Sunday, June 4, 2017

Spontaneous Speechmaking

As a veteran attendee of conferences over the last quarter century, I have become accustomed to a series of familiar rituals.  The speakers gather round a table on the podium or speaking area, and one by one they deliver their papers, invariably accompanied these days by PowerPoint presentations of variable quality.  Sometimes the slides bear very little relationship to the arguments presented; on other occasions presenters copy their entire paper on to the slides, forcing the audience to wonder why they are speaking at all.  We could readily discover what their topic might be through reading the slides.

Nine days ago I delivered a piece in Thessaloniki, Greece, on the audience’s role in adaptation.  I planned it roughly according to a paper I had recently completed on a similar topic.  I would begin with an explanation of the popular appeal of Yeşilçam films in Sixties and Seventies Turkey, concentrating in particular on the symbiotic relationship established between performers, producers, and their audiences.  I would then survey the changes in the Turkish film industry in the Nineties, when Yeşilçam died out and the television serial, or dizi, dominated the ratings on public service as well as private broadcasting.  I would finish with a survey of attitudes in various countries towards the diziler, which have proved both financially as well as popularly successful.  I had spent several hours putting together a PowerPoint presentation which I hoped would not fall into the kind of methodological traps I have previously described (

I was due to speak at 13.30.  I went to the morning sessions, secure in the knowledge that I had prepared my presentation and could answer questions on it.  As the session unfolded, however, it became increasingly clear that other presentations were focusing on subjects resembling mine.  A Portuguese colleague offered a fascinating insight into the early days of the local film   industry, where the combination of censorship and capitalism led to an idiosyncratic product very similar in terms of content and form to Yeşilçam.  Another presenter, this time from Greece, looked at the contemporary reception of Bill Haley’s film Rock Around the Clock (1956), and its potential for generating “moral panics” (as far as the media were concerned, that is).  Precisely the same thing had occurred in the Turkish film industry, especially when films dealt with family and marital issues.

I began to write furiously while the other presentations were delivered.  I decided to ditch much of what I had previously prepared and restructure my presentation around the relationship between industry, performers and audience.  Following Simone Murray’s arguments, I wanted to show how the form of a Yeşilçam drama did not depend so much on the screenwriter, nor on textual issues such as fidelity, but rather on what the audiences expected.  Hence the fondness for recycling familiar melodramatic plots centering on good and evil.  I followed that with the piece on audience reaction to the diziler outside Turkey, to show how audiences in different territories constructed different evaluations of the same material, both in informal conversations and online discussion groups.  I ended up by calling for more systematic studies of the role of audience, especially in a digitized world where local and global issues were often inseparable.

The only snag was that I had to present this spontaneously with the minimum of notes to work from.  The traditional props of the conference speaker – the PowerPoint presentation and the elaborately worded written lecture – were unavailable to me.  As my therapist once memorably said, I had to “fly by the seat of my pants.”

I underestimated the resilience of the human spirit in such situations.  I talked to the audience as if I was talking to friends in a teashop, keeping my tone conversational, and returning periodically to my main themes (adaptation and industry, audience studied) to aid comprehension.  Subconsciously I felt my head moving from right to left, trying to make sure I looked at every one of the audience, even though they seemed somewhat blurred (I was wearing my reading rather than my distance eyeglasses).  As I warmed to my theme, idea after idea came to my mind; I could readily quote the previous presenters’ work on Portuguese films to suggest transnationality).  Conclusions have always been my bugbear, but in this presentation the ending appeared perfectly logical: we need to expand our frame of reference in adaptation studies to include nonwestern cinemas and their histories.

I felt good at the end. For someone who experiences problems of self-esteem, especially with the deterioration in my voice, this was particularly gratifying.  Only the week before the BBC rang me to make a comment in one of their film programs, but decided not to use my owing to my croaky voice that was not suitable for the airwaves.  Even though the producer denied it fervently, I understood that he was not telling the truth.  No matter: in Thessaloniki I had dealt with my fears and spoken to the best of my ability.

There is no real moral to this story, other than to suggest that adaptation studies bears an intimate relationship to individual psychology.  Sometimes you need to adapt yourself to the exigencies of an unforeseen situation.  The experience can prove stressful, but the results highly beneficial. 

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