Monday, October 26, 2015

More on Art, Entertainment, and the Mafia

This image created by an artist identified as Chewu on Deviant Art.

In response to yesterday's blog post about my feelings when auditioning for "mafia stuff," Socionaut of Las Cruces, New Mexico writes:
That is what separates entertainment from art. I believe there is a distinction, and in the case of film and theater that distinction is bad writing. To be shocked at the amount of italians playing mobsters neglects the amount of blacks playing streetwise thugs, whites playing arrogant businessmen and women playing helpless, lovelorn solipsists. As a German American who spent the first half of his life in Germany, surrounded by German culture, i could make the same argument about the lack of German characters in film who are not explicitly or implicitly making one handed salutes.  
To complain about what is understood in mass culture is a futile enterprise, and to give a shit is equally Sisyphean. If you want something different create it, just don't expect the masses to throw Benjamins your way. 

Thanks for commenting, Socionaut. I hope you won't be intimidated if I make your comment the topic of its own blog post.  

The distinction of "art" from "entertainment" is an interesting question because I suspect people approach it with very different impressions of what these categories might mean, and their relative values.  I don't have any intellectual need to divorce entertainment from art. Art is often quite entertaining. Chekhov, a playwright with a reputation for being very high brow, wrote plays that are often funny when performed well. Likewise Shakespeare (whose audiences were not "high brow"). 

For a modern example, take a well-written situation comedy intended purely for entertainment. It may or may not be executed well, yet the cheesiest and most inept example you can find still involves writing, acting, choice of costume, set design, lighting, and photography. We can debate its value and purpose but I'll call it "art." The Cosby Show - decades before Bill Cosby's recent fall from grace - was on a surface level a simple situation comedy about a family. It was, in addition to that, groundbreaking for American culture with respect to media representations of African Americans.

Somewhere in my piece you seem to have the impression I am "shocked at the amount of italians playing mobsters neglects the amount of blacks playing streetwise thugs." If you go back and reread a little more carefully, you will not find a single complaint that actors of Italian heritage would play a mobster. I'm not "shocked" or angry about it in the slightest; I simply discussed my own feelings about it. I also don't agree that talking about this "neglects" other ethnic stereotypes or gender stereotypes. I chose to write about an example close to me. From the personal example the reader can extrapolate the broader theme. That doesn't mean I'm ignoring or erasing other groups' experience.

"To complain about what is understood in mass culture is a futile enterprise." Preposterous. You've just dismissed entire fields of sociology, cultural studies, and media studies as without value - not to mention art that concerns itself with culture. "To give a shit is equally Sisyphean." That's up to you, I guess. I care about the world in which I live and in which my children are growing up. I also care about human lives in faraway places. 

Human progress is rife with tragedy and farce alike, and certain patterns that repeat, and social forces that can make an individual doubt her agency in the world - all true. Whether this is like Sisyphus's punishment is matter of what you value. Remember, Sisyphus was being punished by a God and truly had no way out, whereas human beings make their own suffering and there is a way out.  

A great deal of harm is justified by the need to make money. Actors acquiesce to playing roles that perpetuate - teach - stereotypes that contribute to social harm because "work is work." I can understand that reason (worrying about money is a daily struggle for me too), but the actor is still responsible. Artists don't get to use a Nuremburg defense and say, "The industry made me do it." Sorry. When we cash the check and play the role, we are involved.

Creating new work is an answer, you're right about that. Where and how are commercial tastes made? Harlan Ellison's old argument about television was that if you feed people a diet of Hamburger Helper, they will expect Hamburger Helper for dinner; if you feed them filet mignon, they might develop an appreciation for that, too. Network television probably wouldn't have predicted that a quiet, non-violent show about people rebuilding New Orleans and preserving its culture after Hurricane Katrina would attract much of an audience, but someone did it and that show ran for four years on HBO.  I could write a drama about Italian railroad laborers and maybe someday I will. 

But whether I do that or not doesn't prevent me from observing and pointing out the presence of stereotypes in popular media today. Requiring people to change an entire industry for the right to criticize is simply an exercise in shutting down critique. It's like saying to a political protester, "Why don't you unseat your military dictator instead of complaining about him?"

Neither does it prevent me from being openly curious about why mafia stories grab so many people's imaginations - including hip hop culture's fascination with it. I could speculate that maybe there is something appealing about aspects of these organizations as they are portrayed in movies. Tight-knit organizations, a sacred code of honor, a sense of style and panache (la bella figura). I can understand the appeal of these depictions. Perhaps there is some sense of cultural solidarity, too, with ethnic groups that were despised in the dominant 'white' culture of the U.S. (Italians are 'white' now but it wasn't always so.)

But compare these depictions to the real-life mafias - to the Sicilian organizations, the yakuza, the cartels of Mexico, the mafias of eastern europe, the life of real-life participants like Maurizio Avola (who admits to committing 80 murders in an 11 year period and some 40 armed robberies - bella figura?), certain people I met growing up in Rhode Island, the ultimate nihilism of their greed and violence, and the romanticism becomes rather distasteful. Or trite, if you've lost taste.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Auditioning for Mafia Stuff

Sometimes I get called to audition for mafia-themed productions. While I am, as my agent says, squarely in the "ethnically ambiguous" niche, roles depicting Italian-Americans are a natural fit for obvious reasons and very often, still, a character designed to be Italian or Italamerican is situated in a drama or (worse) comedy about Italian-American organized crime.

