November 14, 1999
Theater Steps In as an Antidote to the Jar Jars
By DAVE KEHR
AT moments of crisis, the movies have traditionally turned to their older
brother for help. And by and large, the theater has answered the call.
Jessica Lange and Alang Cumming in "Titus," a rendering of Shakespeare's
violent "Titus Andronicus."
The crisis today, as movies enter their second century, lies in the draining
away of one of the principal qualities that make the medium what it is -- its
special, intimate relationship with the physical world.
Now that C.G.I. -- industry shorthand for computer generated imagery -- has
become a basic component of Hollywood filmmaking, the movies have lost the
special claim to verisimilitude that has long set them apart from all of the
As Jean-Luc Godard cannily observed, movies once brought with them the
guarantee that what they showed once actually existed, if only in the form of
Cecil B. DeMille's Red Sea made of Jell-O, parting to allow an optically
printed column of Israelites to dash for freedom. But that guarantee has now
Today, the leaping dinosaurs, erupting volcanoes, cosmic starscapes and
inhuman creatures who populate our mass entertainment have never existed in
any physical form, apart from the strings of 0's and 1's that fill the hard
drives of computer imaging specialists. As Gertrude Stein observed, there is
no there there -- no sense of the concrete, the tactile, the weighty, the
morally or dramatically imposing.
Whether audiences are aware of this new unreality or not, they seem to be
instinctively reacting against it. The lesson of the summer of 1999 is summed
up by the surprising commercial failure of big C.G.I. films like "Wild Wild
West" and "The Haunting," and the unexpected success of such modest,
digitally unenhanced films as "The Blair Witch Project" and "The Sixth
Sense." The audiences who flocked to the latter two movies did not buy
tickets to be frightened by shape-shifting staircases and giant mechanical
spiders, but by actual human performers expressing recognizable human
If effects are out and actors are back, then who's better to usher them in
than stage directors? Transplants from Broadway and the West End are starting
to steal jobs from the film school graduates who have recently dominated the
Most visibly, there is London's Sam Mendes, the director of "Cabaret" on
Broadway, whose "American Beauty" will certainly be one of the front runners
for next year's Oscar. But the coming weeks will bring a flood: the British
theater director Matthew Warchus ("Art"), directing the Sam Shepard drama
"Simpatico," with Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges; Scott Elliott, of the
Roundabout Theater in New York, directing Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore
in the family drama "A Map of the World"; the stage veteran Martha Fiennes,
directing her brother Ralph in "Onegin"; and Julie Taymor, the visionary of
"The Lion King" in its stage adaptation, directing a new interpretation of
Shakespeare's grisly "Titus Andronicus," called "Titus."
What these newly minted filmmakers bring, or at least promise to bring, is a
focus on human beings rather than technological toys. Certainly, the kind of
layered, shifting performance that Sam Mendes elicits from Kevin Spacey in
"American Beauty" is beyond the reach, and perhaps even beyond the
imagination, of a majority of Hollywood's technobrats (though his direction
of Annette Bening in the same film is unforgivably cruel and cartoonish).
In "A Map of the World" (opening on Dec. 3), Mr. Elliott constructs the
entire film around a virtuoso performance by Ms. Weaver as a Midwestern
school nurse unjustly accused of abusing one of her charges; when the setting
shifts to a women's prison, Mr. Elliott capitalizes on the restricted space
and turns it into a theatrical playing area, massing his performers and
blocking the action much as a stage director would do to underline the
developing relationships among Ms. Weaver and the other inmates. Ms. Weaver's
cell becomes a stage within a stage, reserved for moments of particular
intimacy or particular brutality.
Nothing could be further from the wholly abstract, artificial space of a
"Star Wars: Episode I -- the Phantom Menace," where there is no reason to
believe that the actors sharing the digitally generated playing area have
ever met one another, or, as in the case of the spectacularly annoying Jar
Jar Binks, to believe that they even exist at all. They are isolated
elements, patched together by a computer in a place that exists only in a
If movies are slowly sneaking back to theatrical values, it comes, curiously,
at a moment when the theater is sneaking up on the movies.
In "The Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast," "Saturday Night Fever" and
"Sunset Boulevard," the stage has appropriated material that originated on
film. And with this borrowing has come a determination to break out of the
box of the proscenium stage, to escape the conventions of the invisible
fourth wall and create a playing space that shares the freedom of the movies
to shift perspectives and manipulate points of view.
