by Pat Holt
Tuesday, February 27, 2001
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: BEING IN 'THE KNOW,' NOT IN 'THE TRUTH'
It's fascinating to watch the Bill Clinton - George W. Bush transition in Washington, D.C., after reading Anna Deavere Smith's gripping and important book, "Talk to Me" (Random House; 300 pages; $24.95).
Smith has interviewed people during some of the worst race riots in recent memory - "afraid only that my tape recorder, which was my most valuable possession, would be stolen." But she confesses here that "I was more afraid in Washington, D.C." on its business-as-usual days "than I was in the embered streets of race riots."
Perhaps the more important point: If it's true that the American press no longer understands the news it's supposed to cover - certainly this is the message of Dave Eggers (see #218) and many young writers, as well as the Internet itself - Smith's book is the most convincing and frightening testimony to come along since the memoirs of former NEA (National Endowment of the Arts) chairs Jane Alexander ("Command Performance") and John Frohnmayer ("Leaving Town Alive")
Smith has played character roles in movies ("The American President," "Philadelphia"), but she's best known as the actor-professor-playwright-author who has created a stunning theatrical form all her own.
She won a MacArthur "genius" grant because of her two one-woman plays, "Twilight" (about the Rodney King riots in South Central Los Angeles); and "Fires in the Mirror" (about the murders and riots between Jews and African Americans in Crown Heights, Brooklyn).
Her genius lies in using the verbatim testimony of the people she's interviewed, including every cough, "um," hiccup and "you know" (see below*), as dialogue for the play. She creates the characters around that dialogue and plays all the roles herself, using minimal props and scenery. By the end you'd swear there were 30 people on the stage.
The result is a thousand fragments - attitudes, opinions, gestures, facts, ideas - that seem to flash from the stage at unexpected angles, causing the audience and playwright to interpret the meaning of the work differently every night.
Smith tells us in "Talk to Me" that her lifelong quest has been to uncover the "authentic speech" that exists in all of us but has been gradually undermined by the sameness of mass-marketed commercial culture.
She, too, has looked out her window in towns across the nation and noticed that "every bit of individuality is disappearing" from American streets.
As "these huge franchises are moving in" (and you wonder why I admire her), so is "franchised life" having a deadening effect on language - and language, to Smith, is the core of all experience.
She worries that "one day we're all going to talk like each other" because of the effect of franchise thinking.
That's why her work leads her to that moment of crisis or catastrophe in people's lives where "language fails them," where they "have to be more creative than they would have imagined in order to communicate," she writes. The very effort to "dig deeper than the surface to find words" brings unexpected meaning to event and experience.
So the story of "Talk to Me," is what happens to Smith when she decides to depart from overt catastrophe - race riots - and explore the language of scandal and crisis in a place that's dedicated to the working out of conflict, Washington, D.C.
Her goal: to seek out Washington journalists, socialites and politicians - including the president of the United States - to understand the Monica Lewinsky affair. The result: She gets her head handed to her.
At first, Smith feels the chill of immediate exclusion. "Washington is a place of organized seating," she writes. "It is very important to keep your place. If you are not in the club, then you must accept your fate. If you are in the club, you must behave a certain way. In the course of my time there, I saw people misbehave and get their hands slapped. Small slappings in a generation that was hungry for another Watergate."
The Lesson of Ellen and Ann
An example of the small slapping of hands occurs when Ellen Degeneres and Anne Heche famously hold hands and wrap their arms around each other's shoulders while greeting the president at the White House Correspondents' dinner in 1997. Smith is astonished to see the New York Times lead the pack by scolding the two on its editorial page, no less, for "ostentatious display of affection in front of President Clinton."
That's kind of hilarious considering discoveries about Clinton that would come later. For now, Smith wants to understand the reaction of journalists. "Why was this [Degeneres and Heche's behavior] such a 'big deal'?" Smith asks.
Well, she's told, Washington is a power town, not a sexy town. Gay sex especially is "just not part of the game, not part of what you do," something "you don't talk about."
But "this is the nineties; we're liberated," Smith insists. That is not the point, a colleague suggests. "The fact that people got so worked up about it is the most interesting part," says the colleague. The real sin of Degeneres and Heche was to act as they did in public without "any shame at all."
Shame is very important in Washington, Smith concludes. "Counting on a sense of shame is a kind of policing" that many in power - journalists as well as politicians - seems to want to exercise.
The Legacy of Segregation
Smith thinks that her experience as an African American growing up under segregation enables her to more clearly see the defensive manner with which Washington D.C. - under any president - acts when it perceives the noncredentialed in its midst (let alone the dissenters).
"How can the people who serve us, and the people who write about us, [or] put us on the air, be so distant, so self-contained, so segregated from us, and do a responsible job?" she asks.
One reason, perhaps, is "the media's infatuation with itself," as a scholar of rhetoric suggests. "You know, they do think they are the center of the world."
