In Gratitude to High School Musicals

I spent around six hours of my day yesterday sitting in front of two shows. The first was the lavishly but grittily produced Matt Damon vehicle “The Green Zone.” The second was a low-budget high school production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” The stories have little in common except (crucially) a background of sectarian strife in a troubled land. But the results of seeing the two in succession, other than a very sore backside, are worth sharing, because they highlight two different ways of using the media and the arts.

“The Green Zone” reunites Damon with his Jason Bourne director Paul Greengrass. That returns us, the audience, to two familiar Greengrass obsessions: handheld camera work, and the idea that U.S. intelligence services are breeding grounds of evil conspiracies. The first is mostly forgivable; someone needs to tell Greengrass that shaking the camera on purpose doesn’t always make the scene cool, but it works well enough for the film’s chaotic and well-shot battle scenes. The second, seen for the third straight Greengrass picture, looks more simplistic every time, even if one buys into the improbable idea that the Iraq war happened because one guy e-mailed a few lies to the Wall Street Journal. I found myself watching two movies; a well-paced military thriller, and a silly piece of amateur political commentary. As a military thriller, “Green Zone” was quite well done. As political commentary, the film felt strikingly out of date and annoyingly preachy. The package, not the message, was what was effective.

Skip ahead a few hours. As I watched my sister-in-law play Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof,” I was grateful for a total lack of special effects and a tiny stage that didn’t move. I’m sure most of the students couldn’t fully appreciate the emotional depth of the tragic and complex human drama (I probably didn’t), but they were made better for trying, and consequently we (the audience) were confronted with a story that begged contemplation after almost every scene. Unlike in “The Green Zone,” we had time to contemplate, because the cast had to spend around two minutes after every scene rearranging sets. As we sat in the dark, we had nothing better to do than think about tradition, innovation, a sense of place, the nature and purpose of marital life, love, and half a dozen other things. Like Tevya, we had to stop and think about the real back-and-forth, pro-and-con complexity of the changes we witnessed onstage. And the artistic ambiguity of the ending (which I admit has always frustrated me) forced us to leave the building with those multifaceted themes bouncing around our heads, instead of tying it all neatly together into one takeaway message.

“Fiddler” has never been my favorite story; much like “Wicked,” I think it frontloads the first act with nearly all the memorable moments and key ideas. But I was struck by the difference between the two productions I saw yesterday. “Green Zone” was well directed and produced on a huge budget, but it had only one takeaway, and a ludicrous one at that. I wasn’t left with much to think about; the best moment in the film was a moment toward the end in which I got a glimpse of the complexity of Iraq’s sectarian political hatreds (it lasted for a split second, after which commercial interruption we returned to our regularly scheduled programming). “Fiddler” had no single takeaway and was arguably too tall a task to ask high schoolers to attempt. But partly for this reason, it was far more worth my time, and theirs.

In “Fiddler,” I watched a very believable Golde and Tevya tackle moral and emotional issues for which their lives (like those of the actors) had not yet prepared them. As I witnessed the actors get a taste of what their characters went through, I was reminded of a line I read somewhere recently: that if you cater to the stupid people, stupid people is all you will have. Greengrass and Damon told me relentlessly what I was supposed to think. My sister-in-law and her school made me think.

1 Comment

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    March 15, 2010

    Michelle Crippen

    Nicely said, Brian!