Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Kael of the Week: Film vs. Theatre

I found myself at the theatre (that is, at a live theatrical production) not once, but twice in the last week (almost thrice, but apparently everybody else in New York decided that a Sunday matinee was a nice fit for Valentine’s Day), and got to thinking about the ongoing argument I had with one of my college professors, J. David Blatt, about whether film or theatre was the greater art form. And then this passage popped up in the Kael book I’m working my way through:

“No doubt movies attract us from earliest childhood because they excite us and work on us, and perhaps movies came to the fore in the sixties because, unlike books but like rock music, movies could be experienced tribally, yet they also provide aesthetic experiences of a sensual complexity that it’s merely priggish to deny. People bred on TV and weaned on movies often feel sensually starved at a play—and they experience that starvation as boredom. When they are used to movies, live theater no longer works for them on a fantasy level. There aren’t enough elements going on for them in a play; they miss the constant flow of imagery, the quick shifts in place, the sudden rush of feeling. They miss all the compensatory elements which can sustain them during even a bad movie.

“There’s a reason for that ‘Wow!” which often seems all that a person can say after coming out of a movie house. So many images, sounds, and awakened memories may contribute to the film’s effect on us that often we can’t sort out what we think about the way we’ve been moved. We’re not even sure sometimes if we like it, but we certainly felt it. I think many people experience a sense of danger as part of the attraction of movies—they’re going to be swept up in they know not what. Unstable people, people with a record of nervous disorders, leap to see a hyped-up Gothic, such as The Exorcist, knowing they may flip out on it. That, maybe, is the extreme of what we all sometimes want from the movies—sensations we can’t control, an excitement that is a great high.”

From the introduction to Reeling
1975

I hasten to add that I’d hate this to read like I didn’t have a great time at those plays—quite the contrary. But, my own theatrical dabblings notwithstanding, I’m still a movie lover first and foremost.

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