March 7, 2011

How Film & Television Work

Note: this essay is a companion piece to "How Theatre Works, " from November, 2008

You are driving late at night through open country. Other than stars and the beams of your headlights, you’re surrounded by darkness. Then, off in the distance, a square of light appears, growing larger and steadily brighter. Someone is living out here—and as you pass, you see the light flickering. They’re watching TV.

For as long as I’ve been alive, theatre folk have been bemoaning their loss of popularity to TV without very seriously asking why this came about. In fact a reason often proposed was that television is just so much more convenient. Which is no doubt true—for most of its history, people did not go out for TV since they could watch in the “comfort and privacy of their own home.” But the problem is that—especially in its early days—television was pretty stupid[1] stuff. So the basic conclusion would have to be that people are so inherently slothful that even bad entertainment, close at hand, is preferable to having to go out for the good stuff. There was even dark muttering about the soporific powers of television; people were said to be glued to the set—literally unable to get up or go out. As to why something so dull should cast such an hypnotic spell, there could be but one obvious answer: the people who liked to watch television must themselves be pretty dull. Theatre thereby awarded itself the booby prize of being “highbrow.”

Inconveniently, theatre had already lost this very argument decades earlier—to the movies—which people were not only willing to go out for, but were clearly exciting in ways theatre couldn’t compete with. Movies were big; movies were (eventually) loud; movies could use photography to “make real” such thrilling (but in real life, rare) sights as lingering smoldering kisses, gunfights, chases and an enormous ape on the Empire State Building. Even so, it took Andy Warhol pointing his camera at the Empire State Building to demonstrate what everyone should have known all along: that nothing is actually duller than unedited footage. To make movies interesting, you have to make edits[2].

Edits are nothing more than cuts—the German word for editing, “schnit,” means precisely that. But a work containing cuts is anything but simple, because it’s discontinuous; it’s made of different pieces of “stuff” which have been spliced together. And if movies had done nothing else, they would have been revolutionary simply by forcing audiences to read (which is to say reassemble) discontinuous art.

To restate the obvious: an edit creates a discontinuity by splicing together two pieces of different stuff. Each piece has been cut out of something longer and larger, and placed in sequence before and after something else. Both the shaping of the individual pieces and the difference between those pieces in the assembled sequence must be apparent. (If you cut a piece of footage and splice it together without taking anything away, there is no edit. Editing means cutting something out as much as sticking different things together.) The viewer’s task is to follow, which is to say, resolve the discontinuity between the end of one thing and the beginning of the next. The illusion that various snippets of film all flow together into a seamless whole is known as continuity.

And the curious thing is that the illusion of continuity does not depend on enforcing any similarity between the elements. Even in the earliest days of silent film, when intertitles would suddenly appear in the middle of the action, the fact that “lifelike” action was temporarily suspended while the screen filled with lettering was not perceived as disruptive. Continuity was not affected because the intertitles were obviously part of the action. Following the action seemed practically effortless. Yet in fact, it was not.[3]

As you watch silent movie characters movie speaking to each other, you automatically ask: “I wonder what they’re saying?” This constitutes mental activity over and above just “watching.” It is separate from—though clearly related to—the action of the story; evidence of the parallel process of the viewer reassembling the action. A moment later, the intertitle provides the answer. More mental activity. In switching between action and intertitle, the silent movie is thus posing and answering a series of tiny questions; and the audience, consciously or not, is having to work a bit harder than with theatrical dialog onstage. But the extra effort isn’t onerous—it’s actually pleasurable, because it sets up and resolves expectations (which are the very life blood of drama). The audience knows that every question will be answered, and every answer comes as a tiny reward.

The alternation between action and intertitle is the simplest form of discontinuity—A Z A Z—but of course every conversation is itself an exchange between speaker and listener (who then reverse roles as listener and speaker). Hence silent movies soon introduced the close up to alternate between speakers—A Z B Z A Z B Z—which made even more interesting sequences by introducing alternation within the action while using the camera frame to “cut out” vital information: the listener’s reaction. And the reaction shot allows for even more complex sequences —A Z B Z A’ Z B Z—raising the stakes of the question by showing first the speaker, then the reaction, and only at that point the resolution of the exchange through the words of the intertitle.

It’s a commonplace that the earliest dramatic films were little more than staged plays, with the camera frame taking the place of the proscenium. The camera itself never moved, and whenever actors stepped beyond the frame, they left the scene as well. As movies became more cinematic—which is to say, as the audience tolerance for missing information (whether cropped out or cut out) grew more robust—they increasingly sped up the information flow by streaming together smaller and smaller packets of compressed and incomplete information, trusting that the audience would chase even harder after the data points to put them together again. Whole scenes became little more than data points—lightweight, fleet, full of puzzles and solutions.

