May 29, 2007


I probably won't see the movie adaptation of Tracy Letts' Bug--nor will I get to see the reportedly great L.A. production, which is likely to outlast the movie in most theaters (it runs through July 8). But I was impressed to see that the LA Times' Carina Chocano, who admits she hasn't seen the play (how hard would it be to get a ticket?), manages to infer why it doesn't work as well on film as it does onstage:
The problem is not the single-room set or the nonspecific depressive naturalist look of the production, or even the occasionally abstracted, cadenced language...The main problem for me was the fallback naturalism of the style, which made what must read on stage as ambiguity read on film as inconsistency. Aggie's point of view--which, after all, as she hungrily adopts her new boyfriend's madness in order to stave off any more loneliness, is our entry into a purely imagined world--is kept at a distance. Close-ups of Peter's mysterious bloodsucking aphids--whether they exist or no--are notably missing. It's one thing to take Aggie's word for it that she does, in fact, see the bugs Peter so fervently believes in while she's yards away on a stage; it's another to do so when the camera could so easily give her eyeball-an-inch-away-from-his-finger-eye-view but chooses not to.

It's heartening to know that director William Friedkin, working with Letts' own script based on his play, understood the essential ambiguity of the concept: Are the bugs real or not? Is Peter the victim of a government conspiracy or a paranoid schizophrenic? Or maybe both? I feared that the film would decide and show us one way or the other. But clearly the decision not to show feels perverse; film has an omnivorous gaze, and we can feel it when it's withholding what we need to see.

And that's precisely what thrilled me about Bug onstage--that the ambiguity of the concept was irreducibly built into the theatrical experience. As intimate as the Barrow Street Theatre was, as claustrophobic as the play felt, we weren't close enough to see the bugs. It's an ancient stage trick--the flea circus--applied breathtakingly, even profoundly, to a drama of indeterminacy and perspective. And there's a reason why flea circuses don't work on film, as Chaplin inadvertently proved with his lachrymose efforts in Limelight

We hear a lot about the value of things that can "only be done" in the theater, but Bug was a case where a negative virtue--something a play can never do, unless it employs video cameras, which is to give us a close-up view--made it infinitely more powerful than anything a film could show us.


FleaCircusDirector said...

In her installation art project Maria Cardoso solved the problem of not seeing the fleas by having a closed circut television camera and large screens. Chaplin of course did not have this but he also did not have any fleas. However in Limelite and the previous unfinished film he successfully convinces the audience of the fleas with his acting skills.

Christopher said...

I have to agree that one of the things I loved most about the play (New York production) was its ambiguity. Unfortunately, someone decided the film version should reveal the 'truth'. Knowing whether they succumbed to madness or were victims of a government experiment lessons the impact of the piece. It is worth seeing for the performances which are great...