My Case/Mon cas (1986, directed by Manoel de Oliveira)

Part II

It has long been a critical commonplace that film and theatre are distinct and separate art forms, and that, to succeed, film must remain true to those peculiarities that mark it as different from other art forms. Theatre, being in some ways the most similar art form to film (prior to the acceptance of television as art), is viewed as the source of many of the worst cinematic bad habits (which can be collectively termed ‘staginess’), and film directors are charged to be vigilant in not falling prey to these. Film is at its best, at most cinematic, when it is at its least theatrical. Adaptations of plays, when not seen as inherently suspect, are accepted only when they liberate themselves from their stage origins, that is, make you forget that they are based on plays at all. Erwin Panofsky’s essay ‘Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures’, first written in 1934, and then revised in 1946, is a key text in the promotion of this point of view; in it, he approves of the realization by the more intelligent of the early filmmakers ‘that the imitation of a theater performance with a set stage, fixed entries and exits, and distinctly literary ambitions is one thing the film must avoid’. Oliveira has no interest in avoiding such an imitation; indeed, his film’s relation to theatre goes well beyond imitation.

When the lights come on at the start of My Case, they reveal cameras pointing forwards, almost straight at the viewer. We soon realize that they are situated in a darkened auditorium, among empty seats. People gradually enter, sit down or assume their positions at equipment. Oliveira himself, I think, can just about be glimpsed on the right of the screen; it is he, I assume, who calls out ‘Lights!’ The rigid distinctions between film and theatre insisted upon by Panofsky and others since are undermined right from the beginning of My Case, in which the director is presented as someone is at the same time both the director of a movie and the director of a play; the crew are at work simultaneously on a movie and on a play; the viewer is about to watch something that is both movie and play. There’s a cut to the front curtain of the stage, which shows the masks of Comedy and Tragedy; a young man enters with a clapperboard; ‘first repetition’, he announces, and the curtain rises. It’s a bolder opening than that of Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, which eases us gently into its theatrical scene by showing us the actors and the stage director Andre Gregory walking and talking in the streets of New York on their way to the theatre. Oliveira is almost confrontational in his insistence on the theatrical nature of material.

The set, an elaborate recreation of a stylish Art Nouveau interior, with backlit stained-glass doors at the centre of the rear piece, could not be more calculated to play up the stagy artifice of the proceedings. This is the theatre of boulevard entertainment, of bourgeois farce, anachronistic in it stylings in 1986 yet representative of all middlebrow commercial theatre. It is a theatre denounced by the Intruder, who, in his preamble to the story he never manages to tell, decries its falsity and dissimulation, its moustaches, hair-do’s and make-up. In breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, he is tearing down this falsity to make a direct address to the audience… except that there is none. What’s more, what we are watching is not a live performance, but a recording, on a screen – there is no fourth wall to broken here. As the Intruder delivers his address, the camera turns slightly. The Intruder turns with it so that he is still looking directly into it, but while he remains centre-stage, he is now no longer centre-screen. At the centre of the frame now is the space between and behind the open doors at the back of the set; soon we see a man run past (the Doorman, as it later turns out), and our attention immediately focuses on him, rather than on the Intruder. What we see in the cinema is the result of decisions made by the filmmaker(s) – decisions about camera movement, editing, lighting etc. This leaves the Intruder with no control over how his message will be received by the viewer. Film actors have less control over their performances than do theatre actors; film performances are shaped and assembled by people other than themselves, while a theatre actor always has the potential freedom to depart from the script or from directorial instructions. Audiences, too, have more control in the theatre; there, they can choose where to focus their attention – which performer, which part of the set, which insignificant prop or bit of costume. The director may, by means of blocking and lighting, provide cues, which most people, most of the time, will follow – but there is always the possibility of letting your eye wander elsewhere, while still observing the action onstage. That possibility is greatly reduced when watching a film, for your eye’s potential wanderings are circumscribed by the edges of the frame (although effects will vary depending on the size of the screen and your position in relation to it), except when you look away altogether.

