The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, or Why You Should Never Watch National Theatre Live!

curious incident of the dog

National Theatre live is no new phenomenon having launched in 2009 and I decided it was time to give it a go. I loved the book as a kid and now I had the opportunity to watch it in the West End, only I was at a cinema in Leeds. I was actually really excited having booked the tickets well in advance, and sat down with an openly curious mind, almost as curious as Christopher who is the autistic boy that sets out on an adventure of discovery in this well-told tale.

The play is extremely well told and remarkably constructed for the stage. Light and sound being as much a star as Luke Treadaway who earned himself a Laurence Olivia award in 2013 for the role of Christopher. The stage is constructed with a grand and open rectangular floor space that is designed to light up in various gridded structures to create anything from tubes to house blocks. It is an abstract design that would collapse without the innovative and blaring sound design, the racketing of the tube and the experimental use of static to implement Christopher’s state of mind. Explosions of numbers are also projected onto the floor as Christopher solves his mathematical problems. He does so rapidly, and Luke is tremendous in his ability to utter such convolutions that his character demands. It is touching the way he dearly and passionately talks about largely insignificant things, trivial to the context in which they are uttered. It certainly enlightens the beauty with which autistic individuals view the world, be it a mysterious light at the end of a tunnel.

So, what a great play. And, therein lies a fundamental problem; you spend the entire time longing to be in the audience taking in the atmosphere that it is the spatial beauty of the theatre. I will now offer some insights into my experiences sat behind a great canvas that felt like a thick brick wall between myself and the other side (200 Miles down the M1). As my experience of theatre is limited, though I have certainly experienced its splendor, I cannot comment so wisely in comparison to the cinematic screen end of the spectrum. I can only observe my frustration of being sat in a movie theatre and watching a play when I would rather be at the play or sat were I was watching a movie instead. Hypocritical indeed, as I was well aware what my ticket entitled me too!

Nevertheless, my thesis that one wishes to be on the other side (at the theatre) and/or simply watching a movie caused me endless complication as I tried to enjoy what was a fantastic theatrical production, but one that my mind wouldn’t allow. Or, rather the aesthetic hashing of the ordeal is a disgrace for the felt spectator. You need to liberate your mind in order to gain full satisfaction and insight into a piece of art, if you are concerned with factors external to the authenticity of the work, your engagement and experience is duly lost or spoilt by a rigged surface. Such is live theatre and there are a number of explanations (although some are inexplicable) that led to this disruption.

Lets begin with the consequences of the silver screen. The aesthetic of a theatrical experience is of course completely diminished by the latter. The screen acts as a protest to the production; it allows some of it to be shown and that which is shown is inanely reproduced to destroy all reality. What I mean is that the language of cinema is used to represent the theatre and those consequences are fatal. The syntax of the shot, for starters, tries to replicate a well-constructed classical form of film montage. Christopher is shown in a close-up, a reverse mid-shot, a top shot, but never a real wide shot. By real, I mean a wide shot that encompasses the whole stage, a shot that would allow the closest form of resemblance to the theatre. Such a shot is completely disregarded, until the very end when we finally acquire a glimpse of the auditorium and realise how we have just spent two hours not experiencing the theatre at all, but something completely different, perhaps it appears as a film rehearsal might. The empty stage, the actors overacting to find their nuances, the long takes and self-effacing camera angles; it is by no means a film rehearsal but certainly more so than a theatrical experience. The theatre has its own language, with the drama and the stage; it is not infatuated with the décor and montage of the cinema; all the latter is killed with live theatre.

What is shown is a frame filled with shadows of the audiences’ heads, distant cameraman and their chunky lenses and, of course, our noble stage actors. In fact, at one point, the cutting these frames made me feel dizzy and have to retract from the screen altogether; it was a rather claustrophobic experience; perhaps induced by not being able to breath along with the real audience. Of course, seeing stage actors project themselves onto a screen is trivial, dishonest and alarmingly awkward. Much of the acting feels like bad acting and rightly so, the camera cannot allude the stage and it certainly cannot attribute the features of stage acting. There are psychological layers to acting, and the screen, so sensitive to the latter, will destroy the stage actor’s aura and, ultimately, their performance.

