Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege

How are plays and films different? What does each of the two mediums do best? True, when you watch a play you're watching live actors, and I've heard people say that this is what makes theatre special. But how do live actors make theatre special? For some, just knowing that the person they're watching is flesh-and-blood (not a photograph) has deep, spiritual meaning, but not for me. I need something more tangible. Not that I need an justification for going to the theatre. I love going, and I find it to be a unique experience. I love going to the cinema, too. It's also unique. I'm not trying to justify either experience or claim superiority for one over the other. Rather, I'm trying to understand why I like both so much and how they are different. When I direct a play, I want to make sure I'm really using the assets of the theatre. If it could just as well be a film, why not make it a film?

There are special ways you can relate to both films and plays if you see a particular film -- or a particular play -- multiple times: films are static. The hundredth time you see "Citizen Kane", it will not have changed. It will contain exactly the same frames as the first time you saw it. This is film's great strength. It will not have changed but you will have. So a movie (like a novel) becomes a sort of benchmark against which you can measure yourself. When I was younger, I identified more with the young Charles Foster Kane. Now I identify more with the older one. The movie is the same, yet it's utterly different to me because I am different.

Plays change each time you see them. This is their great strength. You can go see the same production of "King Lear" ten times, and it will be different each time. This is appropriate, because you can't see the same production a hundred times as you can with films. Runs end. Actors move on. You can't want until you're older and different and then re-watch the same production. So it's lucky that you can -- during a short period of time in your life -- watch the same production and watch it change. I don't understand directors who try to fix their plays in stone, who try to ensure that the actors perform exactly the same way each night. If this is what they want, why don't they direct films instead of plays?

Whether I'm seeing a play or a film, I'm most strongly affected by what isn't on the screen or on the stage. Films and plays make suggestions, and then my brain fills in the blanks. I'm confused by people who claim that watching films and plays is a passive experience. It's not. It's highly active. When they're good, films and plays will hand me A and B but compel me to deduce C. And my C won't be exactly the same as your C, because C is a combination of data from the story and data from my life. So it's vital that plays and films leave things out.

Films should leave out psychology; plays should leave out scenery. Cameras can go anywhere and show me anything, so that's what they should do. The only place they can't go is inside someone's head. So they shouldn't try. They should plop me down in an environment -- and really make me sense that environment -- but they should leave some blanks as to how the main characters feel about this environment. I love the way Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" thrusts me into Vietnam and makes sniper bullets whiz past my head. I'm less thrilled with the voice-overs, which try to get inside the main character's head. This seems so un-cinematic and weak, an effect better left for a novel or a play.

But I love Hamlet's "To be or not to be." I love eavesdropping on his thought processes. I'm not completely sure why I buy this more on stage than in a film. After all, I can't really ever hear someone's thought processes. If this happens in a story, it's always an artifice. And maybe that's the key. By it's nature, theatre is always more artificial than film. Film can take me on location or fool me with special effects; theatre can't. And it shouldn't try. It will never succeed as well as film, so it should admit that hyper-realism isn't its strength.

When I'm sitting in the theatre, I'm primed for stage conventions. These conventions could be almost anything (a simple chair is a throne, a beam from a spotlight is a ray from the sun), but the strongest convention is that of an actor speaking his character's thoughts. It's strong because as a human, I long to connect with other humans this way. I know that I never really can, but in the theatre -- because I'm primed for a different sort of reality -- I can temporarily believe in brain-to-brain communication.

Omit the scenery: "Henry V" contains the most overt example of a play leaving blanks for me to fill in. At the very beginning of the play, the narrator says,
Suppose within the girdle of these walls.
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings...
And if he says this with enough conviction -- enough command of the language -- I do imagine the monarchies and horses.

On the other hand, in a recent film adaptation of "Henry V", I was nonplussed when the narrator said, "Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege..." when I didn't have to work my thoughts at all to see the siege. There were clearly armies and cannons and explosions, right there on the screen.

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