Theater and film have had an interesting give-and-take relationship over the course of their mutual existence. Some of the most acclaimed movies ever made — such as Amadeus and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — were adaptations of plays that remained true to their source materials’ language and theatricality. Likewise, some of the most interesting plays ever written — including How I Learned to Drive and The Pillowman — are deeply influenced by cinematic techniques. These two art forms, despite key differences, have the potential to rise to new heights when they learn from each other.
This is especially the case in a tradition I call “theatrical cinema.” This term refers to films that are boldly cinematic in their use of theater techniques. They take tactics that have been used in the theater for decades — including but not limited to breaking the fourth wall and a loving embrace of everything that’s artificial about what you’re seeing — and make them feel like they could only be used in movies. These films are audacious in their use of tried-and-true techniques and make you feel that, as an old song once put it, “everything old is new again.”
This tradition grew out of something called a “performance film.” Director Jonathan Demme defined this type of film as being able to give the best seat in the house to somebody who can’t see a show. One of the most exciting performance films that he made is Stop Making Sense (1984), his exhilarating portrait of a Talking Heads concert. The most visible cinematic flourishes are some Dr. Strangelove-inspired opening credits (created by Dr. Strangelove title designer Pablo Ferro) and close-ups that most filmmakers would die to have in their film. But Demme doesn’t try to make this movie overly cinematic with interviews or commentary linking it to its era. Instead, he uses all of the tricks in his trade to make you feel like you’re onstage, rocking out with David Byrne as he jumps around in his famous big suit.
Demme gave viewers another one-of-a-kind mixture of theater and film when he directed Swimming to Cambodia (1987). It is another performance film that documents Spalding Gray’s one-man show about playing a small role in The Killing Fields. Demme embraces the show’s theatrical nature in the opening shots where Gray walks to the theater, sits down at a desk in front of the audience, and starts to perform.
Demme said that his purpose for this movie was to give people who couldn’t see Gray perform it for real the best seat in the house. But the experience that he gives is arguably better than seeing Swimming to Cambodia live in a theater. Whereas on a certain night you might have to see the show in the back of the theater while sitting behind a very tall person, here you get to watch tight close-ups of Gray’s face that capture every nuance of his performance. Demme also splices in footage of Gray from The Killing Fields that strengthens the cinematic nature of this film and serves as a great punchline to one of Gray’s stories about how long it took to nail his big scene.
One of the boldest theatrical films in recent years, and one of the purest examples of the genre, is Bronson (2008). It is a biopic about Michael Peterson, AKA “Charles Bronson.” Bronson is most famous for being “Britain’s Most Violent Prisoner,” and is a cult figure because of the crimes he committed behind bars and his charisma. Tom Hardy plays him in what turned out to be his breakout performance.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn foregrounds Bronson’s magnetic personality by embracing dramaturgical techniques. The first shot of this movie is of Bronson breaking the fourth wall, a technique that has been used since Shakespeare’s adaptation of Richard III.
Some of the most innovative sequences in this film consist of Bronson performing a one-man show about his life in front of an adoring crowd in a theater.
But what makes Bronson so exciting is not just its use of theatrical techniques. Instead, its true innovations lie in how it combines theater and film. For example, the first scene does depict Bronson’s one-man show. But then Refn cuts to close-ups of Bronson that will appear later in the movie as his narration continues. The very act of having a close-up is cinematic; it constrains our viewpoint in a way that a production of a play never can. The way this sequence is edited, in a non-linear way that is reminiscent of All That Jazz (1979), draws us further into Bronson’s consciousness in a very direct way. It sets the stage for an idiosyncratic look into the mind of a theatrical character in a brilliant film.
Film has always been the Russian nesting doll of art forms. It contains and builds from all of the art forms that came before it. But that has been especially the case with theater. There have been movies that directly capture performances, such as Stop Making Sense or Swimming to Cambodia. But there are also movies that blend the traditions of both mediums, like Bronson. If anything is certain, it is that film can enhance theater, and theater can enhance film.
Bronson was screened in 2013 in conjunction with director Nicolas Winding Refn’s visit to the Cinema, which also included his works Drive, Only God Forgives, and Valhalla Rising, as well as a discussion between Refn and writer Jimmy McDonough for the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture series.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest.