NYFF 2000: Stage to Screen; Beckett and Fugard on Film
by Stan Schwartz
(indieWIRE/ 9.26.00) -- Interestingly enough, theater and theatrical conventions are playing a significant role in the 38th New York Film Festival. Korean director Im Kwon Taek's "Chunhyang" utilizes the traditional Korean sung theatre form of pansori, while Liv Ullmann's "Faithless," scripted by Ingmar Bergman, plays off Bergman's formidable experience as a theater director. And of course, there is Lars von Trier's controversial "Dancer in the Dark," with its elaborately staged musical numbers composed and performed by the film's star, Björk. And if that's not enough, still other festival offerings are simply film versions of classic plays. All told, such projects will no doubt rekindle the endless (and not uninteresting) debate on the difference between film and theatre. And in one particular case, there is the added bonus of committing to posterity a transcendent interpretation of a classic role.
I'm referring to John Hurt's mesmerizing performance in Atom Egoyan's film of Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape." One of the Irish playwright's most familiar masterpieces, the play posits the unforgettable and classic image of a cranky old man -- Krapp -- sitting in his cluttered, musty, dusty and dark den, playing back (and commenting on) a reel-to-reel recording he made of himself on his 39th birthday. Knowing the Canadian director's private obsessions with cameras, notions of voyeurism and his penchant for splintering the narrative line, one thought for a panicked second that Egoyan would wreak havoc with the text by updating the technology, cutting back and forth in time, whatever.
But it seems the play is a long-cherished personal favorite of the director, and his production is almost reverential in its faithfulness to every letter of the text. (I might add that the notoriously difficult Beckett estate would not allow it any other way.) Still, this is Egoyan after all, and his camera could never remain entirely passive. In the most elegantly restrained of tracking shots, the camera oh-so-subtly implicates itself in the action, be it by framing Hurt's creased face (here made up to look remarkably like Beckett himself) in a particularly striking way, or by moving in to a close up of the tape recorder that somehow manages to suddenly speak volumes about the increasingly existential role of technology in memory (a subject about which Beckett was remarkably prescient).
But this is clearly Hurt's show, and his performance is utterly heartbreaking. Perhaps best known in America -- alas! -- for having a baby alien burst from his tummy in the first "Alien" movie, Hurt is, in fact a seasoned dramatic actor of world class, and he's ideally suited to Beckett's melancholic monologue (he performed it on stage before doing the film version). Both the actor and the director have opted for a less slapstick interpretation than is often the case (Krapp does, after all, slip on a banana peel within the first five minutes), emphasizing instead the character's sheer pain and anguish. This is Beckett as Bergman might have filmed him and the results are stunning.
On a double bill with Egoyan's film is Neil Jordan's version of Beckett's short monologue "Not I," both films being part of the Beckett Project, an ambitious attempt sponsored by Dublin's Gate Theater to put all of Beckett's work on film. In Jordan's version, this 14-minute stream of consciousness monologue to be performed by "a mouth" (to quote Beckett's text) might best be subtitled "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Julianne Moore's Gums But Were Afraid to Ask." On stage, "Not I" is normally performed by an actor standing or sitting in darkness with a narrow spotlight illuminating his or her mouth. For the film, Jordan shoots Moore's mouth in extreme -- and I mean extreme -- closeup, cutting alternately between four or five angles with a precise syncopation that perfectly matches the staccato rhythms of the text. The visual effect is striking, cumulatively nightmarish even. What with the obsessive attention paid to Moore's gums, teeth, tongue, tiny bubbles of saliva, etc., you make find yourself thinking of some of the more grotesque gaping mouths of Francis Bacon. As for the text, a rapid fire, interior monologue of a typically Beckettian empty life, Moore spits it out -- so to speak -- with admirable diction. Every syllable is crystal clear. The trouble is, it isn't emotionally filled out. Little subtext comes through and the viewer remains curiously unmoved.
Making a radical gearshift, we turn to John Berry's film "Boesman and Lena," from the play by noted South African playwright Athol Fugard. Berry -- a long-time friend and collaborator of Fugard -- died just a few days before completion of the film's post production, adding an extra layer of poignancy to the proceedings. In the film, Danny Glover and Angela Bassett take on the title roles as the bickering couple, wandering the mudflats outside Capetown looking for shelter, having been rendered homeless by the ravages of Apartheid. Fugard's poetic text chronicles the ways in which the couple's internalized rage and trauma color their own love-hate relationship in both subtle and not so subtle ways.
Notwithstanding Alain Choquart's gorgeous cinematography, the film sounds and feels like a play. Director Berry's only attempt to open it up consists of several brief flashbacks to "when things were better" for our heroes, but instead of rendering the piece more cinematic, they only serve to remind us that what we're watching really does belong on a stage. Glover and Bassett, both excellent actors, are nothing if not fully committed. Glover, who has played in other Fugard works, is particularly good and given to underplaying. Bassett, who has energy to spare as well as an occasionally wandering accent, plays at a pitch more in keeping with a stage performance, but even that criticism is immediately superceded by the realization that her dialogue as written couldn't be spoken any other way. The text itself belongs on stage, not film. All told, "Boesman and Lena" is neither a dazzling success nor a dismal failure. Rather, it is technically polished, well intentioned, but oddly off-track.
And so, the film/theater debate rages on.