plexiglas skin that allowed in natural light.

One of the drawbacks I found with Seminar 2 was that the wood panels on the siding seemed uneasy to me. I'm sure they were intended to lend some warmth to the exterior and update the style in light of its critical reception over the 30 years prior - and I can't quite place my finger on what it is about the panels (certainly a darker wood wouldn't improve my impression... perhaps a more consistent pattern to where the wood was placed might), but they seem uncomfortable, like they weren't integrated into the rest of the facade and were simply squished into the concrete while it dried. I don't know what else to say about that, because I like the idea of the warmth wood brings to the concrete, and they did included some interesting metal art embedded in some of the panels.

The other more obvious and somewhat shocking detriment to the building is the way it wears its age. This is a 6 year old structure, and already we see the ugly dark stains from rain run off left on the concrete as well as rust on the bottom of the walkways and railing. I found this problem with the concrete reflected elsewhere on campus, perhaps exacerbated by the Modernist tendency not to include external drainage (gutters) on roofs.

I found that I liked the experience of Seminar 2 much more than the rest of campus. I liked the interplay of space in the walkways between building and I especially liked the lush courtyard that tied it all together.

I think the Seminar 2 courtyard captures the ideal of Evergreen's campus and perhaps Brutalism in general. The buildings rest on the landscape like rock formations, heavy and simple, at times suggesting boulders half-buried in a field. If we look past our initial intuitive aversion to cast concrete surfaces (which, judging from my own and my families responses I take to be a pretty consistent standard), it really seems that the built structures are paying respect to the natural by not drawing attention from, but deflecting the visual interest to the beauty of the trees and landscape that are worked in to the plan so well. It's funny, I guess, that because the structures are so stark and brutal, our attention is attracted to them as a statement of intellectual theory or ego by the architect, whereas we wouldn't think twice about more traditional vernacular buildings with gabled roofs and wood siding resting easily amidst the trees. But then, I suppose there is a reason Brutalism hasn't exactly caught on.

In the end, I found I was able to appreciate the structures for what they were, although never without feeling like I was in some dystopian post-apocalyptic landscape. There is something about the proximity of concrete monoliths and lush nature that always makes me think: This is what the world will look like 30 or 40 years after we inevitably render our species extinct and nature begins to crawl its way past our defenses. There is some suggestion of the immediacy and the power of nature in this type of architecture that wouldn't have occurred to me before. I certainly agree with much of the intention behind the early Modernist architecture, but I can't help reacting against the emotional coldness of it's textures and surfaces. I suppose that the concrete block or glass cube is too pure in its form and that there are ways to merge modern and vernacular styles that improve upon both traditions.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Dan Chaon, Zombies, H.P. Lovecraft, and Samurai Movies

There is what most working people who read in this country read and then there is what creative writing majors in universities study. These can be distinguished as fiction, for the later, and genre fiction for the former. The modifier “genre” is used here as a derogative term, reducing the value or significance of the object. It is a dirty word among writerly types.

Dan Chaon is a great and famous writer who happened to be my advisor in college. He has written 2 novels and 2 collections of short stories. He thinks that as he matures as an adult, he should listen to jazz but instead listens to lo-fi indie rock bands like Smog. He lives in an upscale neighborhood of Cleveland with large, dignified houses on a mature, tree-lined boulevard. Perhaps Dan’s most prominent achievement as a writer is a short story called Big Me which won a second place O Henry award in 2001. It’s an eerie story about an older man reflected on his time as youth who sees himself reflected in a creepy older man. Many of Dan’s stories have disturbing themes and contain elements of horror novels. When I was in school, he was asked to write a new forward to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Dan is not considered a genre writer. There is some blurring of the lines here. Stephen King, for instance, is a genre writer. Any book you’ve ever read about vampires, detectives, psychopathic killers, soldiers or werewolves is genre fiction. There are several authors now who are intentionally blurring these lines; Michael Chabon being perhaps the first to make it OK to like genre fiction and not feel guilty about it.

What is genre fiction? Regular fiction is a story that involves not necessarily ordinary but generally people who you could imagine yourself being or relating to and their emotions. It explores the so-called human condition, and therefore claims aspiration to a higher purpose of helping us to understand ourselves and the world. Genre fiction, on the other hand, is what you read when you’ve put in your 8 hours, your back hurts, there’s a stack of bills on the table, the kids are safely put to bed, and you need to fucking veg out and lose yourself in something good. Genre fiction is the kind of book that you read cover to cover because you physically can’t keep from turning each page after you finish the previous, even though you know you have other business to attend to.

Is genre fiction a bad thing? Genre fiction is only mentioned as a foil by "real" writers. It is not the sort of thing that one studies. Stephen King, for instance, was mentioned frequently during my education in exactly 2 contexts: One, as the epitome of just pumping out formulaic mass market pulp and, Two, as about the only writer who actually makes a living off writing and selling books.

My dad has read every book, sentence and word Stephen King has ever published. I’ve managed to read one collection of his short stories, including the story Quitters, Inc. which was actually pretty good and more akin to the Big Me style of normal/genre fiction than anything else of King’s. I’ve tried to read King’s actual novels and haven’t been able to stomach it. I’m sure I’ll try again some day.

There’s certainly a place in the world for escape. Reading can be stimulating and a salve in the same way TV shows are for most people. So it’s not the bottom of the barrel as far as entertainment goes. Yes, perhaps fantasy and fiction distract from certain pressing issues that are occurring in the world around us every day. Yes, they allow us to insulate ourselves from the harsh realities of the manmade world, which we ourselves are often perpetuating. But there’s a certain undeniable brilliance with which they can be executed as well. If I learned anything from Dan, it’s to appreciate this. To seek it out, explore it, feel uncomfortable it, and appreciate that.

I’ve previously gone on zombie movie kicks (unfortunately I wasn’t writing a blog at that time) and am currently on a samurai movie kick. I also have a great affection for all of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories. There’s something so satisfying about knowing what you’re going to get from a medium, and then getting it exactly in the way you want it, ingenuously, stripped bare of all other complicating elements. After all, there’s a infinite well of creative ways to explore the idea of the undead devouring the living, of Jason exacting revenge on hapless teenage campers, or of ronin upholding their certain individual dignity and code despite the world moving past having a use for them.

I will never be able to think of small fishing towns in New England without imagining one of Lovecraft’s cults of the Ancient Ones existing just beneath the surface, in the boarded up buildings, seeping out into the bay at night to conduct unspeakable and shocking rituals. I have no shame in appreciating genre fiction; I would much rather see something done well within defined limits than something sloppy which strikes out into the unknown.

That being said, I’m currently 1 hour, 3 minutes, 50 seconds into Jet Li’s Ying xiong (English title: Hero). It’s fantastic. It’s an incredibly beautiful movie in which people are also killed in fantastic ways. I highly recommend it to all consumers of culture, be it high or low.