College was epic
Of all the things said from the class podium at university, you never knew what would stick. Among other pursuits, I studied theater, which has come in handy at unexpected times, such as crafting work presentations and surviving parties. Also, I was fortunate to encounter a few people on campus who felt that the point of college was to develop critical thinking skills. Perhaps they already knew how much critical thinking would form the basis for coping with life. Who knew they prepared me for a life of watching Ryan Murphy, Quentin Tarantino and Bertolt Brecht?
One time while discussing 20th century theater, this college professor moved his hands with delicacy, shaping the movements of the Pope’s dresser. He brought to life a pivotal scene in The Life of Galileo, written and directed by Bertolt Brecht. As he spoke, the professor re-enacted the donning of the vestments, piece by piece, as performed onstage. I struggled to understand the importance of the sequence within the structure of the play. However, I immediately grasped the importance of what was described, historically and politically. I have no doubt that much about Brecht carries through the art we now consume.
Distancing in the theater before COVID-19
Does it matter that Brecht was in exile from Nazi Germany when he wrote and produced the play? How does a student’s youth impact their susceptibility to the form and content of the educational experience?
Brecht advocated for a variety of theatrical techniques called epic or dialectical theater. All were aimed at the audience’s experience of the performance. The intent was to avoid the easy release of emotional catharsis in favor of intellectual revelation. One of his more famous approaches was the alienation effect. The fact that the audience was watching a performance was consistently emphasized through breaking the fourth wall, visibly rearranging the set, acting multiple parts with the same actor, etc. Naturalism and realism were de-emphasized.
In a sense, the subtext moved to the forefront. Moreover, the cast, directors, designers and more had the ability, and responsibility, to communicate information to the spectators. Having a gorgeous costume, imposing set, great stage presence, was little more than manipulation if it could not be tied to an idea. They had to use the tools, the entire palette, available to engender thought.
Others have written about Brecht’s production in summary and in scholarly analysis. The dressing of Pope Urban VIII in scene 11 illustrated the sublimation of the Pope’s humanity to the role of head of the Catholic Church. Arguably, the donning of layer after layer, robe and headdress showed the entire history of the church. The play was doubtless about the destruction of one man for suggesting an idea that contradicted the needs of the politically powerful. Brecht was also saying that this was inevitable as long as the church held sway over knowledge.
Going a short distance on a side track
As a side note before I bring filmmakers and television show runners into this consideration, amateur, academic and professional groups perform theatrical plays far more than television shows or even movies (with the exception of A Christmas Carol, possibly) repeat old favorites. Even Brecht’s challenging works are revived often enough. They have passed through the hands of companies who are more interested in emphasizing the story than the “epic.”
Anyone who saw an episode of the early Bruce Willis series Moonlighting (where the lead characters regularly broke the fourth wall) or mentally stepped back while watching a movie to admire a special effect has experienced a modicum or more of distancing. Whether or not it was inspired by Brecht, directly or not, also raises the question of the intent of the makers of the TV show/film. Did they mean for the viewers to emotionally remove from the screen? Should we consider the events from an intellectual point of view rather than an emotional one? Arguably, the artists involved wanted us to go “Wow” at the special effect and not withdraw from our emotional connection to the plot and characters. When Maddie and David spoke to the audience through our TV sets, it meant to build the emotional connection, not break it.
In effect, the implementation of distancing is not always equal in the eyes of a virtual Brecht. Neither voice-over nor montage are encouragement to engage in deconstruction. Sometimes there is no there there; probably often. These techniques already existed in the theater or other art forms. Shakespeare regularly broke the fourth wall and knew nothing of Brecht. Photography implicitly asked viewers to consider the place of portrait art and vice versa.
If an artistic technique is manifested and there is no guiding intelligence, then does it still land with an audience? By landing, must it trigger enough irreverence to drive the audience out of their emotional connection to the art’s content?
With Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino jumbled the chronological order of his story to great effect. The dazzling technique impressed the audience while the content of the story held our emotional investment. In that case (as well as Pulp Fiction), the directorial flourishes upstaged the messages buried in them. Film-goers expended most of their energy identifying the meaning behind actions and props. For instance, what were the contents of the briefcase driving the climax of Pulp Fiction? However, ambiguity is not the same as intent. “Hmm” may equate to “Life is pointless”, but neither is epic theater.