The camera is a nail for details, it picks out the skin tones and the rest of the meticulous features of its frame, the theatre doesn’t, it doesn’t need to. The cinema therefore dismantles the theatre production before our very own eyes; there is no mise-en-scene but a few actors and their seamless correspondence on the stage as the story moves from one location to the next. Even this well executed and seamless interaction of stage maneuvers is dismantled, as the camera disturbs this reality, it picks out what it wants to see. In other words, the only way to experience something close to the theatre would be a distinctive wide shot with a deep focus, and no consecutive montage. For this would allow our eyes to rest and scope the auditorium as an active theatre audience does, the opposite to a passive cinema audience. For example, the camera is focused on Christopher and his emotion changes in response to the characters on the opposite side of the stage, yet we do not see there emotions, they are hidden. Such are the powerful tools of a film director, but this is not a film and the theatre need not experiment, or be able to experiment, with such tools. The cinema screen enlightens the opportunity and shatters it in its very essence.

One could write a dissertation on the aesthetics and ontologies presented through such a mish-mash of art exhibition. But, I will save this for another day and conclude this blog post by saying that you should never, if not just to experience, go to see NT live. That is to say that if you care about the foundations of the theatre and the cinema then you will be lugged to hell and back trying to watch a live performance and experience it without scratching your brain every couple of minutes. If you are able to simply sit back and idly watch an execution of art, then let me know.

Short Reflections from the Silver Screen: Bait (3D)

Bait-3D

Bait

Australia. 2012. Kimble Rendall.

This B-movie has the classic elements of a genre film in which humans are the prey (bait) to two great white sharks. Despite awful acting, CGI (the sharks look hilarious) and the outrageously farfetched scenario of this movie, it still serves up a few laughs and thrills for the taking.

There is a great tsunami, it floods a supermarket and an underground car park bringing with it an array of sea creatures, including the two great whites; one roams the aisles whilst the other hangs out in parking lot. The acting is generally bad, but their characters and the scenario don’t give them much of a chance. There are a few unresolved relationships to boil our interest, but frankly we don’t give a toss and are more excited about who will be the next bit of bait for our friendly giants.

Impressive cinematography and production design lift this movie above its garbage package. And, the imbecilic characters and plenteous shark munching do provide enough entertainment to keep you engaged.

 

*All reflections are from my film journal.

Short Reflections from the Silver Screen: Don’t Look Now

Don-t-Look-Now

Don’t Look Now

UK. 1973. Nicolas Roeg.

This film leaves a scar deep beneath the surface; Roeg renders the subconscious state of the cinematic with absolute accomplishment.

This psychic thriller is about a man’s (John Baxter) overwhelming grief for the death of his daughter and the feelings of guilt that supersede it. John vacates to Venice with his wife Laura to direct the reconstruction of a local church. There is a fine line between the symbolism of religion and death, as the church serves for plenty of John’s deranged fear of guilt and entrapment. Further signs draw links between various characters that implement the most unsettling outcomes. The film builds itself up to a chilling climax that resonates amidst our conscious minds and filters through to the subconscious.

The cinematography is essential to filling each frame with dread and creating each magnificently threatening composition. Venice looks ice cold and bleak and represents the maze that John’s mind is trying to map. The narrow alleys, identical bridges and claustrophobic buildings all transmit John’s confusion and mounting anxiety. It’s hard to imagine the film being shot anywhere else.

 

*All reflections are from my film journal.

The Arbor, The Selfish Giant and Clio Barnard

Clio Barnard

I was fortunate enough to attend Clio Bernard’s lecture on her work the other day, she truly shows the promising signs of a filmmaker who understands their vision and has the passion, tenacity and talent to contribute a thorough standpoint in cinema. Her first two films have been seminal works in the last few years of British film, gaining Clio multiple awards internationally and 2 BAFTA nominations for the outstanding debut category.

