Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Pay's the Thing, of nothing

I want to speak with you a bit about culture. I often shy away from discussions of culture because I pretty much have none. I affect a cultured demeanor when it suits me, but mostly I'm just a slob with a job. I guess you could say I appreciate aspects of low culture, but I do like some items higher up on a culture ladder. Thing is, I mostly just like being left alone so any culture runs the risk of getting on my nerves.

But I teach English and part of teaching English is the acceptance that people need some sort of culture. There is such a thing as cultural literacy but that doesn't quite capture everything because it stops at expecting my students to be familiar with their world as it is. Knowing culture means appreciating the world as it was, as it could be and as it is, but on a deeper level. So I strive for that. Part of bringing culture to the still growing teen aged mind is exposing them to pieces of great literature, so I try to do that. One piece that I have used in the past is a wonderful play by Eugene Ionesco, entitled "Rhinoceros." It is silly, it is difficult, it challenges and troubles while it amuses. I find that reading it sometimes misses an aspect of the story, the visual, especially in the directorial choices surrounding the (non)presentation of the titular beasts. However, I lack the ability to act the whole thing out for the class every year. So I rely on performances readily available to the public.

There are, on Youtube, a couple of versions of the play, lovingly performed by some college or local acting groups. They aren't bad per se, but the sound is inconsistent, the staging is clunky and the acting is often overdone. So, OK, they are bad (IMHO, baby, IMHO...chill). There is a film version which I often show. It stars Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, so you'd think that it would be a home run. I mean, I LOVE Gene Wilder (in a totally platonic way, mind you) and I use another of his films (The Frisco Kid) with another class of mine. And Zero Mostel? Hilarious! But the film is from the early 70's so the scenery shows it, the music is horrid and Karen Black is, well, not my favorite part of the movie. I try to resist showing this version because it becomes so surreal towards the end that even Ionesco would view it and say, "what the hell was that? Did I even write that?" So I troll the interwebz looking for another version.

Yesterday, while comparing opening scenes for my class, I saw a link to a version of Rhinoceros starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The video shown was an interview with Mr. Cumberbatch in which he discussed his character, Berenger. In the middle, the image shifted to 5 seconds from the version in which he performed. It was good -- really good. I thought to myself that if I had access to that, I could retire Messers Wilder and Mostel and let Mr. Cumberbatch carry the rhinocer-torch. So I looked online. I found no links to it. I found reviews but no visual content. I was stumped. Finally, I stumbled on a listing for a museum/library in London which had a video from 2007 starring Mr. C. Success! I almost shouted. Until I kept reading. Apparently the version they have must be viewed on their premises.

That struck me as weird. Remember, this is about disseminating high culture. Wouldn't they want more people to share in this experience? Wouldn't it be desirable to have a larger audience aware of this and able to celebrate something of brilliance instead of hiding it away ON VIDEOCASSETTE? So I emailed them. I mentioned that I teach the play. I pointed out that I wanted it for educational purposes. I made the case that flying 22 teenagers to London might prove impractical. And then I waited. The website cautioned me that responses take up to 10 days. Museum life must be very busy.

About an hour later (which, because of the time difference means that they sent it before I made the request), I got a response. Huzzah. It was very nice and proper and explained that the archives are for research done on site. In other words, they said "no." Strange. They want to keep this to themselves. Well, actually, in their words,

Regrettably, the recordings in our Video Archive are not available online or for purchase. We have a strict agreement with the British entertainments unions and are only allowed to make recordings if those recordings are viewed on V&A premises.

​We are sorry not be of more help.

And yes, they typo is theirs, not mine. Look carefully at what they said -- they "make recordings" but they assure the artists who get recorded that NO ONE can see the performance outside of that building. That limits audience, not what would think an artist would want. Note that they also say that they don't even sell the recording. So no payment can go to anyone. They have it but I can't see it or pay for the chance to see it. Think about that. I want to throw money at them for this but apparently, my cash isn't green enough for them. Or blue. I don't know what color money is in London.

I went to the librarian at school, Mrs. Geller. She's wonderful. She can look up anything and find most anything. I sent her the link because I thought there might be honor among libraries and maybe there was some sort of loan program. There isn't. She couldn't find anything. Now our collective honor was at stake so I decided to take matters to the next level. I figured if anyone had a copy, it would be the star of the production so I decided to contact Benedict Cumberbatch. Swing for the fences, that's what I always say (which is awkward when the question is "do you want fries with that?"). I did my research and found the name of the agency which represents him (you generally are represented either by an agent or a lawyer. I am without representation. There is a political joke in there if you want to go look for it and report back to me) and decided to contact him through them. I eschews the expected course of emailing his specific department and figured I should go through the "front Desk" as that is where all real power resides.

So I emailed them and explained my situation and the relative dearth of culture experienced by my neanderthal students. I pointed out that flying the class to England to watch a videotape might not be feasible. All my co-workers laughed at me, insisting that I would never hear anything about this and telling me that I was tilting at English windmills. I persevered because nothing ventured, nothing gained. Or lost, like dignity, but whatever. A few hours later, I received a response. It read, "Sadly we don’t have a copy of this performance nor access to it. I believe that it would have only been taped for archival purposes and not for distribution I’m afraid." It appears to be case that Mr. Cumberbatch and his people (I have no people. I want people) simply have no copy of this recording. I told the author, a wonderful person by the name of Nicholas Gall (I asked for his permission to mention him by name and he graciously granted the permission. In return, I believe that the masses who read this should send him all sorts of good stuff. Hi Nick) that I would probably then have to find a way to get all of my students archived so that they could be stored near the videocassette. The joke crossed the ocean and earned a virtual giggle so I'm feeling pretty good on that front.

My next alternative was to find the only English person in my workplace and present her with the following request: could she please ask her parents to make an appointment time, go to the museum wearing Google Glasses or carrying a video camera, and watch the performance so it could be recorded. Interestingly she said that she thought that her parents might not want to be involved in this. Something about criminal charges and such. The details are fuzzy; I stopped listening after "No." I then figured that my best bet is to hire a computer hacker who could break into the computer system and get access to the recording. It works on TV so it must be true, right? Except for one thing -- the recording was on a cassette, not uploaded as a digital file, as far as I could tell. So I widened my net and decided to hire a crack team of mercenaries who could break in, replace the tape with a fake, and spirit the performance away. I would watch it and then mail it back anonymously. It would be wrong to make an unauthorized copy so I wouldn't, but I would tell the thieves that I would need their services next year, same time.

Eventually, I gave up that plan when I realized that I don't know how to hire a crack team of mercenaries.

I decided to give it the old college try once more (England has many old colleges). I went down the list of actors affiliated with the performance and saw a name I recognized -- Zawe Ashton. It just so happens that I show another class of mine a performance of Othello and she is in that and is great. But do I track down her agency and go the same route? NO! I decided to go a different route and I found her Twitter account.

I hate Twitter. I have had 2 different accounts and I stopped using both of them. I have lost my passwords and I don't mind because I hate Twitter. That would prove to be a problem. So I found the school tech guy and had to explain to him why I wanted to co-opt the school Twitter account to send an unsolicited tweet to Zawe Ashton asking if she had in her possession a videotape from 2007. Once he stopped laughing at me, he agreed. I typed up the tweet and sent it via email to him. Yes, I emailed the a tweet. He reworded a bit and sent it out.

At this point, I have started showing my class the 1974 version but I await good news at every moment.

And if you are reading this, Mr. Cumberbatch, you might want to reassure the good people at the V&A that you are ok with a larger, paying audience. And give Nick a raise.

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