“Being … and eXistenZ”:
Some Preliminary Considerations on
Theatricality in Film
WITH THE advent first of film, then of video, and finally of electronic media and the revolution in transmission that they have brought about, it might seem inevitable that theater should assume an increasingly marginal role, socially as well as aesthetically. The times when theater was a major means either for forging social and national identity or for disturbing it are long past, and although theater survives, its cultural significance seems greatly reduced. Nothing demonstrates this tendency more clearly, perhaps, than the latest invention of the consumer electronics industry: “home theater,” which seems designed to absorb the semipublic space of theater into the essentially private space of the home.1 Such absorption tends to reinforce the traditional aspirations of domestic space to become an autarkical microcosm independent of the outside world. Home theater, which in many ways is the domestic counterpart to the automobile—not least in its exploitation as a preferred site of the consumer electronics industry—appears to provide a window onto the world that lifts, as it were, the home out of the limitations and possible dangers of its immediate environment. If the screen of home theater is a window onto the world, no stone can come flying through it, however large it may be and however global its scope. Rather, in tandem with a sound system designed to surround and envelop the viewer-listener, home theater appears to open the home to the outside world while reinforcing its sense of secure self-containment.
Thus, an experience that formerly required some sort of move beyond private, domestic space and some sort of not entirely controllable social contact is privatized and domesticated. It should be noted that “audio” plays as large a part in this process as the more obvious “video.” “Surround sound,” “Dolby Digital,” and “THX” are only the most widespread brand names for systems of acoustical reproduc-