Monthly Archives: October 2010

One Foot Out the Door

Grandpa John Steppling comes home, for a while

(This article originally appeared in the LA Weekly on September 9, 2010 and was written by Steve Leigh Morris)

In the comparatively heady days of the late 1980s — heady for local theater, at least — director Robert Egan over at the Mark Taper Forum took an almost proprietary interest in a young playwright whom critic Richard Stayton had dubbed L.A.’s only playwright. The fringe set of that era described John Steppling as the voice of the city, for creating inarticulate American-Pinter characters in such plays as his self-directed The Shaper, populated with surfboard builders and beach dwellers who glared at each other across emotional voids, and against riffs of electric guitar. His characters were from, and remain in, the margins of society, not unlike Steppling himself. (Steppling’s other plays include Teenage Wedding, The Dream Coast and Neck.) The Taper’s attempt to elevate Steppling to L.A.’s entry in the national playwright sweepstakes didn’t quite work out, the way it did, say, for Steppling’s peer, Jon Robin Baitz. Yet the Taper did produce Steppling’s The Thrill in one of its new-works festivals.

Steppling dabbled in film, having adapted Elmore Leonard‘s 52 Pickup for director John Frankenheimer. The 59-year-old also has been a director and an artistic director of playwright companies such as Heliogabalus and, currently, Gunfighter Nation. Today, after several years abroad, Steppling is back in L.A., making his home in the high desert’s Yucca Valley.

In a 1990 interview, Steppling recalled: “I remember driving through Ely, Nevada, early one morning. Newspapers were blowing on these empty streets and a couple of very spectral figures huddled in the doorway, and I thought, ‘Who are these people? These half-drunk cowboys at 10 a.m., playing penny slots in this incredibly bored fashion in a broken-down casino.’ … You learn more about society and the truth of the society you live in from those people. Having one foot out of society allows that person to be in a doorway, seeing the truth from the outside.”

It’s from the margins that Steppling remains an eloquent commentator on our own city, and the larger culture it represents. His most recent absence from Los Angeles was marked by an 11-year stint in Poland (where he taught screenwriting at the Polish National Film School in ód) and Norway — because his wife, Gunnhild Skrodal, is Norwegian.


Steppling and his Norwegian wife, Gunnhild Skrodal

Steppling and his Norwegian wife, Gunnhild Skrodal


He says, only somewhat facetiously, that he just can’t recount how many wives he’s had. He can, however, keep track of his children — one son, Alexis, whose mother is Natasha Mitchnick. Alexis is himself now a father, awaiting his second child, and Steppling is here to spend time with his grandchildren. But only for a year, maybe longer, he says. He’s made some commitments here, and he’ll see how things work out.

Among those commitments is his current leadership role in Gunfighter Nation, where Alexis is associate artistic director. Half the group consists of the elder Steppling’s peers from the 1980s — playwrights such as Rita Valencia, Wesley Walker, Guy Zimmerman and Harvey Perr. The other half consists of a younger generation brought in by Alexis, largely with a background in community organizing.

On September 17, the group opens its second in a series of short plays, this version at Hollywood’s Lost Studio and based on Los Angeles history, from 1830s governor Pio Pico to 1960s mayor Sam Yorty. And in late October, it opens Steppling’s new play, Phantom Luck.

The company’s youth, he explains, is bringing in a new audience that doesn’t go to the usual theaters.

“I said, I want you young people to read Peter Brook‘s The Empty Space [about the possibilities of where theater can occur] because that’s the best template for our times. We’re pitching site-specific works in Palm Springs, and [director-composer] O’Lan [Jones] talks about this at her company, Overtone Industries: Find an empty Circuit City, and get some backing and put up [a performance] there.”

The father-son bond has created a kind of community-based theater, not unlike L.A.’s heralded Cornerstone Theatre Company. “I want to do what Cornerstone is doing, without feeling that we’re social-engineering anything,” Steppling explains. “I think it should be about the art first. I think the art should contain this stuff of the social fabric, somehow. And I admire what Cornerstone has done in many ways. My son brings in the Latino communists, and suddenly we’re all talking about [19th-century California Governor] Pio Pico. One of our actors is right out of prison, never been onstage — he’s bringing a whole other experience.”

Steppling says he learns from them about life in other communities, “but we give them the art. I tell them to read Peter Brook, read Grotowski.”

