What is the future of film?

Helen Mirren in The Audience

I’m relieved that the film industry is finally over. Don’t believe me?

Let’s begin with what’s on at the local multiplex, shall we?

The Croods (Kids animation) GI Joe, (again), The Host (teenage love) Finding Nemo (again) OZ – The Great and the Powerful (again), Jack the Giant Slayer (again) The War of the Worlds (again) Oblivion (Tom Cruise saves the world. Again) Iron man 3 (again), Monsters Inc (again)…

Take a look at the list again. Any patterns forming here? See anymore Billy Elliot’s or Full Monty’s? Thought not.

The nearest thing to real drama these days seems to be on the stage – the ‘stage’ at the cinema, that is. For us plebs who don’t live in the capital or could barely afford any theatre tickets, we can now see the stage show/film ‘The Audience’ – which is basically Helen Mirren reprising (did I hear regurgitate) her Oscar winning role of Queen Elizabeth II in a National Theatre production of a new play. I’ve a feeling it’s only because Peter Morgan, the writer, and Stephen Daldry, the director, couldn’t get a budget together to make a movie and, while it’s nice that a London theatre gets some regional cash back, I’m unsure what I’m going to be watching.

Here’s the dilemma.

1. Theatre is not film. The only thing they share is that they both require narrative. Film is a mechanical art form which means you can do stuff like cut to another place, city, world etc. Theatre is usually in a building. With an interval.

2. Film is not theatre. Theatre usually has one ‘set’, maybe two if there are two acts. On saying that, some ‘filmed plays’ have actually worked. ‘Streetcar named Desire’ was one, ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf’ another; but a play has to be rewritten in order to embrace the parameters of the cinema. Anyone seen ‘Twelve angry Men’? ‘Carnage’?  – Plays on film – written, or generated by playwrights.

3. Sure as eggs is eggs, if you adapt a play for the cinema, its going to be stale, flat and boring. Film is a visual medium, wherein it’s not what the characters say (theatre), it’s what they do (film). It’s active.

When drama jumped from theatre to film in the early twentieth century it was a technological invention that forged the change, i.e. the electric light. It became the light of realism and forced the age of the gas lights of the theatre into that of melodrama. More importantly it meant you could create an ‘edited’ narrative and take the audience wherever you wanted, at any point. They were no longer in a stuffy flea pit watching Gilbert and Sullivan, they were ogling Rudi Valentino, watching vampires or people fly to the moon. They’d been transported outside of the theater by technology.

Ok, we know cinema costs money – people like Cecil B de Milne started the idea of the ‘big budget’ and in the movie industry when money is spent, for some reason, four times the amount has to be made back. Otherwise, you don’t take a chance on anything risky or by definition, innovative. Now, enter the businessmen otherwise known as studio heads. From Sam Goldwyn to sharks like CAA head Mike Ovitz in the 1980’s, when actors began to be paid absurd amounts of money, the business has always been about money over art. Always. Yet, when those Academy Awards come around, the producers seem to morph into ‘creatives’ and run up and collect the gongs. ‘I’d like to thank Har-vey….’

There’s no easy way to say this but – Film is not Art, it’s money. And when there is no money honey, there is no film. Simple as.

I feel suspicious about the likes of Daldry who have aspired all their lives to get to Hollywood, slogging away in hovels like the Royal Court in order to ease their passage. For a director whose next Broadway stage production will be ‘Dumbo’ – the stage adaptation of a preexisting movie – all I can feel is a gladness that it’s all over.

It’s because any movies that aren’t a guaranteed hit – whatever that is – are folding in development. It’s time to worry when Peter Morgan, the hot movie screenwriter who wrote The Queen and Frost/Nixon, is putting on a play at the National, directed by Hollywood director Stephen Daldry and the play is going to be filmed for cinema release.

Well they say it goes in circles. But it still doesn’t get over one problem of the content, as Morgan stretches out an old script into regurgitated remnants from his back catalogue. Here’s the online description of The Audience, “… this fascinating blend of fact and fiction imagines the meetings that have taken place between the various Downing Street incumbents and the Queen.”  Can this really be happening? Why do I trust Morgan’s judgment or interpretation of that? This is pantomime.

As for Mr Daldry, I’d like to know how one could justify starting your career at The Royal Court alongside the likes of Caryl Churchill and possibly ending it with a re-adaptation of a Disney flying elephant? What drives somebody to those levels?

Is it because we now have smaller narratives on YouTube which get more views than most feature films? Is technology changing drama all over again? Actually, most people seem to prefer the smaller narratives to feature films – which again has been exploited. Some companies like Working Title have adapted them in an interesting way they would never have lowered their standards to embrace at one point. Take the then unknown, frumpy Susan Boyle singing ‘I dreamed a dream’ on a talent show and turn the resulting interest and publicity into an Oscar winning movie. Kerching! I would have preferred a bit more courage from the producers (who, yes, stood up as creatives when they accepted that Golden Globe).

Don’t get me wrong, I love film, but I look forward more to the theatre that’s to come.

It brings to mind something Emile Zola said in a piece of critical journalism way back in 1881. Bored and annoyed by the lunacy of commercial productions in Paris, he pleaded that, ‘…before the first warmth of summer empties the playhouses, a dramatist of genius will be discovered..It would take a powerful personality, an innovator’s mind.. to overthrow the accepted conventions of the ridiculous untruths that are on display today. Unfortunately, this dream I have is never fulfilled…’

In December of that same year, Ibsen responded with his new play Ghosts – and the world changed.

So, wherever you are out there, bring on the new (cheaper) narratives and tell us something we don’t already know.

Words: Charlie Bauer PhD



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