FILM / Flat on its face: Peter Bogdanovich's Noises Off

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The Independent Culture
TO THE average movie director, a theatre looks like a restricted space unconvincingly lit. Offered a play to film, his reflex is to say, 'Of course we won't be opening it out' while at the same time planning some satisfying camera movements. What escapes notice is that the theatre is a space under pressure. You can no more let a little air in than you can let a little air into a balloon.

But the problem is more profound than that. When it comes to filmed theatre, cinema is disabled by its superior resources. Even the refusal to open things out is actually a form of bad faith. The movies can't abolish their freedom from unrolling in real time, they can only choose not to exercise it, which is closer to perversity than integrity. When Alfred Hitchcock chose to film Rope as if continuously, he set himself a task that was technically much harder than anything a theatre director has to do, but still somehow inauthentic.

Peter Bogdanovich is not exactly an average film director, though he has made more than his fair share of average films, and Michael Frayn's Noises Off is a play like no other, the story of a stage farce progressively dissolving on a provincial tour, a theatrical experience whose only subject is the experience of theatre.

When the two most philosophically preoccupied playwrights of their generation, Frayn and Tom Stoppard, take as their subject the low-brow theatre, the results are fascinatingly opposite. Stoppard, in The Real Inspector Hound, unravels the countryhouse thriller and makes it existentially sinister, Agatha Christie's Mousetrap revealed as an infernal machine. In Noises Off Frayn, with his chosen genre of farce, works the stranger miracle of turning it inside out without changing it.

The world of farce and the world outside seem in Noises Off to have everything in common. The conventions governing, say, character or props are continuous. Frayn passes up every opportunity to contrast the artificial with the real, even where it would enable him to thicken the play's texture in a way you might think would be useful - if complication was an end in itself, as in farce it seems to be. All the backstage relationships, for instance, are heterosexual, which you might put down uncharitably to a personal discomfort in the playwright, but is all of a piece with his desire to keep the two levels of the play, paradoxically, on an equal footing.

In fact Noises Off's closest cousin is not another play but a film: Truffaut's Day for Night, another celebration not of an art form's highest potential but its basic pleasures. Noises Off no more disparages its play within a play, Nothing On, than Day for Night disparages its film- within-a-film, a piece of romantic froth called Introducing Pamela.

It makes as much sense to film Noises Off as it would to stage Day for Night, but of course the tidal pull of money is prevailingly away from theatre and toward cinema. One of the basic pleasures celebrated by Noises Off is that theatre can go wrong, not just fail to convince or move an audience, but objectively fall apart. Films cannot fail in that way. There is no equivalent in the movies to the bungled line or the missed entrance, since everything can be done again.

The closest approach in film language to the riskiness of theatre is the long take. Audiences who thrill to the unbroken shot that opens Altman's The Player are responding to a heightened level of daring. A series of precise moves has been executed by an ensemble and by the camera very much against the odds. Something complicated was achieved in real time, even if that real time is safely in the past, the film safely in the can. For the film of Noises Off (12), Peter Bogdanovich duly uses some extended takes, particularly in the part of the film corresponding to Act 2, the backstage act, which is one sustained cadenza of panic and misunderstanding.

This tentative move in the direction of apparent daring is more than cancelled out by Bogdanovich's reliance on the element of film grammar which is the opposite of the long take, the least risky of all: the reaction shot. When we're watching the play from front of house, Bogdanovich keeps cutting to the face of Michael Caine as the play's director, registering either pleasure at the farce basics or dismay at ineptness. When we're backstage, Bogdanovich uses the faces of security guard or prompt girl for the same self-defeating purpose. Every reaction shot of this sort is a vote of no confidence on the part of the director in his material or his technique. If we were feeling what we are supposed to feel, we wouldn't need these clumsy attempts to graft the desired expressions on to our faces.

The debased modern reaction shot is the bane of the medium. Like a laughter track or a Wimbledon commentary, it is an irritating intrusion which has somehow become integral to what it intrudes on, in the same way that a situation comedy without canned laughter or a tennis match without commentators actually seems inauthentic. When a film comes along (like Naked Lunch, say), where the director wants us to have feelings but never shows us a face helpfully enacting them for our benefit, it tends to baffle critics and audiences alike.

The screenwriter of Noises Off, Marty Kaplan, has an unusual pedigree - in the Carter administration he was chief speech-writer to Vice-President Mondale. How much this impresses you may depend on how many of Mondale's speeches you can call to mind. Most of the changes he has made to the play are mistakes, though most of them are defensible.

The play-within-a-play remains British but the actors are made American - fine, unless you think Brits are constitutionally more prone to the farce emotions of panic and shame, more tempted culturally to go on as if nothing was happening. There's a happy ending - fine, Michael Frayn himself tinkered obsessively with Act 3 during the run - but this is a tidy happy ending. There's a voice-over - fine, but it's the director's voice, and the whole movement of the play is to dethrone the director's authority, and make him only one more company member in the promiscuous disorder of farce.

On screen, Noises Off fails in the only way that films can fail - bit by bit. But utterly.

(Photograph omitted)