Monday, November 14, 2011

Studs Terkel's Working: Representation of Self

Out of all the portraits in the graphic adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Working, I found the portrait of “Dolores Dante, Waitress” the most moving. I think it speaks to an important aspect of work, which I find most alluring, and which is the condition of loving what you do. Now I was tempted to write about a more stereotypical portrait of “loving one’s work” in “Bud Freeman, Jazz Musician” but I think the difference lies in loving one’s work as an artist and finding the art, finding the thing to love, or finding the art in work that is not commonly associated with creative interpretation. “Dolores Dante, Waitress” adapted by Lance Tooks, I felt, was human in its quest to find meaning in the mundane and the necessity of finding meaning in one’s work.

And it takes a sort of philosopher in order to find meaning like Dolores does in her work. Also, what I found really interesting is this concept of the “social actor” or the popular saying, “the world is your stage.” I used to have a favorite quote that a friend of mine shared with me. A bum on the streets of San Francisco once told her, “Hey baby. It’s yo’ life. I’m just passing through.” It’s interesting for me to think about everyone as an actor, playing the lead role in their life movie. I read recently a chapter in Bill Nichols Introduction to Documentary Film where he spends a lot of time on the social actor. This also brings to mind another quote that I really like, which is, “An artist’s greatest work of art is her own personality.” There’s this conscientious shaping that goes on in every social actor of how they wish other people perceive them.

That’s what I find so fascinating about these kinds of “documentary interviews” which is essentially what Studs Terkel’s Working is comprised of. In the past, I would have argued that they don’t get us past the speaker’s own act of self-representation. They annoyed me to the extent that we are viewers, listeners, or readers are forced to hear how a specific character tells his or her story, and as the filmmaking adage goes, one ought to “show and not tell.” Given the chance to observe someone’s behavior, and draw our own conclusions, or to arrive at conclusions about the character’s motivation through a gentle and non-overt prodding by the storyteller, often can tell a lot more about a person that words spoken within their own framework of how they relate to the world.

Bill Nichols talks about the gap between representation of self and the actual person. He also talks about a “front” which serves as a way to negotiate the nature and quality of human interaction as it unfolds. As such, individual identity is not a permanent, indelible feature, rather, it is a response to others, a flexible means of adaption. I think this gap is what is interesting about watching an act of self-representation—where does it conflict in a meaningful way with a non-subjective reality? How does what a character says and does not match up? When and how does the self-representation or “front” come down? Is it a change that we can see once the speaker gets more familiar with her interviewer? That discrepancy between self-representation and “actual person” is what I want to see.

In the beginning of Dolores’s profile, she is mistress of her world. She knows what she likes, what she doesn’t like; what she’ll stand for, what she won’t. She states clearly her boundaries, her idiosyncrasies in a take it or leave it manner. She talks about the mental games she plays, the theatre of the restaurant, the adrenaline rush of being “under the spotlight.” (Actually, I feel it might have been more apt for her profile to be included under the “In the Spotlight” heading.) She talks about not doing it for the money, and she talks about how her own interpretation negates any function of being demeaned or belittled in her job. In the beginning, it’s a testament to how a free person can define her own world. We’re amazed by, how we might see her world vs. how she sees her world, and we’re humbled.

I think what really does it for me about Dolores is how her profile takes a down turn from all this “hype” that she’s espoused in the beginning. She starts to bring it home when she starts talking about the forces that threaten her “theatre” – jealousy, backstabbing, loyalty, tension, politics, her exhaustion. Lance Tooks renders her in silhouette, head in hands, looking exhausted. And that’s when she gets honest. “Aw hell, why am I trying so hard?” That was very real for me. I can’t speak for others, but I know that my manner of working, the pressure I put on myself, the perfectionism I seek, sometimes you hit a low and you ask yourself, “Why am I trying so hard?

I don’t know who to applaud for this feat of storytelling and the authenticity it lends to her story—is it Studs Terkel’s who edited the interview? Dolores herself for telling her story? Lance Toons for rendering it graphically? But in the end, it was all bright lights and at the end of the night, “I feel drained.” And Dolores is depicted back towards us, curled up over the counter, heels slipping out of her shoes. And I think it says it all—right there. That’s the discrepancy I was looking for between the actor and the real person.

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