It’s no accident that the disintegration of film structure accelerated with the advent of sound. Sound (as it had even in the silents) provided the glue. The camera might jump around, but the scene stayed the same until the music changed. Once conversation moved to the soundtrack, the camera could roam wherever it chose and the rhythm of the edits could break free almost entirely from the back-and-forth of the verbal exchange. Sound could accompany image, but did not have to. Once again, some of the most purely “cinematic” devices involve the separation of sound and image: a man and woman in heated argument, say, as the camera pans to a child playing quietly on the floor. But the seismic shift that sound represented was even more profound: sound introduced a second information thread parallel to the visual track.

Taken by themselves, the images of the shower scene in Psycho are a little unsettling (and more than a little arty). In itself the score is deliciously, cheesily lurid. But taken together, the two are devastating and the extra leverage comes from the synesthesia—the mental activity by which the two, being processed simultaneously, are thus integrated. Nobody asks what all those the violins are doing at the Bates motel. Everybody knows they’re providing the emotion, and impact of the visual and aural information coming together in the viewer’s mind—immersive on the big screen but still pretty interesting on the small screen—is far, far more than the sum of the parts.

Which explains the soporific hold of television. People “glaze out” because even the worst TV involves periodic jumps and cuts between snippets of visual information and an accompanying sound and dialog track, all of which must be integrated by the viewer (to say nothing of commercials; to say nothing of channel-surfing). Meanwhile the best TV has evolved far beyond simple single-episode stories to ever-more complex interweavings of narrative threads across whole seasons of episodes. But even boring television—say, the Shopping Network or the Weather Channel—requires far more sophisticated information processing than the theatre. The defining property of television may ultimately be this unique ability to blur the line between watching and not-watching, inducing a condition of desultory consensual boredom. If so, the property is structural. Like gazing into a digital fire, television provides just enough information to hold the attention without taxing it.

Whereas the problem of theatre is just the reverse. As I have argued elsewhere (How Theatre Works). watching theatre involves noticeable effort because the dramatic illusion requires maintaining an uninterrupted separation of all dramatic elements (e.g., character, locale, world-of-the-play) from their real-world equivalents (actor, scenery, stage). To make this as easy as possible, theatrical practice favors a single-focus approach whereby narrative tends to be linear, things follow logically, dramaturgy seeks consistency and corroboration, and only one thing is happening on stage at any time. A 21st Century play, in other words, has roughly the same information complexity as a silent film. No wonder theatre seems dull.

Which raises a radical question: does the contemporary play (linear, representational, narrative, sympathetic) require this low level of complexity? Is it necessarily slow-paced, single-threaded and monofocused? If so—and it’s hard to imagine how dramatic structures of increasing density and discontinuity could exercise the same emotional hold as the “straight play”—the theatre faces an intriguing choice: whether to become locked into a form for the sake of its particular expressiveness (which is, essentially, the condition of opera) or to compete with contemporary media by evolving new forms and structures.

This, obviously, is the dividing line between conventional and experimental theatre. Mainstream American theatre is, quite literally, an extension of late 19th Century conventions for 19th Century purposes: today’s serious plays are still basically moral dramas, in which one is asked to care about what happens to the protagonists. This is as true of contemporary playwrights (pick any straight play on Broadway and tell me I’m wrong) as it was of Williams[4] and Miller and O’Neill and Odets, and so on down the line. But I would also argue that the many and varied approaches of experimental theatre, at least since the mid 1970’s, can all be understood as different ways of increasing the complexity and density of information: asking the audience to work harder, in order to make theatre more interesting.

With the possible exception of Hula, Wooster Group pieces have all been edited structures, composed through the juxtaposition of different threads, with no attempt to disguise the seams or edits. Their technique has not only been widely adopted by younger ensembles and theatre makers, but is now being applied to text composition (i.e., playwriting) by such artists as Anne Washburn, Young Jean Lee, Jason Grote, and of course the present author. Collage writing, as practiced by Charles Mee and others, is another obvious example of this strategy.

In much the same way, the introduction of media simultaneous with live action (again, the Woosters being pioneers, though the technique was common among late 70’s performance artists and theatre groups) requires the audience to follow and integrate two information concurrent threads. While the general approach is visual, Foreman’s use of recorded sound and music provides an auditory example.

Foreman is also the pre-eminent example of a dramatic structure reduced to a series of data-points. Each line in a Foreman play typically leads to or suggests the next, but because each connection is at best associative (i.e., people rarely answer each other directly), the dramaturgic macro-structure tends toward the chaotic—what Vygotsky[5] calls an “unfocussed chain.” John Jesurun’s plays, which in turn have influenced Young Jean Lee, also deployed rapid-fire exchanges of often semi-meaningless dialog in brief and tangentially related “scenes.” I would also argue that a completely different strategy—reducing dramatic action to narrative monolog (e.g. the later plays of Wallace Shawn and radio theatre of Joe Frank, but also plays from the U.K. by writers like Sarah Kane and Mark O’Rowe)—serves the same function. Because the language is descriptive, the action can not only flow instantly from place to place in time and space but describe things (objects, landscapes, inner thoughts and feeling states) which are largely inaccessible to standard dramaturgy.

