Oct 9, 2005

From One Invalid to Another: Dying Is an Art

It has become fashionable in some quarters to prophesy the end of movies, or the end of movies as we know them, or, for the really cautious Cassandras, the end of moviegoing as we know it. Look, the doomsayers say, at the rate of DVDs flying off the shelves—it's rising, though not, alas, as exponentially as it was last year. And just look at Hollywood's bleak summer of 2005, in which theatrical releases made a few hundred jillion dollars less than they made last year and the year before.

Before long, goes the conventional dig-erati wisdom, we'll forgo the communal experience of the neighborhood cinema, with its sticky floors and chattering teenagers, and stay home to watch Hollywood blockbusters on plasma screens as big as bay windows.

Forgive me if I find these obituaries for the movies premature. Why, just down the street at the local cineplex, that film with the guy from TV is still playing, and so is the one with the penguins. And just a few blocks away, a warehouse-sized store has more titles on tap than an insomniac could watch in a year.

On the other hand, maybe the movies should welcome these death knells, premature or not. Dying can do a lot for an art form. Just look at the theater: It's been pronounced dead, or dying, for many centuries now. And the theater is not just pulling off the longest, most enthralling death scene in the history of drama; it is fairly thriving in its mortal throes, if Broadway box-office receipts are any indication.

Death becomes the theatre. So why can't the movies, wobbling as they are on their Olympian heights, learn a few things from the fabulous invalid for whom dying is an art?

1. Scarcity. Like a trendy restaurant that has foodies bartering body parts to land a table, theater drives demand with scarcity. There are only so many seats at a certain finite number of performances of any show, except possibly Mamma Mia. This simple economic trick, the oldest in the playbook, allows theaters to charge for just one three-hour tour more than what customers might pay for a DVD player, presumably good for thousands of hours of entertainment. What are your high-end movie theaters up to per ticket, $15? That's candy money at a Broadway show. Lesson for Hollywood: Limit your release, spike demand, and watch your per-seat income explode. Admittedly, you won't see the volume you're used to, but dying in style has a price.

2. Immediacy. Yes, some shows feel the need to gestate and grow for several dog years before they're ready to reach the stage. But once a show gets a green light—and a piece of real estate to sit down for a while (see above)—you're talking a six-week rehearsal period, some tech and previews, and it's showtime. Lesson for Hollywood: Development is overrated. And postproduction? Leave special effects to the gamers. There's no reason a perfectly good film with a great script and great performances can't be made in, say, two months. And if you're looking for scripts and actors, the theater is a great place to steal from; if you haven't noticed, the theater has been looting Hollywood like an unguarded Wal-Mart for decades now. When you're dying, see, you've got nothing to lose.

3. Artistic license. Theater doesn't have a ratings board, have you noticed? While Hollywood is contorting itself into the missionary position to cater to the "family values" audience, the mainstream theater is home to libidinous puppets, suspected pedophiles, nihilist barbers and calculating dance hostesses. And that's just the tourist trade; veer only slightly off the Main Stem and you've got naked boys singing and trailer trash-talking. Lesson for Hollywood: Do you really think you're fooling Middle America with that exorcism mumbo-jumbo? You can find an audience for any story you want to tell, even if the score is by Adam Guettel (if you're dying, after all, why not have some pretty funeral music?).

4. Immortality. The art of the theater isn't just scarce in space but in time. It is ephemeral, and lives on only in the memories of theatergoers, and in the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library (see Scarcity). But the memory of a theatergoer is a precious thing; it can never end up in a remainders bin at the local video store, or be edited to fit the format of your screen, or be dubbed into Italian. In short, it is a far more forgiving place to be remembered than in the eternal freeze-frame of a DVD. Ever meet anyone who saw Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie? Try to get them to shut up about it. Lesson for Hollywood: Relax about film preservation, already, and think more about preserving the arts of performance and storytelling. Narrative art exists in time, like music. Leave permanence to sculpture. And instead of conniving to get your film in front of every eyeball on the planet, why not settle for doing your best work in your chosen craft, sharing it with the people who appreciate it and enjoying their company in the limited time we've all got here together? Don't take it from me. That's just what any dying man, or art form, might tell you.

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