This essay appears in the Spring 2020 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe, click here.


“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

That’s how Peter Brook memorably distilled an essential quality of theater as an art form: it unfolds in space, a space that is shared. It’s a rare and precious quality in our mediated age. Those screens we carry with us everywhere not only are a constant distraction from the world we physically inhabit; they are a primary means through which we engage with that world when it presses its reality upon us. A trivial personal example: when I go to the theater, it has become a habit that I take a picture of the program, and post that picture on Instagram with what I hope is a witty comment, often playing on the title. Thus my first experience of this shared imaginative space is to take myself out of it and frame it as a static object for people who are not there to experience it with me.

For Brook, the emptiness of the space was equally important. Reacting against midcentury theatrical conventions, he fought to free theater from physical encumbrances that he felt hindered the emotional connection between actor and audience, and also the audience’s own imaginative contribution. Poverty was the gate to true riches. Another trivial example: A director friend of mine, staging a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V on a slender budget, took the opening invocation—“O for a Muse of fire”—to heart. So, when the Chorus said, “Think when we talk of horses,” the speaker slapped an imaginary haunch, and the rest of the cast demonstrated what is meant by “that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth” by following the unseen equine with their eyes as it galloped off the stage and out of the theater.

As Brook himself said in his book Tip of the Tongue, “Today, this battle has largely been won, although electronic shapes and sounds are now eager to rush in.” Indeed they are—but most often they operate for the audience much the way the old clutter did. A meticulously appointed set used to allow audiences to settle in comfortably to believing they knew where they were (and thereby fail to be alive to the truth that they had never actually been there before). Now, projected video backdrops that facilitate quick scene changes or that signify motion and change similarly relieve the audience of the burden of imagination. The Muse of Fire can dazzle but only rarely illuminates.

The Abolition of Space

The current Broadway revival of West Side Story is, in this regard, a notable exception. Not because its extensive use of video illuminates the play but because it uses video in a way that usurps the idea of theater entirely. Indeed, the theatrical space itself disintegrates under its relentless assault. But precisely because it is unlike much other video-saturated theater, it feels like a harbinger of something ominous in a way that more comfortable electronic invasions do not.

The show’s director, Ivo Van Hove, has become well-nigh ubiquitous on European and American stages in recent years, and as his status has burgeoned, his use of video has grown more and more extensive. In Kings of War, his adaptation of five Shakespeare histories (Henry V, the three parts of Henry VI, and Richard III), he used cameras to go backstage and take the audience into the trenches of the upcoming Battle of Agincourt, to put us ringside at gruesome murders, and to magnify moments like Henry V’s speech before Harfleur that, in our era, would be experienced by most people televisually. There was a theatrical space on stage, but it was both extended and reflected by the camera, in a way that mirrored how we most often experience politics. Similarly, in Network, his stage adaptation of the 1976 film, cameras followed the onstage action in what was ultimately a rather literal-minded replication of the film’s once trenchant but now banal commentary on the moral corruption induced by being perpetually seen.

In his West Side Story, though, Van Hove goes far further. Rather than use video to extend the theatrical space, he uses it, from the very first moments, to abolish it. The cast files onto an empty stage, but we are introduced to them not by their own snapping and jumping as Jerome Robbins imagined, but by cameras swooping among their glowering faces marked with extensive tattoos. Even when they finally dance, the cameras continue to dart around them, giving us fragmentary and blurred glimpses of movement that overwhelm any picture the performers might themselves be painting with their bodies on stage.

Van Hove does occasionally use his bare stage to engage the audience imaginatively by creating evocative balletic tableaux: of Tony and Maria leaning toward each other while being pulled apart by their respective clans, and of the wounded and their comforters spooning on the rain-soaked ground after the rumble. But more often, when he wants to create a sense of place, he takes the action backstage, to spaces that are as fully appointed with props and scenery as any film set. There, fixed cameras record bluntly lit dialogues and songs, but also moments of banal emptiness: chorus members sitting around observing the action or waiting for it to happen; a fleeing character’s feet running down a staircase. These images are projected in massive size on the screen that serves as the upstage wall, so that when characters emerge onto the bare stage from their backstage sets, they look like bugs scuttling across the floor of the projected spaces they just left.

