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Monday, May 15, 2006

Bardsploitation, part 2

As I said in my last, I think the nonintrusive documentary approach to Shakespeare Behind bars was a great strength, but some of its byproducts can be viewed as problematic.

Hank Rogerson, who wrote and directed this, not only (wisely) did not want the documentary to be about him or about the problems of making such a documentary---he also clearly wanted it to be about the participants rather than about the program itself. In particular, Rogerson seemed to want to avoid the documentary being viewed as a paean to Curt Tofteland, the director, and the interview clips of him are limited. The question of Tofteland's feelings about the men's crimes (how he feels about the men themselves is richly evident in the rehearsals) is left until the end.

It probably goes without saying that the choice to deemphasize Tofteland makes the documentary a braver and more interesting one than it would have been otherwise. (Not that I don't think Tofteland has an interesting story to tell, but it has the potential to go all Lord Jim, doesn't it?) However, having seen it with M, who hadn't read the CSM article, I got the sense that information about the program itself might've been too minimal. I think maybe the tradeoff was a necessary one: Too much exposition about the whys and hows of the program would break the fourth wall, as it were.

Just as the audience only gets the outlines of the program sketched for them, the documentary provides little information about Luther Luckett itself. Most of what we learn about it is conveyed through interviews with Larry Chandler, the warden, and most of these are concentrated at the beginning. Like most American prisons, we learn, Luther Luckett houses more than twice the number of inmates for which it was built. Unlike others, though, (and this point is made more clearly in the CSM article), Luther Luckett, under Chandler's leadership, is at least philosophically meant to be a place for rehabilitation rather than purely for punishment, and maintains a strong focus on various types of education to achieve that.

As with Tofteland, though, Rogerson avoids making the documentary about Chandler and maintains a careful balance in how he comes across on camera. The word for him that seems to have leapt to both my mind and the ZK's is "pragmatic." Both in the documentary and in the CSM article, Chandler states his philosophy about prison: The day inmates walk in, we start preparing them for the day they leave. Far from making Chandler seem like some soft touch in an increasingly cruel system, Rogerson includes a few interactions with the inmates. In these Chandler is tough and maintains his distance. He is the friend of no one on the yard, and he makes it clear that he and everyone else on staff are watching the inmates at all times, and the penalties for infractions, big and small, are harsh and uncompromising.

As for the inmates, there are two who remain focal throughout the documentary, and five or six highlighted at various times. The two focal points are Sammy and Hal. It's tempting to see the focus on Hal as a weakness and/or an easy way out for the documentary crew: He's white, presentable, articulate, and clearly loves both the camera and the interview process. He is, in other words, a wet dream of an ethnographic informant. Choosing to focus on someone so palatable to the audience could be viewed as a cynical move, but Hal is also a perfect foil for Sammie in good old Shakespearean fashion.

Sammie is also pretty "presentable" in the grand scheme of things. He's every inch the leader that Hal is (and as the production unfolds, it's clear that whereas Hal grates on and alienates some of the others, Sammie is universally liked and resepected). But first of all, he's black (biracial---mexican and black, actually). He speaks openly and honestly, but he also halts and fumbles, sometimes using the wrong word, other times groping for something and trailing off.

Whereas Hal often appears to be "spinning" himself and his experiences, Sammie wears his heart on his sleeve. Thus, Sammie's crime is revealed early on and his narrative of it (he strangled his lover in a fit of rage) probably meets people's expectations of why a black man would end up in prison. In contrast, we spend a lot of time with Hal before he reveals that he electrocuted his pregnant wife and made it look like an accident. (As an aside, he mentions that people bought this for 10 years, but there's no information on how the murder came to light.) I should point out that Rogerson's touch is so light that there is no implication that a "reveal" is being forced on the audience about what either Sammie or Hal has done. Their stories of alcoholism and sexual abuse (Sammie) and repression and denial (Hal) are given as much, if not more weight, in terms of telling us who these men are than are their crimes.

