Monday, January 8, 2018

Notes on theatre and cinema

In the writings of Pauline Kael, the greatest movie critic who ever lived, you infer a patent distrust of any dichotomy drawn by writers between art and entertainment. At a time when Alain Resnais and Ingmar Bergman were idealised as messiahs and patron saints of the medium, therefore, it’s refreshing, if not disconcerting, to come across essays written by her lambasting them as boring. The question we would have been conditioned by mainstream critics to ask would have been, “Is entertainment art?” We would have answered it in the negative, since even today the gulf between spectacle and contemplation is too obvious and overwhelming to be bridged by the movies. The question she would have asked, on the other hand, would have been, “Is art entertainment?” For her, the cinema had as its salvation its capacity to enthral, to fascinate, in other words, to entertain.

The rift between entertainment and art is the debate between movies and films: the one entertains and is an object for mass consumption, while the other forces you to contemplate and is an “objet” (note the difference) for an esoteric minority. Small wonder, then, that Kael refused to term what she reviewed as “films”, an archaic term for the medium if ever there was one, and instead wrote of “movies”, whether from the silent or the sound era. This ontological debate is at the same time an extrapolation from the debate, old as it is and spent as it is today, between cinema and theatre. “When movies, the only art which everyone felt free to enjoy and have opinions about, lose their connection with song and dance, drama, and the novel, when they become cinema, which people fear to criticise just as they fear to say what they think of a new piece of music or a new poem or painting, they will become another object of academic study and ‘appreciation’, and will soon be an object of excitement only to practitioners of the ‘art’,” she once wrote, and she was correct despite the mainstream critic’s insistence on drawing a barrier between cinema and every other objet d’art.

The attempts made by Resnais and, more significantly, Robert Bresson, to liberate the movies from their relationships with those art forms, were lauded by several writers and commentators who wanted to be purveyors of what they referred to as pure cinema. Purity in any art, however, tends to divest it of any life, any vitality, though to deny these films a place in cinematic history would be pushing things too far. Without getting into this tentative, contentious issue (i.e. whether pure cinema is cinema in the first place), I would instead like to suggest that no art can survive for long if its interrelationships with other works of art are questioned and put down. Let’s not forget, after all, that the cinema was derivative (the first films were all theatrical, and even a director like Méliès, with his A Trip to the Moon, was a proponent of the single camera angle which approximated to the eye-line at a typical theatre) and that while very few successful plays have been made of movies, very many successful movies have been made of plays.

It’s interesting to note that while the first few movies were adaptations of plays, and were often heralded for their fidelity to a medium which, though derivative in one sense, was the most industrial the world had ever conceived, the cinema’s later deterioration into sound (the 1920s and 1930s saw a debasement in the quality of films) were put down as a deterioration from the movies to photographed stage plays. Note the insinuation here: at its best, in those first few years, the movies approximated to theatre (and a literary conception of the theatre, which I will get to later); at its worst too, such an interrelationship was stark and clear. Formal, polished dialogues, static camera angles, inflexible characterisations with individuals demarcated as types and not fleshed out, ordinary everymen, were the staple of the play, and they would, right until the forties and the fifties, become a staple of the cinema before the new critics, the Cahiers du Cinema writers, tried to differentiate between the two mediums.

The confusion between the two, moreover, comes out starkly when considering the opinions of two renowned critics and academics from this era, Allardyce Nicoll and Erwin Panofsky. For Nicoll, stage plays thrived on stock types, the movies on individuals; for Panofsky, stage plays thrived on individuals, the movies on stock types. That no real consensus was reached even at that point in film history speaks volumes about the misconceptions which have been formed and sustained with respect to the differentiation between what’s staged and what’s screened. As Susan Sontag aptly points out in her essay “Theatre and Cinema”, “There is no reason to insist on a single model for films.” But such models are often prescribed and recommended. In the writings of Siegfried Kracauer, for instance, reality is supposed to be redeemed through the director’s fidelity to authentic characterisations and settings and a linear narrative. By that token, the work of the neo-realists in Italy, as opposed to the Hollywood moguls (Goldwyn, Mayer, Zanuck, Disney), validates the medium’s very existence, and by that token, the early directors (of Expressionist cinema, and the works of Murnau and Wiene) are to be lambasted as manipulative.

