Monsters vs John McCallum

I spent the afternoon of Sunday 28th, November at John McCallum’s Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture and at Gareth Edwards’ Monsters. And, here I’d like to make comment on a surprising cross over between these two events.

Firstly, on paper, the two events seem entirely unrelated. McCallum’s lecture (A summary of which can be found here) called for a spectacular and grotesque turn in Australian theatre, a celebration of difficulty and excess, rigorous reimagining of the Canon, a revival of lost plays, all to happen alongside the continuous development of new voices; he suggested that audiences who don’t want to be “theatre-fucked” by this spectacular, affecting future-theatre should stay at home or go see a film instead. Incidentally, I went and saw Monsters right after McCallum’s lecture. This, I can assure you, was in no way causally linked to the lecture itself. To lay my cards on the table: I am happy, if not eager, to go places to be fucked (theatre or otherwise).  So, my trip to the cinema to see Monsters was purely coincidental. Monsters is a low-budget, sci-fi horror drama set in the borderlands between Mexico and the US, in about 2017. The premise of the film is this: Giant Squid-like alien creatures have invaded the borderlands and the area itself- “the infected zone” -is fenced off on both the Mexican and US sides, in between is a war zone where the US Military attempt to keep the Aliens under control. Sam (Whitney Able) is injured in a Mexico, she is the daughter of a rich media tycoon. A photographer who works for Sam’s father, Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is given the task of delivering her safely back to America before the escalation of the war between the military and the Aliens. And, for a range of more-or-less plausible reasons, they miss the last ferry home and in order to get back to the US, they have to pass through the “infected zone”. The film is Sam and Andrew’s journey through the dangerous, alien infested borderlands between Mexico and the US.

Like I said, on paper McCallum’s lecture and Monsters have very little in common.

So, bare with me as I try and draw a link between them. The decline of 19th Century Spectacular Theatre was largely due to the development of Motion Picture (Spectacular Theatre’s heyday was in the early-to-mid 19th Century and the first private screening of a motion picture projection is dated at 1895). The two forms dovetail in surprising ways: the ambitions of the spectacular theatre maker were more or less shared by early film makes such as the Lumiere Brothers. Both camps wanted to construct a realistic world, the very spectacular existence of which, would elicit some kind of emotional response from an audience (be it shock, bewilderment, fear or wonder). Spectacular Theatre was even the testing ground for technologies that were important precursors to early cinema such as the Magic Lantern. Needless to say, the film makers won in the end. In the theatre, machines required to achieve the spectacle in real-time were so clunky that often plays had to be stopped mid-scene in order to set up the big “illusion”, the noise of the machines themselves often drowned out the dialogue, and, while electricity was installed in the theatres by the late 19th cenutury, it was not very versatile. 19th Century Spectacular theatre was, in a word, cumbersome. Meanwhile, all the Lumiere Brothers had to do was to film a train travelling towards the audience and everyone was screaming and jumping from their seats in terror, awe and amazement.

So, film studios became workshops for the spectacular, and the theatre became a place for austere psychological and emotional experimentation in form and content. Now, of course, this is an all-too-clear-cut distinction, but in relative terms this distinction between mainstream theatre and film in the 20th century it more or less holds true.

Yesterday, I witnessed a radical reversal of these basic principles. McCallum argued convincingly for a neo-spectacular dramatic theatre, drawing on the ambitions of the 19th century practitioner, the philosophy of Meyerhold and the aesthetics of performance art (or Postdramatic Theatre). Edwards’s Monsters is being heralded as a new wave in sci-fi film making largely because it is a sci-fi special effects film that is not interested spectacle (The Guardian called it the anti-Avatar).

Yes, but what’s the link between the two? Well, I guess that’s complex. But, in short, there is a relationship between spectacle and story. In a visual storytelling medium such as film or theatre, stories are entangled with spectacular effects but are not coextensive with them. In other words, the spectacular does not merely illustrate a story, it generates another dimension within a story. And, in Monsters the opposite occurs, in removing the focus from sequences of spectacular special effects literally Edwards made the space for a different story to be told. And (to riff on McCallum’s invocation of Barrie Kosky for a moment) in Kosky’s spectacularly excessive theatre, his desire to construct particular images or spectacular states seems to change the story that he wants to tell; from his metamorphosing of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in The Lost Echo to his unique setting of the storm in King Lear. John Bell’s reflection on Kosky’s tendency to take flight from the text in his Memoir is a good illustration of the effect of what happens to story when you’re interested in the spectacular, “He was not particularly interested in the precise meaning of the text, more in what images the text threw up, or in his subjective reactions to those images. We had to watch out that he didn’t misinterpret the meaning of an entire speech in order to make a visual statement.”[1]

What is at stake, therefore, is nothing less what a story can mean. While John Bell may have thought it was a bad thing for Kosky to miss the point of Lear, reimagining the classics is not a new thing (it was done to Lear in 1681 when it was turned into a romantic comedy, and it was done by Shakespeare in the first place). What a turn toward spectacular does for McCallum, or away from the spectacular does for Edwards and, what either/or could do for an audience, is reinvigorate the respective medium’s capacity for engagement in a world beyond the theatre or cinema. McCallum’s argument for a spectacular theatre is neo-Brechtian in the sense that he does not want happy-clappy audiences sitting passively demanding to be entertained and leave contented. He wants the audience to be remade by their experience in the theatre, and it was his argument that an avante-garde spectacular theatre can achieve this by means of jolting an audience out of his or her seat [2]. Further, (SEMI-SPOILER ALERT) in Monsters, rather than a focus on a spectacle that radically re-enforces a fear of otherness and a trust in Military force, by turning away from spectacle Monsters in fact critiques the social and politic norms upon which many sci-fi films are built, it becomes a celebration of otherness and critique of such force.[3]

While none of what McCallum said or Edwards did was totally original, such revolutions in form have come before, why have they done it now? It struck me as oddly serendipitous that I should sit through that lecture and that film on the same day. Not because I rarely go to lectures or films, but that the two should speak to each other in such strikingly complimentary ways. Is this the zeitgeist? Does this foreshadow the revolution? Well, possibly not, but if McCallum’s cries for complexity and difficulty are heard, and if Edwards film makes enough at the box office to inspire others to go out and tell a simple story with a laptop and a couple of keen actors, then perhaps audiences will also change their ways. Then, we can reclaim spectacle from the mainstream, for the purposes of radically re-imagining the world. Then, we can reclaim narrative from the grips of moral and social norms. And then, we might have a revolution on our hands.

[1] Bell The Time of my Life p.262

[2] I think that another obstacle here is audience cynicism and apathy. I recall people reflecting on the “clichéd” use of shit and blood by Kosky during the Bacchae section of The Lost Echo, and after Monsters yesterday I overheard one audience member talking about the heavy-handedness of some of the dialogue. Cynicism, enlightened false consciousness, OR, a predisposition to respond how one thinks they should respond rather than trying to keep their response related to how they actually do, is an unfortunate side effect of a university educated middle-class.

[3] This is a bit clean, District 9 critiques military bureaucracy and is massively spectacular but there is other otherness in Monsters that is given breathing space by virtue of the relief we get from special effects, such as mexican guerilla’s in the infected zone that turn out to be really nice men that also go against the standard representation.



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