Thursday, February 12, 2009

Maybe I was wrong

After I hit "publish" on my last post, I approached Honey and asked him if there was any book or work of art that changed his life. Without hesitation, he answered that a symphonic poem (whose title I can't recall) changed his life, and also gave me the title of a book that did, as well. The music wasn't earth-shaking, for him, but did measurably shape the way he thought about music. The novel was eye-opening for him and, according to him, changed his perception of life. Though, he admitted that I'd caught him at a moment of clarity and had I asked him the same thing after a long day of work, he'd've probably grunted and responded in non-sensical monosyllabic neologisms. When I told him I couldn't think of any work of art or book that changed my life, or measurably changed my thinking, he called me out.

"Annie changed your thinking," he responded, half in disbelief.

Because I'm a reflexive contrarian, I immediately dismissed his assertion, but he pushed it. "Before you saw Annie, you probably thought orphans were scary, or being an orphan was scary. But when you saw how all the orphans got to sing and do flips and have adventures, you got to thinking, 'maybe not having any parents isn't so bad.'" I don't think about it as having a profound influence on my thinking, he argued, because I was exposed to it at such a young age.

Score a point for Honey. Though, I contend that Annie's influence on my perception of life had less to do with her family situation and more to do with her will and resilience. And even Annie had her moments of self-doubt, which is kind of reassuring. Remember when she was hanging from the drawbridge by her fingernails and Punjab is attempting a helicopter rescue? In addition to Annie's optimism, I think that movie taught me that virtually every moment in life deserves a musical number. (Stop cringing Darla!) I'm not sure I would've deduced this with just any musical. Possibly, but damn Annie has spunk. I still wanna be her when I grow up. (Just look at my profile pic!)

So, I've been thinking this week about other works of art and books that changed my life. It's still hard for me to say any of these have been explosive revelations - most are small - but here goes nothin':

A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness - Pumla Gobodo Madikizela. I read this en route to, and during a vacation in, South Africa, 5 years ago. (One of the most inspiring travels of my life. How I long to return.) It's a moving memoir of torture and the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Forgiveness was a huge theme in the commissions, and also in the book (hence the subtitle). However, this book was the first time I'd encountered the idea that forgiveness may not always be spiritually appropriate. Not forgiving is the opposite of what I was raised to believe. However, after I read this book, I sympathized with the notion more and no longer believe it is something every wronged person should necessarily do. Nor do I believe that it is always necessary to healing a wound.

Gandhi (directed by Richard Attenborough). Also released in the summer of 1982, this movie was probably almost as influential to my childhood as Annie. Dad took me to see it, I'm sure, because he wanted me to see a dramatization of the moral ideals he aimed to instill in us. What he didn't expect was that his 6-year-old daughter would not only sit through a 3-hour movie, but that she would fall in love with it and ask to see it again and again. (Thrice that summer, that I can recall.) Like Annie, this was so long ago, I can't recall the immediate impact. But I'm positive my aversion to institutionalized violence was influenced greatly by this movie. Additionally, because I enjoyed the story of Gandhi so much, and Dad revered him as an agent of goodness, it probably nudged me toward disallowing religious dogma to be the sole definer of my perception of, and relationship with, God. If God could use a Hindu like Gandhi to do Christlike work, then I couldn't believe he'd be punished in Hell just because he wasn't a Christian.

The Theater and Its Double - Antonin Artaud. Artaud wrote that theater's mission should be to evoke public catharsis. I agreed whole-heartedly when I read it as a 19-year-old theater student, and thought that ethic should also underscore religious worship. Might we be a kinder society if we had public spaces where we could meet and lather ourselves into a sob? It's hard to hate people when you see them a their most vulnerable and pitiful. It's also hard to dominate someone when you allow yourself to be seen vulnerable and pitiful. I still agree that catharsis, or at least perception-challenging, should be the main mission of theater. I'm more interested in storytelling these days - which originally lured me to the stage - but the higher notion of catharsis still informs my experience in a theater.

Sunday in the Park with George - Stephen Sondheim. This is one of those subtler life-changers; it's like a lover whom I discovered I loved only after years of platonic friendship.
Joss Whedon, on Fresh Air yesterday, captured it best when he said that the first act of Sunday in the Park is about the burden of being a genius and the second act is about the burden of not being a genius. The first act of this musical deals with the drive of George Seurat as he works on his most famous painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." The second act focuses on his possible (and fictional) direct descendant, George, a modern/performance artist, about a century later. I suspect most artists, when we're (dare I include myself?) in "the groove" of our endeavor, can identify with the first act George. But it's the second act that speaks to me more. Specifically, the duet "Move On." There's an exchange of lines between the descendant George and Dot that always rips at my heart -

George: I've nothing to say ...
Dot: You have many things ...
George: Well, nothing that's not been said
Dot: Said by you, though, George.

I suspect every artist feels this at some time or another. How can one person have anything insightful to add to the many comments on life that have already been produced? Is it even worth opening our mouths if we're anything short of blinding geniuses? But Dot encourages him. It's worth saying something because we're saying it. Later she sings, "Stop worrying if your vision is new/ Let others make that decision, they usually do!" How many times have I gotten the note from a director that I'm too much in my head, editing myself as I perform? I need to listen to Dot! It has changed my life, subtly, in that I've stopped thinking that just because I'm a middle-class white girl from a stable, loving family in a rich, democratic country, I have nothing of insight to add. I certainly need to produce more than I currently am, but we all have stories to tell and perspectives to share. Mine isn't any less important just because it's closer to "norm."

So there you have it: a few works that have changed my perception of life. I was wrong. Thanks for calling me out, Honey.

I'm closing with video from a performance from the 1984 run of Sunday in the Park with George. It's Bernadette Peters - of whom I was afraid until I was a teenager, because of her role in Annie - and Mandy Patinkin singing "Move On." I prefer the performance we saw several years ago with Raul Esparza and Melissa Errico; her voice was warmer and he didn't seem as broad. But I can't find video of that. The song ends around minute marker number 5. Enjoy!


mommanator said...

this has really gotten you to thinking. Ya think this has changed your life? Immeasurably! or is it a thought process of life!

Virginia Gal said...

Nothing wrong with Annie being a life-changing book, though I agree Gandhi seriously affected me. I finally got to see all the struggles my family and all Indians went through to gain hard-fought independence.