Saturday, October 13, 2012

134. US film director Mike Nichols’ debut film “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966): Nichols’ finest work to date

It is nearly half a century since Mike Nichols made his first feature film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Richard Burton, the lead actor, is dead. Elizabeth Taylor, the lead actress, is dead. Its screenplay writer Ernest Lehman is dead. The film’s music composer, famous for his “sparse instrumentation,” Alex North, too, is dead.  He, too, had won an Oscar nomination for this film. No longer alive are the film’s editor Sam O’Steen, who won an Oscar nomination for the film, art director Richard Sylbert, and costume designer Irene Sharaff  the last two of whom  won separate Oscars  for this film.

Yet the movie, all 23 reels of it, (this critic recalls the exasperated look, decades ago, on the projectionist’s face opening the pile of film cans to feed the spools into the projector, at a time when most movies came in lots of 6 to 12 reels at the most) made in black and white, is colorfully alive in the minds of those who can appreciate the celebration of marriage of the finest in drama and in cinema.

If this critic finds this cinematic work memorable, thanks are primarily due to Edward Albee, the playwright. The play is a clinical look at modern social and psychological conditions, then and now. Forget the yelling and screaming and visceral abuse flung between a husband and a wife, both well educated professors in a US university. Forget the constant reference to sex and sexual terms and the open attempts to cuckold and to humiliate the spouse in front of strangers. And ironically the movie is not about sex. It is a mind game at an elevated plane. The play/film is essentially about how two spouses in spite of all their differences and agonies find comfort in each other. Incredible as it seems both the play and the film ends as a toast to love, which seemed to be absent throughout the lengthy play and film. At a time when the western world was enjoying quick divorces, here was Albee searching for and finding the ephemeral strand of love that binds couples together in spite of appearances that indicate otherwise. (An unforgettable quote loaded with meaning and bitterness from the play/film is this one spoken by Martha:  “I swear to God, George, that even if you existed I’d divorce you”. And there is no divorce in the film, only rapprochement and self realization.)

Albee, for this critic, in this play allowed catharsis at its brutal best to sink into the minds of the viewers. An orphan adopted by rich foster parents, Albee never truly felt loved and by many reports never reciprocated any feeling of love towards his foster family in later years. Albee wanted to be a writer while his foster parents were grooming him to be a successful tycoon. And Albee was gay. The lack of love permeates through the pages of Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But what Albee missed in real life and yearned for is revealed at the end of the play–love and appreciation, often not apparent in the play in a cursory view, idiomatically apparent in the movie though when the night ends and the sun’s rays enter through the windows.

Albee, in this play, had brought the finest traditions of Greek theater to America serving catharsis in large dollops. One gets the feeling that couples who watched the play being performed would be persuaded not to  spar with each other afterwards but only mentally re-examine their differences to come closer to each other. Albee, the playwright, must have been truly satisfied that he was able to put on the table a slice of his own life—not about children, but more about the lack of them and the inability of adults to communicate with them and the resulting ire towards the parents formed by the kids. Second, this is by Albee’s own admission, a magnificent play structured around a formidable thought “who is afraid of living life without false illusions?” Third, the play and the film are both a toast to the thin line separating dreams/fiction and reality. The admission of Martha (played by Elizabeth Taylor) to George’s (played by Richard Burton) loaded question Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is “I am, George, I am.”  Any intelligent viewer will realize that this answer is not merely applicable to Martha but to many of us. And it takes an extraordinary gay male writer to transpose those universal shattered feelings/words for a female character to speak, a female character who prior to uttering those words seemed to dominate her husband George for considerable length in the play.

Add to Albee, the contribution of Hollywood’s scriptwriter Ernest Lehman.  It appears Lehman was smart enough to tamper very little with Albee’s play except tone down the expletives for acceptance by the censors and the studio. He also added two minor characters: a roadside restaurant owner (who speaks a few lines) and his wife (who serves the drinks without saying a word). It is often difficult to demarcate who made such decisions while making a film, whether these decisions need to be attributed to the scriptwriter or to a director (in this case Lehman vs the debutant director Mike Nichols). The opening scene in the film of the church bells ringing for instance could merely be an indicator of time, 2 a.m. to establish time frame of the action (late night /early morning to first rays of sunlight in the final scene). But the church bells could take a different meaning (if extended in a Virginia Woolf type of stream of consciousness methodology) if one links up the bells with  the “Libera me, Domine, de morte aetima, in die illa treminda”—Sung in the Office of the Dead and at the Absolution of the Dead, after requiem mass before burial, asking God to have mercy upon the deceased person at the Last Judgement, “Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal, on that fearful day...” brilliantly chanted by Richard Burton in Latin, as no one else can, later in the film. Now Albee and students of Albee know that Virginia Woolf had little to do with the play, and that Albee had merely spotted the title scrawled by someone on a rest room mirror and used it. The rest is history. But one suspects Nichols/Lehman/Burton played up the “Libera me, Domine..” chant sequence in the film knowing well that Burton could eloquently speak those Latin lines with aplomb and thus suggestively creating the “death,”  “request for heavenly mercy” and final “absolution” of Martha in an otherwise agnostic film. This idea, though latent in Albee’s play (recall Albee used to run away from compulsory chapel attendance in college), must have been burnished by the film’s creative team.

