Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Art matters

Recently I saw actor-writer Tony Nardi's film "Letter One" which is a monologue of a letter he wrote about a TV series script he was offered and rejected due to what he felt was an objectionable portrayal of an Italian-Canadian character.  I posted my appreciation of his film on Facebook and Tony as well as Christopher Bolton, the writer and star of the TV series Tony criticized responded.

The exchange is SO important and revealing of who these two artists are.  I've copied it here so it doesn't get lost in the ephemera of Facebook.

  • So glad I saw Tony Nardi's film Letter One at the Bloor last night. Because there were so few there, here's what you missed.

    It's a thrilling piece, chock full of ideas and passion. Deliberately provocative. I found it articulate and brave. It's not just about him as an actor. Ultimately it's about living fully as an artist and it's something most people I know, including myself, are very far from doing.

    A must see for anyone who cares about theatre, culture, representation and art. A master class in acting to boot.

    Even if you disagree with his accusations about our theatre and TV in particular, and I know there are plenty who do, it's shameful that there were only a few people present to see a major work by a major artist.
    Like ·  · 
    • Christopher Bolton Was that the one addressed to me or was that letter two?
    • John S. Rait I wish I could have been there. I am hoping there will be another opportunity!
    • Sugith Varughese Neither Christopher Bolton, in the film the letter is to "Sara" the casting director.
    • Christopher Bolton Right. 'twas a head shaker to receive let me tell ya.
    • Sugith Varughese It's pretty clear in the film that the letter is way beyond anything he may have actually written. Though the essence is probably the same as the original. I mean the film is over 2 hours.
    • Christopher Bolton Of course it's 2 + hours. He's Tony Nardi.
    • Sugith Varughese Well complaining about the script for your show isn't the bulk of it. I'm sure there are less confrontational ways of complaining but that wouldn't be Tony either.
    • David Fraser Art is a difficult path. Thanks for being graceful, here.
    • Christopher Bolton Our story, Tony's and mine, ends nicely - a shared fence, two dinner parties, and an errant shuttlecock. Now THAT is art.
      Sunday at 7:45am via mobile · Unlike · 1
    • Tony Nardi Sugith, 

      So that we have a clear understanding:

      What remains unanswered and unaddressed is that one of the major examples of the Rent A Goalie script to which I took objection was the fact that two anglo writers had an italian character who could sme
      ll his italian daughter's pussy on the anglo "cake" the night after the anglo cake "fucked" his Italian daughter.

      Quite apart from the confession that anglos are not big fans of daily showers, even to remove the smell of italian pussy, the fact that this racist vile is even proposed without being checked, initially through therapy, but then gets broadcast, shows both the personal racist smugness of the writers, but also the institutionally racist assumptions of the culture.

      Lastly, that an ass-kissing Uncle Tommassino like Tony Nappo sleepwalks himself through this, and takes issue with me for taking issue with it, instead of taking issue with the show and writers (seeing that he has an 8-year old girl) reveals nothing but a confirmation of the reality.

      Rocco Galati is not on Facebook. When I asked him for his opinion on the Christopher Bolton reply here, which essentially defends on social media that offensive episode, and on my exchange with Tony Nappo, he said the following re Bolton:

      “Someone should simply commence an application [lawsuit] to have the broadcaster fined and/or have its license cancelled for breaches of its broadcast license for airing that type of irrelevant and putrid shit. I mean, even Canadian television has to have its limits on the absence of reality checks' ".

      And on my exchange with Nappo:

