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Discomfort Zones: where a film scholar tries to speak of subjects other than film… with a little film thrown into the mix, presents The Geography of Yearning, or The Golden Dragon, The Stage, and Depth of Field

(NOTE: The Geography of Yearning is the subtitle of Eric Overmeyer’s play On the Verge, but I recover it here as the main title because it is lovely).

When producer Michael Colgan explained how Samuel Beckett’s plays might benefit from screen adaptations, he summoned two differences between film and theater: the close-up, and the capacity to travel boundlessly and instantaneously. In Colgan’s words, theater engenders a two-fold thirst for mobility: the twin desires of getting closer to the action (an opportunity cinema affords the filmmakers, if not always the viewers, as the latter might be denied the closer look he wishes for) and stepping back far enough to eventually see something, and somewhere, else.

Golden Dragon Poster Art

Anecdotally, we might point to these two differences as being some of the most available for invocation when debating the kinds of pleasures and frustrations of the stage and the screen. Chances for such debates are certainly not scarce: Colgan was interviewed in the occasion of the release of his project Beckett on Film (2000), an attempt to translate all of Beckett’s nineteen stage plays to film, bringing together internationally renowned casts and crews (Neil Jordan and Atom Egoyan behind the camera, John Hurt, Kristin Scott-Thomas and others in front of it) and up-and-coming Irish filmmakers (Enda Hughes, Conor McPherson and Damien O’Donnell, to name just a few). The screenings of the result, as well as the presentation of the DVD box set, rekindled the question for the new millennium.

And a debate it was. Even though purists will always exist, Beckett’s stature made critics more protective than usual (a sentiment exacerbated by Beckett’s own protectiveness of his plays. He even went to the extent of copywriting his stage directions so that directors could not stray from his texts at all). Charges of desecration and blasphemy were bandied about, largely taking what Colgan perceived as advantages and turning them into serious threats to the theatrical integrity of Beckett’s famously and painstakingly calibrated works. Stage critics argued that precisely because filmmakers can decide levels of emphasis by coming closer or moving further back from the action, the intended effect of allowing the audience to choose where to direct its sights on stage was lost. The controversy was such that the documentary Check the Gate, produced to chronicle the development of Beckett on Film, plays like an extended defense of their reasons to convert the theatrical into the cinematic. The most repeated favorable argument was that the films will, at the very least, give people a chance to discover or rediscover Beckett; that the new format will bring Beckett to a new generation of viewers.

It’s interesting that such gripes are less common when the opposite translation takes place, either when a film is adapted to the stage or a when a play borrows what are called cinematic elements (unlike, say, when a film is accused of being “too theatrical”). More curious is the fact that those who entered the discussion surrounding Beckett’s adaptations seem to intuitively know what belongs to the theater and what belongs to the cinema. But why is Colgan so sure of his distinction? Can Colgan’s observations be implemented on the stage without turning to the film adaptation?

The close-up is an interesting question that I will set aside for the moment, and focus instead on the effects of scale and distance on the stage. The question should be familiar for film scholars, since an old guard of Bazinian realism once found in two stylistic decisions the basis of a theory of what a commitment to reality looks like on film: the long take and depth of field, two ways of respecting spatial and temporal continuity in the world. Bazin’s theories far exceeded such reduction, but even when he did champion depth of field and long takes, he never took them for devices cinema could lift from theatre, except when films were in fact adaptations of plays, which, in his eyes, grew in quality the more they underscored their theatrical origins (although it is interesting to point out that the filmmakers that, for Bazin, deployed these techniques most effectively – Welles, Wyler – got their start on the stage).  It is not difficult to think of the long take as a certain reproduction of the stage event, which might only be cut by blackouts or by the audience’s own blinking. But what about depth of field? When and how does it appear on the stage?