Later with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino jumbled the historical facts. This allowed him to provide a more satisfying ending than following reality would have. While this is no different from guns that fire too many bullets or plots that resolve miraculously in the final ten pages/minutes or the remarkably consistent clarity of the world on the big screen, it feels like an attempt to refocus the attention of the audience. We move beyond knowing the inevitable disappointment because we know our history. Instead we have joyful surprise that grants a certain escapism from that history.
Suppressing thought vs. suppressing emotion
Essentially, Brecht wished to push his audience beyond that catharsis. Certainly, seeing Django or Inglorious Basterds can engender conversation about the events portrayed. The technique of altering history for storytelling purposes feels stagnant when that conversation is “Well, clearly this thing that happened was bad.” The best takeaway is that good men doing nothing does allow evil to flourish, but we may be able to change that if we at least try to do the right thing. Frankly, that’s invigorating, but it is not Brechtian.
Here is an excellent place to note that no one needs to be Brechtian. Regardless of what doctrinal artists insist, good art comes in many flavors. Certainly, my theater advisor would have seen me out of the program if every aspect of my initial plays needed to have depths below depths. I was quite a bit more interested in spectacle and ritual. By the same token, art rich with meaning is no more problematic than any form of communication. (As an alternative, it feels possible to create emotional distance by other means, such as moving an unpleasant character to center stage.)
Murphy extrapolates from Brecht
Then there is Hollywood, not the place, but the Netflix series co-created by Ryan Murphy. Never sitting down to watch much of Murphy’s oeuvre before, I don’t believe he engaged in alternate history previously. However, his work on Glee and American Horror Story highlighted the importance of how one tells the story.
Hollywood takes the history of American film and proposes a more inclusive moment after World War II when a small group within the industry stood against racism and homophobia. Real life tragedies transform into tales of perseverance and change to national conversations. The series does not sugar coat the vile behavior of the people that fought the changes. It suggests a path that might have led to a more equitable result. Once again, as with Tarantino, good men doing nothing allowed evil to flourish, while trying to do the right thing might have led to changes for the better.
Hollywood reclaims alternate history for Brecht. While the emotional kick is absolutely present as recognition and equality take center stage in a would-be past, the dissection of each step toward claiming those goals asks questions. Perhaps the allotment of multiple episodes and the related hours compared to a film of half the length (or less) allows for the mechanical precision of watching story diverge from history step by step. In a very real sense, the unfolding of Hollywood unveils the writers’ decisions as they nudge history to a different outcome.
In the mind of the audience, “What if a woman ran a major movie studio at the time?” can become “Did the past happen that way because of the people in charge?” The facilitators of studio decisions are front and center in Hollywood. Combating the ingrained prejudices of that strata does require people of vision in Hollywood. The laying out of that process forces the viewer to question why each step happened the way it did in reality. Because of a subplot about making a movie about recent Hollywood history, the series inserts space between emotional reaction and intellectual recognition that history is more than what we tell ourselves. It is also a story that could have been different.
The thoughtful popular artist
The likelihood of certain events in the story are less important than their success at provoking moments for emotional distance. The challenge of what-might-have-been can (and does here) allow room for discussion about the intellectual validity of the ideas proposed. The entire series ultimately begs the question of the importance of film in shaping the world. The story consistently reflects that interrogatory by putting studio choices into contrast with events off the lot and vice versa.
Once the artist crosses the line from emotion to intellect, technique and skill enter into the service of the ideas proposed. Brecht worked in exile from the Nazis, giving him a lot to say about those in power and those with little. The subtext was how he introduced his ideas into the text. In an age of summer blockbusters and binge viewing, our most thoughtful artists now build their ideas through the same overarching view of the completed whole. Because of Brecht, we debate the question “What was that about?” while Brecht and his creative descendants also want us to sit back and enjoy the show. Perhaps later, in those moments before sleep, we can mutter, “Oh, yeah, now I see it.”
For Seabury Quinn, Jr. (1926-2008)