Tag Archives: Marc Williams

And the Oscar Goes To…

By Marc Williams

This Sunday, the Hollywood glitterati will turn out for its annual jubilee, the Academy Awards. While I’ve never been a fan of award shows (see my post from last summer regarding the Tony Awards), I certainly view an Oscar as the highest recognition in the entertainment industry. While lots of quality work is unrecognized by the Academy each year, I still regard an Oscar nomination as some validation of quality work.

In the decade or so after I finished high school,  I took that validation quite seriously. I made a point of seeing all of the Oscar-nominated films before the awards ceremony. I would definitely see all the Best Picture nominees but I tried to see the documentaries and foreign films too.Indeed I saw many terrific films I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. In 1998, everybody saw Titanic (the Best Picture winner, among many other wins) but I hadn’t seen L.A. Confidential until after it received nine Oscar nominations. In 2004, it was a Best Director Oscar nomination for Fernando Meirelles that prompted me to view City of God–which I now count among my favorite films of all time.

When I first started trying to see all the Oscar-nominated films, my motivation was largely snobbish. I felt I earned a certain cultural cache from seeing all of the “great” films of the year, especially the obscure films my friends hadn’t heard of. Admittedly, there were many times I forced myself to sit through movies in which I wasn’t remotely interested. In earning my status as a highly cultured individual, I figured I had to pay the price of boredom. I suffered through The Red Violin, The Gangs of New York, and many other Oscar nominated films, hating every minute of them.

Naturally, circumstances change. I can’t fit self-imposed boredom into my schedule anymore. Nowadays I find it exceedingly difficult to go to the movies at all. My wife and I try to watch films at home but that can be challenging with a two-year old asleep down the hall. Not surprisingly, we’ve fallen behind on all the movies we want to see–we’ve learned from experience that Netflix only allows users to put 500 movies in the DVD queue. I doubt we’ll ever catch up. The result of our changing circumstances is a need to prioritize our film viewing and spend time only with stories we find truly fascinating–the Netflix queue is getting pared down to the essentials and we make very careful choices when we are able to make a rare trip to the movie theatre.

Of the eight films nominated for Best Picture this year, I’ve seen half. In recent years, I’ve seen far fewer.

In 2009, I had only seen two of the eight nominated films at the time of the ceremony. This year, I’ve seen Hugo, The Artist, The Descendants, and Midnight in Paris. I doubt I will ever see Moneyball or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close because I’m just not interested. And this, for me, is how the Oscars reflect my changing views on achieving “cultured” status. I’m not willing to endure disinterest in exchange for this status.

I’m convinced, however, that I’m not the only person who has consumed boring art for snobbish reasons. In fact, I believe many of us go to the theatre, museums, or obscure films with boredom as an objective: “If I can withstand this boredom for two hours, I’ve paid my cultural debt to society.” I agree the arts are vital to communities, to self-awareness, and communication but if the work isn’t engaging, interesting, or in some way entertaining, how valuable can it be?

I’ve seen this phenomenon at work in some of my BLS courses. My Eye Appeal students, for instance, are required to attend a live performance in their community. My hope is that the assignment will be fun–and for most of my students, this assignment is the highlight of the course. But sometimes, students attend events in which they clearly aren’t interested. Perhaps they are trying to impress me with their sophistication, attending a ballet or opera that they secretly despise, hoping to manufacture some cultural credibility?

Have you ever suffered boredom for the sake of feeling cultured?

Standing on Ceremony

By Marc Williams

In the theatre, opening night is a special occasion.  Months, sometimes years, of work are finally complete and an audience is welcomed into the space to not only witness but also participate in the performance.  As a stage director, my work is officially complete on opening night—and this is true for many of the collaborators involved in a production as well.  In fact, for a lot of theatre folk, opening night is about the only time they “dress up” to go to the theatre. It is a night of celebration.

