Part two of a series on artistic intent and experiential criticism. See part one.
In my senior year of high school our drama department put on a performance of the 1971 musical “Grease.” I was minimally involved with the production and somehow ended up going to every show. I don’t know why I did this. I hate “Grease.” I do not like watching my friends sing and dance onstage and I do not like moral degradation disguised as a mid-century nostalgia. I sat in the back of the theater for four nights straight and wallowed in schadenfreude and self hate. Senior year is a weird time for everybody.
In our production the role of ingenue Sandy Olsson was played by a 5’0″ Hmong girl with a good singing voice and appropriately awkward acting skills. Despite the nonexistence of Hmong people in 1950s America, she fit the mid-century Christian sweetheart bill to a tee. She played the white-dress role with palpable innocence, and every move she made was imbued with genuine moral integrity. I never knew the girl who played her; she could have been playing herself or she could have just been a pretty good actress. Either way, in my mind she’s the Sandy – Olivia Newton-John can go to hell.
There’s one scene in particular that I remember from the production. Feeling left out and unloved by her street-racing greaser boyfriend Danny, Sandy decides to shed her conservative image in preparation for her transformation into the girl of every boy’s dreams. She calls her so-called friends over for a makeover, hangs up the phone, and sits alone in her bedroom. Nostalgic instrumentation fades in and she begins a downtempo rendition of first-act number “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” “Look at me,” she sings, “there has to be / Something more than what they see / Wholesome and pure, also scared and unsure / A poor man’s Sandra Dee.” The stage is empty and dark and her eyes cast shadows in the spotlight. The music swells and the song climaxes as she gazes upwards, standing stiffly in the harsh light and quietly belting: “Hold your head high, take a deep breath and cry / Goodbye to Sandra Dee.” She smiles, but there isn’t a shred of hope in her voice. Her smile, like everything in Sandy’s world, is painfully forced.
The scene that follows is well-known: Sandy emerges at the school carnival with black leather pants and blown-out hair, swinging her hips and smoking a cigarette. Danny, aroused, runs to her. She responds cooly, Danny begs for her, she kisses him, they dance – “We Go Together” starts up and the chorus bursts into a happy celebration of love and friendship. The show ends in applause; the audience feels good, the cast beams, and the entire production seems to have forgotten the misery of the scene immediately preceding.
I choked up every time I saw our Sandy perform “Goodbye To Sandra Dee.” I still get embarrassingly literal chills every time I think about it. This is the nauseatingly romantic image I have of my 18-year-old self: wrapped up in a ratty peacoat in the back of my high school auditorium, wiping tears from my eyes while everybody around me jumps to their feet and cheers. I left every show sad, bitter, and angry. I don’t think I’ve ever been more affected by any work of art, ever; I can say with relatively little facetiousness that the Central High School Drama Board production of “Grease” is the most important creative work that I have ever experienced. I have never hated a work of art more, but I’ve never been more profoundly moved.
I used to want to re-stage “Grease” as an avant-garde production that called attention to the artificiality of Sandy’s transformation by placing adequate emphasis on her unhappiness. “Goodbye To Sandra Dee” would be the emotional centerpiece of the play; everything would build up to its climax. The music would be excruciating, the spotlight would be extra bright, Sandy would employ Mary Clayton-style vocal cracks to prove how torn up she was by her transformation. The final carnival scene would be uncomfortable, almost horrific – “We Go Together” cast in harsh lighting with stiff dialogue and fascistic choreography, Sandy’s black pants paired with thick black eyeliner that ran in tear-lines down her cheeks. The audience would leave the theater feeling depressed and disillusioned by the idea of rock n’ roll and teenage sexuality as emotional liberation, and “Grease” would become for everyone else what it has always been for me: a moving commentary on the destructive power of the American teenage dream.
Looking back, I realize that my re-imagining of “Grease” would never come close to my high school’s production. My “Grease” would be an actively antagonistic to the intent of the original “Grease” – my audience would experience the play as a deliberate attack on the transformation-as-liberation theme. They would leave the theater feeling depressed and angry, but they would also feel united under the teleological project of the production. That is, for lack of a better word, they would “agree” with the production – they would perceive the production as a negative portrayal of a negative thing. The production itself would inspire and reinforce this negative sentiment; it would present Sandy’s transformation as a bad thing happening to a sympathetic character, and the audience would sympathize with the character and affirm the negativity of the presentation. Instead of an individual/internal reaction against the play, the viewer would react to the play in communion with the audience and the production. His experience would be an overall positive one.
