Why is it that movies fail at metadrama? To be sure, the medium prevents the immediacy of self-reference of live theater. There is no shared present event when the thing was filmed at a previous time, and when the performance can't change for each audience. Still, it's always been puzzling to me that even when metadramatic plays are put on film, the filmmakers feel compelled to avoid self-reference. Movies maintain the fourth wall in ways live theater does not -- even highly "realistic" plays like those of Ibsen or Chekhov.
Case in point, the 1995 Michael Ritchie film of The Fantasticks, which I just watched on cable. Why would one not open with "Try to Remember," which is the show's invitation into this self-consciously theatrical fable -- not to mention its establishment of El Gallo as the play's stage manager/narrator (a la Our Town)? The song's closing word, "follow," means, "watch what comes next, watch this play." If you save it for the end, as Ritchie does, you lose all the metadrama.
Similarly with Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd. Why eliminate "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"? Is there some rule they teach you in film school to avoid audience address? Is it somehow regarded as unavoidably comic -- a la Ferris Bueller or Wayne's World?
Not that the Ritchie film is completely lacking in skill. It actually handles the fragile hip sentimentality of the show reasonably well. It doesn't cloy -- but neither does it take flight. It's dutiful, not beautiful.
Is there something about film that prevents it from being about itself? Or, rather, that prevents it from being about us? Does the screen have to be a wormhole to another world? Can it never deliver immediacy and presentness? Does any attempt to do so inevitably feel phony, rather than intense?
I need to watch Purple Rose of Cairo again.
Update: To wit (pun intended), I watched Mike Nichols's embalmed Angels in America, lavishly produced for HBO in 2003, and it doubles down on my point -- film (or television) doesn't know how to do metatheater. In fact, the production is so flaccid that it exposes the limits of Kushner's play. Contra Frank Rich's and John Leonard's claims, it really is dated. The comedy Kushner found in mashing up tragedy, religion, politics and sitcom domesticity in 1993 now feels less bold than cutesy.
Still, the play deserves better than this, better than Nichols, who anesthetizes everything he touches.
Of the over-the-top encomia the HBO production received, the closest to understanding its failure was The New Yorker's review. It sidles up to a metadramtic understanding of theater. Franklin correctly notes the miscasting (Pacino's scenery chewing, Emma Thompson's utter incapacity to be awe-inspiring, Shenkman's lack of a center), the sheer silliness of the play's idea of heaven, its talkiness (without the genuine wit of Shaw or Stoppard). What's a bit surprising, given her main thesis, is that she doesn't mention how utterly Prior's and Harper's direct address to the screen at the end fails. When Kushner's characters spoke directly to the audience in the theater in 1993, it had real urgency and immediacy. The world of New York theater was the epicenter of the population that lived the plague. The tourists in the building were the guests -- the equivalents of Joe's mother who were still uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality. The play thus had the immediacy of a political meeting and a funeral among endangered citizens (which is why it begins with a funeral). All of that is lost with the passage of time, and the absence of a shared space and event.
In film and on TV, the fourth wall holds firm. Where's a zombie dragon when we need one?