On November 7, I attended a very special opening night.  Standing on Ceremony, which opened that night at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City, is a collection of eight short plays by some of the country’s finest playwrights.  What’s unusual about this world-premiere event is that Standing on Ceremony simultaneously premiered in more than fifty other theatres at the exact same moment.  I wasn’t in New York for opening night—I was right here in Greensboro on the campus of Guilford College.

The Tectonic Theater Project, led by Moises Kaufman, co-produced this event, for which eight writers each contributed a play on the issue of same-sex marriage.  As the New York cast was preparing these plays for the official opening night performance, other theatre companies around the country—and even a few international companies—were provided scripts so they too could present Standing on Ceremony in their community on opening night.  All of these performances began and ended at the same time, so audiences across the country and world were discovering these new plays at the same time.

In New York, a portion of the production’s proceeds will benefit Freedom to Marry and other organizations dedicated to marriage equality.  The other theatres across the country followed suit, taking donations from audiences to benefit local organizations dedicated to marriage equality in their community. Representatives from EqualityNC, for example, attended the Guilford College performance, using the event to recruit volunteers, distribute literature about North Carolina’s upcoming same-sex marriage ban amendment vote, and ask voters to pledge to attend the primary in May 2012, when the amendment will be on the ballot.

When it at its best, theatre can serve as a lens, allowing that particular audience to examine itself not only as individuals but also as a community.  Naturally, each audience and each community is unique, which means that every production of every play is received in unique way.  This is the reason I tell my BLS classes that a production of a play is a simultaneous expression of two societies: that of the author and that of the audience.  While the author’s society is fixed in history, the audience’s society is always changing—from place to place or year to year.

The performance of Standing on Ceremony I attended was a great example of how this phenomenon works.  New York is one of six places in the United States that permits gay marriage, while North Carolina is one of forty-four places in the United States that forbids same-sex marriage—and the upcoming constitutional amendment vote could make the existing laws even more restrictive. The audiences in New York and North Carolina, therefore, have different experiences with the issue of same-sex marriage and would certainly have differing emotional and intellectual responses to the performance.

Standing on Ceremony has a distinctly pro-same-sex marriage theme—I’d venture to guess that nearly everyone who attended the play was in agreement with its political agenda.  As I sat in the theatre watching the plays and contemplating the issue, I thought about audiences in Iowa and New York, and other states where same-sex marriage is legal, and wondered how they were responding to the plays. Surely there were legally married same-sex couples in attendance!  Were they proud?  Hopeful?  But I also thought of audiences in Virginia, Kentucky, Michigan, and all across the South—where amendments banning same-sex marriage have already been approved.  What would be their reaction to a play about an issue that was already decided in their state by a constitutional ban?  And naturally, my thoughts turned back to North Carolina.  On November 7, 2011, the audience seemed hopeful.  How might we respond to a production of Standing on Ceremony twelve months from now? Still hopeful?

Recalculating

By Marc Williams

Anyone in a car with a GPS knows the phrase “recalculating.” Once you program your destination and begin your journey, the GPS expects you to follow the path with unwavering trust. The slightest turn from the designated route—a pit stop, a scenic detour, a bite to eat—will cause the GPS to recalculate the route. If I miss a turn and get frustrated, the Garmin’s voice is steady and confident, never losing sight of the path. It’s oddly comforting to know that someone in the car can keep their cool. Interestingly, on my Garmin system, and on all of the GPS devices I’ve encountered in other cars, the voice that calmly says, “recalculating” is always female. Is that merely a coincidence?

CNN.com’s Brandon Griggs recently wrote about the new iPhone 4S feature, Siri,

and its distinctly female voice. Griggs notes that female voices are far more common in talking devices than male voices, and provides some interesting theories on the various reasons why talking computers tend to be female. For instance, Griggs cites Clifford Nass of Stanford University:

iPhone's Siri

“It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” said Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass, author of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships.” “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.”

HAL 9000 (From Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey)

Another theory suggests that Hollywood uses male computer voices in suspense and thriller movies to create a sound of “menace,” so perhaps we find the idea of female computers to be more less menacing.

