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Off the Boards, Onto Celluloid

CHANGES in technology inevitably bring about changes in the arts. Some of these permutations are rather straightforward, like the abrupt democratization of literacy and literature brought about by the invention of the printing press. Other technological advances have a more subtle impact on the arts, like the gradual transformation of opera, drama, and dance that resulted from the invention of cinema. In the early days of the silent movies, it was commonplace to hire great dramatic stars of the stage, like Sarah Bernhardt, who had no particular cinematic skills or experience. The use of such stars rarely resulted in great films. A single camera was set up in the first row center, and scenes of famous stage plays were ineptly photographed.

When we look at those well-intended ``stage proscenium'' films today, we realize that they are inert records of live performances rather than true cinema. Filmic technology had not yet transformed the subject matter of cinematic drama.

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The idea of creating a screenplay that exploits the special technology of the motion picture was rather slow in coming. Not until the comedic masterpieces of the silent era and the surrealistic films of the Frenchman Georges Melies did filmmakers really begin to comprehend film in terms of the unique intimacy and flexibility of time and space that was made possible through camera angles, close-ups, slow motion, montage, special effects, and editing.

Gradually the form of drama on film was transformed into an entirely new filmic way of looking at people and events. In the constantly mobile camera of D.W. Griffith, in the passionate close-ups of Carl Dreyer, and in the montages of Sergei Eisenstein, every remnant of stage style was transformed into a cinematic world that possessed a unique vision and mentality.

The cinema had become a form unto itself, distinct from the stage. It had used the special technology of cinema to transform the performing arts.

Today we take these distinctions for granted. We recognize and appreciate the innovative and abstract visual language devised by producers of music videos. We understand that the ``stage'' of the cinema has virtually no confines of time or space - no wings for entrances and exits, no rigid proscenium framework filled with immobile scenery. Cinematic space is special. So is television space.

We instantly recognize that the grand epics of cinemascope, like ``Lawrence of Arabia,'' do not function at their best on miniaturized TV screens at home. And we sense that a marvelous stage performance of drama, opera, or dance does not necessarily make a good film, if it is simply a recording of what can be seen from a seat in the first row center.

Film and television require something special from the performing arts if they are to make the difficult journey from the stage to the motion picture screen or the television set.

In the earliest days of the silent era, filmmakers like Edwin Porter in ``The Life of an American Fireman'' (1902) and ``The Great Train Robbery'' (1903) had shown how a motion picture could be created out of short intercut scenes. Then D.W. Griffith created a method of cutting within those scenes. By dividing a scene into short pieces of film, shot from different camera angles and from different distances, isolated fragments, incomplete and incomprehensible in themselves, could be assembled to create a total dramatic form possible only in the cinema.

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Griffith discovered that by the use of such fragments he could change the dramatic emphasis from shot to shot; he could control the point of view, the intensity, virtually the reality he depicted in his films.

This technique, called montage, is the basis of screen time and screen space as distinct from the time and space of the theater. It is not possible to create a drama, opera, or dance for television or for the motion pictures without the use of these techniques. In this way, the technology of the cinema has fundamentally changed the expressive forms of drama, dance, and opera.

It was just such films of the performing arts that were among the first impressions of Soviet Russia that were seen in the countries of the West. At about the same time, some heroic filmmakers in Europe began making the first commercially successful dance films, like ``The Red Shoes.''

Others, who were mindful that the great art of singer Claudia Muzio and dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Isadora Duncan had vanished without a trace on film, began to record the performances of celebrated artists like singer Maria Callas.

In the United States, films were also being made of the landmark dances of American choreographer Martha Graham.

But such art films had a short life in motion-picture theaters before they were relegated to the limbo of ``educational'' film catalogs. A grand artistic legacy was on the verge of being lost.

Then, about 10 years ago, when home video was still in its infancy, a small company called Kultur decided that it was time to make some of these excellent films available to the potentially wide audience for the arts that was emerging as a result of the VCR revolution.

The founder of Kultur Video, Dennis Hedlund, took steps to create an archive of artistically significant recordings, ranging from those of Maria Callas and Artur Rubinstein to Margot Fonteyn and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Mr. Hedlund writes of the great need in America for artistic literacy and sophistication: ``We've started to realize that when we talk to people in their teens, as well as to people between the ages of 20 and 30, and when we mention names like [Luciano] Pavarotti or [Placido] Domingo, they don't know who we're talking about. They don't know anything about classical music or dance. They know who Baryshnikov is because he's sexy and he's from Russia and he was in the film `White Nights.'''

Hedlund says that cultural video libraries can change this decline of awareness and interest in the performing arts, especially among young people. He believes that the marriage of film and television technology with the performing arts has created a new way of preserving and disseminating cultural treasures. The home library of cultural videocassettes, he says, is becoming as much of a necessity today as it once was for American families to own a set of the Great Books.

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