Upon returning to California, Steppling was struck by the new economic realities. “It’s a strange time in the U.S. It’s like the Great Depression, it’s dire. You don’t get that feeling, just how acute the financial problem is, when you’re away. Out in the Yucca Valley, every weekend there are 50 garage sales —’must sell for food.’ It’s really startling. This extraordinary depression has also served to reveal what were the lurking pathologies of America, and it’s disturbing. It’s stuff that we always knew was there, these resentments. Now people are so put-upon, so desperate. If they have a job, they look to target the most powerless illegal immigrants, and drum up these absurd nonissues — gay marriage, illegal immigration — just an excuse to vent a lot of anger and resentment. The other thing that really strikes me, is how ubiquitous and partisan the media have become.”

Tethered to the economic decline is what Steppling views as the leaching out of theater and art from the culture. “Maybe it’s the way education has been eroded since Reagan. People that I formerly thought of as dedicated theater artists are either defeated and not working, or they’re just clamoring for the crumbs from Hollywood in an increasingly desperate way. … [Sociologist Theodor] Adorno said this thing I quote all the time: ‘The rise of fascism in Germany can be directly related to the end of education after World War I.’ So as you have an increasingly ignorant population, of course you have the ascent of Sarah Palin.

“But I see signs of optimism in a few places. It’s tough because it’s this postliterate culture — I had film students who only wanted to read technical manuals on lenses. After six months of watching Fassbinder, I saw them downloading obscure films by Bresson. You can’t just throw that at them. You have to provide historical context. That’s what’s not provided after the decimation of arts education. All we get is dueling reviewers. The template becomes the Academy Awards.”

Steppling sees reasons for hope, now that fine indie films such as Winter’s Bone and The Prophet are getting made and distributed. “I wish theater would catch up a bit. All these spaces are limping by, and the Taper does another production of The Glass Menagerie, and Burn This. And in the smaller theaters, do we really need another production of All My Sons right now? Or dinosaur renditions of Shakespeare showcasing actors for 47 people a night?”

(Steppling describes his own sliced-back adaptation of King Lear — with Goneril and Regan spoken in Norwegian and the other roles in either Polish or English as “fairly traditional.”)

“These tired old reactionary guys that run these theaters live in some fun-house fishbowl and they don’t see the world around them. The thing that strikes me, either they do not reflect on the madness that’s out there, or they do fake outreach, like the Taper, the identity-politics theater enough already, enough.”

Living in the desert, Steppling is talking to the city of Indio about the Date Festival grounds, “which is a kitsch wonder. What architectural hideousness has replaced what used to be this oasis of date trees,” he reflects. He’s pitching a site-specific work for the grounds, but doesn’t yet know if it’s going to be a film or a theater piece.

Don’t mistake Steppling’s harsh critique of our theater for despondency.

“I’m now almost 60,” he reflects. “I think if you just survive, you stop worrying about things. I just want to do something I enjoy doing, with people I enjoy doing it with. And the possibilities are there. I’m optimistic.”

LGrandpa John Steppling comes home, for a while


Part Two: Sentimentality and Wall Street redux

Shia LaBeouf, Money Never Sleeps

Shia LaBeouf, Money Never Sleeps

I didn’t really get very far in talking about sentimentality last posting……so now after watching Money Never Sleeps, the latest Oliver Stone film, I think another opportunity presents itself to dig a tiny bit deeper in this concept.

The sentimental idealizes an object or scene for the sake of disproportionate emotional responses. Such a structural imperative tends to create a manipulative emotional effect — which is why so much advertising is sentimental. The emotional response is hence often in the service of mystifying the actual relationships being presented. It hides the deeper realities. In other words, the sentimental is essentially dishonest. It obscures the morality of the dynamics in play.

As I’ve said before, the sentimental in narrative can only occur (effectively) in a reduced landscape: a simplified world view that is without complexity. It is one dimensional.

In your Rhetoric 101 class the Sentimental Fallacy is usually presented as a figure of speech where the forces of nature are seen as having human intent, i.e. ‘the angry wind’, etc.