Or the historical theory is that WWII aviators relied on females for navigation, since their voices were easily distinguished from the male voices of the other pilots.

In many BLS courses, including my arts courses, gender roles and gender identity are discussed and debated at length. In fact, last week, my “Big Plays, Big Ideas” class was discussing gender attitudes on war in our examination of the Greek comedy Lysistrata.

So what does the trend of female computers say about gender attitudes on technology today?

Siri in action:

Anti-Plagiarism Tools

By Marc Williams

All of my classes in the BLS program involve some kind of essay or research paper.  Additionally, students discuss a variety of course topics using threaded message boards—a kind of virtual classroom discussion.  With both kinds of writing, many students supplement their understanding of the topic by conducting quick online searches.  Sometimes these efforts are deliberate attempts to research but in some cases, students “just want to be sure” their thoughts are on the right track.  In either case, I ask students to document the sources they consult but I suspect that many informal online searches go undocumented.  Unfortunately, students who conduct this kind of informal web research without proper documentation can easily commit an act of plagiarism–even if the student does not intend to deceive.

My rule of thumb for students is to include any source consulted in a bibliography, whether that source is quoted in the paper or not.  Sources that contain unique information or sources that are quoted in the text of the paper require parenthetical citations, a hallmark of Modern Language Association format (MLA).

I’ve found two tools that make online research and documentation just a bit easier.  The Online Writing Lab (OWL), hosted by Purdue University, contains a variety of style and formatting guides, including details on MLA format.  This site is up-to-date with the 2009 MLA format updates, is completely free, and can replace the hard copy version of the MLA Handbook I used to ask my students to purchase.  The OWL contains great information on citing electronic and web sources, which is great for online students who do so much of their research using the web.  Using the OWL can help students present all of their sources in an easy-to-read, easy-to-navigate format.

Second, I’ve found an application called Zotero, which is a plug-in for Mozilla’s Firefox web browser.  With Zotero installed on my browser, I can document a web source in one click.  When I’m conducting a web search, I launch Zotero and the software helps me track all of the information I need to generate bibliographic entries: the site’s name, the date the site was published, the date on which I accessed the material, and the URL.  I can sort the various sources into a folder so all of my sources for one project are stored together.  Zotero allows users to take screen shots so that the content of the web page can be stored along with the citation data.  And files can be attached to each entry, so I can download a PDF of a journal article and save it along with the necessary citation data.

Beyond Apple

By Marc Williams

Following Steve Jobs’ passing on October 5, countless articles, blogs, and remembrances have paid tribute to Jobs’ contributions to the technology industry. I could certainly join that chorus, given that I do so much of my online teaching for the BLS program from my iMac, iPad, and iPhone. I’m a dedicated and unabashed Mac user and I thank Steve Jobs for helping make life a little simpler through these brilliant gadgets.

Somewhat overlooked in the tributes to Jobs are his contributions as the owner/CEO of Pixar. Jobs purchased Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986, which at the time was developing 3D animation hardware for commercial use. Pixar’s hardware development and sales business was not terribly successful and the company began selling off divisions and laying off employees.

During this period of struggle, Jobs was willing to consider a proposal from one of his employees, John Lasseter. Lasseter, an animator who had been fired from Disney and subsequently hired by Lucasfilm, had been experimenting with short films and advertisements, all completely animated by computer. Lasseter pitched Jobs on the idea of creating a computer-animated feature film. Such an endeavor would be tremendously risky for a company like Pixar, which had not been organized as a film studio. Not only did Jobs sign off on the idea, but he was able to secure a three-picture deal with Walt Disney Feature Animation. Jobs shifted the company’s primary focus to making movies.

The feature film Lasseter pitched to Jobs became Toy Story, and he went on to direct A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Cars, and Cars 2. Lasseter also served as executive producer for virtually every other Pixar film (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3) and he is now the Chief Creative Officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

There’s no denying Lasseter’s genius but Pixar as we know it today would not exist without Steve Jobs. Jobs took a tremendous leap of faith, entrusting the company’s future to the brilliance of his collaborators.

