Sunday, December 28, 2008

Screened Out

I have been musing away reading the the obituaries for Harold Pinter which have concentrated almost exclusively on his contribution to the theatre. A single para, even a mere few words, were generally all that his substantial contribution to the cinema apparently warranted.

There were however a number of fine film adaptations of his work that ultimately via TV and now DVD would have probably have been seen by many more people than ever attended a production of his work. But there they lie, almost completely ignored, filmed adaptations, mostly of the early plays to add to a long string of script credits including most especially a fruitful series of collaborations with Joseph Losey that, in the 60s and 70s substantially enhanced the reputations of both the writer and the director.

Losey’s career was merely muddling along before the collaboration started. He was making mostly low budget films in Britain where and when he could. He had just made perhaps his greatest film, The Criminal at the very low rent Merton Park Studios. The Damned (1962) had been made for Hammer Studios. Blind Date (1959) was a low budget detective story and Eva (1962) despite its big budget, was an international disaster. They were however, films which addressed some tough issues and attracted some positive reviews as well as high quality actors and writers into the director’s orbit. Notwithstanding that, none of those films were box office successes. Yet somehow or other the money for The Servant (1963) was conjured up by producer Norman Priggen. Losey, Pinter and Dirk Bogarde then combined to make an off beat, baroque, and highly erotic movie from Robin Maugham’s very short novella and together, with gusto, they peeled back the skin of the British class system to do some revelling in personal weakness and corruption. It was a breakthrough work for all three and their films both together and separately, were treated very differently following its success

The three collaborated again in 1967 with Accident, an adaptation of LP Hartley’s solid British novel and Pinter adapted Hartley again for Losey's The Go Between a Cannes prize-winner in 1970 and a huge success around the world. One amazingly ambitious project never came to pass, an adaptation of Proust’s Remembrance of Thing’s Past, though Pinter’s six hour script was apparently once performed or read at the National Theatre in London.

Beyond these highlights Pinter seemed ever ready to do adaptations of just about anything. He ranged from domestic dramas to a common or garden spy story and in each, the so-called Pinteresque dialogue which the obituaries have laboured over, was always somewhere present. Alec Guinness proved particularly adroit at delivering those short, clipped lines and pregnant pauses for the otherwise unremarkable The Quiller Memorandum (Adam Hall/Michael Anderson, 1966).

The range of this element of his work is noteworthy and most authors were well-served by Pinter’s transformations. His filmed scripts included The Pumpkin Eater (Penelope Mortimer/Jack Clayton, 1964), The Last Tycoon (F. Scott Fitzgerald/Elia Kazan (1976), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (John Fowles/Karel Reisz, 1981), Turtle Diary (Russell Hoban/John Irvin, 1985), Reunion (Fred Uhlman/Jerry Schatzberg, 1989), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwod/Volker Schlondorff, 1990), The Comfort of Strangers (Ian McEwan/Paul Schrader, 1990) and the remake of Sleuth (Peter Shaffer/?, 2007)

Pinter also directed a film adaptation of Simon Gray’s Butley done as part of the American Film Theatre series of film versions of modern drama in 1974. Pinter’s own The Homecoming was also done as a part of this series by Tony Richardson. He also directed several TV films.
The film adaptations of Pinter’s plays were all high quality movies though none were very successful with filmgoers. They began with Clive Donner’s version of The Caretaker (1963) and this was quickly followed by William Friedkin’s version of The Birthday Party (1965).

Pinter also seemed to enjoy the social life of making movies and appeared in quite a few small roles including in both The Servant and Accident. He had a very funny part as Uncle Benny in John Boorman’s Le Carre adaptation The Tailor of Panama (2001) and small roles in movies as oddly diverse as Mansfield Park (Patricia Rozema, 1999), The Tamarind Seed (Blake Edwards, 1974) and The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (Kevin Billington,1970).