Last summer’s production of Roland Schimmelpfenig’s The Golden Dragon by Pittsburgh’s own Quantum Theatre provides an answer. In setting the play on the concrete platforms forming a cross on the surface of Lake Carnegie in Highland Park, and placing the seats facing the cross straight on, director Karla Boos has given us a drawing of the third dimension, with the X and axes very clearly drawn on the water and providing the only directions on which the actors can move (at least until the magical ending, where a diagonal cuts through this Cartesian plane and, for the last time, forces us to reassess our relationship with the limits of space). It is also notable because the technicians have rigged the actors with microphones that make their voices equally audible no matter where on the platforms they stand – an effect that filmmakers like the late, great Robert Altman favored, giving an incongruous intimacy to frames that gave the viewer extremely generous vantage points. For the first ten minutes, the actors congregate in almost impossible proximity inside the kitchen of the titular restaurant, and then, when one of them sprints backwards into the distance, away from the audience, we realize that the play will cover half the globe in telling the story about the perils a group of Vietnamese immigrants faces when one of them suffers from a rotten tooth. In the process, the concrete platforms on the lake turn into the crusts of earth planted atop the oceans that make the planet’s continents. The relatively large playing space of the lake becomes the actually large space of the world.

The Z axis of the third dimension over Lake Carnegie

The results, then, do not remit us to the depth of field of cinema, but rather to a sense of the very real dimensions of the planet and how the persist as insurmountable obstacles for the displaced, the rootless, the exiled. Seeing an actor from The Golden Dragon framed by a lit doorway far in the back of the playing area, rather than seeing young Charles Foster Kane through the window as his parents finalize his adoption, is like placing characters on the edge of the horizon, as they stand on the threshold between what is visible and what can only be imagined. In Kane, the massive sets are worlds onto their own. In The Golden Dragon, the whole world is the setting for the play, and the distance is meant to stand for real distance. In this sense, Quantum’s The Golden Dragon supersedes Colgan’s observations. It’s inclusion of depth of field is not cinematic.

Where The Golden Dragon is cinematic lies in how reminiscent it is of a fairly recent spate of “everything-is-connected,” globe-trotting mosaic narratives in the movies (Traffic, Babel, Crash of 2005 and the upcoming Cloud Atlas, which actually uses “everything is connected” as its tagline). Even in this respect Schimmelpfenig’s play is a paradox, for even though the play shuttles back and forth between Vietnam, Germany, the North Sea and the cabin of a plane (often in the middle of a scene, mimicking a cinematic cut) the characters not only meet at the title restaurant – they also live in the very same building. The play does have its own version of the cut and of intercutting (the stoppage of a scene to continue another with the same characters, and then a return to the previous scene, or the alternate playing of two scenes, with one pausing for the other to continue) that very usefully interconnects these characters and cultures, but it also reveals the shortcomings of the device, primarily by keeping everyone on the stage at all times, thus never letting anything or anyone escape our attention, and by having the actors play different characters, often transforming from one into the other within the same action. The continuity extends not just to space, but to the bodies that we see. Nobody disappears off-screen (or even off-stage), no cut compresses moments of travel. The play wonders if the true power of these stories is not on the editing together of scenes set far apart, but in the continuous, unbroken representation of the international distances and presences.

And yet, the performance ends on the side of the unabashedly theatrical. Boos contains the most astonishing image of the play, where the dead body of one of the characters, thrown unceremoniously into a river, has an oneiric journey back to his home in an Earth-spanning trip through the Arctic Sea and around Asia, to a couple of the platforms, the ones closest to the audience. The trip is evoked through Schimmelpfenig’s monologue and the actor’s own miming of a body carried through global water currents. It is a choreography of shorter range than that of the rest of the play, one that underscores the imaginary with its suggestion of infinite space through its occupation of a very limited one. The scene is a moving reminder that our longing to cover the distances to be with those we miss is even greater when we realize that we can, indeed, conquer them through fantasy. But for most of its duration, Quantum’s The Golden Dragon presents us a way to feel like we might actually be able to see, unaided, that far away.