These are astute probes, Matt, that McLuhan invites in his tetrads. In a sense, time is not fixed in the making of cultural artifacts, pasts and futures co-specify, unfold each other. We will watch Macbeth ( I’m eager to see Frances MacDormand as Lady M in the recent Coen film) again and again onstage or onscreen. And I’m sure we are not motivated to return to a different production or film of a famous script to re- engage the plot. We already know what happens and yet good productions introduce different features of the symbolic landscapes of the actor/writer/audience that transcends simple cause and effect responses. We don’t return for the plot alone or even for a text. And filmed plays tend to have a radically different arrangement, the eye of the camera is different from the eyes of the audience out there in the dark. And good directors know this. Look how Hitchcock storyboarded his movies long before that method became popular.
The subtext, the ensemble effect, the unsaid, the long pause, the gesture and the surround in which the gesture takes place. We want to sense the kinds of aesthetic decisions that the performers made on that occassion, using a particular voice and body in that role in that way to bring forth patterns that we want to pick out again from the background (located somwhere behind us) and bring it forward as figure into view. Within a few seconds of clocktime we can reverse background/figure into something we forgot about but have always known. A sense of the whole. Plays are meant to be acted, they are like a check without a specified amount. The playwright promises that the production and actors will make the price of admission worth your effort. Of course, there are some great critics who claim they can get the best performance by reading the play silently in the library but I don’t believe them. One of the great pleasures of performance is sitting with an alert audience of different persons who suddenly slip into what is happening on stage and co-create shared reality.
Audiences (unmasked) who have trained themselves in the use of the altered states of consciousness the medium offers, can take the performers to another level through the quality of a shared attention. A good audience can teach the actor what it all means. This is much more like walking alone in the woods at night and hearing a twig snap, or sniffing whiff of a perfume that seems to come from an unspecified source.
The last play I attended was a week before the lockdown.The audience coughed a lot. The man next to me was scrolling through his text messages. Simon and Garfunkel ask in a song -" is the theater really dead?" It is in such moments, as I describe, that I believe that it really is. Of course, when the masks are removed and unvaxed persons are allowed back into theaters we might find a reviival of that troubled art form. A composer I know says that many persons want to sing opera but no one wants to hear it anymore. I’m sure this is true.The AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s wiped out much of the opera audience.
About novels and films.Pauline Kael ( my favorite film critic) suggested that bad novels are improved by a good film but this is not true of a great novel. No film has ever improved a great novel. That is why I think I won’t see a movie made from a book I want to read. I will read the book first because I don’t want a badly cast actor ruin a book. I read Brokeback Mountain after I saw the movie and was impressed by how faithful it was to Annie Proux’s gorgeous short story. But this is because a great director had dissappeared in his actors. Great directors know how to choose a cast. It is the most important task that they have to perform.
That is why I enjoyed Laurie Anderson’s solo performance on zoom in her Norton Lectures. I was quite surprised by how versatile she made the medium. Perhaps, out of these new constraints imposed upon us our imaginal selves can still break through, break out, go within, go beyond. We are symbolic modelers and to do these gestalt shifts on purpose is where I like to give my attention.
I’m reading his book Silence. Jan Zwicky, a poet and musician, uses the term “interdetermination” to capture the mysteries of gestalt shifts.