and once upon a time I did an arts degree

July 17, 2013

So we watched Anna Karenina tonight, and it both delighted and troubled me. It was beautifully done- the staging and the cinematography and the whole presentational concept of it was deeply visually pleasing, and for a film that needed to condense a complex novel with very large issues and ideas into two hours of blockbuster bang, I thought it did it spectacularly.

The whole thing- Russian palaces, countryside, offices, restaurants, ballrooms and all- was set in an old fashioned theatre with footlights and a proscenium, shifting fluidly onstage and offstage and up into the flies and on stripped-back boards and behind scenery, with obvious set-pieces folding and unfolding around the story like a magic show, like some spectacular and self-aware sleight of hand, with all the distance and deliberate artificiality this kind of concept creates. One rare shot I loved was when Anna burst in to see her son, asleep in bed on an empty stage with the barren boards and the proscenium and the vast, derelict green wall of the back of the theatre.

It was beautifully, beautifully set, and very cleverly done; I spent the whole thing delighting in the fantasticality and conscious theatricality of it. There’s a reason that films like this- films that push at the conceptual and stylistic edges of what it means to be telling a story, that push way beyond the banal immersive Hollywood structural norm, films that are deeply aware of and inventive with normative filmic conventions- give me great satisfaction to watch. Moments in Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park were like this, as well as the whole concept of Lars von Trier’s Dogville (painted lines on a black box set floor, all carefully labelled to indicate houses, furniture, dogs, gooseberry bushes? Yes please, you delicious creature).

This kind of storytelling method is so self-aware that it becomes a story you cannot drown yourself in, in contrast to the way most movies appear to be made nowadays. The standard blockbuster banality appears to be a vehicle for the watcher to wallow in an excessive gluttony of emotional identification, mostly via adroitly-placed camera shots that mimic a closeness to the subject one can only achieve in real life if one is truly in that situation. It is, in fact, a substitutionary vehicle, shot so that the watcher believes the romantic lead is staring at them through the screen, and can thus vicariously experience the emotions presented by the characters in the narrative. Which is all very well, given that cinema has this especial ability above, say, some types of theatre, and as such certainly should be utilised, but that’s all we ever get in the movies. It’s just the same old haggard show pony trotted out over and over again, with no fresh insight or consciousness as to why it is used and how it can be used better for the story that is being told, or really, whether the story being told is worth telling at all. It is merely the status quo, both story and method of telling, and it is deeply, stultifyingly uninteresting.

Karenina, on the other hand, makes deliberate storytelling and presentational choices to enhance the narrative, and as mentioned before, I deeply appreciate any film that does this. It uses the artifices of theatre to be deliberately metatheatrical and to create that sense of analytical distance for the watcher, yet with the characters entirely unaware of the artificiality of their surroundings. Yes, I’m thinking Brecht, although I believe in epic theatre there is also present a distinct inability to forget that the characters are also actors, because they’re likely to step out and remind you of it. Karenina‘s characters were entirely immersed, however, which I think straddled the boundaries a little.

 

And oh, perhaps I just loved it because I love theatre, and it reminded me of some of the best and most beautiful things in that enchanted art. I felt like a child watching a magic show; I felt like I did while watching Aurelia’s Oratorio; I felt like I always do when asked to see something that isn’t there around something that is only meant to evoke and represent it, and my imagination is given space to flood in and colour everything with sight. It’s exactly like reading, or reading poetry; in the same way a sentence can evoke worlds, or five words can hold a wealth of meaning, deliberately artificial symbolism can conjure up the simplicity of a garden in sunlight, with blackbirds hidden and singing.

There is something perfect and true in any theatre that allows itself to be, deliberately, theatre. You are asked for a willing suspension of disbelief; you are invited to be complicit in a wonderful secret, and everyone else present is also pretending and delighting in that pretense, like the most fantastic game of make-believe. What you are seeing is at once false and real, and while you see the reality of it- a box of faux foliage shaken out in the flies onto a painted stage, onto the heads of actors- you also see what it truly is, which is leaves falling in a clearing in sunlight, somewhere in a forest with a swing creaking through it. It is both at once, and so much more perfect because it is both, because you are allowed to see both. And what is conjured up by the space that is left for you, what is suggested by a slow falling of paper leaves into a circle of light and the shadows of puppet-birds on the wall is more wondrous and heartbreaking in that space and that moment than seeing an actual forest in sunlight would be.

 

In any case. Love for the concept and staging aside, it is hard to know what to make of the story, particularly since I haven’t read the novel. A quick glance at a Wikipedia synopsis of the novel’s plot informs me that many complexities were fudged, skipped or represented in abbreviation rather than examined in the movie; the movie itself seems largely to concentrate on the emotions and slow winding descent of Anna’s perceptions, and as a result possibly condenses the more complex themes into a streamlined portrayal of hot-flashing emotions, depicted in the format of a woman having an affair, going mad and killing herself.

Not that those other themes aren’t present, of course; there was, for example, the contrast between the very performative, proscribed aspects of Russian society and the freedom of the independent agrarian lifestyle, beautifully symbolised by the staging of the former in the somewhat claustrophobic rabbit-warren of the theatre, in front of very obvious set pieces, and the setting of the latter in wide fields of light and colour. However, the very narrowed focus meant that all the characters that weren’t Anna were only briefly gestured at, and left thoroughly undeveloped; they felt like plot-puppets existing only to affect Anna or serve as contrast to her. I had to be told later that Anna’s husband throughout the book was deeply, unlovingly pious, and that her sister-in-law only pretended to love her children. And while I love symbolism to distraction, everything felt like a symbol for something else in this movie; Anna herself felt like a symbol, like a vividly coloured, exaggeratedly drawn sketch of a woman’s descent into madness and not a real person at all. And maybe that’s just the limitations of a two hour film, or perhaps the drawbacks of the theatrically artificial concept. Or it could have been the intention of the director all along.

Who knows? I enjoyed it. But then again, perhaps I enjoy most things that remind me of theatre.

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