Thursday, April 21, 2011


Art is abstraction, and each medium has its own set of conventions by which it conducts that abstraction. Some are obvious. Poetry organizes speech into more or less formal patterns, and paradoxically, the most formal patterns are the most popular, i.e., we love verse in regular meter and verse, even if it makes little or no sense, as in the verse of Edward Lear or Dr. Seuss. Whereas many listeners have trouble identifying or appreciating language that more closely approximates natural speech, be it free verse or even very skillful blank verse. (It is my experience that most people cannot readily differentiate verse from prose in Shakespeare without the text in front of them.) Representational painting abstracts the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional object, and abstract painting takes it a step further. Novels and stories organize experience into (more or less) coherent narratives, often with an omniscient narrator. Theater condenses that experience into limited time and space. And music is pure abstraction, simply organizing regular vibrations in forms we recognize as consonant and dissonant, and which over time seem to represent a departure and return.

Students have a hard time recognizing film as packed with convention, especially since Classical film emphasizes concealing convention in the interest of engaging the audience in the narrative. Most people cannot "see" editing, even though it is extremely artificial. No one listens to a conversation by jumping back and forth, standing behind the shoulders of the speakers. It is impossible to see a person leaving a room, and, in a split second, see them entering the adjacent room. But as long as we cut on action, the cuts are "invisible." [I have an exercise by which I have students clap their hands on each cut. Try it in an ordinary over-the-shoulder dialogue sequence and you will be surprised--most of the time--at how frequently the cuts come.] Even the "mockumentary" form preserves most of the rules of classical editing in order to avoid extreme audience discomfort or disorientation.

These issues are brought front and center when film takes its material from another medium. In an adaptation from a novel, the screenwriter must decide how to preserve the authorial voice. (And in very stylish writers, this can be a serious problem.) One must also decide whether to carry over the book's point of view; typically, the film version of a novel with a consistent but passive narrator, a Nick Carraway, will simply take a standard omniscient point of view, and make Nick a pallid character in his own story. In Olden Times, producers of film versions of plays talked about "opening up the play," that is, varying the physical locations so as to provide variety and de-emphasize the stage origins. But as Hitchcock demonstrated on a number of occasions (most notably Rope and Dial M for Murder), often the art of the play was in the way it compressed events into a single time and place, and that compression provided the tension and suspense central to the piece. It would make no sense, for instance to "open up" a play about a hostage situation. (Apropos of absolutely nothing, I DARE somebody, absolutely DARE them to turn Dog Day Afternoon into a musical. It just might work.)

For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf was described by its author, Ntozake Shange, as a "choreopoem," developed in a series of dance workshops; the artistic conventions heaped on top of each other in big slabs. At its center, however, is a cycle of twenty poems, most of which are narrative and reflective; combined, they form a mosaic of a community in the playgoer's mind. Here is one of the best pieces, from a straightforward adaptation of the play for public television:

(The woman in Orange is Alfre Woodard.) The piece works on a central metaphor -- one's sense of self as a collection of things, "stuff" one has accumulated over a lifetime. The act of proclaiming the words, especially before an onscreen or onstage audience, makes the equation of "stuff" with self clear and manifest; thus the mere act of performance lends concreteness to the poetry. Already there is a fusion and mutual support between expressive media.

But we are only looking at the piece at the micro level. For Colored Girls "becomes" a play by virtue of its accumulation of apparently unrelated narratives. The through-line is thematic rather than narrative, more like a song cycle than a musical.

Tyler Perry's adaptation, For Colored Girls (2010) as a theatrical film intended for a general audience chooses to frame the poems in an over-arching narrative. (Whether this is because of the inherent quality of film itself or audience expectation, I leave to wiser analytic minds than my own.) Thus, the film takes on the quality of a musical, with the 14 remaining poems treated as musical numbers. As in a musical, the "trick" is to ease the transition from Perry's inelegant everyday speech to Shange's heightened language. (The very difficulty of that transition is why so many inferior composers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Frank Wildhorn try to erase the problem by filling their plays with music from beginning to end, flattening the entire experience into an undifferentiated musical stew.) This requires a general audience to accept poetry, poetry not fitted to the precise situation on screen, and poetry riddled with metaphor in the context of a real story in a real apartment in a real city. Interestingly, in scanning the critical reaction to the film, those transitions to not seem to have been real obstacles for most viewers; certainly there was not the level of complaint one usually sees about musicals ("Where's the orchestra?" ask the aesthetically illiterate. "Same place they are when you're watching Star Wars or Die Hard," I say.)

There is criticism about the storyline itself, the setting, one or two performances or the flatness of Perry's language, but few have balked at the movement from prose to poetry, and I would argue that that is an accomplishment for which Mr. Perry has received insufficient recognition. Hats off for his courage, commercially and aesthetically and the success met in the taking of this artistic risk. Unfortunately, there are few posted clips demonstrating this transition. I would particularly call your attention to a scene in which Phylicia Rashad as Gilda tends to her injured daughter, Tangie (Thandie Newton in some very surprising work) and makes Shange sound like Shakespeare, which makes sense, as Ms. Rashad has substantial Shakespeare experience.

Here's the best I can do, the second poem in the film (the first is expertly woven into the credit sequence) rendered by Loretta Devine. The poem begins with the words, "Without any assistance or guidance from you..."

It's a "number" isn't it? Like a musical.

The other aspect of Perry's adaptation is casting -- an often-overlooked aspect of the process. Devine, Newton, Rashad, Anika Noni Rose and Perry stalwart Kimberly Elise are first-rate. Especially surprising is Macy Gray's solo turn as a philosophical abortionist. Janet Jackson tries valiantly and Whoopi Goldberg seems to be so tuned in to her character's craziness that she appears to be playing the role with aluminum foil tucked into her headgear. But to the extent this film works, a large measure is owing to the skill of his best actors.

Acting is at the heart of Jack Goes Boating (2010) directed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman from a very slight play from a screenplay by the playwright (Robert Glaudini) which barely acknowledges there is any issue at all in adaption. Heightened language is NOT a problem for this piece. The play is evidently jammed into one of those apartments in which the living room, dining room and kitchen are a single unarticulated space, which is handy for theater, but claustrophobic on film. The purpose of this compression seems to have been to precipitate the explosion between the second couple in the story who are played, in a bit of generosity by director Phillip Seymour Hoffman, by the actors who originated the roles on stage, John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega. The problem is that the whole scene is far overheated in comparison with the rest of this rather quiet film.

The romance-between-lonely-losers has been enshrined since at least 1955's Marty and not many have improved on that model. And although Hoffman seems to have been intent on transferring the play in as close to its original form, it is at its best when it makes its greatest departures, most notably the casting the Amy Ryan (of Win Win), who has become the go-to gal of independent film this season. In this very awkward set-up first date, the talk seems to have gone to death almost immediately. (Sorry about the ad here.)

And here Hoffman collaborates with both Ryan and some snow to make movie magic.

But the best movie-movie scenes arise from Jack's swimming lessons. He has promised Connie he will take her boating when the warm weather comes, and imagery flows from that. He imagines Central Park Lake awash in happy boaters. And he imagines himself not swimming, but floating, like a chubby angel in a wet firmament. Most interesting and puzzling is a moment when Jack, waiting for his friend to arrive for the listen, sees an old legless man lowered into the pool. Clearly, this was not a moment in the play. It is curious, undiscussed and unexplained. Is Jack a man without legs, who cannot move without help from others? Is the water there to liberate him and make him independent? Who knows. But that picture made better poetry than all of Mr. Glaudini's rather flat and routine words.

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