Second Reel

A Chorus' Lines

Olivier's Lesson

Olivier's Henry at Southampton
Olivier's Henry at Southampton
Olivier's visual style also provides a certain amount of instruction about film itself, particularly about our expectations of how film communicates. All film does this, as do all forms of communication — a poem, for example, by its very form is always "about" not only its "subject" (a perfect rose, a Grecian urn, a dying mining town) but itself, its formation and existence as verse. We can look at a given form of communication and discern not only its "message," but also something of how that message was communicated to us. Often the "message" dominates the event, and we notice it more than how it was actually communicated. When we watch a TV news story about an apparent injustice perpetrated by a large corporation, for example, our shock and anger about the reported atrocity often overshadow how that atrocity was reported, how the shooting and editing of the footage contributed to our emotional reaction.

Like the TV news, movies are often constructed in a way which conceals the fact that they are made to manipulate an audience in order to provoke a certain response. Sometimes we become aware that certain mechanisms are at work, like when we predict the way a plot will unfold after having seen the same plot in countless other movies. Other times the mechanism at work is less obvious, but plays upon our noticeable anticipation, as when a character looks off screen in surprise and we expect to have the cause of that character's surprise revealed to us in the next shot, which we also expect will come quickly. When we don't get what we expect from film, we know it, though often our disappointment fails to become realization — realization of why we are disappointed, of what the film did to provoke our response.

Some filmmakers deliberately play against our expectations in order to expose the mechanisms behind the film. One of my first breakthrough realizations about how film "works" came to me after watching Godard's Weekend — in the middle of ranting to a friend about the ridiculously long, boring, and pointless French film I was made to watch in class it occurred to me that I had probably responded just as the filmmaker predicted I would, the way he was depending on me to respond, all because of the ways he violated everything I had come to expect from traditional narrative moviemaking.

Olivier's Henry V, while perhaps not as radically instructive as Weekend, had a similar effect on me. I had a hard time being drawn into it at first, and to this day do not have the same connection with it as I do with Branagh's film. This has to do with the almost ever-present artifice of Olivier's visual style. The skewed perspective of the sets, the artificial backdrops, the theatrical acting style — all kept me aware that I was watching something unreal, constructed. I was able to become more involved with the film the more the artifice was repealed, so by the time the English were jumping out of trees onto the French soldiers at Agincourt, in an actual outdoor location, the film seemed to me as natural as The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, which, granted, is only "natural" in a very stylized way. This apex was too long coming, though, and too quickly replaced, it seemed, by the return to the distorted sets of the French palace, and shortly thereafter to the inside of the Globe Theater.

Along with playing upon expectations of how a film should hold our attention — even a Shakespeare film, which must always deal with the problem of Shakespeare's language, which anchors the film to something not only outdated (the various words and references no longer in common use), but stylized (put into verse), despite any other apparent realism — Olivier's adaptation also traces the experience of watching movies in a theater, or perhaps even plays on a stage: First, the entry into the theater, as depicted in Olivier's opening scene as we are taken into the Globe. Then the detachment we feel from the film as it first starts and we settle into our seats and wait for the noisy folks around us to quiet down and do the same, as the spectators in Olivier's Globe do. A gradually increasing involvement follows — some might call it a "suturing" (see Stage vs. Screen: Henry V in the Park) — which Olivier demonstrates by gradually removing layers of artifice as his play leaves the stage. The highest point of audience involvement follows, represented by Olivier's Agincourt, the point of the film we've most been waiting for, the event that everything has been building up to and upon which all narrative resolution depends, shown outside, away from the artifice of the indoor sets, engrossing. Then, a mild detachment, the anticlimax of the resolution — shown as Olivier's film becomes artificial again, now inside the French palace, and the action, the casual wooing of Katherine, less engrossing than and certainly anticlimactic to the previous battle. Finally, the abrupt disruption, the eviction from the fantasy as the movie ends (perhaps augmented by an impossibly "happy" ending which makes us question the reality we have been shown up to this point), the credits roll, the lights come on in the theater, which Olivier shows as the newly wed Henry and Katherine turn around and are revealed once again as actors at the Globe, wearing heavy make-up, facing and acknowledging the audience in the theater, which we now see once again, as we do when the lights come on in our (movie) theater.