Sunday, February 2, 2014

Amplification through Simplification

The other night I was watching a movie. It was Tom Cruise's Oblivion, an action, sci-fi type film. Morgan Freeman was in it. Often times when you watch a film with a personality as famous as Morgan Freeman it is very difficult to see him as anyone else. Forget seeing him as the character he's supposed to be portraying. I have no idea what his character's name in the film was, to me he was Morgan Freeman.

The ancient Greeks didn't have this problem during their performances. Ancient actors in Greece always wore large masks during their plays. It didn't matter how famous the actor was, you didn't have try to picture him as someone else, he was wearing a different face. This is one purpose that the masks served but I think their significance goes beyond that, a significance that becomes exceptionally apparent when comparing ancient and modern performance.

When I learned that the ancient Greeks used masks during their performances my initial thought was, "wow what an archaic practice, drama really has come a long way." Yet as I look at these masks portrayed in ancient sculpture and vase paintings I can't help feeling captivated by them. Why is this? What makes me feel so involved with these masks? The masks were simplified representations of the human face with exaggerated expressions. A cartoon really. I think about Oblivion and how uninvolved I felt with that film. It was a performance undeniably more realistic than ancient Greek drama. So why am I responding more to something that is much more unrealistic?

When we watch a modern movie we don't have to imagine much, everything is right there being displayed for us. But an ancient Greek play required much more imagination from the audience. The masks didn't look real. They were bigger than a normal face and the facial features on the masks didn't move. This requires the viewer to be part of the performance, they had to imagine themselves that the mask is talking. They had to invest a bit of themselves into it to make it alive. You don't have to do that in most modern films, the experience can just wash over you, with you completely uninvolved.


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  2. I think you are right to focus on the different effects and requirements that masks have for the audience, and it is interesting to think about how ancient actors would not be recognized by their faces but rather by their voices. Masks also require different things of performers. Our modern theater focuses on realism to such a high degree that one of the talents of the modern actor is to be able to appear natural in such an artificial setting. For ancient actors, there were other technical challenges involved, like how to use the light and angles in the theater to make the mask portray different emotions.

    1. I remember you mentioning the head tilting to show different emotions with the masks in class. I thought about adding that in but I decided I was running out of space and it wasn't my original thought anyways.