Film’s Superiority Over Theatre

by John Ellis

I am (was) a theatre artist. But when asked, I always state that I much prefer going to the movies over the theatre, and not just because I can eat popcorn and not feel constrained by the myriad of ridiculous “theatre appreciation” rules audiences are expected to adhere to while watching a play. In short, the main reason I’d rather watch a movie than a play comes down to the importance the concept of distance has within a general aesthetic theory. Below is a quote from French film theorist Christian Metz that helpfully sums up the superiority film has over theatre. After the quote, I’m going to offer a few brief (and incomplete) thoughts.

The actor’s bodily presence contradicts the temptation one always experiences during a show to perceive him as a protagonist in a fictional universe, and the theatre can only be a freely accepted game played among accomplices. Because the theatre is too real, theatrical fictions yield only a weak impression of reality … The impression of reality we get from a film does not depend at all on the strong presence of an actor but rather on the low degree of existence possessed by those ghostly creatures moving on the screen, and they are, therefore, unable to resist our constant impulse to invest them with the ‘reality’ of fiction, a reality that comes only from within us, from the projections and identifications that are mixed in our perception of film. The film spectacle produces a strong impression of reality because it corresponds to a ‘vacuum, which dreams readily fill.’[1]

In her book Distance in the Theatre: The Aesthetics of Audience Response, Daphna Ben Chaim explains that, “Describing these spectator experiences in theatre and film, Christian Metz contends that theatre is too ‘real’ in itself to give much impression of reality; therefore the viewer can more fully engage in a fictional world in the film than in the theatre.[2] There isn’t enough aesthetic distance in theatre to allow audiences to enter in the fictional world. Theatre artists, in Metz’s view, are stuck in a type of limbo between the world of the imagination and that of the real. Everything from the presence of the actors, the sets, lights, and even the space all serve to push the audience back into the real in ways that interfere with their ability to enter into the world of imagination. Film, he believed, because of the near complete distance between audience and screen, better allows audiences to suspend disbelief and enter fully into the world of imagination.

I don’t know enough about film theory to know for sure if I agree with Metz or not regarding his claims about film (I think he’s correct, though, for what it’s worth), but years before interacting with the aesthetic concept of distance via Lord Shaftsbury, Kant, Edward Bullough, Brecht, et al., I knew intuitively that something was wrong with theatre. Whatever he may (or may not) get wrong, Metz puts his finger on one of the main problems of theatre: aesthetic distance destroys theatre.

Going back to the early 2000s, I began to chafe at the absurdity of theatre’s simultaneous aim of immediacy and distance. It seemed to me that any pretense to a fourth wall would always fall in shame before film’s far superior ability to operate behind a vastly truer fourth wall. Sitting in the theatre, the audience could never not be aware of the actor’s presence. They could never not be aware of the falsity of the “forest” on the stage. They could never not be aware that the swords clinking are dull (not sharpened) and the fight choreographed. To me, the answer, and, hence, better (truer) theatre, can only be found in removing the distance. In this way, aesthetic distance is actually created, allowing the audience (the real) to enter into the world of the play (the imagined).

Antonin Artaud believed that theatre contains the power to affect substantive change. However, theatre that alters the audiences’ existential and spiritual trajectory must be imbued with the real. Artaud used the metaphor of a plague: theatre (real theatre) terminates in either giving renewed life or it kills. Either way, its participants move forward differently from that point on. Through its (usual) embrace of aesthetic distance, including Aristotelian catharsis, theatre has surrendered its power and purpose. The caveat is needed: deadly theatre, to borrow from Peter Brook’s taxonomy, falls before film’s superiority. Holy theatre – true theatre – has a different purpose than film, and, hence, isn’t comparable.

[1] Christian Metz, “On the Impression of Reality in Cinema” Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, trans. Michael Taylor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 9-10.

[2] Daphna Ben Chaim, Distance in the Theatre: The Aesthetics of Audience Response (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984), 51.

3 thoughts on “Film’s Superiority Over Theatre

  1. It was unclear. I was thinking of Brechtian theatre and of worship as two different angles on the challenge you raise, of the lack of distance. Brecht, as I understood it, tried to keep calling the audience’s attention to the artificiality of the situation. That would be one way to use the lack of distance. But worship is also performance. And there is really no distance at all. Granted, there are different kinds of worship situations, and some are a lot less participatory than others. But worshipers are never precisely “the audience.” So in the worship situation, the lack of distance is what does let people enter the other world. [Not the leaders, though, I notice! That probably makes your point about distance again.] This is roughly what I was thinking. Thank you for writing about this – it’s fascinating. [Though not my area. I did look up Grotowski.]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s