      “It reminds me of when Malcolm X made the distinction between the "house slave and the field slave". When the field slave wanted to be liberated, the house slave using the "you" to the field slave, would bark back that "we" (the house slave and master) are just fine, extending the "we" between the house slave and the field slave. In a word, one in Nappo's position is kissing the ass of his master, and barking to defend him, because he is delusional in his belief that he is on the inside and the outsider is jeopardizing his non-existing lot. He is sleepwalking through the reality, unaware while still reacting in his sleep which is why he cannot tell you why the conversation he initially posted is a must read.”
    • Sugith Varughese Certainly the issue with Rent-A-Goalie is very clear in your film, Tony. Not to worry. What I appreciated about your film is that your position transcends the issue of what's "objectionable" when you used the phrase "ring true." As Jerzy Kosinski (The Painted Bird, Being There) said, "I don't have to jump out of an airplane without a parachute to write about jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. I just have to convince the reader I've jumped out of an airplane without a parachute." Or words to that effect. Whether something is objectionable is always going to be a matter of opinion. It's whether it rings true that I always want to argue about. In fact, as an Indo-Canadian actor, I've often played characters that are the opposite to objectionable, but written to serve the altar of "positive portrayal." They are just as one-dimensional, though. Which is just as objectionable to me, but harder to argue against because it's "positive." But it's no more authentic than making me only play torture-loving terrorists. It's your demand for authenticity that rings true and universal and transcends issues of taste. Indeed, in my own scripts I've written far more negative Indo characters than any anglo writer has written for me to play. But I hope that mine were at least authentic. Of course, authenticity is the club that can be used to keep writers like me out of the mainstream as well. I've been denied the chance to write for shows because I didn't reflect the audience demographic, (age usually) they want. This is tantamount to requiring one be Danish to write Hamlet. Thank God Jim Henson didn't require me to be a Muppet to write Fraggle Rock in the start of my career.
      19 hours ago · Like · 1
    • Tony Nardi I was clarifying the words 'complaint' and addressing the difficult path of Art referred to above for those who did not know what the actual Rent A Goalie script contained. Jerzy Kosinski was dead on. And so are you in your point on authenticity.
      18 hours ago · Unlike · 1
    • Christopher Bolton Gentlemen ~
    • Christopher Bolton My apologies. The return key means something different on Facebook rendering formatting impossible from where I sit - draped over the tub, computer on the toilet, in between episodes of Deadwood. I felt obliged to acknowledge your dialogue. It made interesting reading when I woke in the middle of the night. Tony - your passion is clear in both the letter you sent us years ago and in the dialogue above. I've not seen the play or the movie so I can't commet on the passion there but Sugith's post speaks to its quality. The story of the shuttlecock - me passing an errant one over the fence to you (Rocco Galati's fence at that) - is one I've told over the years, always with a smile. So...I won't speak to your points here, save one. Too much time has passed. I don't recall exactly who I was or how I thought then so can only be sure I'd be wrong from word #1. That and the intelligence level of the conversation I would only serve to sully. The two of you are big thinkers. The one thing I would like to speak to is the notion of authenticity. I grew up in a predominantly Italian community near Pearson. We moved out when I was 13 and I was on the fly, traveling the world, by 17. Everywhere I went I sought out the Italian cafes and communities. In Lisbon, NYC, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver all the same and in at least three of those was a guy my father's age behind the machine. After a period of sniffing me out from a distance I'd inevitably end up friendly with them. They'd allow me my fascination with them and their culture because I brought it with enthusiasm. I was called 'Cake' in each and I wore it like a badge of honour ergo my character's name. The show was conceived as a love letter to the Italian communities I'd been a part of. Later it became, in addition, a love letter to the game of hockey and that cocktail was executed with the tools I had honed over a bunch of years - the comedy kind. It was what I knew, what I was good at. Mr. Nardi - I remember well your unrest around the father character smelling his daughter's pussy on my character's face. In my defence - the funny wasn't in the fact that she was Italian. It was that Cake returns - the pilot opens with his walking through the door after the walk of shame ergo no real opportunity to shower - from a one night stand with a beautiful woman who said she was French while Cake told her he was a race car driver. They enjoyed one another for a night under false stories but who gives a shit they lied? The comedy, perhaps to belabour a point, was not in her Italianess but in a unique series set up, one that we were applauded for by a good number of people, writers and layfolks alike. That John's olfactory talents allowed him to discern the smell of pussy by geographical region was pretty funny to me then. In hindsight? I don't know - a solid comedic conceit at the very least. The point in all this is authenticity - in my biased opinion it wasn't hard to sell jumping out of the airplane with no parachute because I lived and loved all the things we attempted in that show from my place in the Italian community to going down on women. (I am mad at hockey right now so I don't talk about it too much.) The overwhelming response was that we got it right but, it's true, sometimes we missed. It's unfortunate that the opening sequence fell another way for you Mr. Nardi but there is a silver lining in your distaste for it becoming art. Art begetting art is a very good thing. Be well.
      3 hours ago · Unlike · 1
    • Sugith Varughese As I said, one doesn't need to be Danish to write Hamlet. I appreciate that you come by your stories honestly, Chris. And that you took the time to reply with same. Frankly, the ephemeral nature of Facebook feels unfortunate given this correspondence. Would that it could be edited into some permanent form which would allow for inserting a few carriage returns to boot.
    • Tony Nardi Christopher, Your last remark, “Art begetting art is a very good thing” is true but only partly relates to Letter One. Why partly? That first Episode of Rent A Goalie was but one of the catalysts. My experience on the miniseries The Oka crisis was the other, specifically how my Native Canadian brothers and sisters (actors) opened my eyes. 