Sam Mendes's staging of "Cabaret" seems, if anything, more cinematic than
"American Beauty" in the way it breaks down the barriers between the audience
and the spectacle, with the added twist that the public itself now becomes
part of the play, involuntary actors who portray the customers of the Kit-Kat
The creative tension between movies and the theater is something that has
existed virtually since the cinema began. Edwin S. Porter, a mechanic and
inventor who almost by accident became the leading director of the Edison
Company -- the production company formed by Thomas Edison to exploit his new
invention -- moved easily between dynamic, exterior epics, filmed in the New
York streets and the New Jersey landscapes where the stories might plausibly
take place ("The Life of an American Fireman" and "The Great Train Robbery,"
both filmed in 1903) and interior, stage-bound narratives, filmed before
painted backdrops in Edison's studios ("Jack and the Beanstalk," 1902).
In France, the same opposition was played out between two pioneering
filmmakers: Georges Méliès, a former stage magician who combined his
theatrical experience with a genius for technical trickery to create filmed
illusions like "The Man With a Rubber Head" and "A Trip to the Moon," and the
Lumière Brothers, who used their invention, the Cinematograph, to record
reality: most famously, with what was then the thrilling spectacle of a train
arriving at a Lyons station, or the strangely compelling, perfectly ordinary
spectacle of the Lumière employees leaving their factory. Here, already, is
the cinema's dual identity as passive recorder and active inventor, as truth
teller and fiction maker.
In 1907, near the end of his career at Edison, Porter happened to hire a
failed actor and playwright named D. W. Griffith to star as the dashing hero
of "Rescued From an Eagle's Nest." One year later, Griffith directed his
first film, "The Adventures of Dolly," for the rival Biograph Company, and
within a few months had established himself as the most significant artist
the new medium had yet seen. A sensitive director of actors, and one of the
first to discover the value of underplaying on screen, Griffith invented a
generation of stars, including Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet,
Mabel Normand and Wallace Reid. A tireless creator of forms, Griffith refined
or discovered virtually the entire range of film rhetoric, revealing the
emotional sense of existing devices like the close-up, finding thrilling new
rhythms in cross-cutting and accelerated action.
Griffith appeared at a crucial moment, when the sheer novelty of moving
pictures had begun to wear off and the new medium was being used as a
"chaser" to clear vaudeville houses between performances. The stage rode to
the rescue again two decades later, when the technological novelty of the
talkies threatened to destroy everything silent filmmakers had learned about
their craft; a raft of Broadway directors, including George Cukor, James
Whale and Rouben Mamoulian, arrived in Hollywood and taught a new generation
of actors how to speak on the screen. Orson Welles, the most famous
stage-to-screen transplant in film history, helped create a new film rhetoric
with his long takes and deep-focus spaces, both techniques with a stage
heritage behind them.
And again in the 1950's, when television began to chip away at the theatrical
audience, stage directors rode to the rescue once more, when Elia Kazan,
Nicholas Ray, Arthur Penn, Joshua Logan and others helped to introduce the
Method to Hollywood. Out of the Actors Studio came a whole new style of
stardom -- Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, Lee
Remick, Julie Harris, Joanne Woodward -- defined by a kind of emotional
volatility and erotic energy that even the inherently intimate medium of
television couldn't come close to duplicating.
Ms. Taymor's "Titus," the first film venture of the aggressively experimental
director whose Broadway "Lion King" was only the latest of her many
avant-garde productions, promises to be the most stylistically adventurous
stage-to-film transition of the new lot. The movie, in fact, owes less to the
minor Shakespearean tragedy on which it is based than to the movies Ms.
Taymor has raided for design ideas: military choreography that suggests Leni
Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film "Triumph of the Will"; a décor of
fascist-futurist architecture borrowed from Bernardo Bertolucci's
"Conformist"; subterranean orgies on loan from Federico Fellini's
"Satyricon." Representing the theater in all this is Anthony Hopkins, whose
performance in the title role, as a Roman general drawn into a tangle of
grisly revenge plots, includes a culinary allusion to his most famous film
performance, as the cannibal Hannibal Lecter.
Ms. Taymor makes lavish use of digital technology in creating dream
sequences, imaginary landscapes and assorted horrors: limbs are severed with
a force and finality no stage technique could accomplish. The action, violent
and absurd, moves forward in a rush of imagery much in the breathless style
of contemporary blockbusters like "Armageddon." This is not your father's
Shakespeare, though it may not be yours, either.
We're still waiting for our digital Griffith -- for the filmmaker who can
unite the expressive possibilities of the new technology with the human
presence of traditional stage work. We can't afford to wait much longer.