The lone exception of the "no heavy-handed reveals" rule is Leonard's story. At the outset, it seems as if Leonard is the more staid, less flamboyant counterpart to Hal. He is more quietly intellectual and more likely to deconstruct the plays in his interviews than he is to talk about himself. Early on, he mentions that one of the challenges of their productions is the lack of stability in the facility's population. In the best of all possible worlds, actors flake out, drop out, disappear, or have to be replaced for various reasons related to their own too-tooness. At Luther Luckett, they have to contend with transfers, injuries, and stints in solitary.

Several segments later, more than halfway through the rehearsals, Leonard's interviews take place at a table outside the solitary confinement cells and Leonard wears cuffs throughout. There is no explanation for this given that the outset of the interview. Even accounting for the new setting, Leonard is not himself. Whereas in previous interviews, he is fixated on Prospero's forgiveness of Antonio as theme that generally resonates with inmates, he uncharacteristically personalizes his thoughts on redemption and his desire to be free to choose to do the right thing. He is also visibly shaken with emotion and much less articulate than usual as a result. For the first and only time, we hear the interviewer ask "Why are you here?" More than a minute passes before Leonard answers---he closes his eyes against tears, his throat visibly constricts, for a moment it is unclear whether he might break down in tears or fly into rage. When he finally opens his eyes again, he says, "I sexually abused seven girls."

From there, the camera continues to follow Leonard for a few minutes as he's taken back to his cell. He dazedly flips through his books and notes on the play and talks in a disjointed way about continuing with the play. Meanwhile, there are shouts back and forth among the other occupants of the cells about him being a child molestor. Interspersed are brief clips of "our" inmates, still on the yard, who have only heard rumors about what might've landed Leonard in solitary---he had something he shouldn't on his computer; Sammie declares that Leonard is not the type to screw up on purpose. Shortly thereafter, Leonard is transferred to a maximum security prison, realizing the worst fears of his friends. I started the previous paragraph using the term "heavy handed," but I don't mean to imply that this was. Its timing and departure from the other conventions of the documentary are pointed, but the emotion is too raw and powerful to feel that it's simple manipulation on Rogerson's part.

Leonard's part is transferred to a very young, white inmate named Ricky. He is, on the one hand, more obviously and vocally bitter about his sentence, on the other, it is obvious that he has a tremendous passion for participating in the plays that is incongruous with his looks, mannerisms, and speech. He is every inch the redneck punk and the transformations he goes through in the rehearsals are breathtaking.

His story is unusual within the documentary in being more "on the nose" about what the audience can take away from it. Ricky admits that when he first arrived in prison, he was following a well-trodden path: Carrying drugs, building a reputation as a bad ass, and getting deeper and deeper into cycle. He makes an interesting distinction between being a "convict" and being and "inmate." Interspersed with Ricky's story is that of "Big G," who admits that the easiest "mentors" to find in prison are those who can take the most small-time thug and turn him into a big time bastard. He relates to Ricky on that level and shares his hopes and Sammie's that by getting him involved in the plays, they can show him that there's another way to be.

Unfortunately for Ricky, Antonio seems to be the name one dare not speak in prison Shakespeare. When the camera makes its way through the corridors of solitary a second time, there was little doubt in my mind that the owner of the anonymous hands shoved through the slot, awaiting cuffs, would be Ricky. During the interview, he slumps against the wall, a good deal more the thug than the undercover Shakespeare nerd of earlier. The revelation that he got dumped in the hole for getting tattoos was still a gut punch, though, considering the previous trip to solitary.

Although the men's stories as told in interviews are the focus, the documentary does not lose sight of the fact that the Shakespeare program and the production of The Tempest are the unifying themes of the project. Again with the skillful editing, the segments flow easily and flawlessly from interview to rehearsal and back.

Tofteland's approach to the productions is interesting in several ways. In the first place, he allows the men to "choose" their roles, meaning that the group really decides by rough consensus who will play what. We get a glimpse that Hal, the attention whore, will garner resentment down the line when Tofteland asks who will play Prospero and more than half the group jokingly stands, leaving Hal to delcare himself the "Real Prospero." The CSM article underscores the fact that it was Hal who was the first to volunteer to play a female character in a production, a move that could have dangerously highlighted his open homosexuality.

