Stage as Moment, Cinema as Memory: The Diverging Aesthetics of Two Mediums
This paper argues that film is a medium defined by its relationship to memory. Building upon aesthetician György Lukács's temporal theory of cinema, I contrast film's inherent relationship to memory with the “eternal present” of the stage. Audiences viewing a film have a continual awareness that what they watch on screen was filmed in the past and edited together retrospectively. Cinema replicates the selective encoding process of our memories on-screen when a director and editor piece together the shots and scenes that compose a completed film. Often there is a large amount of recorded footage that does not make it into the final cut, just as certain events do not become long-term memories. In this manner, cinema uniquely replicates human memory.
In his essay, “Thoughts on an Aesthetics of Cinema,” aesthetician György Lukács contrasts theater and cinema’s relationships to fate and time. He defines fate as “that which is present in itself” and argues that “if a pure metaphysics of drama were possible, then it would no longer know concepts such as exposition” because it would exist in an eternal present (Lukács, 28). He continues to argue that film is unrestrained by fate because it exists beyond ordinary space/time-- “a life without presence” (Lukács, 29). While I concede that film’s medium specificity concerns its engagement with time, I argue that it is a particular relationship to memory- not fate that defines the medium. Where theater is concerned with the creation of an eternal present, film is uniquely representative of the complex inner workings of human memory.
Cinema is a medium definitionally linked to the past. Audiences viewing a film have a continual (if temporarily suspended) awareness that what they watch on screen was filmed in the past and edited together retrospectively. In this manner, the events in a film are always firmly rooted in the past, necessarily having been filmed before being rendered on-screen. Contrastingly, in a play, the action always unfolds live, situated in the present in some meaningful--if fictional-- sense. Lukács ties this quality to fate; theater’s “absolute presence,” he writes, is the “necessary correlate” of fate (Lukács, 29). In contrast, he argues that “the past is merely framing, in a metaphysical sense, something that is purposeless” (Lukács, 28). Cinema, with its lack of presence, lacks true causality. Fate is irrelevant for the camera because its “causality is inhibited or bound by no substantiveness ” (Lukács, 29). It is a succession of images, no more substantial than a projection.
Memory is a projection not dissimilar to cinema. Its images lack true presence, but retain an existence in the mind’s eye. There is no present causality in memory because it is only a series of mental images stored in the brain, not physical reality itself. It lacks substantiveness in much the same manner a film does. Cinema travels through time much as the human memory can, reliving moments in various times with “limitless possibility” (Lukács, 29). Through film, we are able to see actors who have died rendered alive on screen. Such a feat of time cannot occur onstage. Even when a play is set in the past, it only has living people at its disposal. Where theater can only construct a present that resembles the past, film shows us a memory.
Film is composed of shots, edited together with cuts in-between. It is selective in what it shows and does not, largely based upon what the director considers important for the overall arc of the story. We don’t generally think of our own lives as being organized this way, but cognitive research suggests that long-term memory is highly selective. We are more likely to encode and store long-term emotionally charged events than the mundane moments that occur in-between.. For example, an individual can often vividly remember an experience in childhood without remembering the events that surround it. Psychologists refer to this as episodic memory-- a term that evokes the similarities between memory and narrative media. In this manner, we create unconscious “cuts” or gaps in our long-term memory (Tulving, 69-70).
Cinema replicates this selective encoding process on-screen when a director and editor piece together the shots and scenes that compose the completed film. Often there is a large amount of recorded footage that doesn’t make it into the final cut, just as certain events don’t become long-term memories. In contrast, in a theatrical production, there are no scenes or moments left out of the presentation, because the only moments that exist in the theatrical framework are the ones the audience views onstage. These events unfold live, so there is no retrospective selection process. In this manner, cinema uniquely replicates human memory, while theater remains rooted in the present, necessarily “merely momentary” (Lukács, 28).
As a play that has inspired countless film adaptations, Shakespeare’s Hamlet provides an illustrative example of the contrast between theater and film. Memory is a central theme to the script itself. Hamlet laments his mother’s seemingly callous ability to forget his father “not dead two months,” feeling her re-marriage to be a terrible betrayal. He himself grapples with how best to honor his Father’s memory, and whether remembrance entails revenge. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to Hamlet throughout and continues to direct much of the action from beyond the grave.
