Sunday, 30 October 2011

Film or Opera - how much detail do you need to understand?

Yesterday I saw George Clooney's new film of political skulduggery The Ides Of March. Like a feature length version of an episode of The West Wing, it's a film about the treachery, manipulation and frailties of being human caught beneath the lens in the petri dish of modern American politics. I say lens advisedly. Like The West Wing, there is an intensification of the drama in this situation, as if magnified.

However it was interesting that I found my comprehension skimming along on the surface of the dialogue. I simply wasn't taking a proportion of the script in. I don't know whether this is because I'm not familiar with the details of the American political system (or the Democrat-nicene part of it), whether it's just a more general reaction to the subject matter, or whether the script was being delivered in such a manner (not to mention speed) that it seemed implicitly unnecessary to grapple with it word for word. In fact I realise that it wasn't that I couldn't understand it despite any effort - it was that I was choosing not to engage with it in the first place.

This was certainly my experience of watching The West Wing, that the substance of the script was not necessarily intended to be mutually inclusive of the substance of the drama. Rather, though it was the basis for the drama, the drama itself fizzed and flared on its surface.

This is not dissimilar to the experience I often have when listening to operas in foreign languages, particularly those of the late 19th century onwards which are less likely to repeat sections or even lines of text. Instead, everything can be gleaned from the music, if not the staging and acting. It's important to know what's going on - surtitles are now provided in major Western opera houses, providing text in the vernacular - but it's not a sine qua non to have a comprehensive dramatic experience on the substance of the story. This is certainly the case with an opera I also saw yesterday, Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. The text is rather rudimentary and serves as basis for Wagner's musical composition. Indeed, the text is his own and written with a particular emphasis on Stabreim (or alliteration), so that the text actually takes on more of an onomatopoeic function, contributing intrinsically to the sound rather than the dialogue of the drama.

This is an important parallel to draw up as it isolates that part of a film which is presenting the drama. In an opera it is the composer's music; in a film, although the closest material parallel would be the original score, the actual corollary is that of the directorial decisions taken in production (and refined in the edit). In other words, the framing and tracking of shots, in-camera motion, pacing (and ultimate collation of these) equates to the director's music-like dramatic composition of the film.

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