In The Tempest, Miranda is being somewhat reluctantly played by Red, a young black inmate who uncomfortably feels like 1920s-era comic relief at times. He seems consistently not to "get" things, and yet he is constantly smiling, clowning, as though he's anxious to ingratiate himself with everyone from the other players to the documentarians. The fact that he's slightly offputting makes the scene in which he finally connects his own experiences with Miranda's all the more disarming and effective, as is his later admission that he is bisexual.

Direction-wise, Tofteland is demanding. In one scene in an early rehearsal, Sammie is delivering the St. Crispin's day speech as Tofteland repeatedly urges him on by shouting that no one would follow him anywhere. In another, he gently backs Big G down from an over-the-top Caliban entrance, nodding and smiling as another actor comments that Caliban doesn't think of himself as a monster. Whenever possible, Tofteland's instinct seems to be to allow the direction to be a conversation among the actors.

That's not without its problems as we see late in the rehearsals when Hal offers advice to Ferdinand and Miranda once too often, leading to an in-rehearsal explosion and to-the-camera sniping behind Hal's back. But it's also not without its rewards. In the wake of the same incident, Hal sullenly declares that the actor playing Ferdinand (I think his name was Kurt, but I'm not certain) has a chip on his shoulder, and this is more of the "same old shit" (and I thought, "Ah ha, the midpoint breakdown, how well I know it!"). In the next breath, though, he admits that he's frustrated with the cast, with the production, but most of all with himself because he can't get beyond playing Prospero, "From here up," he says gesturing from his collar bone to the top of his head. For the first time, Hal really breaks down (it's worth noting that he is pretty thoroughly collected and distanced when detailing his crime), saying that he's lived for 46 years with a clamp on his heart and emotions and doesn't know how to let it go.

In looking at the CSM article again, one of the genuine gaps that I see in the documentary is that in seeking to---well deemphasize is the wrong word---in seeking to note make these men all about their crimes, the piece doesn't convey some of the diversity within the group and by extension within the prison at large. Of the men whose crimes we know, there are murderers and sex offenders, but as I click on the pictures from the Titus Andronicus cast, I see there are also nonviolent offenders, most notably Howard, who is serving a 30-year sentence for credit card crimes. Given that Howard being denied parole (all the more crushing because the initial rumor was that he'd made it) is a major point in the latter part of the documentary, I'm not sure I understand the omission (of course, it's always possible that I missed it and I'm talking out of my ass here).

Even aside from that specific case, though, I think the mixture of the types of crimes in the group would've been enlightening and deepened the audience's understanding of the group dynamics. For me as a theatre geek, I laughed and grimaced as I recognized the typical cast of personalities in any production. At the same time, the interviews, the prison itself, and even directorial devices (e.g., although expository text appears in a kind of Shakespeare folio font, information about the prisoners and their crimes appears in a stark, typewritten dog-tag-like font) constantly underscored that they are something apart. Yes, it's important that we see the actors' guarded, wary support for Leonard in contrast to the "well-known fact" that child molestors are in particular danger within the prison system. But I think the nonviolent crimes of some of the others is an equally important facet.

It's tricky coming up with words for the experience of this documentary. Saying that I "enjoyed" it sounds bizarre. I did enjoy it because it's skillfully made, it's in large part about the discovery process of theatre, which is something that excites and moves me to such a great extent thtat it constantly threatens to suck me back into that (NO NO NO!). And yet, I cried so much of the way through it: for the men, for their victims, for their stories and moments of clarity. It is profoundly moving.

But it left me feeling bleak and hollow, too, because I can all too easily see that, really, it's preaching to the choir. I can see crime hardliners pointing out that these people have computers and books and fresh air and food and goldangit, life. When the CSM article was published in 2001, 58f Americans felt that prison = punishment, not rehabilitation. I can't see that number having decreased in the interim. I don't see this documentary bridging that gap, and barring experiences like this guy's, I'm not sure what would.

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