"The problem is, by literalizing all of this on film, the reader's immense imaginative capacity is replaced by that of the director and his (in this case, his, anyway) design team. As it must be in most film. The more literal an image becomes, the less the audience's imaginative capacity can be realized. This is not bad, it is simply the trade off. This is why some in the theater are getting very sick of realistic sets (see George's review of Celebration and The Room, Will Eno's interview in American Theater, or, well, my own directing work). The more realistic the set, the less complicity with the audience... the artist does too much work for them and their brains stop working on some level. It also becomes a much less wonderful experience for the audience, because watching someone else's complete imaginative act can at times be about as interesting as listening to someone else's stories about their children."
While we could have an interesting discussion about the different imaginative demands of books, theatre, and film (and I hope we might have such a discussion in the future), the phrase I find most interesting in Isaac's post is "The more realistic the set, the less complicity with the audience." Complicity. My dictionary defines this word as "Involvement as an accomplice in a questionable act or a crime." Perhaps Isaac did not consciously mean to use a word with such nefarious, transgressive overtones, but he did use it nonetheless, and it set me to thinking.
The "questionable act or crime" with which the audience is complicit in this case, is a crime against realism, against reality; it is a crime of imagination. A visit to the thesaurus' listing for "reality" revealed the following:
absoluteness, actuality, authenticity, being, bottom line, brass tacks, certainty, concrete, corporeality, deed, entity, existence, facts, genuineness, materiality, matter, object, palpability, perceptibility, phenomenon, presence, real world, realism, realness, realness, sensibility, solidity, substance, substantiality, substantive, tangibility, truth, validity, verisimilitude, verity, what's what
The listing for "imagination":
acuteness, artistry, awareness, castle-building, chimera, cognition, conception, creation, creative thought, creativity, enterprise, fabrication, fancy, fantasy, idea, ideality, illusion, image, imagery, ingenuity, insight, inspiration, intelligence, invention, inventiveness, mental agility, notion, originality, perceptibility, realization, resourcefulness, sally, supposition, thought, thoughtfulness, unreality, verve, vision, visualization, wit, wittiness
An interesting contrast: "what's what" versus "what might be." Is imagining what "might be" a crime in contemporary America? Is "castle-building" a crime against the "bottom line"? On the one hand, we are always searching for the next Big Thing, the new invention or idea that will catch fire. This is corporate imagination, firmly tethered to the reality of the market. In the theatre, corporate imagination takes the form of shows that take formal or stylistic baby steps: The Lion King or Avenue Q, for instance. Audiences flock to them because they can get a whif of the bracing air of imagination, even if there isn't so much that their hair will get mussed. The come to the theatre filled with hope that they might be transported.
Americans (and even American artists), however, tend to run from imagination that strays too far from reality, that dares to imagine a new reality, a new way of doing things, a new way of being, and of being together. We want it so badly, but we are so afraid. Kushner's Angel crashes through the ceiling, promising a new American beginning, and we hold our breath in anticipation. But the Angel never really gets around to describing what the shape of the approaching millenium looks like. She's a tease, an angelic Tony humming "Something's Coming" without ever delivering. "It's only just out of reach, Down the block, on a beach, Under a tree. I got a feeling there's a miracle due, Gonna come true, Coming to me!" Ultimately, for all its good intentions, this is a failure of imagination, an unwillingness to take the leap of faith necessary for imagining a better tomorrow, the portrayal of even a small slice of utopia.
We use our imagination in a limited way by inventing dystopias. I say limited, because dystopia is firmly tethered to reality. It takes the current situation and magnifies it until it is monstrous (and these days, the magnification required for monstrosity is not very great). But at root, it is realism nonetheless. We are much more comfortable excoriating reality, denouncing its injustices, condemning its abuses. We are much happier pointing at the ugliness and shouting, "See! That's how it is! That's what's what." Pessimism is based in material reality; it takes optimism to imagine something different.
Gandhi once said, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world." But before we can be it, we must imagine it. Nothing comes into the world without it first being imagined. And imagination takes courage -- the courage to defy the crowd and free ourselves from reality. Artists dream, it is their primary skill. But it is so easy to lose courage. In The Master Builder, the architect Solness says that he started off his career building churches, but following a crisis of faith, he began building "homes for human beings." The young woman who bursts into his life, Hilda, inspires him to build "castles in the air," but after so much time on the ground, Solness finds the view from the top dizzying and he falls to his death.
It is a powerful metaphor for the theatre, which has its early roots in religion, but has come over time to focus on homes for human beings. You can sense playwrights like Kushner and directors like Taymor eyeing the castle spire, and even beginning to climb, but ultimately backing away in the face of Solness' plummet. At the bottom, most of society stands shoulder to shoulder, thrilling at the ascent, but also shouting "You're a dreamer" at the top of their lungs. It is no wonder artists get dizzy.
In this month's Utne Magazine, there is an interview with activist Robert Gass, who says that it is necessary for activists and leaders "to really become part of the solution rather than part of the problem, we must, even in the midst of chaos and struggle, go beyond railing against what we don't like. We must learn to keep our hearts open, and to dream the positive future we want to create." In other words, we must use our imagination, not our realism. But we don't have to do it alone.
Going back to Isaac's word "complicit," by definition it involves being an accomplice, "one who aids and abets a law breaker in a criminal act, either as a principal or an accessory." The artist and the audience are accomplices in an act of imagination, a crime against reality. It is a partnership, a relationship, and a unified assault on the way things are, a breaking and entering into the possible. This is why, it seems to me, true artists form the avant garde: they imagine what isn't, and they lead search parties into dangerous, new places that only they have explored.
We can give each other courage -- the courage to imagine. The courage to free ourselves from reality, from realism. Let films fill in all the blanks for us -- the theatre can ask the audience to use its imagination to create a new world, and once they have done so in the safety of the theatre, then perhaps it will be easier to use its imagination in the world. As Willie says to Sam at the end of MASTER HAROLD...and the boys, "Come on -- let's dream."