>Metadrama and Metacinema

>Insofar as a play is metadramatic, it is a commentary on social conditions. By commenting on its own status–as play, as entertainment–it comments also on the status of the play as philosophy, i.e. it comments on its own performance in society. Metadrama might be called a commentary of the plays performative aspect: what does the play do to its audience as a performance? Any single performance which comments on its own artifice, calls into the mind the artifice of performance in general, and so casts the audience’s gaze back on itself, in search of final meaning. In this regard, metadramatic performance is a true mirror held up to nature.

It might be that all performance is metadramatic in some sense. Does performance, which places in front of us an imitation of human action–be it “realistic” or stylized, do we not still understand it as imitated–naturally encourage its audience to reflect on human action in general, to wonder about its status as reality? The reflection that the metadramatic performance induces is political only in a sense: The play encourages its audience members to analyze the broader systems of performed action in which they are embedded.

With regards to films it seems that, as with most art in the mechanical age, this metadramatic quality becomes strictly more political. Certainly we also recognize the actions in a film as being imitations, but the spacial and temporal, as well as social, mediation that the film medium represents perhaps obscures for us the same capacity to recognize the imitated action as being human. That is not to say that plays are unmediated (I have explored the notion previously), but in performance, generally those responsible for all mediation and artistic interpretation are at hand, vis-a-vis the performers themselves (and, at the Globe theater and elsewhere, even often the playwright). Perhaps it is because in film we recognize the anonymity of these mediators (their anonymity glares in the metacinematic quality of the film itself) that film, rather than calling into question the audience’s role as performer, instead calls into question its own status as qualified performer.

When an actor portrays a character on stage, or a musician plays and sings his song, or a politician comes before us to speak, we are aware to some extent of an ultimately accountable individual for this individual performance. In a film, such accountability is not immediately apparent. Indeed, it is part of the artifice of the film that any concrete accountability is continually obscured. Benjamin points out:

“The shooting of a film…presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to the spectator a single viewpoint which would exclude from his or her field of vision the equipment…unless the alighment of the spectator’s pupil coincided with that of the camera.” (“The Work of Art,” Second Version, published in The Work of Art… (2008). Harvard UP, pp. 34-35)

The film, with its single point of view, its multiple cuts, its artificial lighting, its shifts in time and space, does not allow us to identify with any element of the human agency that is so crucial to live performance. We understand in the film that the actor is not performing the actions portrayed; these actions are performed rather in the lighting lab and the editing room. Just as we understand that is not, indeed, we who are watching the actor, but the camera itself. We are consigned to watch the machine. Our anxiety over this fact often makes us suspicious that the machine watches us in return (cf. Orwell, Clark & Kubrik, the Wachowskis).

The play reflects the audience only in its nature as a live performance. This immediate human interaction cannot be underestimated. By putting before us a human like us, the play participates in a reenactment of the Hegelian struggle for identity. If we leave the theater questioning the motives behind the performances of others, it is only because we have first reflected on the motives of our own performances. This is a philosophical reflection.

Because the film can reflect on itself without in doing so reflecting its audience as individuals, it does not tend immediately toward matters of philosophy. Rather, if the film calls for reflection at all, it calls for social and political reflection, in that it calls into mind man’s relationship to the machine. It is likely, however, that film doesn’t immediately call for reflection of any kind; its capacity for a distracted reception, as outlined by Benjamin, suggests that any natural tendency toward reflection that film inherits is is refracted by the immediacy of the film medium itself. Any attempt to interpret a film as metadramatic performance, to read its interaction with the audience, tends either to feel pressed and somewhat hollow, or else endlessly complicated by matters of Marxist materialism.


About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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