Look, it’s not a scheduled series post! Didn’t know I could still do those, didja? I had to write this down, though, while I was thinking about it. A compulsion, you might say.
My friend Lis and I have a sort of ongoing casual conversation regarding our likes and dislikes of different media. We both love television and similar music, but she can take or leave film (while I obviously cannot) and I can take or leave theatre (which she loves with pretty much the same intensity that I love film). We went together to watch a play tonight, and though we ended up agreeing fairly well on what we liked and didn’t like about the individual play, I had a few sudden insights into my preference for film and hers for theatre that I hadn’t had before.
She’s really interested in acting and how actors convey emotion. She’s also a big fan of writing, so for her, a medium of the stage is very close to perfect. The stage highlights the work of writers and actors perhaps more than any other craft. (My dad would say lighting design, but he’s an engineer. Heh.) Plus, in live theatre, the actors are RIGHT THERE, providing an instant and visceral emotional connection. But even in film, she’s similarly more drawn to acting, script, and story than anything else.
If I ranked what’s most important to me in a film – in other words, what things are more or less likely to make me enjoy or fail to enjoy a film – it goes like this: 1) direction, 2) cinematography, 3) editing, 4) story, 5) script, 6) acting and probably 7) music and 8) other concerns like set design and costumes. In other words, I’d rather watch a film that looked gorgeous and had interesting editing and mise-en-scene but mediocre acting than one with great acting that’s shot in a hamfisted manner. There are exceptions, of course – there always are. But IN GENERAL.
During the play tonight what interested me the most was the set design – how you take a play with at least six or seven different places and depict them all in such a small area with a minimum of changes. Where do the actors come in, and where do they go when something else is commanding our attention? That’s fascinating to me. Manipulation of space. The stage is a great place to examine mise-en-scene, because that’s WHAT IT IS. And filmmakers that understand space are usually much more competent than those that don’t, but they also add editing and perspective. I enjoyed figuring out the set design and marveling when a new way to set it up is revealed, but I got bored very quickly looking at it from the same perspective all the time. I wanted to see what it would look like from a low-angle shot, or an oblique from behind those curtains at the side. When I say my number one most important thing is direction, that’s what I mean – how does the director manipulate the cinematic space and our view of it? Directing the actors is secondary, except insofaras the actors are part of the frame.
A great example of this was when Lis and I watched Doubt (the film) together. She liked it a lot more than I did, because the acting is so strong. And I recognized the strength of the acting, but I thought the direction was incredibly dull. And when the director tried to make it interesting (the canted shots depicting doubt), he was inconsistent and illogical, which threw me right out of the story. She came out thinking it was really powerful; I came out wondering who decided to let a playwright direct a film.
I can enjoy live theatre, no problem. And I love seeing musicals (and music) live – the immediacy of music affects me more strongly than the immediacy of actors. But it’ll never mean as much to me as film does, because it lacks the elements that most make me love film. Not that that’s bad – obviously Lis is the opposite, and that’s fine. I just feel better knowing that I can now verbalize my hesitation to rush out to the theatre with her, which matches her hesitation to rush out to the cinema with me. :)
Incidentally, there are plays that I don’t think would work as films, and not just because they’re talky and film would be boring. Into the Woods I can’t see as a film at all, because the staging is so perfect that trying to do almost any part of it without having the rest of the stage (and the inactive-yet-still-active portions of the story on it) visible would lessen the counterpoint and interconnectedness of Sondheim’s score. But it would be very awkward and stagy to film it that way. In that case, adapting it to film seems almost sure to flatten it rather than add depth. Maybe some brilliant filmmaker can prove me wrong, and I’d love to see one try. :) But again, exception to the rule.