USA, Jon Else (1999)
I expected more from this stage crew-eye-view of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I regularly attend the opera and I’ve even endured a production of the Ring myself at Chicago’s Lyric, so I had an idea of what to expect here. However, a camera following stagehands as they push and pull set pieces around the stage, with an occassional comment about dating ballet dancers, does not an interesting documentary make. After about ten minutes, you pretty much get the point that there’s a lot of down-time between 30-minute arias, especially when the entire production lasts 18 hours. Lots of time to play poker and knit booties! Yeah, and then what?
Part of the problem stems from the filmmaker’s treatment of the stagehands themselves. Other than the guy who acts as a narrator, explaining what’s happening onstage, the crew remains anonymous. We need personalities, characters, humor to engage the audience. We don’t really get to know them, they don’t stand out as characters, and they don’t lend themselves to any arc of a story line. Granted, it’s a documentary, but it still needs to lead somewhere. And with comments like, “I’ve never killed anyone, but in operas killing is fairly common,” the audience is treated to neither humor nor insight.
I was reminded of the films of Nicolas Philibert, a French filmmaker who creates deceptively simple, yet thoroughly captivating, documentaries; he just seems to just turn on the camera and capture an engaging testament of a place. Louvre City (behind the scenes at the Louvre museum) and Animals (the restoration of the Zoology Gallery in the Natural History Museum in Paris) are similar to Sing Faster–they all follow people as they do their jobs in unusual public places, in a rare behind-the-scenes sort of way that the public doesn’t usually get to see. His non-intrusive, observant camera and careful editing create a narrative that is interesting and utterly engaging. I kept thinking throughout this film that Philipert could really have done something with this material.
Maybe if you’ve never seen how a stageplay works behind the scenes, this might be an interesting glimpse behind the curtain, but I got bored about half-way through when I realized that not much new was going to happen. By the end, I felt like the stagehands themselves, killing time until the final curtain. [*]