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Films and Plays
What happens when a playwright and a theater director make a movie? Our film critic Thomas Wartenberg recently found out, and it led him to ponder the less obvious differences between films and plays.
One of the mistakes now generally recognized to have been made by film theorists during much of the twentieth century was the attempt to deduce an appropriate style for filmmaking from features of the medium that they held were distinctive of it, that differentiated it from other art forms. For example, even if it were true that film’s basis in photography meant that it was the quintessentially realistic art form, it would not follow that the filmmaking style known as realism, a style that features long takes and deep focus, was somehow more appropriate than others, such as montage (although influential critics like André Bazin argued for just such a position). But even if we give up the project of linking film style to the nature of the medium, the philosophical question of whether there are distinctive features of film as an art form remains interesting.
I was reminded of this last week while taking part in a panel discussion with Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright Wendy Wasserstein. The subject of our discussion was her role as the screenwriter for The Object of My Affection, the 1998 film directed by Nicholas Hytner. Wendy commented that she thought of herself primarily as a playwright who happened to write screenplays as a way to finance her commitment to the theater. She also remarked that the film’s director Hytner, a good friend, was primarily a theater director – he had just been appointed to head the National Theatre in London. “I could show you,” she asserted, “exactly what that means when we look at the film”. But the conversation turned to other matters and Wendy never did show us precisely what she meant.
Wendy’s remark stuck with me, nonetheless, and I began to wonder if it was really possible to really see that the film was the product of two individuals whose primary allegiance was to the stage rather than the screen, and what this might tell us about the nature of film itself. So, when I got home, I looked once again at some of the scenes that I had taken from the film to illustrate my talk. The Object of My Affection is about the difficulties that Nina, a pregnant, heterosexual woman, has when she decides she wants to raise her child-to-be with George, a gay man with whom she has been sharing an apartment, rather than with Vince, the father of her child. The scene that I looked at most closely was the one in which Nina asks George if he will play this role in her life and the life of her child. The scene takes place in an amusement park. Nina and George ride a roller coaster at certain points in the conversation and walk through the park at others. This setting provides ample opportunity for the camera to move about as it films the two roommates. In addition, it moves between close-ups and long shots, as it surveys the scene in which these two find themselves.
Watching this scene in the context of Wendy’s remarks, I was struck that none of the movements of the camera contributed to the development of the narrative. They helped keep us viewers from getting bored, giving us interesting views of the park and its different rides, but if we focused on what the camera told us through the many broad shifts employed, the answer was “nothing”. All of the information that we received in this scene that was essential to the narrative came from the dialogue; the camera just kept our eyes active while we listened to Nina’s proposal and George’s surprised and non-committal response.
I was really struck by this observation, though I don’t know if this is exactly what Wendy had been talking about. This was a film that, despite the presence of wellknown television and film stars, was really very much like a play. What mattered most of all was the dialogue and not the fact that a camera was presenting this world to us. While the visual elements of the film were well-done, they didn’t play a crucial role in developing the film’s narrative.
I then wondered whether this was unusual, whether it showed that this film was somehow less distinctive than other films that had been made by individuals who identified themselves primarily as filmmakers and not theater people. Almost immediately, I thought of a very famous scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, in which Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) rows across Bodega Bay and sees Mitch on the land across the bay. At one point, there is a point of view edit. A point of view edit consists of a sequence of two shots. The first is usually a close-up to a person who is intently looking offscreen at something. The second shot is of some object and is meant to be interpreted as the object that the person in the first shot is looking at. So in the example from The Birds , a close-up of Daniels looking in the distance is followed by a medium shot of Mitch, and we learn from the shots themselves that Melanie has seen Mitch.
What’s interesting about this example is that the camera itself gives us a piece of information that is central to the film’s narrative. We learn something in this case from the camera and not from the dialogue. To use a familiar philosophic distinction, we are shown something not simply told it.
Film, then, has the ability to show us things. This is a feature of film that filmmakers can exploit, as Hitchcock did in this scene from The Birds. It is also a feature of films that distinguish them from plays, although we certainly can learn facts important to the drama from watching the characters act as well as from listening to the dialogue. But there is no analogue of the camera in a play, something that allows us changing perspectives on the events we are watching. This distinctive feature of film is one that its best directors exploit, as Hitchcock did in ways that were much more sophisticated than the simple example I have chosen. But a film need not do so, as we have seen in the case of The Object of My Affection.
But one thing we now acknowledge is that the nature of film as an artistic medium does not dictate one style of filmmaking as somehow better than or more appropriate to the medium than others. While the camera is truly a distinctive aspect of film that gives the director of a film unique ways of portraying a narrative, directors need not make use of this feature in any specific way. Still, Wendy Wasserstein taught me an important lesson in observing films that gives me a more sophisticated viewing eye. From now on, I think I’ll be more aware of what it means to say that a film is ‘dialogue driven’ as opposed to others that pay more attention to the images.
© Thomas E. Wartenberg 2001
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.