C is for Grotesque

| February 18, 2014

Roald Dahl (with Spider)

Roald Dahl was a children’s writer that didn’t shy from the dark and menacing in his tales. He wrote “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “the Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and “Matilda,” among many others.  Some of his stories like “Matilda” and “the Witches” invoke black humor and grotesque violence against children, kind of a Grimm for our age.

I heard this wonderful piece on NPR this morning describing a new orchestral adaptation of Dahl’s “Dirty Beasts”. (Alas the iframe embed won’t work, so here’s a link to the story.) The composer Ben Wallfisch has adapted the children’s story, and I loved his approach – to embrace the darkness of the stories, and to use the orchestration to manifest that darkness, without dumbing it down or “Disneyfying” it.

Ben Wallfisch vividly remembers the excitement of reading Dahl’s “Dirty Beasts” as a kid.

Each poem in Dirty Beasts is a sort of cautionary tale featuring a different animal.  There’s the scorpiopn, the crocodile, the lion.  As often as not, the tale ends with a child getting eaten. The London Orchestra debuted the first one, the Porcupine, at a concert for children on Sunday. The Porcupine tells the tale of a greedy girl who runs through the forest to gobble a bag full of chocolates. The girl sits on a porcupine and dashes to her mother in pain. The mother sends the girl to a sadistic dentist with pliers who pulls out the prickles one by one.

Wallfisch says he was inspired by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, another piece of classical music that uses a narrator and instruments to tell a story.

“The key thing for me was to make it an incredibly exciting and vivid experience for the audience…”

The music does not talk down to kids. It’s complicated stuff.  Parts of the piece are atonal, chaotic, even scary.

Forward to 5:58 to hear this priceless testimony:

The kids eat it up. 9 year old Alice Sanders-Garcia came to the concert with her family.

“I really liked it because the music expressed the feelings of the story. And it helped me understand the story better… Like when she sat on the porcupine it went all scary and… active. So you understood that she was, without even knowing the story, you understood she was sitting on the porcupine.”

Alice Sanders-Garcia says she has never seen an orchestra before. Now she is eager to return.

I remembered watching “Peter and the Wolf” as a child, there was a great version featuring Ray Bolger as the narrator. It was a wonderful introduction to the orchestra.  Bolger instructively walked through the ways that Prokofiev matched the melody and instrumentation to a character. I really understood, for the first time,  how (wordless) music itself could be a programmatic narrative. The spirit of the production was an invitation to the viewer/listener to take this new lesson and apply it to the world of music that’s out there. It was educative in the best sense. I didn’t feel talked down or pandered to, like so much of the other “children’s shows” I was spoonfed. Although Peter and the Wolf isn’t as menacing as Dirty Beasts, it does get a little dark… I’m ashamed to say it was made it 1981, and I probably saw it in its initial run on HBO. (The only version I could find of it is this terrible version on youtube. Not worth embedding!)

Hearing the NPR story, and thinking of my own childhood made me think of what I was “ready for” as a kid, and how what we, meaning society, feel comfortable exposing our children to (violence, profanity, and more amorous “adult themes”) ebbs and flows over generations. I grew up in the early 80s, and I don’t know if it was the zeitgeist or if my parents were particularly permissive, but I don’t think I was excessively coddled, by any means.  There was lots of sex and violence in my media sphere. It was the dawn of the cable TV era (“skinemax” in every home), everyone got their first VCR, and the taboo-pushing of the 70s was recently behind us. Were all of the parents on my street on the same page about what was/n’t “okay” to expose their children to? Are they moreso today? Is it too anodyne? Are we insulating our children from human experience in a way that might stifle their capacities later in life?  Conversely, are we showing them too much too soon, and perverting their ability to form “healthy” conceptions of adult social dynamics? (See: Bourdieu’s doxa and habitus)

It seems that in the latter 20th century, these mediating institutions developed: the FCC, the MPAA, and more broadly within the schooling systems themselves (state and local), to codify these norms on a societal level. Some of these institutions are private, some public, some centralized, some nebulous. As is often lamented, we seem as a society to be happy to show our children lots of blood and gore on the screen, especially if there’s an American flag within the frame somewhere, but as soon as there’s an exposed nipple (you know, like the kind we fed on from our first day on the planet), we have to shut the production down (see: Superbowl XXXVIII). It’s a strange melange of situational taboos, particularly with the MPAA and FCC. There’s this complex matrix of who the intended audience is, when the piece is shown, on what network, it’s crazy!

These institutions seem to draw these sanctioning lines, or boundaries, between the unseemly violence and profanity of popular culture, and the sanctioned violence of literature and ‘art’. I mean, Poe and Shakespeare get pretty gory, gratuitously so. As do Grimm and Dahl. But, because their violence is literary, it’s sanctioned by these institutions. And then we have these strange cultural states of exception, like Halloween, when violence and gore are glorified through caricature.

I don’t exactly know where I’m going with all of this. I think there’s power to Dahl’s aesthetic approach (the anti-Disney), particularly when combined with the powerful orchestral experience that Wallfisch introduces. I’d like to say let’s boldly expose our children to the wide aesthetic range of human experience, without harming them.  How do you do that meaningfully, and where are the “lines”?