Home > Critic-At-Large > His Dark Materials
His Dark Materials
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
One of the reasons I like live theatre so much is that occasionally I'll see a moment onstage that is so powerfully rendered that the audience can only respond with stillness. This may sound contradictory, but often the silence of a rapt audience provides the most charged, electrifying feelings in theatre, for both actors and audience members alike. It's a great thing to experience, and a far more honest reaction than the jack-in-the-box, standing ovations that Fort Wayne routinely gives its performers.
In the Civic Theatre's recent production of Frankenstein, there was a moment in the second act that sucked the air out of the room. The Creature enters Elizabeth's chambers on her wedding night, fully intending to continue his vengeance and kill Victor's bride. Instead of being horrified by this apparition, though, Elizabeth looks at the Creature with pity. She stands her ground, and then, shockingly, moves herself physically toward the unloved and hideous thing. For a moment the Creature is so surprised by this action that his fury drops for a moment, and he accepts Elizabeth's gentle caresses. Suddenly the Creature looks scared, wounded, desperate for affection--in other words, human. This naked emotion lasts for just a moment, but it gives the audience a tantalizing thought--though we know the story, know the ending, just for a moment we believe, Maybe it will all work out.
This is the point in Frankenstein when all I could hear was the breathing of the actors. The audience was dead still. It is the most curious sound, 600 people not moving. After the moment played out, the normal rustling of audience gradually returned and the story returned to its tragic, inevitable conclusion. As everybody knows, things indeed didn't work out so well for Elizabeth (or the Creature), but that tiny bit of humanity and understanding that the actors portrayed made the final resolution so much more wrenching.
I liked Civic's production of Frankenstein very much, and not just that one moment — it was a relief to see a show that dealt with dark, horrifying things with wit and sensitivity. Halloween and cheapo horror films have corrupted the reputation of Mary Shelley's story so much that it's almost impossible to remember that the original material tackles some pretty big things — death, life, loss, God, man, pride, murder, etc. This adaptation, by Jeffrey Jackson and Mark Baron, maintained the horror of the story without resorting to a lot of theatrical violence, which was surprising to me — I've gotten so accustomed to brutalization in horror movies that I just naturally expected it here, onstage. But the murders were simply done, suggestive rather than explicit, and I think it's that sensibility that I responded to the most. The writers seemed to imply that the taking of a human life is a pretty big deal, and should be portrayed with great sensitivity.
This is, of course, in marked contrast to virtually every movie I've seen in the past year, and to all of the television crime shows that I've watched this decade. I know I have prudish tastes, but I'm still amazed how easily audiences accept murder, sadism, dehumanization in their entertainment. This is a good time? I recognize that I'm the only person in the universe who hated The Dark Knight, but outside of Heath Ledger's performance, I felt pummeled by the film's endless cynicism. Yet people loved how "dark" it was, as if "dark" automatically equaled "good." It doesn't, you know — sometimes "dark" can just be violent, thoughtless, cruel. I know the film made a billion dollars, but did people really have a good time watching it? After two and a half hours I had a mother of a headache, and I was anxious to get out of the vice that the film put on me. Similarly, I couldn't wait to escape Watchmen, even though I loved the graphic novel. Yes, the story is "dark," but that doesn't justify Zach Snyder's almost zealous use of pornographic violence in the film. I'm so tired of auteurs who think that unflinching, graphic violence shows integrity to the source material and is inherently artistic.
And yet. . . I love David Cronenberg and Quentin Tarantino and I'll watch every movie that Brian DePalma will ever make. The violence in all of their films is as graphic as I've seen, yet I don't find their sensibilities offensive. Disturbing yes, difficult, yes, but not offensive. Compare the violence of their films to the "torture porn" horror movies--you know, Saw and Hostel and Last House on the Left — and notice the difference. It is like comparing a child's fingerpainting to a Cezanne. Violence and murder are tools that true movie makers use with deference and skill, while the hacks just bludgeon you with it.
And look, I'll admit that I love campy, pop-culture phenomenon — therefore, David Caruso's hammy, over-enunciated dead-pans that start every episode of CSI:Miami are some of my favorite YouTube moments. Yet I can't watch the show. There is a sadistic element to it, like in all the CBS "Corpse" shows (Criminal Minds, Without A Trace, Cold Case, CSI) that I'm just not comfortable with. I know most of the shows are harmless "whodunits" that I shouldn't care about, still it bothers me how cavalier the shows have become. Loss of a life, even in a scripted TV show, ought to be presented with a certain degree of respect.
Don't worry, though, I'm not about to become a cultural commissar on you--I'm still the same, First Amendment nut who will fight to the death for your right to go see The Hills Have Eyes or Saw V. And I know this is a tiny, unimportant thing, but sometimes I just wish film makers would stop decapitating everything. Just because you can show it doesn't mean you should.