This past weekend the Gene Siskel Film Center screened Patrick Wang’s two-part feature A Bread Factory, likely the most original and ambitious American movie to play in Chicago so far this year. (If you missed it, Northwestern University’s Block Cinema is bringing it back on Saturday, May 4.) Part of what makes Bread Factory so daring is how Wang incorporates devices associated with theater—eloquent soliloquies, actors breaking the fourth wall, a chorus that comments on the action—in a manner that feels distinctly cinematic. The film never feels like an adaptation of a play, but rather a unique fusion of the two artistic media; this fusion helps to strengthen Wang’s celebration of art (and specifically theater) as part of any healthy community.
The five Reader capsule reviews presented here are of movies that integrate theatrical devices in a similar (and no less celebratory) fashion. Jacques Rivette once wrote that the only true subject of cinema is theater, and if you watch any of the films discussed below, you might understand what he meant by that cryptic statement. Fiction and documentary films alike create bonds with the audience through the viewers’ relationships to the people behaving on screen. And the cinema’s power to present new worlds—which requires the audience’s willed acceptance in order to truly succeed—of course has its roots in stage drama. Unfortunately too many movies based on plays have failed to draw on this power; “filmed theater” has long been a pejorative term in film criticism, shorthand for visually uninspired hackwork that fails to build upon the theatrical aesthetic in any meaningful way. Here are Reader-approved examples of movies that are definitely not “filmed theater,” but richer, mysterious objects that introduce new possibilities for how theater and cinema can interact.
Applause Rouben Mamoulian’s 1929 classic tells the story of a chorus-line mama (the great Helen Morgan) trying to keep her daughter out of the sleazy world of burlesque. The film is always used in courses on the history of the movies to show that not all early talkies were static and leaden, and it’s true that Mamoulian manages some remarkable moving-camera effects (the only other director doing things of that sort was King Vidor in Hallelujah, also in 1929). Though this is Mamoulian’s earliest, it’s possibly his freshest film. —Don Druker
A Double Life George Cukor’s work took an unexpected turn into darkness during the 40s. This film, with Ronald Colman as a Broadway star who succumbs to fits of Shakespearean jealousy while playing Othello, is perhaps the best of the period; it’s a reversal of the role-playing theme that Cukor developed during the 30s, in which a fluid, diffuse personality leads not to happiness and liberation (cf Holiday) but to madness and despair. The screenplay, by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, contains shuddering insights into the psychology of the actor, and Cukor has obtained a multilayered performance from Colman to match the complexity of the conception. Though the plot line tends toward a facile parallelism, Cukor keeps the film dense and vivid through strong imagery and behavioral detail. With Shelley Winters and Signe Hasso (1947). —Dave Kehr
An Actor’s Revenge Kon Ichikawa’s 1963 masterpiece, one of the most dazzling and stylistically audacious Japanese films ever made, has to be seen to be believed—though in Japan, interestingly enough, it’s never been regarded as anything but a potboiler. The film was putatively made to celebrate the 300th film appearance of box-office idol Kazuo Hasegawa, and is in fact a remake of a 1938 film by Teinosuke Kinugasa that featured Hasegawa in the same parts. Ichikawa uses it as an unprecedented opportunity for unbridled stylistic play (the film’s use of ‘Scope and color is breathtaking), Shakespearean complication (Hasegawa plays two parts, one of them in drag), and a fascinating investigation into the relationship between theater and cinema. The hero is a Kabuki female impersonator out to avenge the deaths of his parents, and the plot proceeds somewhat like a film noir (with revelatory flashbacks), while adroitly mixing onstage and offstage action. To make the campy mixture even weirder, Ichikawa periodically uses contemporary jazz on the soundtrack. One can easily see here why Disney is one of Ichikawa’s favorite filmmakers, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this singular experiment is its demonstration that theater and film are more kissing cousins than distant relations—the more stagebound the film gets, the more cinematic it becomes. If you’ve never seen this, prepare to be stunned. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
The Gang of Four Bulle Ogier runs an all-female acting school, many of whose students (newcomers Laurence Côte, Fejria Deliba, Bernadette Giraud, and Inês de Medeiros) share a suburban house and get involved with the same creepy guy (Benoît Régent), who’s either a cop or a criminal. In short, it’s conspiracy time once again in Jacques Rivette’s highly charged and scary world, where a fanatical devotion to theater and paranoia are often viewed as the only viable alternatives in a tightly closeted universe. This 1988 feature was the best Rivette to reach the U.S. in at least a decade, full of the sexual tensions and female camaraderie found in his Celine and Julie Go Boating (though without much of the comedy), as well as the kind of haunting and chilling aftereffects that are common to his work. More classical and less experimental than his previous features, it’s almost a summary and compilation of his major themes and preoccupations—an ideal introduction to his work. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Caesar Must Die The great Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani film the staging of Julius Caesar with inmates of the maximum-security Rebibbia Prison in Rome; the result (2012) is not a straight documentary but an eccentric Shakespeare adaptation, a condensed version of the play assembled from months of rehearsal footage. Throughout, the Tavianis blur the line between fiction and nonfiction filmmaking, ingeniously shooting the prison so that it looks like a set and having the prisoners comment on the action in scripted asides that mimic Shakespearean prose. Ultimately the distinctions between drama and documentary seem less important than Shakespeare’s human insights, which the Tavianis render stirringly immediate. —Ben Sachs v