Nor is the text the only available medium of information. A similar wide-spread trend in experimental theatre has been the de-construction of conventional models of character and persona (which are also, by definition, “integral”) in favor of non-realistic performance strategies, in which the actor impersonates or “quotes” other performances or performance styles. Though the material is very different, the approach is the same—introducing points of separation in what had previously been considered a unified whole. Watching Rinde Eckert or Taylor Mac, RadioHole, Big Dance Theatre or the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, the audience cannot possibly read the performers as being “in character.” Rather, they are typically executing routines in which rote or otherwise “unmotivated” behaviors intermingle with snippets of and allusions to the vast common cultural library currently maintained by our contemporary media.

I have also argued elsewhere (ibid) that theatre is inherently more “abstract” than film because it depends upon an intensive remapping process. The underlying premise is that focused waking consciousness itself—what we call “just being aware”—is more than “mere” perception and involves complex, integrative mental processing, recreating the world around us as a kind of thought-analog. Theatre, then, self-replicates our ongoing mental map recursively, erecting a fictive world (“the play”) within the clearly defined physical boundaries of the stage. Everything inside is the Play (even though everyone understands it actually consists of actors and scenery remapped as—i.e., “pretending to be”--the play); everything outside is not (even though we, the spectators, are essential to making the play a play, instead of a public rehearsal). Film and TV, on the other hand, are always just looking at pictures. The pictures may need to be reassembled to form a coherent whole, but they remain just pictures[6]. The imaginative exercise of watching movies as if they were “real” is of a different order than the act of watching an actor “in character.”

In the theatre, the remapping process allows an object (horse, car) to be expressed by any other object (stick, steering wheel). Thus one rides a horse by mounting a stick, and drives a car by holding up a steering wheel. And film—poor film, for all its explosions and special effects—is condemned to be forever literal. Objects have to be what they actually are[7]. In a film, if someone sits in a chair, holds up a steering wheel, and claims to be driving a car, they’re either in an acting class or a mental ward.

Thus theatre, in principal, has the potential to take discontinuous art much farther than film and television, because at its core, it is necessarily about perceiving the relation between things and ideas about things. But to do so, theatre must be willing to forego its deeply ingrained preferences for consistency and continuity and, even more fundamentally, its tendency toward illustration. Because people are the medium of theatre, they are necessarily the matter of theatre as well; theatre is irreducibly about people, and after the advent of realism, it is hard to see how this could mean anything besides showing how people interact. The illustrative impulse in theatre is both circular and self-fulfilling.

The limitations of illustration only become apparent in comparison with the preference for distortion characteristic of art. Whereas illustration seeks fidelity and favors virtuosity, distortion is always introduced by the artist, who creates a discrepancy between the image that is, and the idea of how it ought to be (i.e., “look like”). Once again, it is the degree of difference between these two—another gap for the mind to leap across—that allows the spectator to enter in and draw connections; the dissonance of a deliberate “unlikeness” that generates expressivity and meaning.

For like any art, the task of theatre is not to re-present reality but rather to recreate the ways in which human beings assemble that reality themselves—which is a different thing.

[1] Trust me.

[2] The situation is actually a little more complicated. The power of documentary footage depends largely on content—as, for example, the Zapruder film, or security camera footage of an armed robbery. No amount of editing will make a friend’s home movies more interesting.

[3] All film sequences in this essay are from The Mask of Zorro (1920), with Douglas Fairbanks, which I selected primarily because it was the first silent film I found online.

[4] Does this mean I like his plays? Reader, it does. But they are formally—structurally— no different from those of H. Ibsen, dead 5 years before Williams was born; and Williams now having been in his grave these 28 years, we're a mere 17 years to the bicentenary of the Norwegian. Folks, it's gotta stop

[5] L.S. Vygotsky (1896 – 1934), Soviet developmental, linguistic and socio-cultural psychologist. For Vygotsky, as well as many other fascinating ideas about and examples of narrative, I am profoundly indebted to Arthur Applebee’s The Child’s Concept of Story: Ages Two to Seventeen, one of the books that changed my life.

[6] I am arguing here that there is a fundamental difference between pretending a movie is real and pretending a play is real. When we intuitively say that movies are more “lifelike,” we are really only saying the experience is more immersive—especially in comparison with the theatre, where the actual scenery is so clearly not the ostensible locale of the action. We may believe that pictures are generally “true,” but we never confuse them with their actual subjects—precisely the “mistake” which enables a willing suspension of disbelief.

[7] Actually, it’s even worse than that; they have to be what they appear to be—what they look like. Movies are all surface and surface is impenetrable,, In movies there are only objects, whereas in theatre, all objects are merely pointers to the fictive construct of the play.