I don’t want this to sound too film study-ish and all but for those of you who weren’t able to catch the Wooster Group’s performance piece HAMLET, which just finished its run at REDCAT, you missed an amazing study in film editing.
That’s right — film editing.
I’m going to talk about this by taking a diversion — into the Getty Museum. Back in 2003, the Getty mounted a show by Bill Viola called PASSION. The work used very high speed camera to record actors going through varying emotions. Because the footage was shot super high speed, the characters moved in e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y s-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n. What this means is that you got to see the characters at every stage of their emotional moment. Though you could barely see them move, so slow was the motion, you could study their eyes, body and inner life. You noticed that it changed, you just couldn’t tell when.
So, what does this have to do with editing, you ask? One of the rooms had a series of very large video monitors positioned around each other (you can see two of them next to each other on the right). The fascinating thing that I noticed as I looked at the work for minute after minute is that, because the characters turned as they emoted, their positions relative to each other.
In editing, I believe in something that I’ve dubbed the Rule of Threes, which basically says that the impact of a shot is completely dependent on the shot that came before it and will inevitably effect the shot that comes after it. No shot lives alone. Looking at two different shots placed physically side-by-side (as opposed to temporally, the way we normally work in film) increased that rule even more. Mike Figgis, in his film TIMECODE, experimented with this, by placing four separate stories on a quad split screen. The television series 24 does the same with its copious use of picture-in-picture. But it was this side-by-side placement of a number of hyper-slow depictions of characters emoting that brought the feeling home.
So, finally, what does this have to do with Hamlet? (which you should rush right out and see if you like avant garde theatre and if it ever plays again in your neck of the woods)
The Wooster Group’s play takes a 1962 presentation of HAMLET, directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton. The theater piece was recorded by 27 cameras, according to the program notes, for a television presentation on two nights only. After that, the film was put away.
The original television presentation the play dominates one large projection screen in the upstage center of the theater. As it runs, the Wooster Group performs the play in perfect sync (more or less) with that original performance. But there is so much more to it than that. Hamlet, played by Scott Shepherd, interacts with the playback — sometimes telling the unseen tech crew to “fast forward to that dagger scene” or “we don’t need this.” The video behind him responds to his commands, the ever present word PLAY that sits on the upper left corner of the screen (mimicking, in a unreal sort of manner, a VCR playback unit) is replaced by the letters “FF” and the screen squiggles as if it is a tape being shuttled forward.
At other times, there are jump cuts in the footage which the actors on stage must mimic by moving their bodies jerkily. In many other portions of the film, characters have been digitally erased, though the actors performing those roles continue on (right in front of our eyes) copying the performance of the 1962 actors which can be seen on a number of cue monitors set up around the stage. In some cases, the footage is replaced by the Final Cut blue Unrendered screen (and, though the 1962 soundtrack continues, it is joined by the beeping that is associated with mismatched sound files in Final Cut).
In a particularly brilliant and inspired process, the stage actors recreate the concepts of camera dollies by moving themselves, the furniture and their props forward or backward on the stage. As the camera in the 1962 production moves out and to the right, all of the live actors on stage take several steps backward and shift to their rights, dragging tables and chairs with them. The result? The play audience becomes hyper aware of the moving camera.
In short, this is a play that makes us think about how movies work. It is Hamlet, deconstructed, in much the same way that Bill Viola’s PASSION, took apart the power of the edit to relate emotion. But it is not Hamlet that is really being analyzed here, it is a film of Hamlet and our perceptions of film as reality.
And while that may sound all Cinema School, for anyone who has ever edited intensely, you will recognize what is happening here. As an editor we must figure out, either subconsciously or consciously, how a particular edit will work with an audience. In this HAMLET we are asked to look at the way in which this television production has been put together — with its jump cuts, dolly movies, and actors — and internalize the technique while we listen to Shakespeare’s words.
It’s brilliant and a thrilling 2-3/4 hours of theatre.