Simply by asking such questions, Smith is perceived by many as the enemy. Just by looking for more important news than who's in the press corps' pecking order, who's invited to the "right" receptions, who gets to fly in the press plane behind the president's plane and who gets fly WITH the president in Air Force One makes her the target of punitive action.
Because she is a contributor to Newsweek, because several calls have been made on her behalf, because all the press people she talks to say she HAS to ride in Air Force One, and because a Time magazine correspondent gives up his seat for a short leg of the president's trip, Smith gets a place on Air Force One.
The flight is uneventful, but the aftermath becomes a nightmare. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times writes a vicious column about "the absurdity of Newsweek assigning the writer and actress, who played a White House press secretary in the movie 'The American President' and is now working on a book and a play about political reporters, to cover a news story."
Dowd stirs up a stink that in turn is covered by Robin Pogrebin, also of the New York Times staff, and in both cases, Smith is described as "a performance artist," a term that has never been used to describe her before.
It's as though Anna Deavere Smith, the Ann O'Day Maples Professor of the Arts at Stanford and award-winning playwright (not to mention the creator of a new kind of theater), is to the Maureen Dowds of the world a person who spreads chocolate on her body and provides a speculum for the audience to peek at that part of her body that Eve Ensler loves best. (There's nothing wrong with performance art! I'm just saying it's different from dramatic art, and the New York Times oughta know it.)
In any case, the ride on Air Force One is a nonevent, and, therefore, to Smith (and the reader), a nonstory. Yet the repercussions follow Smith everywhere. Why, Smith asks, do American journalists so easily derail themselves from real news? Why act as though even these small hand-slappings ARE the news?
"The fact is, most of us don't believe the press tells the truth," Deavere muses. "Nevertheless, we believe, and quote what we read as truth. It's nonsensical. It can only mean that we have given up on truth, and only pass information. We're in the 'know,' but we know that we are not in the 'truth.' "
Who Takes the Beating
Smith, though, has the benefit of art on her side, and offers a number of interviews that impart useful knowledge - "We're a celebrity culture," says George Stephanopoulos, "and the president is the celebrity in chief."
But truths begin to emerge when she embarks on a series of scenarios-within-interviews about what it means to be beaten up - figuratively by the press (Clinton), metaphorically by political opponents (former Texas governor Ann Richards), literally by a slave owner and eternally by the self (a mother who's in prison for conspiring to kill her child).
In these cases, rather than feeling dumbed-down by the small hand-slappings of a dilettante press, readers are ready, hungry even, to meet the challenge of Smith's larger message. It takes courage to face the many tough issues of our era, she says. What is needed is a true partnership between leadership and citizenry.
Meanwhile, however, "for those readers who don't care about Clinton and Monica, it's possible that Clinton and Monica warn us of things to come that we will care about. We will need the media, and they will be off in a language of their own, making their own sets of small slaps, unable to understand us."
*A PERSONAL NOTE
Years ago while working for a private investigator, I found that I loved transcribing witness statements that had been recorded on tape. Every sound that came out of each person's mouth had to be captured precisely, right down to the "ahs," ums" hiccups, snorts, laughter, burps and sneezes each person emitted.
Everyone knew these sounds were meaningless in the context of what was being said, but that wasn't the point.
The point was: who should decide what sounds have no meaning? Who should say, this clearing of the throat should go but that little gurgly sound should stay? If you take a "huh" out, you might also omit the "uh-huh," or the "uh-uh" that could be accompanied by a wagging head. (Not that the transcriber could tell a wag from a nod.)
It was the arbitrary authority to cut something out that was in question. Only by transcribing every sniff, gasp, pause, hiss or bubble could the typist assure all readers that a true statement had been preserved.
Statement-typing was an exhausting yet uplifting discipline because it paid such respect to language in its full range of utterances, and it took many retypings (no computers then) to make each transcript perfect.
What strikes me reading Smith's new book is that transcribing conversations through this arduous and precise method is simply where Smith starts. It's a very long and complicated journey to the end product - a stage play or a book - but the gift to posterity is monumental.
When, for example, Cheryl Mills, counsel to the president, struggles in her explanation of how the law works --
"So, you know, it's that terrible paradigm of, you see a baby facedown in the water, you don't turn it over, did you commit murder? No, our -- our -- our law says, we're going to preserve that level of space for you and say, you have no, uh, affirmative duty in this particular instance."
-- an amalgam of art and law is suggested; we can see language become a living entity within the intention of the speaker and the possibilities of the play.
Smith writes about working as a clerk-typist in various companies to pay the bills while she was an actress. It's great to know, sometimes, where artistic vision finds its first launching point.
HENRY YUEN: TAKING CONTROL OF THE WORLD
Wow. I used to think Henry Yuen was like a lot of other publishing CEOs who keep saying they're revolutionizing the industry to "help" readers and "enhance" reading - and make a bundle along the way.
