American Film Theatre

by Michael Barrett

17 July 2008

Three Sisters 

Lost in the Stars

These three films perfectly exemplify the Landau experiment in its purest form. Storey’s play uses the same cast and director from the drama’s run at London’s Royal Court Theater. The director (Lindsay Anderson) certainly knows his way around a camera, and the actors (including Bates again and the young Brian Cox) know their way around their lines. The Pinter has illustrious stage director Peter Hall recreating his Royal Shakespeare Company production with a cast including Cyril Cusack, Vivien Merchant, Ian Holm, and Paul Rogers towering above all as the kind of abrasive, abusive, foul-mouthed, dirty-minded and shockingly funny patriarch who makes Archie Bunker look like Ozzie Nelson. Albee’s play recreates nothing but brings in the dream cast of Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Lee Remick, Kate Reid, Joseph Cotten and Betsy Blair under the director of Tony Richardson.

So you’re watching these things, and line by line, scene by scene, you’re totally absorbed, and you come away thinking “Wow, that Scofield is something” or “Gee, that’s Pinter for you” or “Gosh, that Alan Bates is such a bitch”. However, as much as you may enjoy it and be glad you saw it, and as much as you may think you’ll hardly see a more definitive record of this piece, you don’t really catch yourself thinking “Yowza, that was a great movie” as opposed to “That was a great play”. That’s because, to repeat, aesthetic concepts carry their form within them, and these works, not being conceived as films, don’t quite come across as films, which is not after all a serious flaw with them either as plays or films. It’s just interesting and revealing.

Some of the AFT films are much more cinematically conceived and much farther from their theatrical versions than Landau’s formula would suggest. This is especially true of the two musicals, and indeed these musicals would be unfilmable in their original form unless you simply pointed a camera at the stage, so it’s surprising that these particular musicals were chosen as opposed to more regular book-musicals.

Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars is one of the great innovative and powerful theatre pieces in Broadway musical history. Based on Alan Paton’s novel of racial oppression in South Africa, Cry the Beloved Country, it’s a hybrid work that’s in some ways more like a cantata or oratorio with a chorus that functions onstage like a Greek chorus. Here that chorus is offscreen as Stephen Kumalo (Brock Peters, the best element in the film) journeys from his village to Johannesburg in search of his son and wades waist deep in tragedy.

Although shot in real locales that give a documentary-like flavor to the proceedings, these proceedings were conceived (at least by Weill and Anderson) in a non-realistic presentation, and the resulting clash of conceptions makes the dramatic bits seem perfunctory and not as powerful as Alexander Korda’s film of Cry the Beloved Country, which packs a punch this film finally does not. The great title song isn’t staged fruitfully; the old man sings it alone in a church instead of explaining the creation myth to a child outdoors, as the lyrical context would have it. In other words, neither he nor we can see the stars we are lost in. I blame director Daniel Mann, not for re-imagining the theatrical material but for failing to do it even more extensively.

Even less likely to be filmed, and therefore even more admirable in the attempt, is Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, directed by Denis Heroux. This show is the most radically altered in translation from stage to screen. While the original was an intimate revue of songs, the film is a series of elaborate, sometimes surreal music videos almost before such things existed.  We don’t have access to the original show, but the Wikipedia entry conveniently itemizes the differences. Basically some songs were dropped, more were added, everything was rearranged and the configuration of the cast was changed.

Brel’s songs, in the tradition of French chanson, deal with simple emotions complexly and address themselves not only to the question of love but to rueful existential matters like loneliness itself. “The Old Ones” is the most poignant punch in the heart. Brel himself comes on to sing “Ne Me Quitte Pas” in French, shortly before his death, in the most understated presentation: a long zoom into his eyes. Other notable songs are “The Desperate Ones”, which simply shows a bunch of people smoking pot around a campfire, “Sons of” with way overstated crucifixion imagery, and the anthemic finalé “If We Only Have Love”.

Contemporary reviews complained that while the movie has its moments, it’s a bit much to hold together, and of course some songs are visualized better than others. Vincent Canby in the New York Times observed that the format was similar to the old “Hit Parade TV show, though it’s seldom as witty”. Ouch. Well, this period saw many experimental attempts to expand or innovate the movie musical that weren’t always welcomed by hostile critics in search of relevance or by audiences in search of nostalgia. Although it seems to have disappointed everybody, this is an intriguing and memorable AFT entry.

It turns out that Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo is kind of a musical too, in his semi-cabaret manner. There’s one such number, and also each scene is prefaced by boy-soprano cherubs. This example of his loose “epic theatre”, originally directed by Joseph Losey on Broadway in 1947 with Charles Laughton (!) and now filmed by Losey with Topol, is typical Brecht: each scene illustrates dialectical oppositions lectured by a star-studded British gallery, including John Gielgud, Patrick Magee, Edward Fox and Tom Conti. This film isn’t interesting for any information or insight about Galileo, who is simply used to illustrate the concepts of free-thinking, persecution, capitulation and self-interest.

To the modern viewer, its primary interest lies in its personal meaning for its auteurs, Brecht and Losey. Brecht actually wrote three versions, and this was the second, completed prior to being summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee and choosing to leave the US for East Germany. It’s eerie as well as tragically ironic that he was working so long on a play about selling out to political pressure long before the blacklist, but of course it was inspired by the Nazi era.

Losey would also be swept up in the blacklist and leave the US. So a play conceived as an examination of the effects of fascist power on a man of conscience had a terrifying and prescient relevance for its makers in the land of the free, and it’s appropriate that Losey should revisit the material from the other end of exile. However, all this personal resonance doesn’t necessarily make this a better Losey film than his other ‘70s material, and it’s not as interesting as most of them. There’s deliberate alienation for the purpose of detached examination, and then there’s a plodding series of setpieces; a delicate balance indeed.

That balance comes a cropper with John Osborne’s Luther, the other historical bio-pic here on the power of the Church (and by implication all power). This is a modern psycho-political effort starring Stacy Keach and many British characters, including Magee again and Judi Dench as a young nun. This is heavy, finally banal material that Guy Green’s direction does nothing to elevate, and we are left to conclude that AFT chose this early Osborne play because there were already adequate films of Look Back in Anger”, “The Entertainer and even Inadmissible Evidence.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article