Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009

Examining the Skull of Yorick

Film, Theatre, Eternity and Immortality: An Idle Rant

By Russ Bickerstaff
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A little while ago, I ran into a very talented actor while waiting for a bus. The guy hasn’t appeared onstage in a while. Evidently he’s switching from stage to film and video. He starred in a short that recently screened at the Oriental. I asked him why he’s not as interested in doing stage. He gave the standard answer—people want to see you onstage they have to go out and see you onstage while the show is running. People want to see you in a movie they can track it down online. It’s always there. People can watch it on their own time.


The weird thing about this is that it’s an exact mirror of a conversation I had with Aaron Kopec of the Alchemist Theatre. He got into theatre through film, as I recall. He says he prefers the temporary nature of theatre. It’s here and then it’s gone and you’re on to the next thing. You’re not plagued by the mistakes you’ve made and you can always do some aspect of it better next time in some other production of something else entirely . . .sort of a “perfection is a moving target, always aim for it even though you’ll never quite get it,” type of thing. I remember George Lucas quoting some other filmmaker when he said, “films are never finished, they’re abandoned.” And there’s always something to perfect, but film never allows that to happen.

And then there’s that whole loss of control thing. Mak a film and it is sent off into the world to exist alongside everything else. This bothered the hell out of the ultimate control freak—Walt Disney. He was so obsessed with his sanitized vision of the world that he created whole theme parks people could walk into and experience his vision . . . and to a certain extent, that sense of group immersion is what theatre is all about . . . that sense of experiencing something with a group of people on the terms of the event itself . . . something that’s becoming increasingly less common with film. The number of films that are seen by large groups of people in theatres the night that you read this is as nothing to the number of films being watched at home this evening all over the world . . . film is shrinking into the solitude of individuals. Theatre will always be about people in the moment. . .

There’s something to be said for the lack of permanence thing, though . . . I remember Jonathan Smoots talking about linking-up with his character in a talkback after a Next Act production of Faith Healer . . . he was talking about the character gradually becoming his own shadow in a way—his greatest work is destined to be forgotten, and that’s sort of true of stage actors. I could list a few dozen local actors ho have given performances just as good as the most acclaimd screen actors in any of the past couple of decades and yet they are only known to a small group of people—local theatergoers. The mediocrity of mainstream film is celebrated and worshipped with large sums of money. And then I think of all the money that could be spent on local theatre that gets sucked out to Hollywood in very local multiplex, but I’m rambling . . .

The weird thing that I’ve come to realize is that film is every bit as temporary as theatre on a longer time line. Film actors from the earliest eras have already been forgotten and every year films come out that are more or less the same as ones that came out years ago. Each new film production is destined to be forgotten as each generation collapses to make way for the next. Those old films are still there and there will alwys be fans of old films, but people relate to them as relics. On a long enough timeline, old films end up looking dated and difficult to watch for mass audiences. Eventually even watching a film as it was presented thirty years ago becomes akin to Hamlet staring into the empty skull of Yorick—you can see a bit of what used to be there, but it’s a pale shadow of what it was when light was first cast through it in a darkened theatre. Without the context shared among the people who were contemporary to its release, it’s a cinematic corpse.

 

( And on a really long timeline, even the artifacts of film will decay. Long after human civilization has vanished from the earth, films will disintegrate. Theatres for the performing arts will crumble into the earth and vanish just like the people who performed on them. As many copies of any film as there are in circulation, it won't make a difference on a long time line. Ubiquity does not equal immortality. They say microbes will evolve that can eat plastic, thus consuming any home video evidence of much of Hollywood’s history. VHS, hard drives and DVD’s become a feast for future microbes . . . all will be consumed. Except for bronze. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I remember hearing somewhere that bronze is the one metal that won’t decay. It doesn’t rust and there aren’t any organisms that would want to consume it in any way. This was the first thing that I thought about when I heard the complaints about a sculpture being placed along the river downtown—it’s a joke no one will be around to laugh at and here it is:

Long after civilization has vanished from the face of the earth, all of those things that identified Milwaukee will have sunken into it. All the building will collapse. All the monuments will vanish. Maybe the land will become the swamp it was long before human habitation . . . and future archeologist will uncover a statue of someone who must have been very, very important, made in one of the most resilient metals available. That man who those future archeologists must think is very, very important to have been put in such a prominent place by the river . . .that bronze statue was cast in the image of a Jewish American actor who played an Italian American auto mechanic in Milwaukee in the ‘50’s in a TV show that was taped on a soundstage in California in  the ‘70’s. Who are future archeologists to know it was just a statue of a TV actor who had no real connection to the place? It’s brilliantly absurd and it makes me proud to call this city home. )

 

 

In the future, everything will be different. If we can make more of an impact on individuals now through the stage in a very direct way, then we should leave the future up to those in the future. Whether it’s Banquo’s skull or a bronze actor, it’s not going to make as much sense to those who will come after us. Live in the now. Some of the best actors perform onstage and theyshould continue to do so. And audiences should see theatre shows. Do you really remember the last film you saw? How much do you really remember the last stupid comedy you saw at the multiplex?

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