In For a Penny: You Can’t take it With You

Image via Universal Pictures

Image via Universal Pictures

“[I]t’s a form of alchemy, of magic. It’s very appealing. I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated because the very earliest people who made film were magicians.”
– Francis Ford Coppola, Academy of Achievement interview, 17 June 1994

When I think of Aaron Sorkin, I’m reminded of Christopher Buckley’s address to Yale’s 2009 graduating class. In a self-deprecating speech, the author and former George HW Bush speech-writer implores these supposedly-future-captains-of-industry to reject the very shameless materialism they’d supposedly been encouraged to embrace. “[Do] you really want to model your lives on characters in a Tom Wolfe novel?” he asks. “I always wanted to be Tom Wolfe, but I never wanted to be Sherman McCoy.” I’d rather be Aaron Sorkin than Will McAvoy, but that may have less to do with wanting to be a celebrated writer and more to with my wanting to date Kristin Chenoweth.

As regular readers of Theater Pub know, Sorkin is a polarizing figure, partly by design. His instantly recognizable prose adds an electric energy to his story and characters. Still, the subjects he covers are filtered through his own unapologetically myopic bias. He began as a playwright, but he’s become the polar opposite of the Coen Brothers’ eponymous Barton Fink: he’s somehow gotten the Hollywood machine to bend to his will, rather than the other way around. That’s why I found it fascinating when he first announced his screenplay for Steve Jobs would essentially be a three-act play on film.

I’m not here to review the film (which I saw back in October), but I will say that I can see why it’s been recently nominated for several awards. Having said that, I watched the film wondering if maybe Sorkin’s approach was, well, too successful? Is it possible for a film to somehow be “too theatrical”?

Allow me to explain: as I watched the film, I was fully focused by Sorkin’s story and characters, but I didn’t find the film to be inherently cinematic. I know director Danny Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Küchler shot the three acts in three different formats (16mm celluloid, 35mm celluloid, and 24-frame digital, respectively), but there was still little about the film that made it, well, a film. With the exception of a few short flashback scenes, the staging and transitions – particularly those depicting the passing of years – were all the sort of thing one could see in a local black box production. Rather than thinking it was like a play, I asked myself why they didn’t just make it into a play.

I’m not saying that it needed wall-to-wall special F/X, blinding explosions, and seizure-inducing editing, but film is a visual medium first and foremost. Theatre is, on a rudimentary level, about standing in front of people and commanding their unwavering attention. Film is a technology that just happened to be eventually adopted by storytellers, most of whom came from theatre. As much as writers like to believe their words are sacrosanct, a screenwriter knows that his/her words should always be in service to the manipulated visuals rather than the visuals adhering to the words on the page.

Those horrible visuals.

Those migraine-inducing visuals.

Which isn’t to say the two things are mutually exclusive, just that you should know what works best for the medium you’ve chosen for your story. Nearly every actor who’s appeared in a Terrence Malick has described his scripts as the best they’ve ever read; those same actors lament how Malick himself will toss aside those scripts just to capture a shot of a butterfly landing on a flower. At least with the Qatsi films, you know they’re montages without anyone being mislead into thinking there’s a traditional narrative.

Similarly, I’m all for theatre productions incorporating various technologies, such as projectors. Yet there are some productions that rely so heavily on projection technology that you get the impression the creators are just frustrated film-makers pissed off that they had to “settle” for doing theatre instead of the format they wanted. (And the tiny violin orchestra begins.)

When all is said and done, I have an appreciation for playwright who made his voice so prominent in a production (and format) where said voice is a secondary concern, if at all. He made his words the central focus of a project that included award-winning visual stylists and recognizable extras. As I said, I’m not here to review the film – and I have plenty of positive and negative things to say in that regard – but it may be the best compliment I can give to say that I’d rather see this performed live than as a collection of flickering images.

But I say that as someone who, to put it one way, goes to a restaurant to enjoy the meal, not because the chef is a celebrity.

Charles Lewis III is currently compiling his list of the best films and plays he saw in 2015. He promises not to include the ones he was in.

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One comment on “In For a Penny: You Can’t take it With You

  1. Reblogged this on The Thinking Man's Idiot and commented:
    In which I look at playwright’s film adaptation of a book and ask if it’s possible for a film to be “too theatrical”.

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