A couple of years ago a major season of Pinter’s work for the cinema was presented in New York. It was a rare tribute for a writer in the director or thematically-oriented world of film cultural programming. Pinter was a most deserving case for such attention. As a writer of original scripts, adaptations of his own and other work, most notably modern British writers, as a director and even as an actor his contribution was unique. His work in film was in many ways a seamless continuation of his original work for the theatre which is the basis of what will be an enduring reputation and it shouldn’t be near completely overlooked in any assessment of the man’s life and work.

There have been a huge number of TV adaptations done of his own plays in all parts of the world and as well there have been a seemingly limitless number of profiles, interviews, reviews, discussions and colloquia devoted to his work. He seemed to freely participate in all of these, perhaps mindful that the theatre is a public art and relies on the electronic media for endless amounts of publicity. But he was much more than a practitioner of the high art of the theatre and there are instant reminders of his work everywhere. He took on with great gusto the duties of the artist to discuss, expose, crusade, engage and enrage. If you want a quick reminder you can find it on the shelves where The Servant, Accident, The Go Between, The Comfort of Strangers and The Last Tycoon are freely there for all to see. Maybe soon someone will add The Pumpkin Eater and Jerry Schatzberg's very under-rated Reunion to that list to serve as further reminders that Pinter practiced a craft within the film industry as well as the art of the theatre.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

An update on the history of magic

James Galea bounds out onto the stage of the Sydney Theatre after the screen behind him has run what amounts to an ad for his brilliance. We shall see. One of the endorsements was from one of the tastemakers on The Footy Show. He soon has the audience involved via a trick where everyone has to clasp their hands together and then get their thumbs pointing back upright the way he demonstrates. Nobody knows how. Then he’s prowling along the front row asking for thoughts as to what a magic show might contain. He asks a guy in the middle of the front row to hold a post parcel box on his knees. Finally we get ‘rabbits’ and he launches a rant that there wont be any in his act. His show is called "I Hate Rabbits" and a rabbit with a red line through it is part of the back projection. He’s still prowling, asking people would they like to double their money and he hits on an audience member who says he has a $50 bill in his pocket.

It’s moi!

I’m up on stage and James gets me to write my name with a big felt pen and put a secret sign on the note. Suddenly he folds it and folds it and folds it and then it’s gone. He produces something and unfolds it. A $5 bill. He takes my watch off me and drops it into a bag which has two slits. Suddenly he flaps the bag and the watch is gone and I’m asked to take my seat. No point in arguing.

James is a card prestidigitator without peer. He dazzles us with tricks involving a card which keeps returning from impossible places, especially his back pocket. The tricks are so delicate that most of the audience have to watch them on the big screen behind him. He plays a pea and thimble game with amazing dexterity. If you counter-intuit you can win on your guesses but the sleight of hand is remarkable. He brings up another audience member and guesses a word she has chosen from three books he offered her and he brings up another to do an elaborate trick with an upside down bottle inside a tube. This audience dummy takes so long to follow instructions the impact is lost.

Then it’s back to me. I’m again on stage as he stands in front of stand containing a towel and an orange. I suspect nothing and he slices open the orange to produce my signed $50 bill, dripping with juice. He wipes it down with the towel and throws the towel away. I was going to borrow it to mop sweat from my brow but he beat me to the punch. No one wants scene stealers. I then have to retrieve the box from the lap of the punter in the first row. He cuts the sticky tape off the box and produces another box. I’m invited to remove the bow and the wrapping paper. Inside the box is a brown wooden box and inside that box is a can of Heinz tomato puree. He opens the can with a can opener and out pops my watch. Or so I and the audience believe. Its high fives all round between us and he whispers “thanks mate, you were good”. Much better than the time on the boat on the river in Shanghai, I think.

He makes a woman’s wedding ring disappear and turn up on his own key chain buried deep in his pocket. Finally, there’s time for another incredibly elaborate card trick which involves him memorising the entire order of the pack and then some, the pack then being cut several times by strangers.

Then it’s over. The exhilaration of the hour long show is extraordinary. James high fives his assistant as he exits the stage. He’s happy and so were we.