The characters in Régio’s play are all in competition for the attention of the audience, trying to ensure that peoples’ eyes (and ears) remain fixed on them and on nothing else. In the theatre, this normally means occupying centre stage, but the presence of a camera complicates matters. When the Intruder turns with the camera while he is speaking, he remains in the same centre stage position, but in turning, he turns his back on a section of the auditorium. Later, when the Author delivers his monologue, he first has to literally push the Intruder out of view: away from the centre of the stage and outside the frame. However, the camera plays a trick on him by immediately cutting to stage right to observe the bickering antics of the Intruder, the Doorman and the Actress. The Actress chases away the Doorman, leaving only the Intruder in view; he strides forward, then steps to the side, all the while looking directly ahead, in a state of apparent bewilderment. Bewildered, perhaps, because although he now has the undivided attention of the camera, he is without the privilege of sound; what’s more, he is being scrutinized by the camera in position far from centre stage. Later still, the Spectator strides up to the stage to interrupt the chaos, but starts to speak before he gets there, addressing not the auditorium, but the camera. Oliveira uses Régio’s play as a means of teasing with the questions of what kind of performance do the characters find themselves in, what kind of performance are we watching: a piece of theatre, a piece of cinema, or (unloved form) a recording of a piece of theatre? One key difference between stage and screen highlighted by all these interruptions and addresses to the audience is that screen action cannot be interrupted. The playing of a film might be disrupted by a fire in the cinema or a technical fault (or, if you’re watching at home, you might press pause) but there’s no way, as a mere viewer, you can intervene to stop a baby in a pram careering down a flight of steps, or warn a private detective not to ascend the staircase at a spooky motel. The screaming mother can’t implore you directly to save her child; the private investigator can’t ask you to back him up (nor can Martin Balsam regale you with anecdotes about being directed by Hitchcock). In the theatre, there’s always the potential for interruption, disruption and variation,* whether it be a lunatic rushing onto the stage; an actor forgetting his or her lines, or letting forth an expletive-ridden tirade against the idiot who left his phone on, or dying; a set malfunction; a riot; a bit of improvisation or audience interaction – or, in some cases, more than just a bit. In the midst of his speech, the Spectator berates the audience for not protesting, not coming forward, as he has done, to put an end to the foolishness; the camera cuts to rows of empty seats.

The repeated variations of the second and third sections bring into consideration another area of difference between film and theatre: that of repetition. For a moment, you might be forgiven for thinking that the second section simply replays the film from the first section, only speeded up, de-colorized and with the sound removed. Film, of course, can be replayed; the performance is preserved and can be watched again and again, whereas in the theatre, each performance is ephemeral. But it is always the same performance; there may have been many takes, and the actors may have given different readings in each of them, but only one take is preserved and incorporated into the final result. Stage actors, on the other hand, have the freedom to vary their performances every time, whether it be on the level of the minutest gesture or of the whole conception of the character (Panofsky: ‘Stage work is continuous but transitory; film work is discontinuous but permanent’). Once I realized that the second repetition was not a replay, I started to wonder whether the transition between the sections had been recorded live. Apparently not; we see the curtain descend, the man with the clapperboard announce the change, the curtain rise, and the Intruder make his entrance, all without an obvious cut. This gives the impression of a continuous take, involving the actors rushing offstage in preparation to do the same thing (more or less) all over again. Oliveira thus offers two types of variation-in-repetition: theatrical, in which the actors repeat the performance with subtle differences; and cinematic, in which the film is replayed but altered. The impression of a live recording may be an illusion, however, for there may be a disguised cut I failed to detect; there is a definite cut in the transition between the second and third repetitions, and again (necessarily so, in view of the scenery and costume changes) between the third repetition and the Job section.

