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2015-07-25 13:51:53
8

My dad has regularly been going to the theatre for decades. He and a few of his friends have a subscription at Þjóðleikhúsið and, come rain, come shine, every few weeks they go to see whatever it is that they’re staging. It doesn’t matter if it’s getting awful reviews, whether it’s a farce or a tragedy, they go, watch, and then talk about it over wine. This tradition has survived two divorces and several major career changes.

Theatre has that effect on people (especially if you fancy yourself as a cultured middle-class citizen of the world). People get hooked on watching it. People get hooked on working in it. Theatre isn’t a mainstream hobby activity but it’s here to stay.

It is, arguably, the oldest form of storytelling that we still practice. (The other contender being music, although given how intertwined drama and music have been, the distinction is moot.)

Speak to any historian of cinema (especially the amateur ones) and you’ll get a yarn about how early cinema consisted just of a camera pointing at a stage: recorded plays that didn’t use the medium to any sensible degree and that film didn’t begin to advance until filmmakers began to break away from the conventions of the stage.

This narrative—even though it’s demonstrably, completely, and utterly untrue—has become a standard trope in media commentary.

Right out of the gate, early cinema focused on spectacle, fantasy, and documentary works. Most of the stage adaptations come after the special effects and documentary films. The crude and stage-bound nature of early film has more to do with the limitations and immobility of the cameras than an over-bearing influence of drama on the filmmakers.

The story that film grew out of remediated stage plays is a fiction.

Even though it is a complete fiction, its message is a useful one: different media have varying qualities. This means that each medium lends itself more to doing some things over others. It’s a McLuhanite parable—his pithy ‘the medium is the message’ aphorism writ large as a largely made up metaphor.

Which is all good. My only problem is that there’s a better yarn we can use for this: the story of an earlier media evolution that has much stronger parallels to our current new media predicament.