Balme, Christopher B. Intermediality

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)