The definite break introduced by fourth and final section is signalled from the beginning. There is no man with a clapper-board; the curtain that descends shows not the masks of comedy and tragedy, but one anguished face, looking like the face of a soul in hell. This curtain does not rise; rather, the camera seems almost to go around it, revealing the set. Before this, the off-screen Biblical narration describes the wager between God and Satan that marks the start of Job’s troubles. We don’t see this, of course, because it’s not a scene that can be adequately visualized, either in the theatre or on film – or at any, rate, it would be extremely difficult to bring off. The set is extraordinary: wrecked and burnt-out cars, metal oil drums belching smoke, heaps of rubbish, a painted backdrop showing a stormy sky and the hulking, forbidding towers of a city, styled in an Expressionist manner that could represent a modern or Biblical metropolis. The camera is slightly more mobile in this section than it has been hitherto; there are more shots, even including close-ups and tracking shots. The Job section is thus at the same time more ‘cinematic’ than its predecessors (the camera moves!), and more defiantly ‘theatrical’ (the stylized set). To suggest the tempest sent down by God, theatrical effects are used – lights, recorded sound, a wind machine; when we hear the voice of God, there’s a shot of the loudspeaker from which it emanates. Yet to underscore Job’s humbling, Oliveira uses a high-angle shot – the first time in the film that he shoots a human figure this way; up until this point, almost everything has been shot at horizontal level, as you’d expect of a filmed play. Theatrical tricks and cinematic tricks, pulling apart and yet working together.

mon cas7

Above: The set from the final section.

Partly in response to Panofsky’s influential essay, Susan Sontag published her own essay, ‘Film and Theatre’, in 1966. What she has to say about the opposing impulses to distinguish between the arts and to unite them is germane here:

Consider the two principal radical positions in the arts today. One recommends the breaking down of distinctions between genres; the arts would eventuate in one art, consisting in many different kinds of behavior going on at the same time, a vast behaviorial magma or synaesthesis. The other position recommends the maintaining and clarifying of barriers between the arts, by the intensification of what each art distinctively is; painting must use only those means which pertain to painting, music only those which are musical, novels those which pertain to the novel and to no other literary form, etc.

There are two options, Sontag goes on to write, open to those seeking a ‘definitive’ art form: they can strive towards the most rigorous or fundamental form, which many have identified in the cinema; or they can strive towards the most inclusive form (the total theatre of Wagner, Marinetti, Artaud and Cage might be considered as attempts in this direction). Oliveira’s instincts are obviously those of a unifier, but they would not, I think, lead to such grandiose projects as those conceived by four artists named above. Differences are acknowledged and respected even as commonality is argued for; in some ways, it’s a rather modest position. Take the final scene of My Case, which shows Job restored to wealth and happiness. The set is a representation of a Renaissance Ideal City. Girls dance around Job and his family, strewing flower petals on the ground. An unseen piano plays some Satie-like music. The Mona Lisa is brought on stage, and then there’s a cut to an image of it on a TV screen. The camera draws back to show the whole theatre – the stage, curtains, proscenium and auditorium, where we see the TV with the flickering image of the painting, the film crew at work and some other people simply sitting and watching. It’s a beautiful picture, with (almost) all the arts present and correct: theatre and film, of course, but also painting, television, literature (The Book of Job), architecture (the set), music (the piano) and dance (the girls). As well as being beautiful, it’s implicit that the scene is an impossible idealization (no actual city could ever measure up to the image of its perfection). Just because it’s an impossible idealization, however, doesn’t mean to say that it isn’t worth imagining or even attempting, without success, to realize.

In my final post on My Case, I’ll be considering the relationship between sound and image.

ideal city

Above: A panel depicting a view of an Ideal City, painted in the fifteenth century and variously attributed to Piero della Francesca, Luciano Laurana, Francesco di Giorgio Martini and Leon Battista Alberti. It hangs in the National Gallery of the Marche in Urbino.

mon cas5

Above: The camera looking down onto the set, near the very end of the film.

*There’s one aspect to the Book of Job that links it to Régio’s play: the intervention of Elihu, which is an act of disruption by someone who claims to have been listening quietly and attentively to the debate between Job and his friends/accusers. Elihu is not mentioned prior to his interruption, and is not mentioned after, so that it has been suggested that his speeches are a textual interpolation. He is played by the same actor who, in the third section, interrupted the action by playing news footage on a projector. With his certainty and insistence that he is imparting a profound truth that contradicts the fallacies of others, he is also reminiscent of Régio’s Intruder.

[Part I of my review can be read here, and Part III here]

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