Augustus Hill, Oz

Poetry, Film and ‘Oz’ (1997)

You find a Scene

Oz (1997) changed my perception of what film and television can be.

Coming from a background of theatre and performing arts, a comparative rhetoric between the poetic capability of theatre vs. film’s strict adherence to a narrative structure is a case I’ve heard made many times. The case, that so often filled my classrooms at Drama School, goes: the ephemeral liveness and embodied immersion that can happen in the theatre, as well as the creation of an ‘active’ (as opposed to film’s supposed ‘passive’) audience, allows for poetry to be played out on stage in a way that it can not be in film. Film, it is argued, must always, on some level, play by the rules of narrative . Theatre is a live medium. Film is a visual one.

Any film buff reading this is cringing in their seats, and with good reason. The argument is, for the most part, over-simplified and grossly inaccurate. Writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag debunks the theatre-as-poetry//film-as-commodity thesis:

Such over-simplification testifies to the ambiguous scope of the camera eye. Because the camera can be used to project a relatively passive, unselective kind of vision-as well as the highly selective (“edited”) vision generally associated with movies -cinema is a “medium” as well as an art, in the sense that it can encapsulate any of the performing arts and render it in a film transcription. (This “medium” or non-art aspect of film attained its routine incarnation with the advent of television. There, movies themselves became another performing art to be transcribed, miniaturized on film.) One can film a play or ballet or opera or sporting event in such a way that film becomes, relatively speaking, a transparency, and it seems correct to say that one is seeing the event filmed. But theatre is never a “medium”.

…It’s tempting to draw a crude boundary. Theatre deploys artifice while cinema is committed to reality, indeed to an ultimately physical reality which is “redeemed,” to use Siegfried Kracauer’s striking word, by the camera.

…But there is no reason to insist on a single model for film.

— Susan Sontag, Film and Theatre – The Tulane Drama Review, 1966

Sontag makes a number of poignant comparisons. In addition to those above, she discusses the temporal potential of theatre and film as art forms, the relationship to space in theatre and film (static in theatre, yet in cinema, aesthetically in permanent motion) (1966, pp. 27) as well as a number of other observations. The case is strong, but perhaps there is still some level of truth to the argument made in my Drama School classrooms. Answer this: would Waiting for Godot ever work as a film?

Wael Khairy, film critic at RogerEbert.com, is optimistic but certainly sceptical:

…when James Ivory decided to film it without bringing any major changes, the result was disastrous. The motion picture version is rather dull and pointless even though it stays faithful to the book.

There have been many films similar in spirit to “Waiting for Godot” but rarely does any match the brilliance of the play.

— Wael Khairy. Waiting and Waiting for Godot2010.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve written about narrative structure and how, almost inevitably, all stories follow the same basic pattern. This is also true for theatre, however, there is probably more freedom and room to move. Maybe it is the liveness. Regardless, there is something that makes Beckett a masterpiece on the stage and a snoozefest on the screen. This could lead one to believe that film should remain committed to reality, while theatre deals with the abstract.

For me, Oz blew this out of the water. The character of Augustus Hill has these beautiful monologues filmed in wonderfully abstract and, for lack of a better term, theatrical settings. The dialogue is purely poetic. Consider the sequence below:

A ‘J’ cut from the previous scene, we hear Augustus Hill begin his monologue with “Goldfish”. Already, this is not ‘ordinary’ television. Oz is a prison show, set in an enormously violent, hyper-masculine maximum security penitentiary. The previous scene is in the prison. To hear the word “goldfish” spoken over the harsh, violent world of the prison is already poetic, in just one word.

Then we see a closeup of a goldfish. Consider the juxtaposition, from a harsh, fluorescent-lit prison to a deep blue fish-tank, alongside the simultaneous correspondence of claustrophobia. The audience is tricked into believing that we are seeing a shot of a fish tank. But we’re not. We’re seeing a shot of a shot of a fish-tank.

The next shot, a WS of Augustus Hill, shows him in his familiar glass box with a projection of the fish-tank as a cyclorama. It is beautifully framed, the projection has bubbles coming up the right-hand side, running along the top, as the fish follows a similar path, framing Augustus in their own little world.

There are layers of editing, as well. The projected footage is edited, timed perfectly with Augustus’ monologue. For example, Augustus says, “In other words…” and the footage cuts (there’s also an ‘impact’ sound effect, seemingly to accentuate the point). This is followed by another few edits of the projection, followed by a timed CU of the fish on:

“and when he’s dying, this little goldfish thinks he’s been dying his whole life.”

— Augustus Hill, Oz, 1998.

The sequence ends with:

Imagine that, death being the only life this little glodfish will ever know.

— Augustus Hill, Oz, 1998

And we have a low angle, MS of Augustus. It’s overbearing but revealing. Augustus is the goldfish. We hear a swell and the edit dissolves back to the prison. All the inmates in Oz are the goldfish. Death is the only life they’ll ever know.

Tell me television can’t be poetic.


Some additional Augustus Hill monologues:

Head over to my Abstract edit discussion. there are similarities between what is happening here (@3:12) and what I’ve done with some of the Abstract sequences. We both have chosen to use slow dissolves/transparent layers and the overlapping voice. Here, it seems to represent an imprisonment of the mind. The way that we think. Our thoughts are not necessarily 100% coherent. They overlap. It’s an interesting reading to take to the Abstract piece.


Works Cited

Beckett, S. (1953). Waiting for Godot.

Fontana, T. (Writer). (1998). Oz [Motion Picture].

Fontana, T. (Writer). (1997). Oz [Motion Picture].

Khairy, W. (2010, May 31). Waiting and Waiting for Godot. Retrieved from RogerEbert.com: http://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/waiting-and-waiting-for-godot

Sontag, S. (1966). Film and Theatre. The Tulane Drama Review, 11(1), 24 – 37.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

*Featured Image Credit:
Oz. HBO. 1997.

 

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