But after reading Inside magazine's Feb. 20th story that the goal of Yuen, head of Gemstar-TV Guide, is "nothing less than world domination," I got to worrying, again. Yuen is allegedly becoming "a world-class control freak," as one associate calls him (according to Inside), on a par perhaps with Thomas Middelhoff of Bertelsmann, Rupert Murdoch of News Corp (HarperCollins), Len Riggio of Barnes & Noble (who the magazine says almost merged with Gemstar) and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.
Last year, Yuen bought out NuvoMedia and scrapped the company's Rocket Ebook, a snazzy and adaptable reading device for electronic books. He also bought the company's competitor, SoftBooks.
"The total price of acquiring the two companies -- $400 million in stock -- represented less than 3 percent of the fully diluted shares of Gemstar-TV Guide," says Inside. The electronic book acquisitions look like playthings in Yuen's world domination.
Yuen then got "Thomson Multimedia to mass produce two redesigned RCA e-books in time for Christmas 2000," but hardly met with instant success. The devices are too expensive, and Yuen requires exclusives with publishers, and people aren't tired enough of books-on-paper to be all that hungry for ebooks.
True, "a few years from now, e-readers could evolve into light-weight, easy-to-read systems through which all sorts of media might be consumed," Inside offers.
But meantime all the warning flags are up and blowink in der vind. Like other CEOs who say they want to transform the book business, Yuen wants all the power to do so, and he wants it now.
So Gemstar-TV Guide is following the Amazon.com route by using software patents to sue competitors with the hope of fencing off its territory on and off the Internet. This has tied up such companies as Echostar, General Instrument, TiVo, Pioneer Electronics and Scientific Atlanta in court.
"So far, [Yuen's] legal record is chillingly good, with zero losses and two big victories," that have "privately dubbed [Yuen] 'the patent terrorist' by rivals in the TV industry..."
But the strategy also causes other suits and countersuits that show us how Gemstar-TV Guide is perceived as conspiring to restrain trade by "systematically eliminating competition," as Pioneer Digital Technologies has put it, and to create an unfair monopoly. Yet by Yuen's standards, he hasn't even started yet.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
One thing I'm curious about is whether others have experienced the same -- and to me unusual -- quality problems with Amazon.com that I have. I'm an inveterate Amazon user (you may want to stop right there), but remain surprised by the number of physically defective books I get from them. Since I just want to read the stuff, and am often in a hurry to do so, I don't send the books back, but examples include uncut pages, rough and uneven page edges, misprinted covers and (in the case of the paperback of David Maister's "Managing the Professional Service Firm," which I just got a few days ago, an entirely misprinted book -- the covers and each page were miscut and the text on each cover and page was skewed).
No physical bookstore -- chain or independent--would try to sell these defective objects. I've gotten a dozen or so over the last two years. Do you hear of similar things?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
"The bigger they are, the harder they fall." The press spent too much time reporting the up-and-coming Amazon.com. They are now equally skeptical about its chances for survival.
We are constantly being put on [credit] hold by publishers and wholesalers for not paying our bills as soon as they would like. So why shouldn't they treat Amazon.com in the same fashion? And yes, many of them are rightfully worried. They have the example of Wallace Books, a chain textbook company, as the most recent example of "the bigger they are, the harder they fall."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I just got off the phone from Ingram, a daily occurrence. I can see Amazon.com getting calls about payments, because all my creditors call continuously. One academic publisher called at noon on December 23 in a tizzy over $250. If this house feels a need to harass me on the busiest day of the year, what are publishers doing to huge accounts?
My gut feeling is that after 21 years in the roughest retail history, many publishers must be in trouble. Is the big closing coming up?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
It seems to me that the answer to your question about Friends of the Library sale of used books should be for the benefit of the library: what benefits the library, benefits the community. Period.
I would feel dishonest if I picked up a great bargain thrown into a pile out of ignorance. That money should go to the library!
I stopped donating books to benefit sales for good institutions when I saw that they would sell books for ten cents that I could have gotten at least $2 from Moe's Books in Berkeley. Just because you're doing something in a good cause doesn't mean you should leave your brains at home. Do the best you can for the good cause. Now I sell this kind of book for the $2 and donate the money to the cause. When I donate books to a library book sale, I hope they can use some in their collection (which keeps dwindling through theft and wearing out and lack of money), and I hope they have someone to sort out valuable ones (unlikely in my throwaways but possible) and get what they are worth FOR OUR LIBRARIES AND THE FOR THE BENEFIT OF ALL.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Last Wednesday the Internet used-book site, Advanced Book Exchange (www.abebooks.com), sent used booksellers participating in their Barnes & Noble Reseller Program word that, effective April 2, all books bought by Barnes & Noble through the program will be discounted 10%. I have already started a plan to see what I can do to pull as many subscribers to abe together to see if we can boycott the change. If anyone wants to jump in with me and help, contact me at email@example.com. Meanwhile if you are a used bookseller with abe, send them word that you won't be participating under the new contract. Just maybe, if they hear it enough times, they will reconsider.
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