03 November 2005

Pinter and Losey

Soon after Harold Pinter won this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, I thought about writing something about his films, because I've seen quite a few, and read many of his screenplays. But I hadn't done any of that recently, so I wanted to refresh myself before spouting off in public.

I decided to start reviewing Pinter's film work with some of his earliest movies: the three directed by Joseph Losey. I own an old VHS tape of The Servant, and was able to borrow a now-out-of-print DVD of Accident and a VHS of The Go-Between. I watched them in the order they were made, and then read the scripts (in Five Screenplays). Each film is based on a book, but of them I have only read Nicholas Mosley's Accident.

The Servant may be the best introduction to Pinter that exists. Apparently, both Pinter and Losey had separately thought of adapting Robin Maugham's novella to the screen, and through various negotiations, were able to bring their efforts together and get the film produced. Michael Billington, in The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, says of the Pinter/Losey collaborations:
Both were natural outsiders, both were steeped in theatre, and both viewed the British class sytem, a constant factor in all their work, with a mixture of moral disapproval and grudging fascination. ... But Pinter and Losey were also sufficiently dissimilar to make a perfect team. Pinter's verbal economy checks and balances Losey's baroque tendencies, while Losey's visual stylishness simplifies Pinter's exactness and precision...
Billington was discussing The Go-Between there, but his insights apply equally to all three films.

The Servant is the most disturbing of the films, the only one that delivers a visceral kick, the only one that lingers, for me, emotionally. The Go-Between is extraordinary in many ways, but it's an intellectual extraordinariness, and the emotional effect is to produce a certain wistfulness and melancholy in the viewer rather than the deep revulsion that comes at the end of The Servant. Some people have referred to the end of The Servant as tragic, but it's not -- the characters are repulsive, reprehensible, grotesque, pathetic. The ending is both the strongest part of the movie and its greatest failing, because it is entirely nihilistic: unattractive, self-absorbed people become debauched, debilitated, destroyed. It's fascinating to watch as it happens, but it leaves us with nothing. In some ways, this was a useful corrective at the time to certain sentimental aesthetics, and it was a logical extension of the sorts of things attributed to the "Angry Young Men", but now it can feel shallow. (I have similar, though stronger, reservations about Five Easy Pieces, but that's another topic entirely...)

Accident has a couple of exquisite scenes, but I don't particularly care for it on the whole, though many people consider it a masterpiece. There are plenty of misjudgments in Pauline Kael's review of the film, but she also hit some targets that needed hitting: "In Accident," she said, "it shouldn't be that difficult to make at least the accident itself relate to the characters and plot. Nothing in the movie would be much changed if there were no accident (the only revelation -- that the philosophy don would 'take advantage' of a girl in shock -- isn't convincing anyway)." This is exactly the opposite of the book, because in the book the accident presents the central moral problem. It's a philosophical novel with a melodramatic plot to move us from one speculation to another; the movie preserves the melodrama but dispenses with the philosophy. (And in the book the don doesn't "take advantage" of the girl at all -- and that he doesn't is an important moment, an important insight into his character. Mosley chronicles his discussions of this moment with Pinter in his autobiography, Efforts at Truth.)

Kael gets to the heart of the problems with the film's narrative by picking up on Pinter's response when asked what the movie "meant": "I have no explanation for anything I do at all," Kael reports him as saying, and then continues:
This might give the impression that the movie has been written out of the unconscious, but it is so carefully plotted that you can watch the preparations being made and chart how each event or reaction was led up to.
Reading the script of Accident, it occurred to me that what I dislike most about the movie is how efficient it is: every line and image has a purpose. Of course, that might seem to be what good writing is -- no wasted material -- but good writing also needs to appear less mechanical, less determined to connect all its own dots. There needs to be more room for messiness, as there is in so much of Pinter's (and Losey's) other work, or else we end up with a hypothesis or a graph, not art. (Losey's messiness was often not to his benefit; Pinter's is usually the messiness of a conundrum, which is more palatable than the messiness of a mess.)

The Go-Between is far more satisfying, and is in many ways the best film of the three, even if I prefer The Servant for its shock value (and the way it plays with the overt homoeroticism of the relationship between servant and master). The ways the narrative, voiceover, and imagery upset the chronology remain interesting, even in these post-Pulp-Fiction-and-Memento days, because they are subtle, ghostly, and essential to the protagonist's development. The Go-Between also seems to have had an effect on Pinter's playwrighting -- there is a noticeable difference between his post-Go-Between plays and the earlier ones, both in their depth of situations and in their handling of time and memory. Indeed, Betrayal might not have been possible without The Go-Between. (The Go-Between works better as a film than the Betrayal movie, though, because plenty of techniques that are effective in live theatre feel arch and clunky on film, despite strong performances. I've found Betrayal to be both moving and funny on stage, but was less enamored of the backwards-chronology when I saw the film, because it felt somehow heavy-handed, while the chronological tricks in The Go-Between play upon both our senses of sight and sound [via the voiceovers, which don't match with the images] in a mysterious and unobtrusive way, and are therefore richly cinematic.)

The Pinter/Losey (or Losey/Pinter) films came in the beginning and early middle of Pinter's career as a writer, and the beginning of his career as a screenwriter. Later scripts, such as The French Lieutenant's Woman, are better crafted and more impressive, but I've not yet seen a film Pinter wrote where it felt like the director was as strong a collaborator with Pinter as Losey was.

For anyone interested in Pinter's screenwriting, Sharp Cut: Harold Pinter's Screenplays and the Artistic Process by Steven H. Gale is useful and illuminating, despite the author's occasional moments of fannishness, repetitive prose, unjustified assumptions, and superficial analyses -- these are weaknesses, but nonetheless the book is filled with research and information about Pinter's writing process, which can be enlightening with regard to some of the choices he made in the scripts.

2 comments:

  1. I was quite impressed with Pinter's unfilmed Proust Screenplay. It says something about me that I actually prefer it to Proust himseld, but I don't know what.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great thoughts here.

    first, I confess to being totally unaware of Harold Pinter (though I think I read a play of his in high school which I don't remember). In Houston, a city with a fairly lively theatre scene, I haven't encountered any of his plays (although I've encountered Stoppard, Frayn, etc). I can't criticize what I don't know, but isn't it interesting how eminently producible Stoppard's plays are by comparison. (It may be the reason for example why people prefer Wodehouse over Conrad for instance). Stoppard dazzles (and delights) us; Pinter simply provokes us.

    Another problem is that many of Pinter's works are screenplay adaptations of established works. I never associated Pinter with French Ltnt's Woman or Turtle Diary until I checked IMDB.

    On the messyness issue, drama is a genre of minimalism; the novel (and movies) are genres of maximalism. You can throw a lot of random details and "atmosphere" into maximalist genres without boring the pants off the audience. Plays by their abstract nature have to be more spartan both in terms of props and dialogue. That may not always have been true; for example, I can't imagine Shakespeare or Wilde plays as having minimal sets; they need garish.

    (I am not addressing the question of whether these screenplay are more aligned to cinema or theatre, but I am treating them as theatre for the sake of argument. Interestingly, the lower budget the film becomes, the more they have to rely on abstract representations.

    Movies capture everything of a setting, and a good one needs to remove extraneous detail in order to keep the viewer's focus. The theatre set designer, on the other hand, has to consciously choose what to include onstage.

    ReplyDelete