Clio’s underlying themes of memory, authenticity and imagination are rich from the outset, although masked in the provincial poverty and the battle of human life that she so credibly conceives. The Arbor is her first feature length piece of work that simulates layers of reality to a shattering and enthralling effect. It is raw and lucid, and some critics have complained of its downward spiral of depression and heartache, at times there is little space for breath. Yet, on the contrary, Clio utilises innovative filmmaking tools to remind the viewer that this is simply a retelling of a story that is being remembered in more ways than one. There is the simulation of Andrew Dunbar’s play acted out in the estate yard; there is the reflection of Dunbar’s family (of authentic voices lip-synced to actors – a magical feat and by no means obtrusive), the fictionalised reenactment of events and the factual archive footage of interviews with Andrea herself. It is a true expression of Brechtian technique (from the epic theatre) and thus a remarkably fresh insight into the documentary form and the form of cinematic expression itself.

The selfish giant

Following on from this great success, Clio emerged with another tale of heartache and grief imaginatively interpreted from Oscar Wilde’s fable The Selfish Giant. Clio also drew inspiration from The Arbor and the cycle of power and greed constructed within working-class Yorkshire (Bradford). The poor are undermined by society and the audience innately experiences the cycle of poverty through the young eyes of a 14 year old boy (ironically called Arbor) trying to make ends meet for his detached and deprived family. It is a striking film with beautiful and sometimes magical cinematography, powerful and admirable acting and, of course, the instinctive and precise direction of Clio.

Clio came from a background in fine art and it was her sequential drawings that drew her to the cinematic form. She became interested in what it would be like to construct these drawings into a storyboard form, if you like, ultimately, the moving image. Clio began making short films of the experimental and artistry kind. She screened part of an intriguing short film she made in 1998 called Random acts of Intimacy which, like The Arbor, blended authentic voices with actors miming. In this case, irrational sexual acts (usually of one’s fantasy or imagination) were explained in detail and filtrated with shots from actual pornographic films. The audience wishes to seek out the vulnerability and the anonymity of lip-syncing makes this a frustrating and highly captivating task.

Clio continued to experiment with the medium, constantly looking for new ways to explore authenticity and connect with the real. However, she assertively believes that it is wholly risky to believe in the authenticity of film. Though, her social-realist style in The Selfish Giant may proclaim otherwise, it is after all inaugurated from a little fable of greed that resolves in receipt.

I am fascinated to find out where Clio will take her filmmaking journey next, she hinted she was in the writing process at the moment, nothing more. She has explored the boundaries of documentary and narrative filmmaking, both transcending the screen, one with Brechtian motives and the other via pure cinema. What’s next Clio?

Short Reflections from the Silver Screen: The Human Centipede

The-Human-Centipede

The Human Centipede: First Sequence

Netherlands. 2009. Tom Six.

Whenever I reflect on this movie, I feel my inside organs coil and wretch. It truly is sick. Yet what continues to amaze me is Tom Six’s audacious ability to bring his utterly perverted idea to life with such a powerful execution.

Not for one moment does this film strike a vocal cord for laughter (often an easy escape route for horror), instead I remained engrossed inside the world of The Human Centipede. This is respectably due to Dieter Laser’s harrowingly impressive performance as the mad and clearly off-color scientist who speaks like a Nazi. He revels at his operational work in an introverted manner under his umbrella of sheer perversity.

Can such a film appeal to anyone other than exploitative midnight horror freaks? I believe anyone who is brave enough to turn up or press play will be locked in for the sick ride. But, how can one possibly accredit such a film? It may pull many outside their comfort zone, but it beckons an achievement in emphatically opening up the dark artistic soul of its director.

 

The Human Centipede: Full Sequence

Netherlands. 2011. Tom Six.

If there ever was a way to make a sequel unique and truly perverted, this is the one. I was inevitably left completely grossed out, but still intrigued by the clever concept this film toys with.