This is an almost opposite to my personal experience of “Grease.” My experience of “Grease” has very little to do with “Grease” itself. “Grease” is supposed to be a fun musical, not an emotional powerhouse. Sandy’s transformation is supposed to be emotionally negligible. The weight I attached to Sandy’s transformation, the tragedy I experienced in response to the carnival scene, came about in response to the production but independent of the production’s apparent teleological project. I wasn’t “supposed” to feel negatively about the transformation, but, because of its presentation, I did. I did not “agree” with the presentation; I rejected its teleological intent.
I can’t emphasize enough the world of difference between these two experiences. The first is ultimately joyful and demands submission to the teleological project of the production. The second is painful – it turns the viewer against the teleology of the production and forces him to come to his own understanding of his experience. In the first, the experience of the play exists within the teleology of the production; in the second, the experience of the play is a raw entity that exists independently of any teleological project. Instead of experiencing a conformation of teleological intent (as a negative experience of my negative “Grease” would) a negative experience of a positive “Grease” forces the viewer to face the production as it is – that is, purely phenomenologically. The teleology of the production no longer matters; the only relevant experience is the viewer’s own. A negative experience is no longer part of a communal celebration of tragedy – it is internal, isolating, and devastating.
To clarify the distinction: the difference between the two would be akin to meeting a parodic impersonation of someone I found despicable as opposed to actually meeting that person. For example, Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church and an almost universally disliked person. A conversation with Fred Phelps would be devastatingly upsetting – he would applaud everything I despise, present a series of deeply problematic political ramifications for his actions, and conclude by informing me that God hates me. I would experience a deeply visceral, antagonistic reaction to our conversation – I would turn against Phelps and come to an understanding of the world that resulted from my opposition to the world that he presented to me. This experience would be heightened if our conversation took place at a Westboro Baptist Church assembly where everyone around me seemed to support Mr. Phelps’s views. I would feel isolated, angry, alone – and absolutely sure of my personal moral values.
Compare this experience to that of meeting “Fred Phelps” at a costume party. “Fred Phelps” would say the same things, appear to believe the same problematic theology, act as the real Fred Phelps would act – but I would understand that “Fred Phelps” was not Fred Phelps but instead a deliberately unpleasant representation of an unpleasant figure. I am supposed to hate “Fred Phelps”; my conversation with “Fred Phelps” is supposed to be painful. Everyone around me knows this, and everyone around me hates “Fred Phelps” just as much as I do. We are united in our disgust for the character, and our pain is joyfully mutual. And, we share that joyful pain with the man who is pretending to be Fred Phelps. “Fred Phelps’s” portrayer also hates Fred Phelps, and is only pretending to be Fred Phelps in order to expose and mock Fred Phelps’s unpleasantness. Later in the evening, after the party, “Fred Phelps’s” portrayer will no longer be “Fred Phelps” – he will be just another normal person who hates Fred Phelps, a Fred Phelps-hater who has successfully united an entire room of people beneath his anti-Fred Phelps teleology. I hate “Fred Phelps” – but I agree with him.
Apply this scenario to “Grease.” My re-staging would be akin to an ironic costume party. “White Dress Sandy” would “transform” to “Black Tights Sandy;” the audience would react negatively to the “transformation,” but they would understand that it was only a “transformation” and celebrate said “transformation’s” negative portrayal. In other words, my production would be a satire – the viewer would perceive my political agenda and experience the “transformation” as I intended him to experience it. He would give himself over to my teleological project; he would affirm the production, affirm my direction, affirm the “transformation” of “Sandy.” He would not experience Sandy’s “transformation” as a real transformation, and would therefore never experience the pain of a real transformation. He would only celebrate my political opposition to the possibility of that pain.
