Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Great Escape

Certain kinds of escapist entertainment are like sugar: you end up with a sickening feeling of insatiable stimulation that often leads to sleeplessness. Such is the effect of sadomasochistic pornography, whose imagery is invasive like a computer virus. James Cameron’s Avatar naturally falls into the category of escapism, with its facile Manichean world and its latter day superheroes, in this case oversized blue creatures with tails and their man-made doppelgangers, who provide a repository for human consciousness. The movie is crudely and obviously anti-American, and yet the fundamental twist upon which the drama unfolds has a sweetness that defies ideology. It’s like the old westerns about the singular band of cowboys who doff their chaps and end up joining the rednecks. In recent times, there’s the case of Joe Dresnok, the American who defected to North Korea 44 years ago and is the subject of the film, Crossing the Line. Avatar earns its stripes simply by the grandeur of its ambition. It may be a fundamentally escapist piece of cultural entertainment, but it’s also a cultural event in which a huge segment of society, literally everywhere, has stopped to watch the show. In this case the rows of viewers, staring up at the big screen, eyes covered in 3-D glasses, are a spectacle in themselves. Classic Greek theater, medieval passion plays, Shakespeare’s Globe—all provided this kind of invention in their day. Avatar takes all the current conventions of genre cinema, orchestrating the visual effects and emotional manipulation on such a grand scale that you are confronted with a piece of candy of historical importance. The impact of this kind of iconic escapism is almost communal. The audience so totally gives itself up to the event that the experience is selfless. In other words, it’s a great escape—the likes of which  is only pulled off by by the most ingenious con men and magicians.


  1. Actually, dramatic spectacle has differed vastly from age to age. In the dramatic theory adumbrated by Aristotle in his POETICS, spectacle was accorded the lowest rank in the hierarchy of theatrical presentation; in fact, the philosopher conceived of physical movements and interactions between actors as being subordinate to the "mental" actions and plot of the play as created by its dialogue and story.

    "Spectacle," in the sense of miracles and other special (or specular) effects, was from ancient times the province of oracles, mystagogues, and their temples. Apparently, lavishing it upon drama was unthinkable, or perhaps merely un-thought-of. Self-lighting altars, self-opening portals, self-playing trumpets, magic dispensers of wine and milk, and many other tricks were employed to impress or deceive the worshiping public, long before their reincarnation in the modern epoch as the stuff of special "FX".

    In the Elizabethan period, plays like Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST were bare of most visual special effects; backstage "machinery" was confined to a thunder-machine (a piece of sheet metal fixed at one end to a support and shaken), and the scene of the play is set only through the lush dialogue of the various characters. The Bard throws his audiences back on the resources of their individual and collective imaginations and knowledge of classical myth and history. It's a sad thing to reflect that Prospero et al, if presented true to their epoch as they would have been performed at the Blackfriars, could scarcely hope to hold the attention of any kid born between the invention of CGI and video games.

    Perhaps it is futile and idiotic to speak of progress in art, but a valid case can perhaps be made for progress in the invention of artistic media. From the Renaissance onward, theatrical machinery evolved at an exponential rate, first in giving the drama a static sense of depth (as in Palladio's and Scamozzi's Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Italy) and later giving it motion with moving props, scenery, and lighting. Surely these inventions changed forever the audience's perception of drama in their times: prior to the introduction of these bells and whistles, the stage had for a very long period been a rather nondescript space upon which the only moving objects were human beings; henceforth, no play would be complete without its thunder and lightning, its ships arduously breasting the stormy waves, its artificial dawns and dusks, its Mephistophelean villains materializing and vanishing in explosively phosphorescent billows of smoke.

    Later, filmic media like movies, television programs, and animation (conventional and computer-aided) seem to have permanently changed the perception of drama in a different way by rendering its live performance a vestigial practice. One could pay a nickel (or 45 cents during this writer's childhood) at the cinema ticket booth and see the same performance repeated on screen move-for-move, word-for-word, day after day, ad nauseam. Many popular dramatic art-forms - farce, burlesque, vaudeville - met their deaths shortly after the birth of the movies. (Why see Feydeau when Chaplin does it so much better and makes it funnier? But witness the irony that Charlot was great by virtue of his ingenious use of his live-stage training in his films.)

    With the advent of the talking pictures, the perception of illusion was complete. At last, the drama of the mind's camera eye could be played out on screen just as it unfolded within one's head as one interacted with and moved through the world outside oneself. Movies supplanted live theater. People still go to theaters, but how many of them attend plays?

    Down in the dumps and singing unamplified dirges, mourn the death of live drama, killed by the relentless processional progression of artistic media.

  2. What about Olivier in Henry the V, Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream (which was a painting), or Enfants de Paradis, essentially a play on film or let's deal with Shakespeare our Contemporary, to quote Jan Kott, I mean of course Bergman who is as great as Shakespeare, DON'T YOU THINK? and each time you see Persona or Fanny it's as if you are seeing a singular performance, ie it exhibits those Protean effects that kind of define greatness. Es is alles vieglieht, does that mean it's all the same. I'm just practicing. I'm in ageement with you but its fun to fence. love Francis

  3. scusi,my German is off dasselbe? F

  4. The key to differentiating all of these magnificent films from play versions of their stories is simple: does the camera-eye that is witnessing and recording the performance MOVE? If it does, it effectively breaks through the fourth wall of the dramatic situation and plunges us in medias res. Then we as spectators are privileged to witness - even if only partially - the spectacle as it unfolds to us as participant/observer-actor.

    Take the example of LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS: while it is true that most of the movie could have been witnessed on the stage by an audience, this station point is broken during the Turkish bath scene when Lacenaire viciously and cold-bloodedly stabs the unarmed Comte de Montray to death. Whereas the audience of the play would see both actors in this scene and witness the murder, the camera viewpoint CHANGES, closing in on Lacenaire's evilly leering face alone, followed by the murdered man's cry of death-agony.

    Again, take Olivier in HENRY V, Act III, Scene i ("Once more unto the breach, dear friends"): The scene opens immediately with a dissolve-montage to the seas Henry and his men cross on their way to France, which then dissolves to a scene of soldiers dragging a cannon away from a beach. These montages are quite impossible for an audience to view during a classic live performance of the play; not only do the montages change in an instant, they are also in motion.

    Or again, in Bergman's PERSONA, the sudden cuts to human heads and other body parts seen at odd angles are unavailable to the audience of live action drama, to say nothing of the other shifts of view. These viewpoints are impossible for such an audience.

    As you know, my critique was never of the greatness of the performances within these films; they are unquestioned masterpieces. But they are fundamentally of a different order than live drama. They are different by virtue of the "I am a camera" viewpoint that instantaneously transforms the film audience into participant/observers.

    In the prophetic words of Jaures: «Celui-ci tuera celui-la.» ("This will kill that.") Say goodbye to another obsolete art form, or two, or three...


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