Wednesday, January 11, 2012

the spiderman effect

so, let me paint a picture for you. well, a moving picture, actually. but let me just bring this image to mind real quick:
spider-man is crouching down, perched on the edge of a building, high above the city streets. most likely on a cornice, or the rounded tip of something that reaches to a pinnacle, so his feet and hands are all occupying the same 2 sqft of space. he looks around and finds a building across the way to shoot a web at, then does so.
and then comes the brilliant part: he launches himself into mid-air. now, attached to his web, he begins swinging directly toward the side of a skyscraper with 20 times the momentum of a kid on a swingset, cuz his pendulum is 20 times longer. the velocity with which he is approaching a large expanse of metal and glass is extreme and nothing can stop it. however, halfway thru that arc, he has spotted the next edifice on which he can attach his web, and he shoots, letting go of the first web the moment the next one can hold his weight and redirect his path. now he is hurtling at nose-bleed speed toward the next massively large and incredibly durable building against which he could easily dash his brains if he didn't find another pivot from which to swing. and this happens over and over till he's home, or has overtaken the bad guys, or has landed in the alley around the corner from the diner where mary jane works.

it must be a hairy business, this sort of travel. takes quite a bit of knowledge of physics, i'd expect. at least the kind that pool players have--angles of incidence and whatnot-- it's just that in this case it's about changing something's course by pulling in a different direction, not pushing. and that 'thing' happens to be one's own body, of which, i can only assume, one would be terribly fond and not want to mangle or destroy.
it is, however, one of the most exhilarating ways of getting around possible. or at least, i can only imagine. and extrapolate. and that's what i'm going to try to do here. because i would like to posit that many of us have actually felt the exact same feeling that spider-man has when he is swooping thru midtown manhattan on his web strings.
it's the feeling you get when you are in the middle of a performance and you stretch out past your self, and maybe even your abilities, to a place that has only two options: complete success or complete failure. you have made a choice bold enough to realize there is no going back, and if the audience doesn't come with you, you will land with your face smack against the glass of some board room 73 stories up.
these are the greatest moments on stage ever. this is where the tension of live performance comes from. you don't have to crowd surf to feel it, tho that is theoretically this same thing, in physical form.
you can argue that succeeding in this 'spidey launch' is a major triumph for the performer, but i think success is as much due to the behavior of an audience in one of these moments. cuz we've all seen it, that moment when you are sure everything is about to fall apart, and then it doesn't. musicians do it, actors do it, circus performers do a really good job of making you think they are doing it, and comics definitely do it (some with more success than others). and i think it says a lot about a person individually, and an audience as a group, by how they respond. if they see the jump and reach out to the performer, or wait and see if the performer can reach them. i've said before that i'm a generous audience. if i like a performer even a little bit, i'll do what i can to make that jump successful, but i'm only one person in a crowd.
cuz i'd argue that the scariest thing about live performance is the fact that each audience has a different length of arc to the pendulum swing, a different distance between pivotable buildings, and you don't actually know how dangerous your jump into mid-air is, how far you are going to have to reach out before the next pivot site is visible and even then you can't be sure whether the web you throw out will stick to it.
we have prolly all seen a performer fall apart. maybe they land one or two swings after the first spidey launch, but at some point they make the fatal error of misjudging a distance (which happens to be the distance between themselves and the audience) and they slip. there isn't a laugh where there should be, or the reverse. and that first grazing of a building can make the performer lose confidence in their next swing. if that happens, it's the death knell. soon, not one of the webs they shoot will hit their targets and eventually the pendulum will swing them into a brick wall of derision. which is the roughest of all places for a performer to be. there is a way of saving the performance after that first miss, but it requires not showing fear, and throwing things--lines, jokes, melodies, webs--out with confident belief that someone out there in the house wants to help keep you alive. that somewhere there is a friendly building that you can attach to and pivot from. cuz when it comes down to it, not many people would prefer to see a performer bite the dust. that is, until the crowd mentality kicks in, and the survival of the fittest concept of weeding out the weak and sick takes over. that's how people get booed off stages. cuz fear on stage is like blood in the water. and it will cause a feeding frenzy.

this exact thing is why i hate, with a towering passion, when anyone says "i'm sorry" on stage. no matter what it's about, it's like signing your death warrant. even if it's cuz you broke a string and have to take 5 long minutes to change it mid-set, it's not worth it. don't say it. just do not say "i'm sorry". ever.
cuz i wasn't sorry i was watching you on stage until you thought to apologize for being there. my time wasn't being wasted till you said it was. and if you are going to betray yourself like that, what's to stop me from betraying you too? it's basically shooting a web out into the ether without the thought of trying to attach it to something. and it kills a performance on contact. or, on the lack of contact.

there are, however, some performers that have no concept of apology in them. ones that have almost completely fooled themselves into believing that a spidey launch has no chance of failure. that the only way to interact with an audience is to throw themselves as high and far as humanly possible, knowing that there is no other way even though there is no certainty of a place to land on the other side. some people make their entire careers out of jumping into the thinnest of air and either being given support by the audience who will follow them anywhere, or by falling, crushingly, into glass or concrete.

now, this post was originally inspired by a conversation with my friend ed who is working on a piece that describes r. kelly as having this sort of career, even when he turns something like the slow and sexy r&b song 'feeling on your booty'(which normally goes something like this) into an opera. like so. (please, god, click on the second link. it is so worth it.) he knows he has the audience eating out of his hand, and then he just goes off on the most random trajectory possible, and they are all right there with him, totally led by the nose wherever he wants. it's a brilliant moment of stage performance. it's a spidey launch of epic proportions. and i gotta say, it makes me kinda love him.

cuz the true triumph for a performer in a spidey launch situation is knowing how to feel for that sweet spot when the audience is most receptive to your reaching out and are ready to open up the opportunity for you to jump. sure you might not know what it will look like to swing along their rooftops, but you can judge the right time to start the pendulum swinging. and, as in the case of r. kelly above, you can give them a heads up. in fact, he even asked permission first, smart man.
and yeah, since i've practically already said it (must be r. kelly's influence), this process is kinda like having sex with your audience, so you best be doing whatever you can to make them feel good and be paying attention to when they are ready. and for god's sake, don't you dare say you are sorry in the middle of it.

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