theater vs. film

Just saw a lovely play, Lodestone's Solve For X, and it got me thinking again about the paradox of my two favorite art forms. So closely related, yet so incompatible. One so popular and funded, one so esoteric and poor. The same questions always pop up in my brain:

- Why is there so much good writing in plays, and so much bad writing in movies? -

Plays are about language, movies about image. Of course there is tons of bad writing in theater, but a Really Well-Written Play is ALWAYS about a thousand times better than a screenplay that is considered "well-written." When people say "it's a beautifully written screenplay" they mean "it's not incredibly horrible like every other screenplay I've read/written." Because the standard is much much lower. Plus, seeing a bad play is not quite so offensive to the societal fabric as seeing a bad movie. Seeing a badly-written play is like watching someone fall down publicly on the sidewalk; oh well, that was too bad, no harm done. Seeing those badly-written movies, especially the ones that are erroneously reviewed as having "beautifully-written screenplays," is like being complicit in the national travesty of ego, wasted money, and propaganda that conspires to make the Gigantic Horrible Offensive Films that pass for our entertainment and common reference point.

But there's something else, and I think it has to do with the kind of personalities that write plays. To me, a really well-done play offers a truthful observation about human behavior, something gleaned from years and years of watching people, probably from the sullen dark silent corner of the room in which the potential playwrights are often lurking, wondering about people and why they do things. Films however are made by people whose talent for observation might stop at "My lead actress looks really hot when she's backlit." Y'know, people who don't really care why someone does anything as long as they look good doing it. So if I ruled the world all movies would be made by documentary filmmakers, and music video directors would have to struggle mightily to be handed a narrative project.

- Why are movies more fun than plays? -

Answer, I think: Filmmakers understand something about pop thrill that theater people don't. Duh, obviously, movies are the most popular art form in the world. Movies are the only art form that is truly corrupted by economies of scale. Of course, every artist has to struggle with the balance between "entertaining" and "truthful" (or flash vs. substance, or however you want to frame it) but only in movies is the art of dumbing down the material so highly revered by the establishment. You have to make it dumb so it will play to the potential audience of everyone in the world. Also, you have to give the people what they want in terms of the visceral thrill of high cheekbones and big explosions, and this usually means tossing the incisive, keenly-observed bits of the story, and putting in the money shots.

Obviously, not all movies do this. The movies that you like on the second viewing, or ten years after you first see them, probably don't. The movie that you just saw and enjoyed but can't remember the name of the main character, probably did.

The play I saw tonight offered simple pleasures like well-turned sentences and intimacy with expressive actors. It had moments of theatrical beauty which, for better or worse, just aren't most people's cup of tea. One could say that is because theater is elitist and tends to cater to a literate upper-crust audience; or one could say that is because people don't like to think about their entertainment, and most movies are made so you don't have to think. Hence, they are more fun.

Some plays, most of mine for example, try to get around this by bringing back the populist elements of theater and leaving out the long draining talky parts. So you get plays that have kung-fu battles and musical numbers and, within reason, explosions....and that's all well and good. But it's still more taxing than a night out at the movies because you have to be in physical awe of the person who's actually doing that thing, because oh my god they're actually doing it. They Might Screw Up. In movies, you can just relax and go, "Hey look, Superman flies. He's probably gonna make it to the other side of the screen, and boy am I gonna feel good when that happens. Let's rewind and look at it again."

- Why is doing theater more fun than making films/videos, and why the heck am I making films/videos? -

The plays we did at Emerald Rain Productions (ERP) were, for the most part, like summer camp. Although the quality of the performances varied, the rehearsal process was almost always laughing, singing, dancing, screwing around, the best time I ever had spent with friends, with the added pathos that comes from the built-in finite length of the rehearsal and the play's run, Like the school year, you got to look forward to the bittersweet release of closing night, and the end.

I haven't made like 20 feature films so I'm not the expert, OK, but being on a movie set is not like that. There's too much stuff to do to ever enjoy yourself. All that you care about is that the footage you get can be edited into something that resembles fun, although no fun was had in its creation.

The thing is in films there is the illusory promise of living the "good" life. There's money in the film industry that pays for a lot of peoples' nice cars, nice houses, nice food. You might get pampered in a way that theater people never are. (It's always hilarious to watch "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" and try to imagine the world in which a patriarch could be a rich STAGE actor....) You might get to hang out with people who aren't constantly stressed out, as theater people are, by rent and day jobs and doing a two-hour live show four nights a week for an average of three audience members. You could get to be one of those elitist people, the kind who can, y'know, afford to go to theater.

That promise is a hollow crock of crap of course. But so many people are involved in the business of pursuing it, the hustling, starf*cking and misrepresenting yourself for a part of the Big Film, that the quality of human interactions in the film industry is much less honest and more generally agonizing than those in theater.

Theater is like getting to be in love with someone a little bit without most of the pain.

The fundamental unit of theater-making is communicating with other people.

You can't make a living off theater, but doing it is the best way to spend the moments of your life.

Comments

Mercedes said…
I love this entry. Was searching for some quotes on theatre is elitist and your blog popped up. These are the unfortunate truths we creative types deal with. Hope your career is going well and thanks for this thoughtful diatribe.
dm said…
rad.
dandyprat said…
This was brill, thanks! I'm doing an essay about the high/low culture debate looking specifically at stage to screen, so if you have any other ideas, let me know! I've got a blogspot at http://dandyprat.blogspot.com/
Nathaniel said…
I'm doing some comparisons of theatre and film for a class. Thanks for your insight.

www.natsblog.weebly.com
JP said…
Good piece, but you are a little one sighted as well. You said that if you watch a bad film that you've wasted your time and money, but if you watched a bad play, oh well to bad, no harm done. Hello, how about your wasted time and money on this as well. Last time I checked a ticket for a play is more expensive than a movie.