The Arts of Natural Disaster

When one watches images from Japan it’s hard not to think one is watching a scene from a cheesy, bad or even good television movie or film.  For me, it’s “The China Syndrome” and “Silkwood” and the sounds of the “mehhhhhhh, mehhhhhhhhh, mehhhhhhh,” of the nuclear reactor alarms.  For my parents, it’s probably “On The Beach,” where to the tune of “Waltzing Matilda,” the last people on earth succumb to the fatal nuclear holocaust in Australia.

For younger people, I’m not sure.  My students generally tend to want to lose themselves in films like “The Dark Knight,” or “There Will Be Blood” where there are themes and sometimes clear lines of good and evil.  Or indulge in the post-modern irony presented in  “Community.” “Archer,” and “South Park.” And who could blame them given the events of the last 15 years and the fact that few of them will likely make more money than the Kardashian girls or Paris Hilton in their lifetimes.

Whatever poison (a really bad term for this, I know) one picks to quell fears or at least preoccupy oneself to the point of social inadequacy, it’s usually about movies, television, music, theatre, books or photography.  It doesn’t matter whether you buy it, download it illegally (it can’t possibly be illegal when almost everyone under 22 that I know does it, can it?) –- art (a pretentious term, I still know, but indulge me) has a key place in world culture.  It helps us cope.  It dulls the pain.  It makes us laugh.  It even gives us something to make fun of so we don’t feel bad about ourselves, our work or our lives.  Occasionally, very occasionally, it can also inspire us or give us reason to hope – that our life will be okay if someone else got through this.  Or hope for our careers because we know that we absolutely, positively and without a doubt can write, film, act etc, better than the no talent morons responsible for that piece of crap we’ve just seen. (Don’t underestimate the latter as a motivating factor.  It’s actually caused me to produce some of my best work).

That’s why I’m completely puzzled by the idea that what is most necessary is weaning ourselves off of oil in favor of nuclear power and tightening our economic belts by cutting most of the arts programs in schools across the country.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather pay at least $8 a gallon for gas if I was 100% guaranteed I wouldn’t be told by the government to duct tape myself into my house because it was probably the best way to avoid all of the radiation leakage in the atmosphere.  It’s not as if I can afford to or want to pay that much, but life is about choices.  When my aunt used to babysit for me on Sunday nights she insisted on watching “Bonanza’ and, bored to death,  I chose to go into the living room and turn on “The Judy Garland Show.”  This taught me early on that every problem had a solution and that solution often involved a singer.  And that one person’s great art (“Bonanza) is another person’s (young boy/Judy fan’s) torture.

(Note:  Those under 40 can substitute “CSI” for “Bonanza” or any episode of “VHI’s Divas Live”for Judy).

You might not be a Christopher Nolan fan but aside from Steven Spielberg and James Cameron he’s probably the most commercially successful filmmaker now working.  So it might interest you to know he used his advertising copywriter Dad’s super 8 camera to make his first movie and went to University College in London as an American Literature major and made his first film short among the school’s film society.  That short, “Doodlebug,” might give you an indication of what was to come.

Not everyone has a father with a movie camera (my Dad had a great facility for sports trivia and not singing divas, though I did find his and my mother’s “Judy Live At Carnegie Hall” album one long, dark night, but that’s another story) or a college film society.  In fact, many don’t.  I meet them every semester teaching film and TV writing at a private college that is expensive but also offers a lot of scholarship money.  The fact that I, myself can teach here, is because I first got my B.A. from a city college in New York where my tuition each semester was – wait for it — $69.25.  Yes, really.  It was called “free” tuition and it educated lots of lots and lots of talented people in the arts that are responsible for your favorite films and tv programs.  I’m not name dropping when I tell you one of the people in my class was Jerry Seinfeld and my friend Deb directed him in a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckcoo’s Nest” at Queens College.  The reason I’m not name-dropping is because we didn’t know each other in college and even when I went to a rehearsal for the play and was told he was funny and performing in comedy clubs I chose to instead go home and listen to show tunes.  Though I did get the chance through a college professor to get tickets to the original production of “A Chorus Line.” So it’s not entirely regrettable.

I’m not saying “Seinfeld” wouldn’t have happened without tuition-free Queens College but as we learned in “Back to the Future” films you never know what can happen when you take away opportunities and rearrange the events of history.  I’m not saying that any of my scholarship students are going to be the next Chrstopher Nolan but I do know you can’t prove that one of them won’t be – or be even better.  And who wants to take the chance of losing that?  What is known is that there are at least four full or partial nuclear meltdowns going on in Japan; our economy still teeters on the brink of its own disaster ; and enough natural and unnatural meltdowns of all kinds have occurred in the last few decades to last us the next few centuries.  And that the arts have an all-important place in the world to help us get through it.  Not high art or low ART,  but art.  That’s sitcoms, porn,  and Michael Bay movies.  (That’s mean, I know, but sometimes you do just have to go there to make a point).

What will get you through and what happens when it’s not there,20, 30, 40 or 50 years from now and you’re old and scared that the world will revolt because there’s nothing to assuage their frustration?  One shudders to think

Here’s what’s helping my friend Tom Diggs, writer and producer of the upcoming web series called “The Perks of Writing A Musical.”  Watching the horror unfold in Japan he remembered that the first year he lived there, in 1985, he had read Basho’s ‘Narrow Road to the Deep North” and decided to travel the path this great poet traveled and wrote about with such marvel.  He writes it was up around Sendai and in that all too familiar coast are the beautiful islands of Matsushima.  Basho’s simple words upon seeing that untouched majesty of the coastline: “Matsushima ah!, A-ah, Matsushima, ah!, Matsushima, ah!”

Of course, that coast is now earthquake and tsunami ravaged and in peril of being radiated away from all eternity.

That brings to mind for me the end of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,”and what is said by young Emily, when she is allowed to go back and observe the people in her town one last day after she has died.  “They don’t understand, do they?”

Watching a scene from “Transformers 2”or 3, or 7 (god forbid) to get away from it all is equally valid.  What’s important is that we continue to have a choice.

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