If, alternatively, he experienced “Grease” as I experienced it (that is, sympathetic to White-Dress Sandy) he would experience a genuinely contemptible transformation. Of course he wouldn’t believe that the “transformation” was a real transformation, but he would experience the “transformation” as a genuine endorsement of such a transformation (i.e., in Fred Phelps terms, a flattering portrait of “Fred Phelps” by Fred Phelps). He would be disgusted by the “transformation” and reject it as he would reject a contemptible person. He would turn against the production’s teleology and form an antagonistic teleology of his own.
This all comes together to form the relatively obvious point that satirical portrayals of a bad things are not actually a bad things (Charlie Chaplin is not Hitler, Lily Allen is not a racist self-hating misogynist, etc.) and that affirmative portrayals of bad things are in fact bad. But the exposition is necessary in order to explicate the phenomenal difference between the experience of satire/tragedy and the experience of genuine portrayal. Both inspire a negative reaction – one uniting and celebratory, the other isolating and genuinely negative. One demands conformity on the part of the production to an external teleological project, the other allows for an experience that places the artwork outside the boundaries of its teleological project. “Grease” endorses the transformation of White Dress Sandy to Black Tights Sandy and demands that both conform to its pro-transformation teleological project, but my experience refuses to conform to said project and instead liberates my experience from its teleology. I perceive Sandy, White Dress and Black Tights and In-Transformation, independently of “Grease’s” teleology because I so oppose that teleology. I sympathize with my experience of the character, but I cannot palate the production itself and therefore experience the transformation as an independent entity that exists purely phenomenologically. “Grease” wants Sandy to wear Black Tights and her transformation to be a miracle, but I perceive transformation as a tragedy and experience a Sandy who has nothing to do with the teleology of the production – a Sandy with a painfully forced smile who stutters each time she puffs her fake cigarette.
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This analysis seems more or less like a waste of time because of the inarguable truth that “Grease” is a trite play with a morally offensive conclusion. There are plenty of trite things with morally offensive conclusions, and, when celebrated, they always produce unpleasant experiential results. Listening to “Work, Bitch” at a bar filled with finance bros and excitably drunk college girls in H&M dresses, or watching “Freddy Got Fingered” with your neighbor who likes poking dead cats with sticks, or spending an afternoon perusing “GodHatesFags.com” has the same essential effect. “Grease” is just one in a long litany of things that I do not like.
The difference, though, is that I do like Sandy – or at least, I like my high school version of Sandy. I grow attached to her character over the course of the play, and when something tragic happens to that character and the production claps, I am very much moved. “Grease’s” endorsement of Sandy’s transformation is akin to watching someone I love be stoned to death for a crime I know he did not commit. Or, less hyperbolically, watching a failing television program killing of the character who was the one last vestige of goodness – the third season finale of “The O.C.” if anyone actually liked Marissa.
The feeling of isolation that results from such a device – that is, a reaction to an artistic device that forces the viewer against the apparent teleology of the production – is incredible. It’s an emotional reaction that feels stronger because it seems so unintentional. It’s easy to react with blasé to sentimental tragedy because you know how you’re “supposed” to feel. You’re supposed to tear up when Fantine hits the “So different than the Hell I’m living” line in “I Dreamed A Dream;” you’re supposed to cry when the soldier comes home to his family in the Christmas ad for Walmart. The emotion is still genuine, but it feels more than a little bit constructed – the experience was catered to you and places you within a very carefully constructed teleological structure. The experience of tragedy in reaction to a celebration, on the other hand, forces the viewer outside that submissive framework. His feelings are his own, and stronger because of it. His experience of the characters is heightened, more visceral. The Sandy he experiences is his Sandy, an almost real Sandy; the constructed “Sandy,” the “Sandy” that “Grease” tries to force on him, is a shallow and offensive parody.
I wish that more people could experience “Grease” as I do, because to me it really is an emotional masterpiece. I know that it has no intent of being anything of the sort, that it’s highest telos is vapid entertainment and nostalgia, but in spite of that my experience has stuck with me for years. In spite of, or because of – if “Grease’s” teleology were anything higher then I never would have found myself so profoundly moved. It succeeds experientially for me because it’s so disinterested in moving me. It’s a genuine representation of the haphazardly applied descriptor of “so bad it’s good.”