Fat and troubled loner Martin (Lawrence R. Harvey) is obsessed by the movie (the First Sequence). It ignites a drive and dream deep down amidst his black and warped soul to create his own 12-person centipede – overshadowing the great German scientist (his icon) by times four. Almost without any hesitation, Martin begins to collect his victims, bashing them over the head with a wrench, and realise his sick fantasy as it transcends unnervingly into his own reality.

What follows is enough masochism and wounds to the head to enflame the greatest of ‘shock’ cinema fans. Shot in black and white (actually looking quite nice), the blood isn’t so repulsing rather it is Martin’s true sense of perverted pleasure and vile domesticity that unearths the skin.

It is a fine piece of exploitation cinema, but perhaps give it a miss if you found the First Sequence too much.

 

*All reflections are from my film journal.

Shovelling the Screen: Burn After Reading

Burn-Pitt

REVIEW FEATURE

Burn After Reading

US. 2008. The Coen Brothers

What is explicitly farce and largely nonsensical turns out be a brilliant representation of an America stuffed with greed and ignorance, yet this is frightfully accurate and, from the get go, we have all met people like the profligate and covetous characters in this film. It is a screwball comedy, but it is also a tangible thriller in which the Coen’s wield blunt instruments and set in motion the desires and volatility of individuals who all have sex with one another. It is clear were the hullabaloo and wit lies. And it is overtly obvious, yet by its very explicit nature subtle, that the ideology of a growing national inanity takes place.

The film opens with an aerial map of the U.S as the camera begins to zoom in and eventually lands with a thud at the CIA headquarters. This shot is implicit to the nature of this film; it is a small world and one full of small-minded and mad human beings. It is ironic then that the film begins at the CIA headquarters with perhaps the maddest and most irritable of them all, the perpetually pissed-off analyst Osborne Cox, played by a zany John Malkovich. The film comes full circle when it is apparent that nothing does really make any sense down here on earth (ironically again we are at the CIA headquarters) and we zoom back out to the peaceful outer space, freed from humankind.

Predictably, tailed with mix reviews, it is the A-game actors that save the film for most of the critics. The characters and their dialogue are remarkably punchy and fresh – certainly Brad Pitt shows a much-loved new side to his copious acting abilities – however, the plot is equally rewarding. Whilst the film may dip in and out of various plotlines, it is precisely this density that strikes a chord with much of everyday life; it is the perplexing and, therefore beguiling essence that the Coen’s are after. The more you think about everything that happens in this movie, the more you find it funny, but the more you intrinsically relate to it. This isn’t to say that plot isn’t perfectly logical, on the contrary, but it is the way the Coen’s eradicate each beat, sequence and act with such perspicacity and delight and the way that every scene strikes the core of each character that brings such a laxative construct to a climatic blast of events.

There are subtle contradictions in my words, but this is precisely why I am enticed and intrigued by this film. The rest of Hollywood would run scared, but the Coen’s manage to supress any rebuke and instead make mincemeat out of just about everything. Nearly everything in life, if we read it hard enough, lingers to contradict, and a film that pricks my mind into such a state (call it a transcendence) serves to be a truly great film.

So, returning to conventional evaluation, the film comprises a wonderful cast who fit their roles delightfully. Tilda Swinton is simply fierce and indissoluble with talent, George Clooney and Frances McDormand are stimulating in their ‘’search’ (of which is carried out in all the wrong places) with a tint of poignancy, Richard Jenkins is a lungful of clean air, John Malkovich is wild and at the top of his wacky game and all the while Brad Pitt is racing up the rear with what must be electrical currents surging through his body.

You would expect then that most of the humour comes at the expense of the characters, yes no one is redeemable and they are all mocked, but the humour is coupled to their environment and sequences of the narrative. In fact, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography hits the mark for every moment of hilarity and Jess Gonchor’s production design is indispensable to every motion of laughter. The filmmaker’s language is always imperative to creating humour, not just characters blundering around wildly.

The concepts implicit in this film become principal to the Coen’s later film A Serious Man. A film where one man struggles indefinitely to find meaning in life and whilst that film isn’t as rich in story and eccentricity it is a great step forward into the ‘unknown’. One begins to conclude that the Coen’s themselves must be God.