By Callie Oettinger | Published: January 23, 2015
In the March 1914 edition of Vanity Fair, James L. Ford discussed movies as a menace to stage.
A hundred years later, in the March 2014 edition of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott called “Everyone Back to the Cineplex” (after two years before writing, in the May 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, that “cinema has lost its sanctuary allure and aesthetic edge over television.”)
In March of this year, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s new Netflix series, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” will be released, and the conversation that will follow this already-buzzing series promises to be a continuation of the old-as-dirt debate that one format is in decay and another is taking its place.
That argument is rubbish. In the late 70’s, the Buggles sang “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but the reality is that a new medium didn’t kill the radio star or the theatre production or film or books or television shows. Lack of vision killed the second-rate versions of all of these, while the classics survived and the visionaries emerged.
In “Film and Theatre” Susan Sontag asked of theatre, “why should it be rendered obsolete by movies?”
“It’s worth remembering,” she continued, “that predictions of obsolescence amount to declaring that a something has one peculiar task (which another something may do as well or better). Has theatre one peculiar task or aptitude? Those who predict the demise of the theatre, assuming that cinema has engulfed its function, tend to impute a relation between films and theatre reminiscent of what was once said about photography and painting. If the painter’s job had been no more than fabricating likenesses, the invention of the camera might indeed have made painting obsolete. But painting is hardly just “pictures,” any more than cinema is just theatre for the masses, available in portable standard units.”
There’s a real difference. If, one day, theatre does fall under the “abandoned” category (which I hope won’t happen), it won’t be because films killed or replaced theatre. It will be because theatre failed on its own.
During a 2007 panel, titled The Critic as Thinker, critic Stanley Kauffmann said, “Every decade, every year, every month, there’s moaning about the condition of the theatre. And it’s all true. Shaw said once, ‘The theatre is always in a low estate.’ If you look at an anthology of great plays from the Greeks to today, you think, ‘My god, what a panorama of achievement.’ Then you look at the dates and you see that hundreds of years elapsed between one play and the next. Sometimes we have the bad luck to be caught between.”
Again, the problem isn’t always with the format. Often, it’s the lack of talent—or lack of vision.
In his 2013 MacTaggart Lecture, Kevin Spacey introduced many of us to Sir David Lean’s 1990 American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement award acceptance speech, which Spacey said was dedicated “to the idea of promoting and supporting emerging talent. It turns out he was concerned, perhaps frightened by the film industry’s lack of commitment to developing talent and the greater and greater number of films the studios were making that appealed only to the pulse and not to the mind.”
Toward the end his speech, Lean said, “I think the time has come where the money people can afford to lose a little money, taking risks with these new film makers. I think if they give them a break, give them encouragement, we’re going to come up and up and up. If we don’t, we’re going to go down and television’s gonna take over. (laughter from the audience here) Anyhow . . . Wish them luck—I do.”
His speech echoed James L. Ford’s words about the business side taking over the stage, rather than sticking to the box office. The result? Money was spent “on carpets, luxurious cushions, costly chandeliers, decorations, lights—on everything, in fact, that would attract the eye. . . . Everything in the theatre was improved except the acting and the plays.”
The writing, performance and production have to be first. If those lead the way, the formats in which they exist will thrive.
I wonder if Lean would say the same of television now. Would “House of Cards” or “Downton Abbey” be natural crossovers for him today? Where theatre and film have definitive lines, the lines between film and today’s breakout programming released on television or for streaming via companies such as Netflix, are hard to determine.
Maggie Smith in the “Downton Abbey” series is just as impressive as Maggie Smith in any of her films—and the same holds true for the series production and writing (especially Smith’s zingers). So production and performance and the screenplay don’t define the difference between a TV or streaming series and a film.
Toward the end of “Film and Theatre,” Sontag wrote, “For some time, all useful ideas in art have been extremely sophisticated. Like the idea that everything is what it is, and not another thing. A painting is a painting. Sculpture is sculpture. A poem is a poem, not prose. Etcetera. And the complementary idea: A painting can be “literary” or sculptural, a poem can be prose, theatre can emulate and incorporate cinema, cinema can be theatrical.”
As creativity and risk have faded, and we’ve found ourselves “caught between” a la Kauffmann, it might be best to consider that not everything is what it is. Television can be literary and streaming can be revolutionary and cinema can be low-brow crap (or swing the descriptions around the other way).
The last paragraph of Sontag’s piece:
“We need a new idea. It will probably be a very simple one. Will we be able to recognize it?”
Kevin Spacey and the many others nurturing today’s creative visions seem to have recognized it—that we can bring those very best pieces of theatre and film and audio and painting and photography and writing and sculpture and other art forms together. Instead of working within the constraints of one—or replacing one with another—bring together the best of all (while also ditching old definitions and high-brow/low-brow tags).