A leader doesn’t necessarily have to be the person with the best idea; sometimes the leader simply must recognize the best idea in the room—and get out of the way. Harry Truman said, “it is amazing how much you can accomplish in life if you don’t mind who gets the credit.” The story of Pixar demonstrates that Steve Jobs fully understood this simple truth.

John Lasseter

“Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend and the guiding light of the Pixar family. He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great.’ He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people. He will forever be a part of Pixar’s DNA. Our hearts go out to his wife Laurene and their children during this incredibly difficult time.”

– John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer & Ed Catmull, President, Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios

The Threepenny Opera

By Marc Williams

The Threepenny Opera at UNCG

UNCG Theatre began performances of The Threepenny Opera Wednesday evening.  While it is best known for the song “Mack the Knife,” The Threepenny Opera is a tremendously important piece of 20th century dramatic literature and is certainly among my favorite plays.

While the play does indeed feature lots of music, it isn’t an opera in the traditional sense–it isn’t “sung through,” so most of the text is spoken.  This balance of spoken dialogue and song may seem akin to musical theatre–but The Threepenny Opera doesn’t really fall into that category either.  In most works of musical theatre, singing emerges from intense dramatic situations; a character may need a song to express an idea that words alone cannot capture.  In The Threepenny Opera, songs sometimes relate to the dramatic situation but just as often, the songs are only tangentially related to what is happening between the characters.  And in some cases, the song is a complete interruption of the action.

The creators of this piece, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, were artist-activists and viewed every piece of theatre as a political statement.  To them, a work of art either supports the status quo or challenges the status quo.  To encourage their audience to think objectively and politically about the situations in their plays, they worked to prevent the audience from developing an emotional connection with the play’s characters.  This attempt became known as the “alienation effect,” and resulted in a style of performance that keeps the audience at an arm’s length from the play’s action. To achieve the alienation effect, characters might directly address the audience, reminding them they are only watching a play.  Design elements might be merely suggested rather than rendered in a realistic, lifelike manner.  Performers might deliver lines sarcastically or without realistic expressiveness, ensuring that audience members won’t empathize with the character.  And in the case of The Threepenny Opera, like many other Brecht plays, songs are used to interrupt or comment upon the action.

In my Big Plays, Big Ideas class in the BLS program, we read another Brecht play, The Life of Galileo, and discuss the ways in which Brecht alienates the audience to ensure they observe the sociopolitical circumstances that inform the characters’ behavior.  In studying other works of dramatic literature from a variety of historical periods, we find that the alienation effect was not invented by Brecht and Weill at all.

Projections and suggested scenery demonstrate the alienation effect in The Glass Menagerie.

Theatre artists in Ancient Greece employed such alienating effects in their work, and many artists in the decades since Brecht have incorporated alienating effects into their work as well.  Even Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, often considered a work of 20th century realism, is in fact inspired by Brecht and contains a variety of alienating devices.

Have you encountered the alienation effect in the theatre, or on television or in a movie?

Bobby Darin sings “Mack the Knife.”

Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper starred in a 2006 revival of The Threepenny Opera.  This performance is from the Tony Awards broadcast.

A Moment to Stretch

By Marc Williams

One of our most popular blog entries to date is “Dim Light and Other Hazards,” a discussion of some of the effects of sitting in front of a computer all day.  At the beginning of the semester, before there is a lot of grading to do and emails to answer, it is really quite easy to remember to step away from the computer for a moment to stretch and rest my eyes.  Now that the first BLS session is in its second half and assignments are in need of grading, it is more difficult for me to remain disciplined when it comes to taking breaks.  I’m guessing that others are finding themselves glued to their computer monitors just like me.

Here’s a quick guide from Health.com about back, shoulder, and core health.  While its focus is on “great posture as you age,” I think the tips are applicable to anyone who works in front of a computer all day.  This is important for many of our BLS students who work in front of a computer all day, only to come home at night and work on a computer to complete course assignments.

Is it time for you to stretch?