In theatrical productions, the ghost is “a past entity given present being” through the eternal present of the stage (Hammersmith, 598). No mere memory, the ghost takes on real presence in the form of an actor. Shakespeare scholar James Hammersmith argues that Hamlet’s father exists not only in our “mind’s eye” as a memory, but also in “our physical eye each time a player resurrects his ghost upon the stage” (Hammersmith, 600). Thus, the play is engaged with a form of “re-presenting” wherein with “all being present, past and present coalesce” (Hammersmith, 598). In some vital sense, the theater “re-presents” the past, giving physical form to what could ordinarily only exist in substanceless memory.
Filmic adaptations of Hamlet are naturally suited to exploring memory itself, rather than physically “re-presenting” the past. In Michael Almereyda’s modernized adaptation, Hamlet is an amateur filmmaker obsessed with surveillance, media, and cinematic history. He records other characters almost constantly on a camcorder and continually rewatches footage of events on a closed circuit TV screen. His recordings become a catalogue of digitized “memories” of the film’s events. Throughout the film, time seems to expand and contract in strange, unsettling oscillations. Long tracking shots draw out individual moments, while in other scenes rapid cuts create a sense of time speeding up. The film further manipulates time by replaying scenes from various perspectives on closed circuit televisions. In these instances, Almereyda highlights film’s relationship to human recollection. The film participates in the same sort of disruption of time and replaying of moments that the mind can through memory.
The color palette in Almereyda’s Hamlet changes significantly throughout the film. In happier moments, such as in Hamlet’s early interactions with Ophelia and meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at a bar, the color scheme is much warmer, brighter, and red-toned. Throughout much of the rest of the film, the color scheme is nearly grey-scale, notably de-saturated with a bluish-grey tint. Cognitive research suggests that our psychological states influence the way we view and recall reality-- even influencing color perception. For instance, patients with clinical depression actually demonstrate reduced ability to perceive contrast. This creates a “grey-scale” effect, in which they may perceive colors to be less vibrant. Memories of depressive periods will often include a slightly altered “color-scheme” from other times during their lives (Bubl, 207). As seen in Hamlet, present-day film is able to manipulate colors in order to cultivate specific moods. This cinematographically practice closely resembles a real phenomenon of human perception and memory. Theater lacks the capability to manipulate overall color-scheme, and therefore can’t represent as closely the perceptual differences that characterize human memory of various periods. In this manner, what Lukács describes as theater’s inherent presence and dependence on the “momentary” divides it from the subjective and retrospective qualities associated with memory. Film, with its loss of “everything momentary” is particularly suited to mirroring the qualities of human recollection.
In the second scene of Act II in the play, Hamlet asks the First Player to deliver a speech from Virgil’s Aeneid. Almereyda’s Hamlet views instead a scene from Kazan’s East of Eden, substituting a classical story with a “classic” Hollywood film. A staged version of Almereyda’s modern adaptation couldn’t very well show James Dean performing the original scene. The stage can only utilize objects or individuals that exist in the present. In contrast, through cinema, Almereyda is able to actually incorporate the original scene from East of Eden. Due to film’s lack of “substantiveness” or physical presence, as described by Lukács, it is able to reach back into the past for material-- into cinematic memory. Cinema has an intrinsic relationship with memory, because memory is itself another sort of projection lacking physical presence.
In many ways, film resembles memory, with the director and editor taking the roles of our unconscious brain processes in selecting, focusing, and editing footage. Adaptations of Hamlet, a play deeply concerned with memory, provide an illustrative contrast between the media of film and theater. Film-- like memories --lacks causality in the manner Lukács describes. Memories provide merely a mental image of predetermined events, and therefore lacks the “substantiveness” required of true causality. Theater, in contrast, maintains a suspended present-- dependent on the present existence of all it portrays. Unlike theater, which can only hint at the past while remaining firmly rooted in the present, film is a medium uniquely suited to replicating the nature of human memory.
Bubl, Emanuel. "Seeing gray when feeling blue? Depression can be measured in the eye of the diseased." Biological Psychiatry 68.2 (2010): 205-208.
Hammersmith, James P. “Hamlet and the Myth of Memory.” ELH, vol. 45, no. 4, 1978, pp. 597–605. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2872579.
Lukács, Georg. "Thoughts on an Aesthetics of Cinema." The Continental Philosophy of Film Reader, edited by Joseph Westfall. Bloomsbury, 2018, pp. 28-31.
Tulving, Endel. “What Is Episodic Memory?” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 2, no. 3, 1993, pp. 67–70.