I suppose, then, that if I were to re-stage “Grease” now that I would do it exactly as my high school did it. I would cast a likable, believable, all-too-relatable Sandy. I would spend most of the play developing her conservative white-dressed innocence in contrast to the proto-liberation of her greaser friends. I would make sure that she performed “Goodbye To Sandra Dee” with all the underlying tragedy that a line like “Take a deep breath and cry” requires. Then I would dash it all on the last scene as if none of it mattered. She would sing just as well in her Black Tights as she did in her White Dress. “We Go Together” would be the best dance number in the show; as the cast took its bows I would be the first to give them a gleeful standing ovation.
I would hope that the audience would be disgusted by the conclusion, that they would fall in love with White Dress Sandy and hate her submission to peer-pressure and morally problematic, anti-conservative values. I would accept the fact that the audience would hate me and my production and that they would never understand that their negative experience was intentional. I would also realize that most of the audience wouldn’t get it, and that they would buy into the apparent teleology of the production and experience the transformation as a light-hearted plot device that affirmed progressive pseudo-liberation ethics. This would be difficult, but I would force myself to accept the production as nothing but a production – an independent phenomenological entity that was to be experienced only as the audience experienced it, free from politics, free from artistic intent – free from teleology. But I would still attempt, by the use of staging techniques and plot devices, to direct my audience toward a reaction that defied the teleology of the project that forced them outside the boundaries of the production, thereby coming upon that freedom themselves. Whether they made it or not would be up to them – that’s how freedom works.
* * *
I hope the above exposition, paired with my previous exposition of Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk till Dawn,” helps to explicate the possibility of what I can only awkwardly label a “contra-teleological project.” Like “From Dusk till Dawn,” I do not believe, nor can I critically prove, that “Grease” is an intentionally contra-teleological project. A contra-teleological project is critically impossible – the boundaries of critical analysis cannot discuss it. Every element of an artwork goes towards the teleology of it’s project – the artwork and it’s teleology are intrinsically tied, even synonymous, and an artwork that goes against it’s teleology must, by definition, transcend itself. Self-transcendence is, outside the sphere of sacramental theology, essentially absurd, so unless a new school of sacramental criticism is developed then discussion of such a thing is more or less impossible. Maybe this exists under another name and I haven’t come across it; the world of critical theory is exciting, expansive, and mind-numblingly all-inclusive. Nevertheless, as far as I can comprehend it, if a contra-teleological project has been undertaken, then it would necessarily be critically unprovable.
The only evidence of an intentionally contra-teleoligical project would be a widespread and unanimous critical experience of an artwork whose apparent teleology had nothing to do with that critical experience. In other words, a wide array of critics would need to have similar reactions to an artwork that contradicted the apparent teleology of the artist. Not only that, but the artist would have to evince control over both his artwork and the manifestation of his apparent teleological intent in that artwork (that is, he couldn’t just produce a confusing or unpleasant artwork that nobody liked; universal critical revulsion to a poorly made horror film is not evidence of an intentional contra-teleological project). Proof would be impossible, but the surest indicator would be simultaneous critical respect and revulsion: a beautifully manifested car wreck from which no critic could turn his head. A large group of critics would need to hold an artwork in high artistic esteem while finding the very act of its creation repellent. The world would react with agonized confusion – no one would know what to do. The internet would fall to pieces and posts about experiential criticism and artisitc intent would flood the various blogospheres. Article after pseudo-philosophical article would grasp at clarity but ultimately end in anti-climactic ambiguity. The artist would fall by the wayside, sort of famous but mostly disliked, distrusted, and ignored. Some people would proclaim him (or her) the end of civilization; most would mostly just not care. The artist would be even more disliked than the artwork; any explicit teleological project would be lost beneath experiential revulsion. It would be a hard fate, but he (or she) would rest easy at night knowing that martyrs are redeemed in heaven and that art is a noble enough cause to die for. What brave soul could take on this weight?
Jim Jacobs, Warren Casey. Grease. 1971. Musical play.
Grease. Dir. Randal Kleiser. Paramount Pictures. 1978. Film.
Grease. Dir. Geoff Schellenberg. St. Paul Central High School Drama Board. 2008.