In poetry, it is useful to analyze the meter, where, for example, a strict anapest will strike on points already, probably, evoking an emotional response. It’s like cuing the violins in bad film–or these days, almost all film. It usually is combined with the signifiers of innocence: puppies and kittens, or the pure of heart, or any endless number of other images we have come to associate with the sentimental.  The traction sentimentality has for this culture probably has to do with an increasing need for reassurance. In today’s film world, the images have evolved in terms of sentimentality; and one often sees ruthlessness and “toughness” treated with the sentimental. This becomes a rather complex topic, but also I think a revealing one. In Magnificent Seven, there is a scene where Charles Bronson shares his candy (or gum or some fucking thing) with a young Mexican girl. It is the juxtaposition  of the tough with the innocent and pure that evokes our reaction. We have projected our trained assumptions about purity (in that case) onto a scene with almost no back story.

In all cases, the situation of the narrative and its characters, are treated dishonestly — are reductive. Otherwise the complexity of life we experience every day would erode the exaggerated moral reflex presented in this manipulative world created by the artist. The essential problem is that the emotional response to the sentimental is actually a very superficial one. It is fleeting and without much dimension. It massages our knee jerk reactions. It asks nothing.

What is most telling, however, is how the sentimental plays out in the narrative in an on-going way; how the tropes of sentimentality are embedded in ways that are effective because of the vast number of narratives modern audiences have consumed. There are the more obvious themes: reunion, religious awe, or the individual overcoming all odds to achieve his or her goal.  There are also a host of less obvious themes, and possibly any theme can be treated in a sentimentally dishonest way at this point.

Allow me to again quote Richard Brody:

“There does seem to be a great deal of research on the question of violence and of quantity of viewing; but very little, if any, on the subject of treacle. I do worry about the effect of violent films on children, but I worry just as much about the emotional debility, the sentimentalization of kids who watch only child-friendly works. In general, children watch much too much television and see far too many movies in which everyone smiles too much and talks as if they’re on sugar highs—or, simply, where there isn’t enough ambiguity or mystery. The oversimplification of life into tangy bite-sized morsels is as much of a danger, for individuals and generations, as stoked aggression.”

Now, this  brings me to Oliver Stone’s latest film, Money Never Sleeps, a sort of sequel to Wall St.  Stone is a director whom I want to like, for some reason. Maybe it’s that he made a great and very sympathetic documentary on Fidel Castro, I don’t know.  But the fact is that nearly all his films (at least the in the second half of his career) have been terrible, and Money Never Sleeps is no exception.  Stone’s basic failing is a failure of artistic intelligence. He has, for lack of a better description, no taste. Couple that, in the current case, to a deeply sentimental structural impulse and you get a film that actually is a sort of valentine to big business and Wall Street. Its probably too easy to pile on Shia Labeouf, but rarely has an actor of such limited ability managed to climb so high so fast. Perhaps at a later date a Shia-critique would be fun. For now, its best to just say he cannot sustain a film as a lead. Carey Milligan, the female lead, is equally boring, actually, though her pixie face — a somehwat proletarian Audrey Hepburn thing — has its charms. However, she also seems to posses only very surface emotions, and a limited range in all acting catagories. She has an unfortunate quality that lurks in her facial expressions and can be best described as conniving.  Michael Douglas seems to know he is in a bad film. He does his best I suppose. He is certainly more interesting than he used to be. Frank Langella and Eli Wallach are around to lend a kind of artistic legitimacy, but it doesn’t work.  The problem in narrative terms is that there is basically no narritive at all. Gordon Gekko is released from prison and embarks on a comeback. However, the audience is not really privy to how he is doing what he is doing, even with a surfiet of “authentic” detail. The fact is that one leaves the theatre feeling one knows LESS about how the stock market works. Gekko was always a faintly bullshit creation, and Stone coasts along on the audience’s knowledge of Gekko as an iconic character. There is no there there. The film treats poor Shia like he’s a boob, which is the one quality LeBeouf is good at projecting. A lot of dialogue about ‘hundreds of millions’ of dollars, and so on, doesnt really seem to gell into any sort of real vision of what those kinds of sums mean……on any level. Stone has always seemed, to me anyway, better suited to a career of Sam Fuller like genre material. Sort of an advanced thinking primitive. Natural Born Killers, for all its failings, still had a kind of anarchic energy, and  W was an amusing cartoon (that I recall defending at the time of its release). But to reflect on Platoon and Salvador — twenty years hence — is to see just how limited an artist Stone really is.

Sam Fuller

Sam Fuller

As for sentimentality, well, just think of the final credit sequence of Money Never Sleeps, and then think how, really, the entire film was about only this.

Here is an interesting link apropos of this discussion:

John Steppling