Friday, December 23, 2005

Art and Politics

I recently heard George Clooney speak here in Los Angeles after a special screening of Good Night and Good Luck. He felt the subject of McCarthyism couldn't be more relevant to our times, when the word patriotism is being twisted to mean supporting the presidency and his administration. Clooney said he already knew what failure felt like, and wasn't afraid of it. This was something he was passionate about, as were all the others who eventually joined the project. They worked for peanuts, kept the sets contained to meet the low budget, made black and white look glamorous rather than cheap, and turned out a film sure to garner a slew of Academy Award nominations.

Clooney told us how hard it was to get funding for the film, but how now, the movie has repaid its investment three times over. When a film like that is successful, it paves the way for others, a good sign as we flounder in dark seas and need the illumination of art on our politics as much as ever.

Clooney is also currently visibile in Syriana, the truest fictional story I've ever seen about how the world really works, and how our actions have consequences far beyond what we imagine, something a country as young as America (200 years is nothing compared to several thousand in most other places on earth) has trouble understanding.

Clooney talked about out how the sixties and seventies were filled with really meaty political films. He didn't roll off a list, but I think immediately of The Manchurian Candidate, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and similar others. Films that told us true facts disguised as fiction. But what was going on in America at that time? The Vietnam war. Watergate. The Church Committee Hearings. The House Select Committee on Assassinations. The more we learned, the more artists felt the need to communicate their understanding of these events in a way that would reach people on the emotional level.

We're at a parallel point in time. We have the Iraq war. Plamegate. The Fitzgerald inquiry into same. And there is growing talk of impeachment hearings over the NSA spying on Americans scandal.

I've always been fascinated by the choices writers make when writing. Wicked is the backstory to the Wizard of Oz. Why is the witch green? Was she born wicked, or was wickedness thrust upon her? Why is the Lion cowardly? And how come the Lion can speak, but not the flying monkeys? These questions, their answers, and more of the same await the lucky ones who see this show. As Richard Zoglin wrote in his review when it first opened, "If every musical had a brain, a heart, and the courage of Wicked, Broadway would truly be a magical place."

More interesting to me was the fact that the musical Wicked is as overtly political as the book, if not moreso. I was shocked and pleased at how bold the writers were, how it felt like the script had been written a week before, rather than six years earlier. I caught my breath several times, fearing Anne Coulter would come running in to seal the theater, having found all the traitors at last in one place!

How deliberate were those choices? Very, as it turns out. Today, a friend gave me a gift that helped me peer into these very deliberate choices: Wicked: The Grimmerie, a book about the origins of the musical and the book on which it was loosely based. I feel compelled to share some of the comments of those involved in bringing the production to life.

Quoting Gregory Maguire, the author of the original book Wicked, on his inspiration:
I first got the notion for Wicked in 1988…then in 1990, I moved to London…when the first Gulf War started. I found myself riveted by how the British press vilified Saddam Hussein to galvanize public opinion in support of the military action against Iraq. I mean, I agreed that Saddam Hussein was a villain, but my politics were less important than my noticing how the British press used certain words to draw attention to the need for military intervention. I came back from London…and found that, without my quite having noticed it, my politics had shifted way to the right. And I took myself to task for it: “Wait a minute. You’re a progressive liberal. How did this happen? How did you lose your moorings so quickly?” That’s when I realized that I could marry these concerns to questions I had when I first thought of the idea of Wicked: Was it possible for someone to change his moral stripe? To be born blameless and become evil? Or does one have kind of a kernel of evil inside, like cells that are predisposed to be cancerous?
Quoting Winnie Holzman, writer for the musical "book", on how characters evolved against the backdrop of the times:
…the Wizard’s character evolved in terms of what we were seeing around us. When we started writing Wicked in early 1998, the Bill Clinton scandal had just broken out. Everyone was reeling with the absurdity and horribleness of what we’d all been through with that scandal. And we ended up talking about the Wizard a little bit like Clinton, somebody who had these weaknesses. Then, while we were developing the script, George W. Bush took power. And the Wizard changed. He became more dangerous. We were just responding to what was going on around us. I mean, in the middle of writing, New York City was attacked on September 11….
Composer-Lyricist Stephen Schwartz explained:
Gregory’s book…parallels events and political situations that we know of on earth, both current and from the more overtly fascist days. We were very aware of them when we wrote…[but] we made it more about American politics. Depending on what color state you live in, you have a view of how close to fascism we are right now.
(I LOVE Stephen Schwartz.)

Producer Mark Platt reminds us:
(producer Marc Platt:) …the Wizard has no power. He has to exploit the fear and ignorance of others. That is a theme in history that repeats itself over and over. How many times have we seen leaders or dictators who prey on the differences in others in order to galvanize a group of people? It happens all the time in history, repeatedly. That resonates.

If there's any one good thing to come out of the last five years, it is that artists are waking up, speaking out, and making extraordinarily eloquent and elegant statements about the nature of empire, the interconnectedness of us all, and the need to be good to each other in a truly meaningful, not shallow, way.

Tis the season. Reach out. Do something. Do some good thing. And watch how your actions ripple out and cause consequences far beyond your imaginings.

Happy Holidays, all.


Post a Comment

<< Home