The Hours Is Not a Film

By John Bradburn

hours-stephen-daldry.jpgThe Hours, 2003

The Hours is not a film. This is not cinema. This is theatre – filmed theatre. And this is the disease of British cinema. However well 'crafted' a film may be it is still micro performed theatre.

Truffaut said that Cinema and Britain are incompatible. Why? Because we are a nation haunted by theatre. We are the country of Shakespeare and Marlowe, not Alfred Hitchcock or James Whale. Theatre is where our actors 'aspire'.

Theatre is cultural. Cinema is guttural – both being of the gutter and the grunt. The theatre is London, Stratford, Edinburgh, Bristol. Cinema is everywhere and nowhere – we cannot come to worship performance in its presence. And British cinema seeks to denigrate its audience for not being in a Theatre.

When we – as a national – are serious in communications we become theatrical, we have monologues that bellow rather than the intimacy of the close up. Tony Blair was theatrical. Bill Clinton was cinematic. And this is what we have in The Hours – Nicole Kidman and her nose are PERFORMING. Ed Harris is not dying of Aids he is performing dying of Aids. We place our theatrical successes on the screen. We observe theatrical performances in situ. These are performances to be watched only from the back row. Watching The Hours on a cinema screen all I want to do was walk away – get some distance between me and those shouting faces.

The Hours should be screened in a late night double bill with Cassavetes’ Opening Night. No film better delineates the differences between screen and stage. A film excerpt should be shown – We observe the rehearsals for the play. We see two actors on screen 'not acting' and then acting. But in the moment of not acting they are still acting - but for cinema not theatre. We know when they are acting. The Hours is too full of acting where Cassavetes presents us with the beauty of 'not acting'.

performance-nicholas-roeg.jpgPerformance, 1970

Could we also show The Hours with Performance? Are we always performing a heritage cinema in the same way we have a heritage industry? Does Chas (theatre) want to be Turner (cinema) or the other way around? Does this go some way to understanding the twisted relationship between theatre and cinema where London's stages grown under the weight of B list American cinema actors?

In just recording performance The Hours does not contain a single image. Not one. It records events in small moments.

Cinema contains primary and secondary images. The primary image communicates visually like a painting. The secondary image records an event. Great cinema is guttural, primal and of the body. Bad cinema is cultural containing the muck of stale notions of class and quality.

There are no events in the opening of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Nothing happens. But it is cinema. We have images. We have sounds. We have images that are to be read. To be interpreted. We have cinema. We have sensation. We have an adventure.

2-or-3-things-i-know-about-her-jean-luc-godard.jpgTwo or Three Things I Know about her, 1966

The cult of performance and celebrity plays in to the lack of image in cinema. Image must be uncultured and refer to little outside the frame. For theatrical performance to be admired we must be presented with a recorded event – the special ability of the person represented. Brad Pitt in Snatch is watched because the audience is excited by the distance between the mumbling Irish gypsy and the enormously wealthy public performance of Brad Pitt.

In Britain we have become enthralled to cinematic performance to such an extent that we need to be able to encounter the performance as mimic. Nicole Kidman is Virginia Woolf, Helen Mirren is The Queen, Ken Stott is Tony Hancock, David Walliams in Frankie Howerd, Michael Sheen is Brian Clough, Michael Sheen is Kenneth Williams, Michael Sheen is David Frost, Michael Sheen is Tony Blair. Performance bingo – watch the mannerisms and count the twitches. Ignore the medium.

But what of Orson Welles – the great director from the stage? He emerged from the federal theatre with a healthy disregard for classical theatre. Who else could translate Macbeth in to the court of a Haitian King? Welles took radio for what it is and cinema too. War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane talk in totally different languages.

au-hasard-balthazar-robert-bresson.jpgAu Hasard Balthazar, 1966 

And so around this there is the death of cinema. The withering of film language around pre-agreed boundaries to most perfectly capture the performance. Coverage, wide, medium and close images can be designed only to facilitate performance and nothing else. Film language becomes film slang. There are few poets of cinematic language but many, many bores.

Performance is the art of theatre – the art of the continual wide shot. Cinema is the art of the non-performance. The silent close up. The emotions of the fly-over. The emotions of the non-performer as non-actor or non-human. Am I arguing against the actor? No. I am asking filmmakers and actors to become cinematic. To become what this medium should be – moments, ideas, notions, thoughts, feelings, emotions and arguments given space and time. Performance is dictated to me. Great screen performances open up and allow the audience to gaze into them and not upon them.

hours-stephen-daldry-2.jpgThe Hours, 2003 

Au Hasard Balthazar could not come from Britain because our cinema makers could never conceive of a donkey on stage. We can dream into the soul of the donkey on screen through the selected moments that Bresson gives us.

Is this an argument against theatre? No. Theatre becomes great when it becomes theatrical – when it communicates in a form that can only become within the walls of a theatre. Similarly cinema can only become great when it becomes cinematic – when it communicates in a form that can only ever come from cinema. Is this an argument against realism? No – Loach and Pawlikowski are notable British filmmakers whose work is wholly cinematic.

So where from here? A campaign to free British Cinema from the dominant form – to turn cinema in to an adventure of radical possibilities. We are a medium under siege.

John Bradburn is a writer and filmmaker. He is based in Birmingham and lectures at Staffordshire University.