In Act III, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Danish prince asks the Players to enact “The Murder of Gonzago.” Hamlet provides some additional lines in order to implicate Claudius in the death of the former king. The additional lines depict the murder of Hamlet’s father, which had been revealed by the Ghost in the first act of the play. When Claudius sees the events unfold in front of him, he jumps to his feet and shouts “Give way some light.”
I’ve never played Claudius, but lately, while viewing contemporary films and television shows, I’ve come to appreciate his admonition. For some inexplicable reason, lighting designers and directors have forgotten the fact that films and TV shows seek to play upon not only our sense of hearing, but also our sense of sight. We all are well aware of sound systems that make many films audible from two blocks away, but on too many occasions we are left in the dark when it comes to seeing what’s going on in front of us.
The much-heralded Netflix television show House of Cards provides an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of our nation’s government. As much as I like the program, I’m frustrated that the filmmakers seem to suggest that nobody pays the electric bill in Washington. I get the fact that the subject matter is murky and events are played out in the shadows. Stylistically, I know what the show’s creators are trying to accomplish. But come on, folks! When two actors are engaged in a scene and throwing lines back and forth, if one of those actors cannot be seen by the audience, what’s the point? The writer might just as well have written a monologue.
I recently rented a Denzel Washington film entitled The Equalizer from the above-mentioned Netflix. While I like Denzel’s work and the plot was intriguing and engaging, I had to stop the DVD halfway through because I couldn’t see any of the actors’ faces. Most of the scenes were night scenes, and those that weren’t were shot in a sepia look that made everything look under-exposed. Granted, my television set is not large, and there is ample ambient light in my living room, but if there’s a film that’s produced that doesn’t have the home viewing market in mind, I’d like to know what it is. Therefore, one would think that lighting designers and directors would keep in mind that their product will some day play on home screens many times smaller than the multiplex.
Just the other day I watched another film from Netflix, My Old Lady, starring Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith. Mr Kline is a fine actor. [full disclosure: I worked with him on the film Soapdish] But he has this very poignant scene where’s he relating the events of his mother’s suicide, and his face is in complete darkness. Other than hearing him tell the tale, the viewer has no idea whatsoever how the scene affects him visually, because he can’t be seen!
Why is this? I’m not sure I know. However, I think it may be another example of the “auteur” at work, whereby directors and designers have to draw attention to their work by constantly moving the camera to the point where once again a viewer isn’t given the opportunity to focus on the actor and what he’s saying. The same applies to the lighting [and while we’re at it, the sound] designer who constantly seeks to draw attention to his work at the expense of actors.
I’ve been a member of the Screen Actors Guild for forty years, so I confess to a bias. But let’s face it, storytelling ultimately comes down to actors saying words and driving narratives by being seen and heard. So come on, you auteurs, we know you’re part of the collaboration, so turn on the lights and the microphones and, in the words of Gypsy Rose Lee, “we’ll all have a real good time.”