Sleight of hand

I’ve been terribly, terribly slow in posting! I’ve been wrapped up in a few things including another, very different blog that I update almost daily. Please visit: A place strange. It’s a blog of my dreams, but I promise it’s better than it sounds.

Recently I saw a very good play called The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs at Tarragon Theatre. I don’t see as much theatre as I’d like, and I’m always impressed with the ingenious ways that plays replicate the sense of a thing, even if they can’t build the thing itself due to budgetary or spatial constraints.

Films are usually more realist in the way that they dramatize their subjects. That is, if you are going to show someone walking up a set of stairs to the door of a small room at the top, you are likely going to use a real set of stairs and a real door. The play I saw, on the other hand, did not; the “stairs” were a series of bars of light on the floor that came and went as the scenes demanded.

The contrast between film and theatre’s styles of representation made me think of one of my longstanding favourite films, Henry and June, a story based on the triangular love affair between Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller and his wife June. While it’s a flawed film, I do still love it for its beautiful costuming and art direction (the 30s are one of my favourite eras in terms of style) and because, like Anaïs Nin, I have kept a journal for most of my life – although I can say with certainty that my journal is not nearly as juicy as hers.

I also love the film for its theatrical quality – which at times is, admittedly, also its downfall. The look of it, the way the characters speak, the sound style, the mannered interactions between characters all have a stagey, crafted feel.

One of the scenes that has always delighted me combines techniques of both film and theatre to mimic the passing of hours and days. In the scene, Henry Miller is feverishly writing Tropic of Cancer. The camera tracks from a medium shot of him down to show his hands working the typewriter, a small pile of typed pages next to him, and an empty ashtray. The lighting suddenly changes, and the camera shifts back up to reveal he’s now wearing a hat with a cigarette in his mouth. The light changes again, he plucks the cigarette from his lips and the camera follows his hand back down where he stubs it out in a now-full ashtray. Again, the light changes and we track back up; the hat is gone. With the final change of light, he removes the page from the typewriter and we track back down as he places it on top of the now-large stack of finished typewritten pages.

It’s unusual to see this kind of theatre-style trickery in a film, but Henry and June employs similar techniques throughout. In part, the style works to echo some of the ideas that run through the story: art and artifice; representing a real person through the self-conscious construction of writing; and the carefully crafted, ornate quality of Nin’s journal writing itself.

On the level of technique, though, I simply enjoy processes that create a semblance of reality out of (almost) nothing; a kind of dramatic sleight of hand. It’s a process that requires your consent and your partnership: you have to allow yourself to be seduced by the pretense of a thing, knowing full well that what you are seeing is not the thing itself at all. We are then, as they say, making believe.


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