This is a common refrain among those who lament the invasion of the theatre into the cinema. It’s largely a misconception, since no film has redeemed reality. Even the examples that Kracauer brings up, particularly the films of Vittorio de Sica, don’t really pass the test that he devised for them. According to him, de Sica’s Miracle in Milan, which culminates in the poor and the wretched literally flying to heaven, is a failure that refuses to transcend its theatricality, while Umberto D, which used a real model and depicted a heartfelt relationship between that model’s character (a poor, unemployed professor) and his dog, is a success. I believe Pauline Kael supplied the most cogent argument against this line of thinking: that both were, and remained to the last sequence, staged: “How and why is the fantasy defying the medium, and how is it that Umberto D, which is just as staged as a movie set in medieval Japan or Gothic Ruritania, is supposed to have an ‘unfixable flow’?”

Sontag, in that aforementioned essay, points out two ways through which the two mediums have been dichotomised: in formal terms (theatre is live, subjective; the cinema is mobile, objective) and in ontological terms (theatre deploys artifice; the cinema is committed to reality). Having demolished both, she instead contends for a differentiating factor that is more in touch with contemporary realities: that the theatre is confined to a logical and continuous use of space, while the cinema can open the audience up to a discontinuous series of spaces which are not logically ordered around in any particular way. Through editing, through the use of various techniques, the cinema has liberated itself from the same sequential and linear narratives the likes of Kracauer so heartily championed. The cinema has instead become a veritable collage, starting from the films of the Nouvelle Vague directors (prime among them, Godard) to the present-day Wes Andersons and, closer to home, Hitoshi Matsumotos. While the convention before Godard’s time was to approximate cinema to the theatre or literature, today the trend seems to be to approximate it to commercials, to advertising, to music videos: precisely what Godard’s films, especially his colour films, conceded ground to. Distinctions persist and abound, yes, but they are hardly ever sustained.

My own personal view is this, hence: Sontag’s view that cinema and theatre can only be differentiated with respect to their use of space is hardly the only factor we can account for when engaging in differentiating between the two. But it’s the most relevant, and probably the most valid, and it validates Pauline Kael’s view that no art form can be free of any other art form. The latter would of course have taken the former to task over the former’s view that no one set theory can help explain the dynamism of the cinema, since Kael was known for her negative views of Bresson (“Bresson is the only director who made a film [Diary of a Country Priest] that put me to sleep twice. I don't understand why, since I think it's a great movie; I admired it while I was dozing.”) and of Resnais (“Breathless and L'Avventura were to be either admired or disliked or ignored, but Hiroshima Mon Amour was described in hushed tones; it was some sort of ineffable deep experience. Why?”), both of whom were written on reverently by Sontag. But the essential quality that brings the two together over this contentious topic is, simply, that art can’t be compartmentalised, especially not, as the cinema aptly showed, when the birth of one art form was dependent on an already fermented art form (i.e. movies on the one hand, stage plays on the other).

However, the fact that they can’t really be differentiated does not in itself give a broad license to those here, in Sri Lanka, who seek to do away with theatricality and excess from the cinema while retaining the crucial base on which such theatricalities and excesses thrive: symbols, metaphors, and as I mentioned last week, mangled, unfinished sentences. The cinema of Sri Lanka has for the most been bifurcated, by audiences and critics, between such displays of excess (the commercial sector) and unfelt, overhyped, virtually castrated works of art that operate on a more literary conception of the theatre: flourishing on words, stock individuals and types, as opposed to visuals and fleshed out individuals. The former celebrates excess, the latter downgrades it and makes it an excuse to purge out any form of imagery. In both cases, we come across a deterioration in the industry, mainstream or off the beaten track.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, December 31 2017