Thursday, April 15, 2010

The thin white line

Every Little Step (2008) is not only superior to the disastrous film version of the musical play A Chorus Line, it just may make the play itself unnecessary. The film is about auditions for a musical about an audition. Being film, it short-circuits the major flaw of the play--which is that it is, and must be, a rehearsed reenact of spontaneous human events. Documentary film by its nature can be present for and record actual events, although its presentation of them is in turn artificial.

That is, theater creates a spontaneous and natural shell within which to present a (usually) unspontaneous, un-natural event. Film--especially documentary film--does the reverse: capture actual life as it lived and encase it in a shell of technology which removes it from reality as experienced.

So part of the evaluation of which medium is most appropriate for which story must be the consideration--for whom is reality more important: the people in the narrative, or the people observing the narrative. In classical theater, in which surprise is not significant, and public ritual is at the forefront, the characters need no spontaneity. The entire significance of the event lies in it being carried out in public in the prescribed way so as to create a particular effect in the audience. That is theater in its most natural form. We may be more familiar with the variations and distortions introduced in the succeeding centuries, but they are the result of shifts in the culture and the technology--indeed, over the last ten years, the expectations created by film have colored our theater. But its roots are in pre-ordained ceremony. Theater is by necessity performance. If it is not now being performed before an audience, theater doesn't exist.

To the extent the film audience is a community, it is a continually temporary one. Primacy is invested in the events recorded and arranged, not the performance of the film. Film exists independent of the audience. How many films have failed with one audience, disappeared and reappeared to be celebrated by an audience in a different time and place. Film can punch a hole in space and time, theater exists solely within space and time.

The point of A Chorus Line was the difficulty and uncertainty of the audition process--the vulnerability of every performer who put himself on the line. If the play could be done with a different cast and a different outcome every night, it would be able to represent its own experience. But it can't. It must have pre-written lines, music, choreography. It must be rehearsed down to the last flutter of the last eyelash. And thus it invalidates itself.

The film of the audition for A Chorus Line requires only the artifice (and it is substantial) of film editing (and to some extent score music). I suppose to be utterly true to the event, one would have to sit through the entire process on some sort of endless live television feed. (Note to cable stations--get on this right away!) So for the sake of human endurance, we must needs have editing, shaping the incoherent experience into compact and well-formed narrative. Still the elements which have been shaped are themselves real and true. (The superb editing is by Brad Fuller and Fernando Villela. It rivals Alan Heim's work on All That Jazz.)

The performers are real and exciting, those who made the cut and those who didn't. Although the film is not the definitive Chorus Line documentary, there is some amazing vintage footage, included for purposes of comparison with the more recent performers. Not all of the play is represented (notably the song "Nothing" scarcely appears). There is an enchanting guest appearance by Jacques D'Amboise. Given the tightly-defined and somewhat artificial quality of the event being documented, the producer-directors did a superb job of making sure to have selected enough characters and have enough cameras running in enough places to have, like Frank Buck, brought it all back alive.

And when you see someone tell a loved one, "I got the job," to a loved one (not re-enacting it--the moment is happening right in front of you), there is such an irreducible reality to that joy that I defy you not to weep at the beauty of the sight.

No comments:

Post a Comment