I have no affection for our culture's fascination with Italian mobsters and their sons. It would be wonderful to audition for a drama about Sacco and Vanzetti, or Joe DiMaggio or the laborers on Trolley Road or the Bostoniani of the north end but noooooo, "the industry" keep producing shit about the mafia.

Let's be clear: I'm not at all interested in erasing history. Organized crime is very much part of the story of Italian immigration in America (even though we are talking about a few hundred people out of a population of millions), just as it is a driver of history in its major cities. I'm not categorically opposed to telling stories about these organizations. I think The Godfather is a wonderful movie: that's a story about a young man who wants to avoid the family business but gets sucked into it - and, tragically, is sucked in due to his positive attributes. The characters are Italian-Americans but it's a human story.

But I think we all can see that in entertainment media, Italian-Americans are represented as associated with organized crime more reliably than other ethnic classes. It's part of our "brand." In popular culture, we are associated with that far more closely than the alternatives mentioned above - and we could develop a much longer list. 

And our culture's fascination and love for it is strange to me. I don't understand what made John Gotti (and other Gambino officers) such beloved figures among various sub-cultures, from well to do caucasians to hip hop and around. This has been studied and there are papers and research I could read if I had more taste for the topic.

So anyway, I've got these sides for someone auditioning me to play Paul Ricca. Paul "the Waiter." He worked with Capone in Chicago and became boss himself. Coincidentally, he was a mentor to Sam Giancana, who was a character in my most recent play (Marilee and Baby Lamb, a new play written and directed by Mark Medoff which had its first run in downtown Las Cruces this month.)

I'm surprised Ricca hasn't been the star of a mafia film yet, because he fits the stereotype beautifully. Napolitano, heavy accent, violent, ruthless; killed people with his own hands and had a lot of guys killed on his behalf.

And I'm reading these sides and the lines are in fluent, complicated English, nothing like how Ricca would have spoken. (His accent was reportedly so thick, non-Italians had trouble understanding him.) Hard to judge from the sides but it looks like fake mafia-tainment. Write a stock character and stick an Italian name on him.

And I need money, so tempted as I was to just say the lines in Italian and send the video, fuhgeddaboutit - no, I played the lines (without an accent) and sent the tape.

An actor's life.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Digesting "Eaters"

In 2010, I played a flamboyant supporting role in a local horror film, and blogged about it here when the film was still called Folklore. (See here, here, and here for some stories and photos; and bonus audition story here.)

The movie was written and directed by Johnny Tabor, and was his first feature film. He has since gone on to other projects and spends most of his time in California although he likes to film in New Mexico. The next couple of years after we shot the movie were hard for him, as he and his photographer did all of the post-production themselves on a shoestring. The movie languished for a long time, hung up mainly on problems with the sound. There was a period when Johnny just about gave up. It cost him money, some friends, and a romance.

But in 2012 he had a finished cut. I saw it. It screened at the Rio Grande Theatre in Las Cruces (while I was in Italy doing Shakespeare) and various companies took turns talking about distribution for it. Johnny more or less quit talking to me in 2013 so all I had were rumors here and there.

This fall, out of nowhere, I was asked to sign pieces of paper for an impending release of the film, under its new title Eaters, by Lionsgate. The release date was early this month. I actually purchased a copy for myself via their online store even though the film was distributed to Wal Mart, Target, Red Box, Best Buy, etc. 

Reviews on IMDB and Amazon have been rough. Some just hate the movie - angry, in some cases, at the lack of sex and nudity, I would guess. Jon Haltiwanger was actually tracked down on Twitter by somebody just so he could tweet hateful messages at him. My wig is the object of some scorn as well. Jon is amused and the wig doesn't seem bothered, either.

Then I watched the movie. All I'm gonna say is, I wish Lionsgate had just cleaned up and released the cut that Johnny screened in 2012. Even with the sound problems, it was an entertaining horror flick, a creepy movie with goofy characters, mixed acting performances, some good music by an Austin band called the Black Angels, and beautiful New Mexico exteriors including a model ghost town that is still standing in Deming.

Someone apparently decided the movie would be improved if half of it were in slow motion - not just action scenes, but scenes with dialogue. This includes most of my scenes, where the bikers and I seem to be underwater. The constant slow motion was such a distraction I actually ran diagnostics on my laptop assuming the problem had to be with my player. Nope. Speaking to others who viewed it on DVD or streaming, the slow motion is a consistent feature.

Some amusing character scenes got lopped. The Black Angels were removed and unpleasant noise was patched in. Sound effects are inserted where they don't make sense. One example that online reviews have been mocking is when the young friends are searching for their missing comrade, and unaccountably fail to hear a scream that has been inserted into the shot. The reviewers are right: it makes no sense. Johnny didn't do that.

The DVD has an attractive package and will probably make a few bucks for Lionsgate for Halloween before it gets remaindered.

Well. Johnny's a better filmmaker than this represents. Defending my own performance won't be my business here. I had fun playing the character and yeah, I'm in a wig. (I was actually bald when we shot it.) I didn't get paid but there was beer, and I spent some time with people I enjoyed. Watching the movie reminded me of them, and a funny few weeks we spent together five years ago.

And we wish them well and move on.