Like Simon Cowell I have this aversion to theatrical performances. Unless the play is a comedy or a campy musical, I just can’t stand most live theatre performances.
My husband, the theatre major, has forced me to defend articulate (over & over again) my dislike of most plays and stage performances, so you’d think I’d be better at this than I’m likely going to be…
First of all, I get that in theatre the actors stand, under a spotlight, on a stage with rows & rows of seats and other real excuses for vast physical feet between them and the audience, which means that they need to exaggerate & make dramatic gestures in order to be seen… They compete for audience attention & comprehension.
But I’m not *ahem* emotionally retarded; so I can “get it” without all the drama of obnoxious teenagers and attention seeking media whores of today. All that wild-arm-swinging, loud sound & fury that struts & frets an ungodly-long hour upon the stage, signifies nothing.
Nothing, perhaps, but loud laughter. Or eyeball rolls, signs and whines of, “When can we go home?”
I prefer to see shades & subtleties, little nuances, which communicate and guide me along in the performance. I even adore being swathed in the confusion of multiple at-odds-with-one-another layers — because most of life is living in the ambiguity of shades of grey. So I don’t, for the most part, enjoy all-white heroes & all-black villains. (Unless it’s a comedy or campy satire work — and in those cases the over-simplification of such all-or-nothing assumptions and caricatures only drives home the very fact that life is not as simple as the color of our hats.)
Characters & the portrayal thereof ought to be as complicated as real life human character — that’s what makes it compelling. At least that’s my opinion. Which is why film is such a marvel to me.
Using the perfect lighting, the lens, focus, editing, sound & music, costumes — all the technical things that are magic to me — applied to amplify and echo, peel & mask, hide & hint, like eyes behind a lady’s feathered fan. Ooooh, just what does it all mean? I stare. Drinking it in, absorbing every detail the filmmakers & actors give me, assembling it into The Big Picture.
(I’m no film scholar; don’t pretend to be. I don’t even know how to fake enough of the tech lingo to sound like one! I could try to figure it out, but I don’t care to understand how the magic is created — I just want to marvel at the rabbit popping out of the hat! Oh, when I think of it all — and I often do! — I get dizzy. I experience the same sense of wonder and amazement that I imagine those at the dawn of film felt when they first witnessed moving pictures.)
But theatre performances, to me, are anything but subtle, shaded and rich in complexity. Theatre is gaudy & loud. It is one part wooden — and one part flamboyant beyond belief. Like performances on wooden stilts. And the action & motivation of theatre performances are driven home with all the delicate finesse of a two-by-four to the head. Ouch!
And this, my friends, is often what I saw in silent films. At least in the beginning.
Historically speaking, many of the early (and dubbed “Great”) actors of the silver screen were favored sons and daughters of “the legitimate theatre,” so naturally they brought their unnatural-to-me acting skills with them. Film quality and movie making techniques being more “primitive” than the lush productions we have today, it’s something I intellectually understood — but I still didn’t like them.
And it doesn’t necessarily help if your earliest exposures to silent films were Laurel and Hardy works.
At least, not if you’re a girl, who by virtue of her gender is apparently missing the slapstick gene (closely related to, if not actually, the pull-my-finger comedy gene). Double the trouble when this girl finds grandiose theatrical exaggeration downright unpleasant.
Chaplin vs Keaton by damianblake
(I don’t know why Laurel and Hardy & the like are what people most often use to introduce youngsters to silent film… To reach boys, maybe? Because I don’t know a single woman who, when asked, said she fell in love with silent or classic films because of any slapstick production. Better, in my opinion, to start with Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin as The Little Tramp, where you still get slapstick — but with an additional depth and poignancy that can break a girl’s heart.)
Anyway, it took at least a decade for me to submit to another silent film viewing. I wish I could tell you what it was… But I can’t. I can tell you that it was one of those go-to-the-silent-film-screening-at-college-so-you-can-look-cool things. I don’t know if I garnered any “cool clout” as a result, but, whatever the film was, I know I didn’t hate it. And so I consented to see more silent films after that, eventually coming to adore many of them to the degree that silent film titles appear on many of my top film lists.
Yes, there are a number of “The Greats” that I must “forgive” for their inherited theatrical flamboyance before I can really enjoy their performances… But for the most part, I no longer grit my teeth as I sit and await the wooden two-by-four laden performance to the head; I just watch them with joy.
Somehow or other, some of the actors and filmmakers alike transcended the simple act of filming stage enactments in those early moving picture shows… Which means that often the real joy lies in watching the discoveries made by the actors and filmmakers themselves — watching as they created something new, subtle & moving.
Without words, they learned to collaboratively speak via the intimate framing of emotionally imbued faces or hands — something visually & physically smaller than the totality of the entire person yet still able to convey the largest of emotions.
Finally, for example, the soundless sigh of “futility” was wordlessly given it’s weepy due as magnificent drops of dew held in the corners of eyes above weary slack faces… We saw it, felt it’s miserable weight on our shoulders.
And it was vastly different than the overstated dramatic chest-heaving, foot dragging, antics of theatre actors.
Now we would begin to see such things as “sly,” “cheeky,” “sorrow,” and “giggle” become the whispered shared intimacies of delight that we now know them to be, rather than the gross weighty extravagant luggage of live theatrical stage performances.
In some ways, the birth of film was even more magical than it is today. All they had then were their bodies — silent bodies — and the camera…
I’ll let Carol Burnett, as the cleaning lady (The Charwoman), and Gloria Swanson, as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp *, show you.
Before you begin part two of this classic television clip on classic film, it’s interesting to note that this was filmed in 1973 — years before the complete influx (and overshadowing impact) of special effects in films. Such changes do not change the sentiments, but strengthen them for me.
And get the tissues ready — Burnett’s song makes me cry every time.
* I didn’t know it at the time I first saw this on television, but this was not the first time Gloria Swanson (then aged 76) had played Charlie Chaplin; she had done so in scenes in Sunset Boulevard.
Gloria Swanson As Charlie Chaplin In Sunset Blvd.
Recalling that, and my shame at my previous dismissal of that film, I’m struck all the more. Yes, that means I cry harder. But sometimes that’s what you do when you’re in love. And I am a lover of silent film.
Buster Keaton Playing Cards In Sunset Boulevard
PS Buster Keaton was also in Sunset Boulevard — which thrilled me to no end, I might add!
Image credit: Chaplin vs Keaton by damianblake.
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