His last videographic move is to project thematic material on the screen and have his actors perform in front of it. Sometimes these images look like they are supposed to be settings for the action—an empty street or abandoned lot. But the camera drifts lazily, never corresponding to anything related to the motion of the characters, so that the backdrops don’t become part of a world the actors inhabit but maroon them in a space neither empty nor imaginatively filled. Sometimes the projections are heavy-handedly thematic—as, for example, in the “Gee Officer Krupke” number, which is played without a hint of its original humor in front of images of black and brown youth being stopped at gunpoint, frisked, and arrested by police.

It’s tempting to simply denounce this hodgepodge as a flailing failure—but Van Hove is too interesting an artist to rest there. Van Hove’s aim is Ezra Pound’s dictum: make it new. To make this stubbornly midcentury musical contemporary again, he stripped it not only of its original context but also of any contemporary analog for its original concerns. For example, he took a play that foregrounds ethnic conflict between whites and Puerto Rican immigrants and cast both the Jets and the Sharks as multiracial coalitions. Why? Perhaps because that better reflects the reality of young people in today’s cities, which are riven by tribal divides that do not neatly correspond to ethnic enclaves and that are often as incomprehensible to adults as the actions of the original’s delinquents are to the well-meaning Doc.

That, I think, was the governing concept behind his use of video as well: to speak the language of today’s youth. The darting cameras produce footage very like what people post on Instagram or TikTok; indeed, sometimes it was actually being shot from smartphones in the hands of the performers. The static footage from backstage sometimes looked like surveillance video, or the kind of mind-numbingly literal cinematography that characterizes so much DIY content, from zero-budget web series to pornography. A performer isolated in an abstract space, meanwhile, backed by thuddingly obvious imagery, resembles nothing so closely as a typical music video.

If this was Van Hove’s aim, he may well have succeeded. The night I saw the show, I was seated behind a row of teenagers, and they erupted in rapturous cheers and applause at the end of every song. Nor can I quibble with the ambition, particularly as applied to this show, which is all about youthful energy stifled and misdirected, but that speaks a language that even in 1957 was aimed at more adult ears. (“Gee Officer Krupke” is a fantastic song, but does it really reflect what these youngsters would be thinking at that moment?) So the fact that an old fart like me found the show bewildering, boring, noisy, and ham-handed might be entirely beside the point.

But if Van Hove did succeed, he did so at a steep price in terms of the audience’s expectations of what theater fundamentally is. The last thing we, the audience, hear before the lights dim is the instruction to turn off our phones. To transform that space into the inside of our phones feels like a terrible betrayal.

Time After Time

If the essential dimension of theater is space—empty, shared, imaginatively expanded—the essential dimension of film as a medium is time. Film editing is, among other things, the art of manipulating our sense of time in the service of storytelling: drawing it out to hold the audience in suspense, or speeding it up to pump adrenaline into action.

In his seminal work, Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader quotes Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky approvingly to this effect: “ ‘The cinema image,’ he wrote, ‘is the observation of a phenomenon passing through time. Time becomes the very foundation of cinema. . . .  Just as a quivering reed can tell you about the current or water pressure of a river, in the same way we know the movement of time as it flows through the shot.’ ” What Tarkovsky and the other filmmakers Schrader sees as his kindred did was turn that tool upon itself: they used the framing of a shot and the length of a take not to serve storytelling through emotional manipulation of the audience’s experience but to enable the audience to reflect on the experience itself, to experience time itself as time.

