Monday, December 23, 2013

Double Feature: Welcome to Night Vale and The Nutcracker

I couldn't post yesterday because of zombies, which you can read about on my book blog. I'm still scared something is going to grab me from under the furniture. Stupid imagination.

Last week, I got to do one of my new favorite things and one of my old favorite things. Rarely am I so blessed in social events! On Wednesday night, I went to a live taping of "Welcome to Night Vale" at the Bell House here in Gowanus, Brooklyn. And on Saturday night, the BF and I went to Lincoln Center to see "The Nutcracker."

I like the contrast. "Night Vale" is a podcast, an entirely dialog-based medium with no visual element. "The Nutcracker" is a ballet, which, as we've established in my family, has no lyrics or dialog. Sound plays a big part in both a podcast and a ballet, but in a podcast, sound the only means of conveying information, while in a ballet, the visible movement of the dancers tells the story in conjunction with the music from the orchestra.

Both art forms encourage a level of engagement on the part of the audience far beyond that of a movie. Movie simulate reality:  here is a visual image and here is the ambient noise, the dialog, and even some music to set the mood.
What, you don't hear theme music everywhere you go?
Movies are easy to understand and absorb. Even your brain waves relax and slow down when you're watching one. But a ballet or a podcast asks an audience to take a more active role by mentally filling in the visual or auditory negative space to complete the narrative experience, using the information conveyed by pure dialog or movement.

I also see some parallels between the subject matter of "Night Vale" and The Nutcracker. For those who may not be familiar with America's most popular podcast, "Welcome to Night Vale" is an ongoing series of community radio updates from the small desert community of Night Vale. In Night Vale, librarians are hideous monsters, real estate agents live in the bellies of wild deer, the sheriff's Secret Police monitor your every word, and the dog park is never to be entered by either dog, or human, or sentient glowing cloud that drops animal corpses on bystanders. All of this is considered normal to the citizens of Night Vale, half of whom are genetically incapable of feeling physical pain.

Honestly, the whole project is a bit hard to describe, because the subject matter is creepy but also treated as mundane, so "Night Vale" is more of a comedy than a horror show. I didn't know just how funny it was, however, until I heard it in performed in front of a couple hundred people. Then I realized that shit is hysterical. It's all available for free at the link above, and I highly recommend it. (Listen for celebrity cameos! Mara Wilson, who played the lead in 1996's "Matilda" movie, is the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your House. And Jackson Publick, co-creator of "The Venture Bros.," is all five voices of Hiram McDaniels, mayoral candidate and five-headed dragon.)

So what does any of that have to do with The Nutcracker? Aside from the obvious parallel that The Nutcracker is America's most popular ballet, it's also--when you think about it--it's own special kind of creepy that seems normal to the characters in that world. A little girl gets an old man-doll/kitchen implement for Christmas. The little girl shrinks while the doll comes to life and they fight a giant six-headed rat. The doll turns into a little boy and presents her with the crown of the rat monster, which is supposed to be romantic, and then spirits her away to a magical land where the snacks and racist beverages dance for them. But it's okay, because after the food dances, he takes the little girl home again in Santa's sleigh. Although Santa is nowhere to be seen, so I think at some point, the kids jacked Santa's ride.

Maybe one of the "oriental" beverages stole it. Seriously, does no one else find this distasteful?
If Night Vale was going to stage a ballet, and it was all going to go horribly wrong, as everything does in Night Vale, I don't think they would actually have to change anything about The Nutcracker.

This is probably why The Nutcracker is my favorite Christmas activity. It has so little to do with Christmas! There's no hint of Jesus or the Nativity, no part of the Santa myth, really nothing to connect it with the holiday other than the fact that the Nutcracker is given as a Christmas present to Marie. (I always thought it was Clara, but the playbill called her Marie on the cast list, so where the hell have I been getting Clara all these years?) For a non-Christian who always knew that it was Henry Dudois under the Santa costume at the Ocean View Community Center, this weird European fairy tale is Christmas to me. It has all the magic and delight and charm I'm supposed to feel around the holiday, with none of the uncomfortable religious baggage.

The Nutcracker even has an answer for my ambivalence toward gift-giving in a consumer society. Marie is given a single gift that has the power to transport her to a magical fairyland where candy comes alive and little children live in the skirts of drag queens.

The best gifts are transcendent. They open up the world to marvelous new possibilities. For little kids, toys do the trick, because their imaginations haven't yet been pounded into submission by years of reality and tooth-brushing. But grown-up little kids can still find that magical sense of possibility in gifts.

Especially if that gift is two tickets to see "The Nutcracker." Thank you, Mum!

Mele Kalikimaka. And good night, Night Vale. Good night.

1 comment:

  1. Rachel, I always thought "Clara" too (which I prefer), and is widely-used, but Wikipedia says she's sometimes known as "Marie," here: