The Beauty of Disney’s Into the Woods

Into-the-Woods-charactersDisney’s Into the Woods is a nearly perfect film. The acting is superb, the sets fantastic, the music enjoyable, and every production element done masterfully. Though what interests me the most is the play itself, as crafted by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. My only other experience with this play was a high school production, which was good, though as I recall, a bit tedious. On the other hand, the unparalleled special effect of the close up, as brought to us by this wonderful film adaptation, makes a big difference for me as far as connecting and empathizing with the characters. And this piece is all about character.

First, I love that the play doesn’t buckle to the temptation of simply mixing up and fracturing fairy tales for cheap laughs, as so many other works do (my own puppet shows included). Rather, the play honors these ancients works, stories that belong to all of us and our ancestors. While being true to the details of the Grimm stories, it takes the characters much further, making them more real than they’ve ever been, and in turn showing us a humanity that transcends time.

It takes the epitome of black and white melodrama and makes it gray. Cinderella doesn’t, in fact, live happily ever after with her prince. Rapunzel’s witch-mother isn’t entirely evil. Jack doesn’t get off Scot free after robbing the giant. The story is very postmodern, and the music follows suit; the melodies are subtle and don’t seem as melodic and clear-cut in their emotion as in your typical musical. Yet the music is also bold, with strong characters belting out their pain and confusion, not quickly resolving, not very predictable, often a blend of happy and sad and slightly dissonant. Overall, the tone of the piece is unsettling.

This is especially true in the second act, where, just when everyone’s met their goals, solved their problems, and found joy, the story just keeps on going, which is burdensome for the audience. It’s a bold choice — a dangerous choice. It’s as if the playwright is playing a joke on the audience with a false climax followed by another hour of suffering characters and soul-searching agony, leaving us so confused that we can’t help but stick it out to see what’s going to happen. It can leave people feeling dark and unfulfilled, as was the case with Teresa.

I saw it differently. I realized early on that this is more than a story; it’s an exercise; and I put myself in the shoes of these wandering souls in the midst of a dark and dreary forest. Our quest was to search for meaning. My brother says that life isn’t a test, it’s a school. We take out what we put into it. Similarly, if you expect this show to merely entertain you as just another musical on your shelf between Annie and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,  you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you’re willing to accept that real life — which, ironically, fairy tales can communicate to us so profoundly — is sometimes confusing, dark, frightening, and unsettling, then there’s a lot to be gained from Into the Woods, “where witches can be right and giants can be good.”

For example, here’s a list of some of the impressions I had:

No one is evil in their own eyes. Everyone can justify their cause, from the thieving father, who’s just trying to please his relentless wife, to the hungry wolf, who’s just trying to stay alive, to the wicked witch, who’s trying to protect her daughter from a witchy world, to the poor giantess, who’s trying to avenge her murdered husband.

But what of this graying of morality … doesn’t it just blur the line of what should be clear, muddying truth, justifying sin? A friend once said to me, “Oh Steve, always playing the devil’s advocate. The devil doesn’t need anymore advocates.” However, I’ve learned that the more Socratic I get, or in other words, the more I give everyone the benefit of the doubt — and I mean everyone — the closer I feel to truth. Far from being so open-minded that one is empty-headed, I’ve learned that real truth can only be found by comprehending both sides of arguments (and we are all walking talking arguments). Fools search for anything and everything to justify their beliefs. The wise try to prove themselves wrong, and when they can’t, only then do they know something. Everyone else just pretends.

One of the most profound themes was about cutting the wicked circle of tradition and habit. The baker, while still a boy, was abandoned by his father, and a string of bad luck had followed. Though the baker resents his father’s actions, when the going gets tough, he finds himself in his father’s shoes, and seeing no other way, he also abandons his son. Then the ghost of his father meets him in the woods, pleading with the baker to not make the same mistake that he had, to be better than he was. The baker is ultimately touched and returns to his son.

Here I saw a strong allegory. Not only are we wanderers through a forest path, but those who have gone before us are just a few steps ahead. This beautiful depiction strengthened my belief in families that transcend death. I felt that of course our ancestors want us to succeed and, because of them, reach higher summits than they ever could. At the same time, I was impressed at how terrible it is when we let negative legacies carry over generations, when we allow the weaknesses and prejudices of our forebearers to poison our own lives. It reminded me that we’re all free from fate, and whatever we think is in our DNA, our minds are stronger. It reminded me that no matter where we’ve been, we can start fresh today.

The capstone of this theme is when the baker urges Jack not to seek revenge against the man who had inadvertently killed Jack’s mother but to let go of the hate and move on. What had happened was terrible, but the Baker could see where the dark path of revenge would lead … a path that never ends. After everything these characters had suffered, and as the remaining four clung to each other while many of the others had destroyed themselves from the consequences of their actions, it was as if Occam’s razor had cut to the center, dispelling the chaff of the pretenses of humanity, leaving only the solid core of what was unmistakably human. Then, to me at least, the movie was anything but gray.

For me the most vivid image was the scene in which Cinderella went to her magical mother-tree in the forest, who, in answer to a sincere heart — the recurring theme of the movie being the simple phrase “I wish” — transformed the girl’s rags into a beautiful gown. Again, I loved this sense of familial ties, love, and power than transcend death. But I felt a stronger impression, that the universe is magical. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about atheism and questioning my faith against a model of the universe that, as far as we can empirically observe, is godless, soulless, random, and meaningless. And while I gained nothing from this movie by way argument on this subject, what I did gain was a reminder that struck the bottom of my soul: I totally believe in the magical universe. Call it insane, but I do. And as far as I’m concerned, what feels right is so much more apt to conform to reality than what we can logically defend.

Fairy tales are totally where it’s at. Good job, Disney, Sondheim, Lapine, and all.

Three Moments of Brilliance

The Stephen and Teresa Gashler FamillySunday was a day of brilliance for my offspring. Humor me as I relate their tales of discovery, courage, and beautiful non sequiturs.

Moment 1

At church, Teresa gives me our squirming baby Percy, and with a look of exasperation, asks me to take him into the foyer. I do so, where I set Percy down onto the floor and place a little toy not too far in front of him (toy sounds better than the mechanical pencil I found on the couch). Percy’s still learning to crawl, and he hasn’t yet learned to use his legs. He usually just pulls against the floor, and when the going gets tough, throws up his limbs like a beached whale and cries. He’s in this process of accepting defeat when another parent places a baby on the floor. This baby also sets her eyes on the toy, and being an expert crawler, rapidly makes her way toward the loot.

Percy sees this threat with alarm, and loathing the thought of another claiming his object of desire, finds a second wind. He squirms, rocks, and tugs, but his arms just don’t have the tork he needs. His enemy is drawing nearer. Then, as his desperate little brain reels for a solution, the key finally hits him. For the first time in his life, he raises his baby bum as his knees slip into gear. He finds traction. He pushes from behind. His body propels forward. In awe of his newly-discovered power, he repeats the process. Again and again. Just as the imposter is about to claim the prize, Percy lunges forward and snatches his rightful property. As the would-be usurper is snatched away, Percy rejoices in his spoils. This day he’s become a man.

Moment 2

After church, my six-year-old Ariah wants to play a game with me. I regretfully inform her that I have to study my home teaching lesson. A few minutes later, I’m out the door and climbing into the car. As I pull the car into reverse, Ariah shoots out the front door and cries, “Daddy, daddy, where are you going?” Didn’t I just tell her? Thinking this is a silly game, I continue to pull out of the driveway. Then I hear her screaming my name and crying, so I stop the car an roll down the window. “I’m going home teaching,” I say with confusion.

“Oh,” she says, wiping away a tear.

“Where did you think I was going?”

“Off to war.”

Moment 3

Before church, for no reason that I know of, my three-year-old Aspen surprises me by placing a fez on my head and announcing, “I dub you the king of Uranus.”

My Interview with Author Johnny Worthen

Multi-genre and award-winning author Johnny Worthen shares inspiring advice on finding your muse, getting published, and sticking with it. “Every book needs to be written. Not every book needs to be published.” Also, I face a dark enchantment that threatens his manliness. This was definitely one of the most inspiring discussions I’ve been a part of. If you’re interested in writing, you should definitely give this a listen. Johnny Worthen is awesome!

Of Transcendentalism and Counterculture

Forest pathwayWhen one has spent most of his life lounging and binging, and then, in a time of unprecedented willpower, he pushes himself into fitness, achieving a runner’s high, the world around him starts to glow. His ignorance is dispelled, his perspective irrevocably changed. Suddenly everyone around him who hasn’t yet partaken of this fruit appears unenlightened.

To apply this principle to philosophy, when for years one has been warned against a certain behavior or idea, and then she discovers that this forbidden fruit is, in fact, sweet, she also experiences a high, and everyone around her who hasn’t tasted of this fruit appears unenlightened.

This happens throughout the world. The enlightened seek out those of like-minds. Together they laugh at the ignorance they’d once known. They seek out additional transcendent experiences, wondering how else has their culture suppressed them? Suddenly they are truth seekers on heroes’ journeys, on holy quests against ignorance.

But the world appears to be more random than they’d romanticized. They discover that there’s no dark force trying to keep them in ignorance, that the intentions of those around them are mostly good, if near-sided. Yet the feelings of transcendence are addicting, so the enlightened seek out new thresholds to breech.

They find one, though the afterglow is not as powerful as that of the first. While the first endowed them with pure truth, the second is something of a half truth. But a half truth is better than no truth at all, so they take what they can get, and once again, the feeling satisfies their needs. Almost. With the domino effect in motion, they press forward, though the pickings are getting scantier. Now and then they’re rejuvenated by a full truth, but often they have to settle for more half truths, here and there a quarter truth.

Meanwhile a new culture arises: counterculture. The enlightened spend their time deconstructing the facades of their predecessors. They satirize ignorance. In contrast to sanctimony, they espouse irreverence. To make a point, they replace didactic conventions with a celebration of frivolity. In contrast to unfounded judgment, they cease to make any judgments. They embrace anything that fits the tone of their new culture, always in search of new ideas with which to break up the monotony. Each deconstruction releases a bit more energy, mimicking the glow of that first transcendent experience.

Then there’s a problem. There’s nothing left to deconstruct. The satire is no longer funny. The irreverence is … irreverent. The profane profane. The frivolous frivolous. A culture of counterculture, with no pretenses, no facades, and no judgment is a beginning, but it leaves its citizens wanting. They’re warned against partaking of the forbidden fruits of the old culture.

And then one partakes, and the feeling is addicting.

A True Friend Gives Me Candy

Stephen and Aspen Gashler with candy from an anonymous "true friend"Yesterday I made an idle lets-pass-the-time-at-work-with-silly-Facebook-comments comment in which I declared that true friends would leave me candy bars on my doorstep. What was my surprise when I learned today that Timp Floral had delivered me a basket full of king-sized candy from an anonymous “true friend”. Whoever you are, gallant soul, you must be knighted! In any case, this valiant deed has spared all of my Facebook friends form an untimely purging. You may all rest in peace. It’s as if, in some mystical way, I was just taught the true meaning of friendship … which is exactly what I thought it was: a true friend is someone who brings you candy.

My Interview with Author Margot Hovley

This is episode 4 of my show, in which In interview Margot Hovley, author of The End Begins series. She shares some great writing tips, as well as cool ideas such as surviving the EMP bomb and rediscovering the skills of our ancestors. Also, the nefarious Nefi Ledezma finally gets his comeuppance from his mother-in-law.