Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Avengers and Shakespeare: The screen as stage

Anyone following Avengers star Tom Hiddleston's remarks on comic-book movies knows the respect he has for these films as a genre as well as his deep immersion in Shakespeare. Hiddleston has played Hal/Henry V in Shakespeare's sequence of Henry plays, which is fitting, because the summoning to an imaginary experience that Shakespeare implicitly—and, in one case, explicitly—engages in can be found again in modern movie-making.

Henry V famously opens with a "chorus"—a single actor who provides occasional narration—asking the audience to overlook the limitations of the Elizabethan stage: there will be no armies, no horses, nor any set to indicate whether one is in England or France. Rather, the audience itself must summon the various imaginary elements necessary to make the tale convincing. It's a clever device, with Shakespeare simultaneously acknowledging the labors of the actors, encouraging the audience to be engaged in the entertainment, and providing, through the narration, a vivid, thrilling description of the images he wants the viewer to have in mind.

How distant this is, seemingly, from the (most) popular entertainments of our day, the increasingly realistic dramas in video games and the CGI-dominated action movies such as The Avengers. Nothing, now, can be left to the imagination. Whereas a few decades ago, films still had to rely on an audience's forgiveness and willingness to accept what was clearly not real, now realism dominates, and so we've reached an age of cinematic literalism, in which fiction on film requires less and less of the viewer.

And yet. What of what's required of the actors? I recently saw, online, stills from various Avengers scenes, and what struck me is how little of what I saw on the film captured what the actors experienced. New York itself was digitally added to the film (as no actual filming took place there), and action scenes that appeared to be outdoors were instead shot on a huge sound stage, green screens backing every shot. I hadn't grasped the extent of what had been added post-production to the filming, and it made me realize that the actors, like the performers of the Elizabethan age, largely had to construct from their imaginations the scenes that audience would, later, directly behold. I think Scarlett Johansson was most effective in this, which is why director Whedon often went to her face for reaction shots: she excelled at looking completely undone by whatever she viewed, be it Banner's first transformation into the Hulk or hordes of aliens roaring from a hole in the sky. Despite the ingenuity of the people constructing a believable digital reality, were it not for the actors behaving as if they truly were these characters within these situations, the audience would not have fallen for the cinematic deceit. All the actors had to go on was what Shakespeare's troupe possessed: elaborate costumes, an entertaining script, and each other's shared imaginative enthusiasm.

The audience may no longer deserve exhortation and credit, as in Shakespeare's time, but we still rely on that "muse of fire" to enflame the actors, who must "ascend the brightest heaven of invention" to provide us with our play.


Calvin said...

Very interesting point you make, that the "suspension of disbelief" now rests primarily on the actors. I hadn't thought of that.

Somewhat related, I'm sorry that nowadays in movies science fiction = CGI. In the written word we like to congratulate science fiction as a "literature of ideas" (although I don't know if you agree; I myself think most of the ideas are not very deep), but in film it is "cinema of explosions."

I enjoyed "The Avengers," even as I recognized it as a fairly simple formula: wise-crack lines + Scarlett Johansson in catsuit + explosions = Avengers.

William Preston said...

Have you seen MOON? It's got some major plot problems (how do these not get spotted at the writing stage? because the director was the writer?), but it's that rare recent SF film that doesn't rely on CGI. It's an interesting point, though: that, at least in films, SF has largely become associated with computer effects. (You can't blame 2001: its best effects weren't the camera tricks but the practical effects--I'm thinking of the giant hamster wheel set on the ship.)

I've never understood that "literature of ideas" thing. I first heard it a few years ago, once I'd published in the field. Not seeing myself as necessarily a "member" of the field, I figured it was something people on the inside said. If I found an SF/F book with truly profound ideas, I'd be teaching that instead of The Plague or As I Lay Dying. I should add, I was reading KSR's 2312 last week (I put it down; I'll say something about that in the blog) and was impressed with how seriously it took things you usually see elided over in SF.

I think THE AVENGERS deserves more credit. The script is funny, but the humor emerges from the characters, as their witty exchanges reveal personalities. So it's not jokey, though it's funny. And somehow Whedon mangaged to pull off, in a different medium, much of what the comics achieved when they were at their best. Except for the weak opening sequences, I was impressed and entertained. Also, though I wouldn't discount the value of having Johansson dressed in the catsuit, the whole cast is attractive--which seems necessary for such a venture--and Whedon didn't treat the actress like she was merely a visual element, the way a hack like Bay would have done (and has done). I found the script and direction's treatment of her egalitarian, which I suppose one should expect from Whedon.

Calvin said...

No, haven't seen MOON--I know it's "more thoughtful" than the avg explosive script, but I'm really really tired of "he's a clone but didn't know it!" plotline.

I've got 2312 but haven't started it yet.

The Avengers was definitely above average, and it certainly has many of the elements you talk about. It was simply constrained by all the expected elements (which, to be honest, Whedon handled better than Ridley Scott did in Prometheus). Of the recent superhero movies, I actually liked Captain America the best, probably because they took something that seems so goofy and managed to insert into a pretty good emotional storyline.