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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 303
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Differences in the Dark:
American Movies and the English Theater
Differences in the Dark: American Movies and the English Theater. By Michael T. Gilmore. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998; pp. 188. $22.50 cloth.
For Michael Gilmore, the West End of London and the West Coast of the United States are each emblematic of their nation's culture, for it is his contention that what the stage is to Britain the film is to the United States. And his analogy does have much merit. In Differences in the Dark: American Movies and the English Theater, Gilmore explores this striking relationship, and while he is often insightful, he also tends to lose focus when trying to make some of his more esoteric connections.
The book is a series of short essays (sometimes no more than a page) which are all linked by Gilmore's thesis that "[t]he two forms have followed contrary paths in the twentieth century, not because they reacted against each other's supposed capabilities, but rather because they evolved in unison with the destinies of the nation-states with which they were closely identified" (3). After some brief comments about the British stage, the author tries to develop a list of similarities between the United States and cinema, such as speed/modernity and size/space, both of which are salient points. But when Gilmore goes into long asides about capitalism and populism in the nineteenth-century United States, the connection to American cinema is vague at best.
What comes across most clearly in this book are the points that Gilmore makes when directly discussing why film could not acquire the same significance to both countries. For instance, he smartly cites climate as a key factor in allowing film to grow in the United States while stifling it in Britain. And, working from Neal Gabler's concept that Hollywood was invented by Jews, he makes it clear that British immigration laws made it impossible for a similar evolution to occur in England. Thus, the British could never develop a relationship with a medium which itself could not fully develop, as it did in the United States.
Gilmore's argument is strongest when he discusses the acting styles that define each country. For Gilmore, "[t]he film actor, then, evinces an intuitively American presentism; liberated from the need to remember, he has only to 'be' himself in order to succeed on celluloid. Contrastingly, the stage performer requires an English deference to history; he has to 'do' the work of memorization in order to learn his part and realize his dramatic character" (87-88). Here, he makes a solid connection between the class system that is a British hallmark and the acting on the English stage, and finds a parallel in the rugged individualism that is identified with the United States and the acting style of American cinema, specifically method acting.
He continues with this idea by contrasting the cinema, in which anyone can be a movie star and is thus representative of American egalitarianism, with the stage, where not just anyone can be a star and which is thus illustrative of British elitism. This may be so, but when he goes on to state that "few people can ascend a stage and act, but it takes no skill to be photographed or filmed" (147), his oversimplification deprecates his own claims. And too often in Gilbert's writing this is the case.
At other times, the problem is that he is too easily sidetracked. The longest section of the book is a respectable, though unoriginal, discussion of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. His point seems to be that America is race-conscious whereas Britain is class-conscious, but a detailed analysis of this particular film is not necessary to make this point, if in fact that is Gilmore's point. At the end of this section he states, however, that "it seems likely that some bond exists between white American receptivity to the motion pictures, a medium of...