      And “fence” is also a good and apt metaphor. 

      Racism of any kind can only come from one side of the fence and can only be perceived from the other side. Letter One has many examples of talented directors and screenwriters, some very well known and living in Qu├ębec, some also very good friends of mine, who have echoed the refrain, “Me racist? How can you say that? I love Italian food. I loved Italian neighbourhoods. I have a lot of Italian friends. I love you. And I think Italians who can smell their daughter's pussy on me are funny characters and that does not constitute a racist remark.” 

      Now, I read what you wrote here about Johnny, but I also read the script, carefully. 

      Johnny’s olfactory talents did not allow him to discern the smell of pussy by geographical region, as you state. That could have been funny, on some level, for somebody, though it remains to be seen whether the women lumped under that select, international group of pussies with a distinct smell would have found it as funny.

      In the episode of Rent of A Goalie, The Arrivalist, Johnny was specifically crafted to smell ONLY Italian pussy, even more specifically ONLY that of his Italian daughter, because when he is told by Cake that the woman in question is actually French (which ends up being false), Johnny then posits that she must be Corsican. Why? Corsicans are French who used to be Italian is Johnny’s response. Johnny’s olfactory talents are not anchored in geography, but in his culture from an outsider’s view. So the question remains: What father, independent of culture, would be able to smell his daughter’s pussy or that of the women of his culture?

      What also fits the racist refrain, and please don’t take it from me, but from the many authoritative voices on the issue, from civil rights activists, to poets, to philosophers and lawyers, you name it, and from all cultural backgrounds, is the fact that the racist can take in all the sights and sounds of what he perceives, in his perpetual view of the other, in his personal zoo, except one thing: the sight and stench of his own racism.

      Many people in our society fall victim to that. Which is why I wrote Letter One. As a cautionary tale. 

      I never doubted for one second that the overwhelming response was that you got it right with most of the show. What you said about the Letters, live or on film, applies to me with Rent A Goalie. I never watched the show, but for that episode, that remained on screen as it was in script form. And I never doubted the talent of the actors you had in the series, including those of Italian ancestry. Some I know. Some are friends (or acquaintances). 

      This is where we enter the more delicate territory. This is where the Malcom X distinction between the "house slave and the field slave" comes in. And by the way, it also applies to Canadian actors working in waterboy roles in many American films and believing that THAT constitutes a free, relevant Canadian culture and career. (In that respect your effort to create an all-Canadian series was commendable).

      Had you spoken with the fathers of any of the “Italian” actors or directors in your show, many of them working class, no doubt, but even Jim Allodi’s father, Federico Allodi, one of the great crosscultural psychiatrists, you would have received a response different than the one you no doubt got from their children. 
      You would have had a better gauge of the serious problem with Johnny’s olfactory talents, as written in the script and not as you stated here, which may reflect an initial intention never fully developed. Good intentions, however, do not remove or excuse the racism.

      Johnny’s so-called talent remains an issue. For everyone. And it’s beyond Rent A Goalie. As Letter One is beyond Rent a Goalie and “Italians”. It deals with the institutionally racist assumptions of the culture on both sides of the Two Solitudes, and the house slave’s practice of aiding and abetting, knowingly or unknowingly. That house slave can be a French-Canadian living in Toronto, an English-Canadian living in Montreal, a Muslim or Aboriginal Indian living anywhere in Canada. In my view, it was not okay for those Italian actors to have participated in the exercise, and to not have realized it in the moment or after the fact. And certainly not after having seen Letter One. 

      And though, at surface level, I understand Tony Nappo’s knee-jerk emotion (and anger) with respect to his insistence that he was never in your show and never defended Johnny’s olfactory talents, which is true, by willfully dismissing or ignoring the fact that Letter One deals with the depiction of the other as “other” by a human yardstick and standard one would never use on one’s own, or that one allows another to use on one’s own without objection, and then takes issue with the field slave, or let’s say the whistle blower, he may as well have been in the cast and said nothing about it. 

      I just wish that, as a writer, given the many good intentions you had with the show, and the talented group you put together, that you and Manson would have considered seriously the issues I raised instead of dismissing them. The last thing I want is to see any Canadian show fail. Which is why I bothered to raise the issue in the first place. Equally, I don’t want it to fail or succeed at the expense of any Canadian cultural tribe. And that remains a challenge for all of us working in Canadian theatre, film and television. That challenge will stay with us till the day we die.
      3 minutes ago · Edited · Unlike · 1

1 comment:

Just Another Johnny said...

Awesome read, some good points on both sides, damn Tony Nardi is awesome