Tuesday, November 19, 2013

It Takes a Village…to tell a story, to mount a play, to make a film

For some time now the exemplary situation I bring to mind when I think about literature (and, increasingly over the last decade, film) is that of the tribal storyteller, the one who tells the sacred stories through which the tribe members bind themselves to one another and the tribe to the cosmos.

These stories are traditional. The storyteller doesn’t make them up; he learns them from a storyteller of the previous generation. To be sure, the specific words, vocal inflections, facial expressions, and gestures the storyteller uses are his, and they are specific to a particular occasion. But the characters, story lines, major and minor incidents, these are all passed down through the generations. Just exactly who originally made up a given story, that’s lost information, never again to be recovered.

And it’s probably the wrong question to ask: Who told the story first?

These stories are collective creations, formed in 1000s of performances across 100s of generations. Perhaps they date back to a time when language as we know it was not yet fully formed and the story was told as much in gesture and dance as through the spoken word. But, as the word emerged from the music, the stories began to take form and the storyteller emerged as a figure of some importance in tribal life.

As he told the story before the assembled tribes people, men, women, and children all, he could see their reactions in the expressions and gestures. He could hear them laugh, groan, cough, or fidget, and adjust the ongoing story accordingly. A new bit that went well might be amplified in the next telling and bits that failed to elicit a response would disappear. In time, the stories would change, and this despite the fact that, on each occasion, the storyteller tells it the “same way”, they way his teacher taught to him, and his teacher before him. Each time, the same, faithful to tradition, but nonetheless changing.

And thereby always in synch with the needs of the current tribesman. The story is thus their story, their collective creation. The storyteller is just a mouthpiece.

Thousands of years pass and along comes Shakespeare. It’s a different world, one with writing and books. And the words printed in books stay the same from one day to the next, indeed, from one printing to the next. Yet the same stories keep getting told and retold. And many of them are acted on the stage.

Thus Shakespeare didn’t invent the Hamlet story. It preceded him by several centuries. Nor was his the only Hamlet that was performed on the Elizabethan stage. There was another, though we have no text.

Nor was Shakespeare’s Hamlet this one single thing. The two existing texts are so different that editing them into a single text for modern literary purposes is a challenge involving somewhat arbitrary decisions. Nor can we trace either of those texts back to Shakespeare himself in any direct way. We don’t know just what was acted upon the stage.

The production company was a company, a band of players and a few support personnel. So now we have a small group presenting something of a collective creation before the rather larger world of Early Modern London. What happens on the stage at any one performance is a single thing, one imagined entity spoken through several voices and acted through several bodies attached to those several voices.

A couple of hundred years later and you have people packing movies houses, hundreds and even thousands of people gathered together in one large room to watch a story presented on the screen. The movie is one single thing, one story, one voice as it were. But it took a village to create it.

Consider Apocalypse Now. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, John Milius wrote a screenplay in 1969. The idea was to (re)tell that story as though it was a series of incidents in the war in Vietnam. The director, Francis Ford Coppola, also received screenwriting credit, as did Michael Herr, who wrote the voice-over narration in 1978 after the principle photography had been completed and the movie had moved into post-production. We’ve also got music by Wagner and the Doors and a bunch of other folks, none of whom had any direct involvement with the film, but who nonetheless contributed to it.

The end credits for Apocalypse Now Redux run roughly six minutes and include I don’t know how many names, most of them of individuals, but a good number of them belong to corporate entities of various kinds. For most of that time we only have one or three or five of six names up there at a time, but there are places where we see (but cannot really read) 10s of names at a time.

I don’t know what the grand total is, nor how to sort them into primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary participation, but in one way or another, there’s a village worth of people involved, not counting the Ifugao villagers who portrayed the Montagnard tribesmen. That two versions of the film exist in wide release is interesting, as interesting as the two scripts for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Other versions of the film have existed and still others could be created, and who knows just how many versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet have appeared on stage and screen over the centuries.

Still, at any one screening, the village speaks with one voice, one vision.

How did we get from there to here, from the tribal storyteller, to the Elizabethan theatrical company, to the Hollywood spectacular (well, in this particular case, not quite Hollywood)? What are the technologies, both social and material, that have supported this succession of transformations? And yet, always a village.

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