Tuesday, August 30


Play Time

Sunday night I went to the Geary Theatre to watch the A.C.T. presentation of "The Overcoat," a play based on Nikolai Gogol's bleak short story and starring Peter Anderson as a civil servant who saves for a new overcoat. I'm not as experienced a play-goer as I'd like to be (though the past year or so this has improved), but this is one play that invites cinephile comment. I notice that many of the advance press blurbs being used in the advertising make reference to film directors like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Fritz Lang. The phenomenon of using such movie-centric names to sell live performance is an interesting phenomenon in itself; like the neverending parade of film-to-play remakes streaming down the "Great White Way" (some like The Producers with round-trip tickets) it seems like another admission that a) the overwhelming majority of our cultural references come from motion pictures and b) people are more likely to spend their entertainment dollars on something that reminds them of something they've seen before.

"The Overcoat" is not quite like anything I've seen before. It's a wordless play, so it makes sense that silent films might become a reference point for those looking for a shorthand way to describe it. But besides a giant cogwheel set piece that looks like it could have imported from Metropolis (though just as easily from Modern Times), I found little specific visual or thematic connection to Lang's films (at least, not to those that I've seen). And though the influence of mime is absolutely apparent, Anderson and the supporting actors use a far more exaggerated, expressionistic style of movement than either Charlie Chaplin, whose gags were so often designed for close-ups, or Buster Keaton, whose signature work inevitably required a natural or at least realistic environment for its humor.

If I were to join in the compare-play-to-film game, I'd first name F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh as an obvious predecessor. Both because its storytelling all but completely eschews the verbal (it contains one single intertitle) and because of its obvious thematic connection to Gogol's story: each portrays a man whose sense of worth is wrapped up in the splendor of a costume. Another that comes to mind is not a silent film at all: Jacques Tati's Playtime. Perhaps it was because I was sitting in the second balcony and had a view of the two-story set not unlike the one Mr. Hulot has of the office cubicles after he accidentally takes a ride on an elevator. Looking down on the stage and its placement of actors often making the same choreographed motions with geometric accuracy was an impressive sight to behold. Playtime and "the Overcoat" also share several general locations (street, office, sales floor, party), even if the recreation of a shadowy St. Petersburg on the Geary stage is something of a visual antithesis to the fluorescent, modernist Tativille.

The main element of "the Overcoat" that defies all the silent-film comparisons as well as the Tati one is its music. Each scene plays out to themes by the great composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich wrote quite a bit of film music, mostly to films now largely forgotten, though his 1942 score for Eistenstein's Potemkin is still one of the most commonly-played scores for that film. His music is clearly the major source of inspiration for all the movement, to the point where it even becomes unclear whether to call the participants actors or dancers. My very favorite moment was when our protagonist goes to the police station to report a crime, and the officers move something like a pair of hydraulic androids, taking twice as many beats to make a motion as he does. It's a great example of expressionism, in that it uses exaggerated physical gesture to evoke the sheer slowness of bureaucracy and the ordinary citizen's powerlessness, and it seems to fit with the Shostokovitch perfectly, as do most of the scenes. Cinephiles might smile as I did when they notice that the final scene plays out to the same waltz Stanley Kubrick used for his Eyes Wide Shut.

Gogol's story was made into a 1926 silent film by Grigory Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg (who in the sound era would work with Shostakovich as well) that has apparantly been released on DVD in Russia. This is something I'd like to see, and I may have to do some research into importing it. In the meantime, I'm tempted to go see "The Overcoat" again before its run ends September 25. Though it's not a play I found myself strongly responding to emotionally, the sheer spectacle of the actors' movements, whether comedic or symbolic of the human struggle, was simply dazzling to behold. In fact it was really too much to take in during a single viewing, and it would be nice to re-experience it all as Noel Burch demanded Playtime be seen: "from several different seats in the theatre".

Brian, I've never seen anything by Kozintsev and Trauberg but have been stumbling upon their names for years. I've heard that their Shakespearean adaptations (like Lear) are among the greatest in cinema. My friend Doug, who runs FilmJourney, has often spoken about them.
I'm in the same boat as you with regard to Kozintsev and Trauberg. The Pacific Film Archive has several of their films, and had a retrospective nearly ten years ago. I keep meaning to find an excuse to utilize the PFA's collection (as if I'm not kept plenty busy attending their screenings) and perhaps this could be it.
Kozintsev's King Lear and Hamlet were released earlier this year in Russia on all-region DVDs. I haven't picked them up yet, but I think Doug mentioned that the quality was excellent. Anyway, Russian DVD has them, in case PFA doesn't have them.
Brian, thank you for your kind wishes over at my blog....
Acquarello--very cool. I must've missed that release news entirely.
Yes, thanks for the tip. I notice that my public library has Hamlet on VHS so I may actually start with a peek at that.
Hey Brian. Girish told me about your blog when we were in Toronto. I'm a fellow San Francisco cinephile, and I imagine we've attended a few of the same PFA, Castro, or Roxie screenings without realizing it.

I saw The Overcoat, too, although I'm not sure what I think of it just yet. I hate how often silent film is caricatured by modern forms -- ignorantly, with cutesy, hammy pantomime -- which I think makes me resistant to anything that seems to skim the surface of silent film conventions. Granted, this play (dance?) isn't necessarily doing that (although it plants the idea of film in our heads plenty of times, not least with its movie-style opening credits), but the local press are spitting "Chaplin" and "Keaton" out of their mouths at an alarming rate. And "Kafka". So maybe my complaint is with them. I appreciate your broader/deeper view.

Really, though, the play made me want to come home and pull out my wife's collection of Gogol stories and read The Overcoat.

Anyway... I'm enjoying your blog.
Thanks for coming by and commenting! I'm glad you're enjoying what you see. I've been an off-and-on reader of your wonderful blog for a year and a half (I can't recall if I ever left a comment, though I considered e-mailing you when, in the throes of writing my SFIFF piece for Senses of Cinema this year, I peeked at your spot-on wrap-up. Hope you don't mind that I repeat your Saraband story to all who will listen.)

As for the Overcoat, I don't think it's just the press using silent film as a shorthand for desribing what they're seeing; I think its being encouraged by the people behind the play as well; read the interview in the program and you really get a sense that they're trying to piggyback on common perception of silent film while simultaneously downgrading it as a limited artform. Still, I think this mostly about selling the play to an audience afraid of the word "mime" and it doesn't really seep into my appreciation of the artistry on stage.
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