Thursday, November 10, 2011

Die Bergkatze Part II: "The Lubitsch Touch" Upon the Brechtian "Epic Theater"

This is the second of three posts about R&P MPO's premiere of its new score to Ernst Lubitsh's Die Bergkatze (The Wildcat) for the St. Louis International Film Festival on November 12th at Webster University. Come back later today for Part III: "The Lubitsch Touch" Upon Our New Score.

There are plenty of reminders to the audience in Die Bergkatze that they are watching a film. The most obvious reminders throughout the film is Lubitsch's frequent use of non-squared, non-parallel frames. There are zig-zag frames and symmetrically curved frames, among others. The effect is somewhat jarring, yet at the same time serves a purpose: a constant reminder to the audience member that she/he is watching artifice - something that is performed. Insofar as cinema seeks to create the illusion of "reality," Die Bergkatze undermines cinema in its constant reminder to the viewer that what she/he is watching is not "reality."

Die Bergkatze's use of unconventional frames appears to come straight from Bertolt Brecht's idea of Epic Theater, the fundamental goal of Epic Theater being that to "exclude the engendering of illusion." Every moment in Die Bergkatze in which an unconventional frame imposes itself upon the mise-en-scène, the audience member is reminded that what she/he is watching is "performed" rather than "real." In live Epic Theater, the task of reminding the audience is easy enough. Epic Theater would "break the fourth wall" by having an actor directly address an audience. If that wasn't enough, Brecht's Epic Theater productions often would make readily apparent to the audience the play's lighting and staging elements. Brecht coined the term Verfremdungseffekt - "the distancing effect" - to describe these techinques.

The actor's method in service of Epic Theater's larger goal of Verfremdungseffekt is the notion of gestus. In A Short Organum for the Theatre, Brecht outlines for the actor the method of gestus:
The actor should examine the world around him. With all his being he must pay attention to gestures, and imitate the world through a process of reflection. He must amplify what he observes, because the original is too subtle, "it speaks too softly." The construction of one character happens simultaneously with all the others. The actor must take possession of his character and critically calculate its various manifestations. Learning a character is [...] a critical process.
But live theater is not cinema. Cinema, unlike live theater, has closeups. With closeups comes the ability to nuance, for closeups amplify that which "speaks too softly." While Lubitsch in Die Bergkatze hues to the ethical modalities of Brecht's Epic Theater, the medium of film allows Lubitsch to interject a naturalism to the narrative that would be impossible on the stage. Even among the verfremdungseffekt framing devices and "surreal" set pieces of Die Bergkatze, Pola Negri's Rischka and Paul Heideman's Lieutenant Alexis are performed and received as much more nuanced and natural as would be live theater characters operating under a Brechtian dramatic ethic.

This making of room for naturalistic acting within the context of Brechtian Epic Theater manifests yet another aspect of the so-called "Lubitsch Touch." It's yet another example, as discussed in my previous post, of film critic William Paul's definition of the "Lubitsch Touch" as "the conjunction of lightness and seriousness, of gaiety and gravity." In this particular instance, however, one may prefer to substitute "formalism" for "lightness," "orthodoxy to the manifesto" for "gaiety."

Come back later today for Part III: "The Lubitsch Touch" Upon Our Score

The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra

Premieres its New Score for Ernst Lubitsch's
Die Bergkatze (The Wildcat) at the
St. Louis International Film Festival

November 12, 8PM
Webster University's Winifred Moore Auditorium
470 E. Lockwood
Webster Groves, MO

$10 for students, $12 for everybody else

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