Theses Doctoral

Cinematic Theatricality: The Aesthetics of Excess

Sirmons, Julia

“Cinematic Theatricality” is the combination of conventionally “cinematic” and “theatrical” styles. It occurs on both screen and stage, and in intermedial performances. Despite their entwined histories, cinema and theater often define their aesthetics against each other. This dissertation posits that “cinematic theatricality,” in combining these allegedly “oppositional” aesthetic codes, actually intensifies the effects of both media. It is a dynamic that prompts explorations of relationship between intellectual and affective spectatorship in each medium. My definition of “cinematic theatricality” moves beyond dominant Brechtian conceptions of theatricality in cinema, and incorporates theater and performance scholarship that develops different understandings of theatricality as dynamic and affective. These other definitions of theatricality enable more sympathetic and mutually enhancing dialogues with cinema. I locate this cinematic theatricality in the work of four queer directors—Luchino Visconti, Patrice Chéreau, Werner Schroeter and Ivo van Hove—who were active in both European film and theater from the 1950s to the present. These directors’ works are often dismissed as “excessive” because they go “over-the-top” of realist aesthetic norms. The plenitude arising from the combination of cinematic and theatrical effects produces these aesthetic “excess,” styles of surplus that foreground the links between intellectual and emotional experiences of a medium. Different theatricalities produce different variants of excesses, each of which has its own aims and is rooted in these directors’ theatrical careers and their participation in the Regietheater (Director’s Theater) movement in post-war European theater.

Nietzsche’s characterization of the “gestural,” decadentist excesses of Wagner’s theater suggests how editing can theatricalize the norms of cinematic continuity editing, creating simultaneous narcotic absorption in and critical distance from historical narratives. Opera’s tension between mimetic representation and “over-the-top” bodily and vocal expressivity leads to rhythmic, melodramatic relationships between the moving camera and the expressive performing body in the transmission of meaning. The queer traditions of camp theatricality, combining both ironic theatrical references and the sincerity and sensual intensity of performances, tie the signifying and sensorial aspects of cinematic spectatorship. In contemporary theater, screen-to-stage adaptations and productions with video and projection are often dismissed as overblown spectacles, too distracting to be meaningful or valuable.

Cinematic theatricality on the stage makes video and projection intentional distractions. It forces the spectator to choose where to (not) look, to experience complex phenomena of intermedial “absence” and “presence,” in ways that challenge the norms and ethics of different mediated modes of showing and not showing. Cinema and theater have long expanded their senses of themselves beyond strict ontological characteristics, and our contemporary mediascape further encourages more dynamic understandings of both the cinematic and the theatrical. Cinematic theatricality, in its doubled entwinings, opens a way to combine formalist with affective readings of each medium, thus providing a richer understanding of each medium’s powers and effects. Cinematic theatricality’s permutations—the decadent, operatic, camp, and spectacular—suggest new ways of taxonomizing the “aesthetic categories” of contemporary intermediality’s ardor for excessive aesthetics, and its embrace of excess as a mode suitable for asking serious questions about history, politics, and identity.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Peters, Julie Stone
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 1, 2021