Tuesday, March 30, 2010
I have been interested in live theater almost as long as film and have more hands-on experience in the former when one includes non-professional and semi-professional activity. And because of my interest in both media, and because it is often impossible to see plays live in the theater for years at a time, I have always had a special curiosity about film adaptations of theater pieces.
One of the principal differences between the media is the use of dialogue. For film, dialogue is one of the possible modes of expression, but it is only one and it is always subservient to image, and often in an inferior position to other elements of the soundtrack, such as music and effects. Great movie dialogue is often elliptical, enigmatic, riddled with subtext. "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown." "If you build it, he will come." "Go ahead, make my day." "We rob banks." No poetry here, except the poetry of understatement, fused with story and character.
Whereas in the theater, dialogue is the principal means of expression. Characters tell us what they're thinking, what they're feeling, what they're going to do, what they just did, what happened offstage. None of this is necessary or even desirable in film. And in theater, they often make beautiful music with their speech--I don't need to quotes, open Shakespeare to any page.
This makes translation from stage to screen so tricky, because the dialogue may be the very seat of the play's value, but could prevent it from being effective onscreen. There are successful talky movies--Network, The Maltese Falcon, My Dinner With Andre, gabfests all. But that talk has been designed for film, designed to work in concert with all the other elements, and it knows that dialogue in film has two audiences--onscreen character and film viewer. And somehow, it takes less time to grasp the ideas when the camera can show us those eyes, those lips, those brows that are issuing that speech. It's almost like that thing where you can't understand what someone is saying until you put your glasses on.
I missed Bent (1997) on stage, and to be honest, the subject has little fascination for me. I'm sure one can argue that homosexuals were treated worse than Jews, but death does not seem to me to be a matter of relativity. The film has some interest because it represents Clive Owen in an early leading role, two years before his breakout film, Croupier. The first half hour of the film eschews the play's politics and seems determined to upset or offend the non-gay audience with a great deal of simulated gay porn (in that definition I include a performance by Mick Jagger in drag). Finally, the film settles down to what it's going to be about, and 45 minutes in, commences the relationship which is the centerpiece of the film.
So after a long patch of trying to be "cinematic" Bent settles down to be a straightforward dialogue-driven theater adaptation. In this mode it presents its one and only point of interest. The two principal characters are gay men imprisoned by the Nazis (one pretending to be Jewish). They are under constant surveillance and are not permitted to touch. Using words only, standing stock still, side by side, they have an extreme erotic encounter. This has several functions. It establishes the bond between them. It establishes the power of words. It makes for some discomfort among much of the non-gay audience; at the same time, most must recognize the common elements between homosexual and heterosexual encounters-- which both relieves and increases the discomfort. And despite the fact that the driving aspect of the encounter is verbal, the film medium reinforces it by maintaining a steady, still gaze, fixing the characters in the center of the frame and reinforcing the stillness around them.
After all, stillness in the theater is the default mode. A fixed frame, fixed set, often the words the only animating factor. But such a circumstance is special, heightened, in film. Stillness demands special attention on screen. So for a moment, theater and film themselves touch hands and work together.
Then it falls apart. Because, presumably following the lead of the play, in a subsequent scene the verbal sexual encounter is repeated. And where it might have had a cumulative effect in the theater, because we are in the world of words and more words is more meaning, it is simply redundant in film. Because the action, not the word, is the key in film, and we have seen and registered this action. It means nothing to repeat it, even if the actual words are different this time than last. And from there on, the film grinds to its stagy conclusion in highly formal, artificial compositions which only heighten the writer's and director's failure to bridge, or even acknowledge the gap between stage and screen.