Time, like space, is an experience that has become fragmented in our era, chopped into micro-experiences of continuous interruption. So it is interesting that, in recent years, we’ve seen a number of celebrated filmmakers turning their backs on that toolkit entirely, making films that, in a sense, are not edited at all but that unfold in a series of continuous shots stitched seamlessly together to form a single, apparently unbroken thread of time. Alfred Hitchcock did this decades ago in Rope, to replicate the claustrophobic feel of the play on which the film was based. More recently, Alejandro Iñárritu used the strategy in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) to keep the audience locked in the state of continuous tension in which his theater-director protagonist is trapped—again the connection to theater, the medium that of necessity unfolds in real time but that imaginatively transforms space. And this past year, Sam Mendes directed a war movie, 1917, taking us from the British trenches, across no-man’s-land, into and out of ravaged buildings and a burning town, and across a battlefield in what is meant to feel like only a couple of continuous shots.

I suspect that this trend is, in part, a reaction to our distracted state; these continuous-shot films are very hard to look away from. But as amphetamines are no substitute for sleep, the continuous shot is no substitute for actual concentration. Indeed, by abjuring the editing toolkit, making a film as a continuous shot relieves the audience of the burden of focusing on the experience, or of experiencing time authentically at all. With a film like Birdman, this mostly makes the film seem deeper than it is, but 1917 tackles a subject of considerably greater gravity, and so the consequences of its manipulations for our understanding of the experience are more significant.

1917 follows two British soldiers on a mission to deliver a message to another commander: do not to launch a planned attack because you are walking into a trap. Two battalions will be lost if they fail—among them, the brother of one of the messengers. We are given, in other words, a ticking clock, an emotional urgency, and a journey that must be completed before the timer goes off. That journey is then composed of a series of interconnected segments—traverse the trench, cross no-man’s-land, go through the German trench tunnel, dodge the crashing dogfighter, etc.—one leading inexorably to the next until we reach the goal.

Other critics have commented on the way in which the film resembles a first-person-shooter video game, but what it really resembles is the experience of watching an expert player’s recording of his game play, the kind of thing I’ve seen my son watch many times. Not only are we as spectators relieved of the burden of deciding (“Should we pull the enemy pilot from the burning wreckage or let him burn to death?”), but the film itself is meticulously timed never to leave us bored or confused, as playing a game might. No, it is not edited—but it is a precision instrument nonetheless, the trenches paced out to the perfect length to match the conversation that needs to take place before going into the tunnel or over the top.

The question is, What does that have to do with war, or the experience of war? Riggan, the protagonist of Birdman, is trapped in his head; the passage of time in the film has no bearing on the passage of time in the real world but reflects his state of self-involved distraction. Are we to believe that there is some analogous experience for these soldiers? That the ticking clock of their mission puts them in this heightened state of perfect pacing?

I have never been a soldier, but color me skeptical. The film itself gives us a piece of dialogue that suggests a very different experience of time in war, an officer who, asking our heroes the date to settle a bet, discovers that he and his mates have all lost: none of them knew what day it was. To give us the emotional experience of waiting while under intense pressure of time would require the kind of stillness that Mendes consistently eschews in favor of keeping us on the edge of our seats.

That’s not to say that 1917 doesn’t have its moments of extraordinary cinema. The image of a soldier going over the top to run across the line, dodging other soldiers heading to their deaths because it’s the only way he’ll ever get the message to the commander to call off the attack, is a radical rethinking of one of the best-known World War I images, and worth the price of admission all on its own.

But to make us feel truly present would have required a different set of film techniques, and a consequently different approach to time. To quote Paul Schrader:

The manifestation of time on film is the long take. Not the fancy out-the-door-down-the-street long takes of Orson Welles or Alfonso Cuarón—no, even though those takes run long in screen time, they are little different than conventional film coverage. They are driven by the logic of edits: wide shot, over-the-shoulder, close-up, point of view, two-shot. . . . Film techniques are about “getting there”—telling a story, explaining an action, evoking an emotion—whereas the long take is about “being there.”

I would go further: the continuous shot, which is all motion, unlike the long take, which is all stillness, doesn’t bring us closer to a character emotionally. By making a highly engineered sequence out to be reality itself, it takes us further away from true experience of time than traditional film editing. Rather than make us present, it simply holds us in our seats by inflating the expectation for every given moment. That’s no cure for an age of distraction but, rather, a symptom of the same disease. ♦

Noah Millman is theater and film critic for Modern Age and a columnist for The Week.

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