Search Box

Friday, January 29, 2010

Plays vs. movies

I went to New York City last night to see a play by a friend, Jon Leaf ( The play, "Sexual Healing," was quite good. It was based -- not so loosely -- on the relationship between the sex therapists William Masters and Virginia Johnson, in a story told mostly from Johnson's point of view. It was well written, well cast, and well acted. The first half of the play featured a fair amount of sex, or at least talk about sex, which tends to hold one's interest. And the second half featured a fair amount of tension, which also tends to hold one's interest.

But the entire experience reminded me of why I prefer movies. No stage set, no matter how cleverly designed, can possibly live up to location shots, particularly of beautiful locations. (Please name the play which features scenery as beautiful as that in The Sound of Music -- or Avatar.) I know, at a play you're supposed to appreciate what the designers have done with their limited resources; but appreciating what a cinematographer can do is more rewarding.

In a movie, close-ups allow the actors the luxury of subtlety. Stage actors must throw their voices -- and emote -- for the cheap seats. This hammy acting can be annoying if you're sitting nearby -- or even in the cheap seats.

A film allows you to gaze at actors who look like Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren -- at their peak. Stage actors are rarely movie star handsome. Even the villains in movies look more villainous. It's more fun to look at a villain who looks like Jack Palance in Shane than one who looks like someone you'd meet at a suburban barbecue.

Another problem in a play is that you must be on your best behavior. (Whisper in a movie theater and it won't bother the actors on the screen one bit.) If you feel a sudden urge to go to the bathroom, too bad; you must wait till intermission. And at the end of the play, not clapping for the actors as they all appear would be extremely rude.

A play theater is never quite as dark as a movie theater, either. Last night, having had dinner right before the play, during the first act I loosened my belt and undid my pant buckle. Suddenly aware that the people around me might think I was doing something untoward during the sexy scenes, I made a point of holding both of my hands -- prayer style -- in front of my mouth, so that they could see I was not using the play as a peep show.

There are people who feel more intimately involved in a story if it's told by live actors. Understandable, if misguided.

Finally, there is the difference in price. Play tickets, especially for Broadway shows, are far more expensive than movie tickets. And parking in the Times Square area is not cheap.

The ideal solution involves patience. Once a movie comes out on DVD, you can provide entertainment for an entire group of people for less than the price of one movie ticket, and watch it in comfort from your own home. And if you have to go to the bathroom, just stop the action till you return. (Try that in a theater.)


Anonymous said...

PS I enjoyed re-reading your "smartest guy ..." post, (even though the link didn't work!)

Anonymous said...

John, as a movie enthusiast I agree with your sentiments. (And your description of your awkward concern about what others in the theatre audience might be thinking you were doing was very funny.)
Nevertheless I think that plays have a lot to offer. At their best, live performances have intensity and create a connection with the audience that simply can’t be replicated in a movie. Good musicals simply aren’t the same as recorded entertainment just as a great live performance trumps the CD. Even without the musical dimension, the live experience can be special.

Years ago I went to see a comedy called “Noises Off” which follows a touring theatre troupe. As the tour progresses the relationships among the actors and their stage performances degenerate into hilarious farce – I can’t imagine the riotous atmosphere of that audience being replicated in any movie theatre.

It’s also interesting to consider the movie versions of plays and vice versa. “Twelve Angry Men” is a superb movie, illustrating many of the points that you made about the strength of the medium. It would be interesting to hear how someone who saw it as a play compares it with the movie. We recently saw the excellent play “Frost/Nixon” which was subsequently brought to the screen with the same lead actors. I will make a point of watching the movie and making my own comparison. Fortunately, as you have noted, I can do so for much less than the price of a Broadway theatre ticket!

John Craig said...

Guy --
I understand your point about the intensity of seeing live performers, but to me, part of that intensity is simply the knowledge that you're watching a real live human being being who might screw up on stage at any minute, which to me is not a comfortable -- or in any way creatively liberating -- feeling.

I agree that the difference between seeing a play like Twelve Angry Men (or Glengarry Glen Ross) and the movie version isn't that great in terms of production quality, since these dramas were written for the stage, so really don't require much of a set beyond what a stage can offer. But try adapting the vast majority of movies to a stage set and you'll see how limiting it can be. Imagine seeing a James Bond movie performed on stage: no thanks.

Then again, maybe my problem is I just don't thrill to the presence of real live human beings the way I ought to. That may have something to do with why I prefer reading books to talking with people.

Anonymous said...

PS I enjoyed re-reading your "smartest guy ..." post.

John Craig said...

Thank you Guy. that one was actually fun to write as it was an opportunity to think about what intelligence really is and also the behavior and thought patterns which distinguish smart people (like yourself).

Anonymous said...

John, Does it ever bother you how frequently -- often inappropriately, in my view -- people feel compelled to give a standing ovation at the end of a play? Rarely happens with a movie and, when it does, it is usually merited. Julie

John Craig said...

Julie --
Thanks for your comment(s). As I said in the post, having to clap at the end is just one more aspect of having to be on your best behavior. It in itself doesn't bother me that much, it's basically just being polite, like saying "Nice job" to someone you know after a piano recital whether or not it was.

I agree, though, that the clapping after a movie is a better measure of its worth.