“Those are the ground rules“
Back in college I took an English course focusing on British cinema. A snooty film student like myself figured an out-of-department film course would be a breeze. In the end I dropped out of the course on the day I forgot to write a paper, but there were a few things I gained from the course. Two of my now most favorite films are ones that were screened in that course: Lindsay Anderson’s “If…” and Tony Richardson’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”. Besides a love of lengthy titles, the latter film fell into a special category of films with no name. For me, I know a film has entered this strata when I think to myself “wow, I didn’t know we could do that” after a screening. It happened when I saw “The 400 Blows”, “Knife in the Water, “Stranger Than Paradise”, and “Back to the Future II”, among many many others.
Thanks to the talented programmers at the Walter Reade, a Tony Richardson retrospective is on the big screen this month. To be more specific, it’s a Woodfall Films retrospective including some other British directors, but around 80% of the films are Richardson’s. So I figured the time was ripe for me to rediscover these relatively unseen films. It’s odd how films of the UK, like many of their ales, haven’t even come close to finding American audiences. We love their comedy and their rock ‘n’ roll, but their cinema has been an altogether different story for the American public ever since we stole Hitchcock from their clutches.
With that lengthy preface, let me discuss the film I saw last night, “A Delicate Balance” from 1973. Written by Edward Albee, directed by Richardson, and featuring powerhouse performances from stage and screen’s finest, I was thoroughly impressed with this theatrical film. At times the filmic aspects were almost annoying, getting in the way of something that was so obviously conceived for the stage. At the same time, however, the camera went places you would not expect it, that turned the experience into something more breathtaking than could ever happen in the theater. There were very clear referenced to Bergman in the film’s makeup, though oddly, this is from a vantage point of 2007 viewing. The red intertitles seemed to evoke “Cries and Whispers”, but that had only been released a year earlier, which in its time may have felt more like a movement than an homage. And the better part of the film feels like another chapter of “Autumn Sonata”, which of course wouldn’t come out for another 5 years. So perhaps Bergman was invoking Richardson.…?
Nevertheless, as anyone who’s ever picked up an Albee script, you know that reading him, even alone from a book, is the literary equivalent of running the New York Marathon twice with high hurdles every two blocks. His verbiage twists and turns, turning to metaphors for long stretches, inner monologues that come out at the wrong times, words the dictionary was sure to have forgotten come out of characters’ mouths as easily as CO2, and violence is always a possibility waiting off in the wings. This film is of course no exception. What works so well about it is that these snooty characters would speak in such manners. They are so melodramatic about their own rich lives that they know no other way to speak, so it fits perfectly well.
It was hard to keep up at first, as there were no cuts and the dialogue was overblown and quick. But eventually it settles into a nice pacing, once Claire, the drunk sister, makes her way on screen. I particularly like Joseph Cotton’s character, the frightened best friend Harry, who comes with his wife, Edna, in the night to stay with their dearest friends for a time. Albee has found a way to take impotence to a new level with Harry and Edna. They are fearful of nothing, but it is a crippling nothing. However, they still have their faculties about them to control and manipulate others, even if they are so scared of their own home, which posses nothing out of the ordinary.
I waited as long as I could to discuss Katherine Hepburn. She is one of those screen goddesses that went extinct long ago, as I think just about everyone can agree on. But here, well, here was something I hadn’t seen from her yet, or many other actresses in history. Many actresses have done old and decrepit, often against their will. Many have done the aging star, the once beautiful but now wrinkled woman of the world. Hepburn, in all her glory and beauty and skill, entered territory rarely tread upon: the aging woman whose life has been a bore, who may never have been a beauty and who may always have been made of wood, but trudges onward into the far distances of age. Her head bobs from sided to side in a fight against gravity; the camera takes no care in hiding her cavernous face. Agnes, the character, has spent a lifetime surrounding herself with beautiful things, mostly small people or faces from varying cultures, who appear to be their only guests save for the violently uninvited Harry and Edna. She loves her husband not for his money or his company or even for his returned love, but for his stayability in her uneventful life. They are the perfect couple, but only for each other. Not a day goes by they don’t discuss divorce or each other’s death, which seems to have been going for years. It seems as though Richardson asked her for simply a piece but she delivered the whole cake. I don’t mean she overacted. She simply delivered a beautifully nuanced performance to an incredibly layered character.
All of the players were phenomenal, but there is only space to talk about the piece as whole and of course Hepburn. I wouldn’t say this is becoming my favorite film. it’s certainly a long journey from Richardson’s “Loneliness…”, which at the end of the day is Britain’s answer to France’s Nouvelle Vauge. I am excited to see more of Richardson’s work as the screenings continue, and I hope, as seems to be his calling card, to see more traipsing across Europe, picking and choosing which movement he should infuse his latest work with. Of course, it is his original voice that leaves us with the sweetest taste in our mouths.
“Those are the ground rules“