Balme, Christopher B. Intermediality: Rethinking the relationship between Theatre and media
the infamous director of the Berlin Volksbühne Frank Castorf, who in an interview for the Berliner Zeitung openly admitted that the theatre he dreams of can be found, “if at all in the cinema, in the films of Quentin Tarantino.”
In other words, theatre as ‘Pulp Fiction’, a theatre, which makes use of filmic devices such as – and
Hammerthaler enumerates them – “Soundtrack, Rhythm, clips, fade overs and the
continual play with citations and clichés.”. (pag 1)
The neologism ‘Theatermovie’ is symptomatic of the increasingly urgent need to find critical categories and evaluative yardsticks for media products characterized by their hybridization: Video dance, dance film, film
versions of plays and so on. It is easy to make a long list of old and new cross-media genres (pag 1)
The term ‘media specificity’ refers, in the words of the film theorist Noël Carroll, to a form of ‘medium-essentialism’: “It is the doctrine that each artform has its own distinctive medium, a medium that distinguishes it from other art forms […] the medium qua essence dictates what is suitable to do with the medium.” (49) The central corollary of this theory implies or even states explicitly that definition of medium determines notions of aesthetic
value. In the case of film, the aesthetically privileged films would be those that make the most extensive or innovative use of the particularities of the medium.
Applied to the theatre, media specificity would imply a concentration on the basic theatrical situation, which would necessarily highlight the presence of a live audience and/or a performance style not reliant on modern technology. Carroll argues that the early film theory of Kracauer and Arnheim employs the doctrine of medium-specificity as a means of legitimizing the new medium of film as a artform. (pag 3)
The concept of media specificity is, however, by no means an invention of film theory despite its close links to that discipline. It in fact goes back to a much older ‘common place’ of aesthetic theory that finds its first comprehensive formulation in Lessing’s Laokoon essay of 1766, where he makes a fundamental and famous distinction between temporal and spatial arts. By critiquing the old formula of ut pictura poesis, which enabled one artform to be the model for another, Lessing introduced a new precept in aesthetic theory that privileged arguments of difference and delimitation over concepts of analogy and exchange. The consequences of this perspective continue into the present and certainly provided one of the underpinnings of modernism. It was the modernist art critic Clement Greenberg who declared the question of medium to be the defining and
distinguishing moment of art, thus effectively reversing the aesthetic doctrine of idealist aesthetic theory which considered the material aspect of art to be the least important. For Greenberg the search for medial purity was the ultimate goal for each and every modernist artform. (pag 4)
Greenberg’s art criticism goes back to the 1930s. By the time his famous collection of essays, Art and Culture, was published in 1961, the doctrine he was espousing had solidified into something approaching critical orthodoxy. It was paralleled by the same arguments in film theory. Between 1930 and 1970 numerous film and art theorists such as Béla Balázs, Siegfried Kracauer, Rudolf Arnheim, André Bazin and Erwin Panofsky expounded the dogma that the artistic nature of film – in comparison mainly to theatre – could be identified in the way it used its “elementary material properties” (to quote Rudolf Arnheim).
The medium-specific ‘property’ of film was determined to be the use of the camera and montage.
This position began to be questioned in 1960s. Among the earliest critics was Susan Sontag – who in her 1965 essay ‘Film and Theatre’ questioned the idea of an “unbridgeable division, even opposition between the two arts.”
She continues: “[I]t is no more part of the putative ‘essence’ of movies that the camera must rove over a large
physical area, than it is that movies ought to be silent.”
While conceding that the two media demonstrate differences, Sontag questions that these differences have any kind of normative aesthetic value. (pag 4)
A counter-model to an aesthetics and a discipline based on a doctrine of medium- specificity has been formulated under the rubric of intermediality. This critical approach proceeds from the assumption that media specificity as it has been defined above is at best an historically contingent phenomenon, at worst a critical and ideological construct that consigns much of the most interesting theatre of the past two decades to the critical
scrapheap. From the point of view of scholarship, the term intermediality has engendered a great deal of research and discussion within the humanities, particularly within the French and German-speaking worlds.
In English, the word is only slowly gaining currency.
Discussion began in the 1980s with studies into the interrelationship between text and images in surrealist and dadaist collages. This was followed by a growing number of studies into the adaptations of literature into film as a form of media transformation. Film studies have embraced the term, with the work of Peter Greenaway forming perhaps the most popular objet de recherche. Theatre studies have only just begun to discuss the term
seriously. Because of the history of the term and its beginnings in literary and film criticism there is still no clear generally accepted definition. At best we can distinguish three fields of application, all of which use the term: Intermediality can thus understood to be:
1. the transposition of diegetic content from one medium to another;
2. a particular form of intertextuality;
3. the attempt to realize in one medium the aesthetic conventions and habits of seeing and hearing in another medium. (pag 7)
That the exchange between media does not just proceed on the level of content but also on a deeper level of conventions and perceptions was already observed and commented on in the 1920s and 1930s. Both Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht concerned themselves with this question: Benjamin in his seminal essay on art and mechanical reproduction where he argues that perception is historically contingent on technical innovation and changes. In 1931 Brecht published a report on the trial surrounding the film adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, Über den Dreigroschenprozeß. He noted aphoristically: “The film viewer reads stories differently. But he who writes stories is also a film viewer. The technification of literary production is irreversable.”
In this pithy statement we already find key elements of the concept of intermediality. Most importantly it shows that the question affects both production and reception: The film viewer reads stories differently, and the producer of these stories is also subject to the same influences. (pag 8)
If we define intermediality as the simulation or realisation of conventions and patterns of perception of one medium in another then we must ask in a next step by what criteria we can recognize and study such strategies. In the case of theatre for example we would have to ask if any and all use of film, video or even slide projections is a defining factor of an intermedial approach: here we have the term multi- or mixed media theatre, problematic though it is, as semiotic theory tends to define theatre by definition as multimedial.
The borders are of course fluid. Multi-media theatre in the common (not the semiotic) sense may of course pursue an intermedial strategy. Examples go back to the 1920s with Piscator’s use of film and slide projections which evidence not just a use of technical media to better contextualize ‘historical’ background but also to contrast their various functions on a formal and perceptual level. (pag 8)
We are aware of media (1) as a framing medium (Rahmenmedium), (2) on an internal level, as media-within-media (Binnenmedien) and (3) on a thematic level. The framing medium is theatre which is never seriously destabilized as live actors continually interact with various technical devices. These form the various internal media, the second category, which include film, video and photography. The main thematic medium, as we shall see, is photography, which is signalled from the outset by the presence of the camera and in fact continues to play a role throughout the whole production. It becomes a central motif, connecting the various strands of action as they shift back and forward over fifty years and three continents. Photography as the medium of memory in the 20th century. (pag 11)
The home movie of a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony congeals into a photograph of the dead bridegroom, which is slipped back into a singed photo album. Roland Barthes’ famous remark that every photo of a person from the past contains a premonition of their death is demonstrated by the medial shift from film to photography and emotionally charged through the interaction with the stage figure. (pag 11)