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Drama Queen

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The Theatre (capital letter intentional) is not my milieu. In Hamburg (location of primo German theater houses), I once walked out during the intermission of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. I couldn’t bear to watch those women just languishing around on daybeds any more. I frequently find live theater too stilted or too overblown or too “too” (as my mother would say) in a way I can’t always put my finger on. And then there is my tendency to want to analyze what I’m seeing or reading. Maybe theater moves to fast for my ability to analyze narrative? Even when I read dramas, though, I frequently feel like I’m missing some larger point that the playwright incorporated.

I’m beginning to adjust my views. We watched the HBO version of Kushner’s Angels in America earlier this week and I pondered a bit the ways in which the screenplay author Kushner took the playwright Kushner’s text and adapted it for the screen. He retained so many obviously theatrical elements in the film version–I could just see the angels on wires above the stage in my mind’s eye–and that, in turn, got me to thinking about what makes drama drama and film film.

The Angel saying: “I, I, I, I am the Continental Principality” sounded, to my ears, like some sort of code. A new jargon for a novel literary or dramatic theory. All those syllables–it must mean something. . . .mysterious. So I kept watching, keeping my eyes peeled for the theme, the moment, that would tie the whole business together and explain to me what the hell a principality was and why she wanted Prior to slow down, stop moving forward. So I was rather surprised when the theme, the message, the moment turned out to be: don’t ever stop moving forward; keep progress alive; don’t accept the status quo. Of course I’m willing to concede to others out there more familiar with the work than I am that there is a lot more going on in the film (Jewish male identity could be its own dissertation here, I’m thinking)–but progress is a key issue in the piece.

After I was done saying: “is that all? is it that obvious?” it occured to me that drama–a genre written for live performance on a stage in front of an audience with a limited attention span–likely cannot afford complex theoretical narrative within the work itself (it can be informed by complex theory, of course, but is not likely to reproduce complex ideas in a narrative/dialogic way on stage) simply because it moves to fast for the audience to follow such a dialog/monolog/etc. The “too much” of drama that occasionally irritates me might just be the visual representation of the complex issues in the drama that don’t have space in the dialog.

In other words: maybe I haven’t been missing something because I’m too slow. Perhaps I’ve missed things because I haven’t been willing to integrate the visual with the narrative to form a complex picture of what is going on in the work. Angels in America totally blew me away. Knocked my socks off. It’s amazing–well acted, well directed, clever as all hell–and maybe changed the way I look at theater by being a little bit of theater brought to the silver screen.


Written by Jennifer

January 15, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Posted in film, movie reviews

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Philistines and Parisians: on Dialogue in Film

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Long ago and far away, when Dale and I were not yet married or even living in sin, we rented some movies to watch. Leningrad Cowboys go America and Down by Law. We intended to watch both of them in one night, in that order. Thus began my deep, abiding distrust of Jim Jarmusch. Leningrad Cowboys, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, is an amazing film, to be highly recommended, funny as hell, etc. etc., with the small caveat that it has NO dialogue. There are maybe 13 words in the whole damn film. This makes for a rather intense visual experience, if you get my drift. We laughed. We groaned. We wished aloud for Some Freaking Words, Please! and then we settled into Down by Law.

A worse decision was not possible. The first ten minutes of Down by Law has no dialogue, no voice-over, no words. We were wrecked. Couldn’t do it. We could simply not hang in there and watch what we had been assured over and over again was cinematic genius if it meant no dialogue, no sounds. The Leningrad Cowboys had wrecked us. We turned Down by Law off and waited a good thirteen years before we tried it again. When we watched it a month or so ago, it confirmed what we had always heard: Tom Waits is amazing, Roberto Benigni is a hoot, it’s a great film. Go rent it tonight.

This week, we slid another Jarmusch film into our DVD player, Dead Man, starring (throb, throb) Johnny Depp. Jim has this thing for limited dialogue. I can respect that. Dead Man is an excellent film, and Nobody, the maybe-Indian, totally makes it. The lack of dialogue, coupled with Neil Young’s western-y soundtrack, make for a pretty narcotizing experience, but it is pretty. One might even be inclined to get introspective in the wake of this film–to reflect on fate, on the role that others play in our lives, etc–if one doesn’t fall asleep by the end, lulled into unconsciousness by Young’s haunting soundtrack, which is free to worm its way into your cerebrum uninhibited by pesky words you might need to follow.

So last night we took another Important Film off our “to watch” list: Breathless by Godard, starring Jean Seberg. It is probably bad form to mention Godard and Jarmusch in the same blog post. In fact, after last night’s viewing, I’m pretty sure this post will implode when I hit the “publish” button, because there is NO WAY that a filmmaker who parses dialog down to the absolute bare minimum to keep a movie afloat (Jarmsuch) and a director who has his actors do NOTHING but talk past one another and smoke cigarettes (Godard) can inhabit the same linguistic space. The nameless rage and frustration I once felt after ten minutes of Down by Law is nothing, nada, zippo compared to the resentment that sunk in when I realized Breathless was over and nothing much had happened, save a wannabe-renegade American student thought about loving a total dirtbag and then decided it would be a bad idea. Michel getting shot in the back at the end was, I figured, a fair reward for having annoyed the shit out of me with mindless freaking prattle and this weird tic with his thumb and his lips for 90 minutes.

Evidently, I want it both ways. I want characters to speak to one another in movies. I am a word-oriented person, I want to see or hear words that carry meaning. Given that scenario, I need to be in the right mood for a Jarmusch-y type film. But oy weh! was that Godard annoying! Was it that French New Wave image of the smoking, talking, do-nothing European that so attracted a generation of Americans to French films? That if we talked in meaningless/meaningful phrases like that and smoked cigarettes without filters we, too, could be suave and sophisticated?

So, I may well be outing myself as a hopeless philistine, ignorant to the high-culture represented in the work of a celebrated director. Be that as it may: it’s time to watch James Bond.

Written by Jennifer

November 11, 2008 at 2:53 pm