Mike Nichols (he is actually an American, German born, of Russian lineage, with an original name Michael Igor Peschkowsky) was making his first feature film. And directors are often at their creative best while making their debut. Nichols' decision to cast the Burtons as George and Martha was a masterstroke—the studios were initially considering James Mason and Bette Davis to play the parts. Nichols’ idea to get Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to add weight and look a lot older than what they were in real life was another brilliant move. Today actors play elderly roles if the characters transform in screen time, but not if they have to appear unattractive throughout the screen time. Nichols knew he had a winner with the script and his gifted team, which included cinematographer Haskell Wexler (who also picked up an Oscar for the film).

Now one wonders who actually made the decision to film the movie in black and white instead of color  at a time when Hollywood was quite comfortable with color movies. It is now well known cinematographer Harry Stradling, who had won plaudits and an Oscar for his work with color film on My Fair Lady just two years before, had done considerable preparatory work to shoot the Nichols film in color as well. But Nichols chose young Wexler instead of Stradling to shoot the film on black and white film stock to bring out the dark shades of the psychological tale better. (It is interesting to note that John Huston took a similar decision for making another fascinating film with Richard Burton—The Night of the Iguana (1964)—adapting a superb play by Tennessee Williams for another black and white film.)  Wexler was not able to recapture a similar psychological perspective in his camerawork until he made John Sayles’ Limbo (1999).

Now Nichols subsequently has made so many successful films including Closer (2004), again based on a play, this time a play by Patrick Marber.  The color film with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts was again nominated for multiple Oscars and quaintly resembled the basic structure of the Albee tale involving four persons, one pair considerably older than the other. Closer was all about real sexual encounters and foul mouthed mind games between characters. But there is a cardinal difference between the two Nichols films separated by some 35 years—the Albee film despite its constant allusions to sex was not about sex, which is not so in the case of Closer.  An evaluation of Closer elevates Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to a far superior level of entertainment  in varied aspects of cinema.  Nevertheless, it is amusing to see Nichols being drawn towards similar plots and structures of entertainment that resemble his debut film decades later.

It is obvious even today that the success of Nichols' debut film was largely due to the casting of the Burtons at the zenith of their acting careers. Here is an unusual film where the lead actors mesmerize the viewer without the usual physical allure often associated with actors. Here is a film that attracts us because the characters are not larger than life but plain, ordinary and even downright dowdy. It is the diction and enunciation of the spoken word and the Burtons' body language that carry the film though its unusual length of screen time. When Burton switches to Greek, it does not matter if the viewer does not know that “Kyrie, eleison” means “Lord have mercy” --the viewer remains enthralled nevertheless. It is sad that Burton was deprived of an Oscar seven times, especially for this adorable effort but the Academy instead recognized the efforts of Taylor, Wexler, Sandy Dennis, the art directors, and the costume designer by giving five Oscars for the film. 

But the real winner is the ending of the film with sunlight visible through the windows as George consoles Martha with his hand on her shoulder—an amazing antidote to what has preceded in the film. There is no divorce, no break-up, only reconciliation and closer understanding between man and wife. It is indeed a formidable play about living life "without false illusions." Albee was serving an ancient Greek theater recipe to American audiences and they loved it.

P.S. This film is one of the author's top 100 films. 

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

133. Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s English film “Agora” (2009): An admirable subject for a remarkable feature film

Often good movies should be evaluated both by its subject and by the interesting manner the director and the rest of the production team contributes to or presents the subject as the final product.  Rarely does one come across amazing subjects captured on film that over-shadows the total effort of the production team. There are very few movies that make the viewer to cheer the movie’s filmmakers for choosing to make a film on a subject rather than for their combined effort that resulted in making it. One such example is the male Senegalese director’s Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé (2004) from Senegal that exhibited unusual courage to discuss a cultural subject that affects women of different faiths in Africa. Sembene is a respected African filmmaker but Moolaadé is important because a great filmmaker chose to highlight an issue that is rarely discussed in public fora. Similarly, this critic applauds another male director Alejandro Amenábar’s decision to make a feature film Agora, centred on the historic lady astronomer, mathematician, and thinker Hypatia (born between 351and 370 AD and died in 415 AD) that most people are not even aware of.  Amenabar’s film  Agora is certainly not his best cinematic work—yet this film will provide the viewer with sufficient material, historical and fictional, to discuss and ruminate upon, long after one has seen the movie.

Alejandro Amenábar has stated to interviewers that the film is essentially about astronomy and the pursuit of knowledge. And the film deserves to be viewed and evaluated in that context.

This writer stumbled on Hypatia’s existence when he read the multi-volume Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as a college student of physics in Chennai some 40 years ago and often wondered why this incredible individual never got mentioned whenever Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo are discussed.  Fortunately, two decades ago, Carl Sagan mentioned Hypatia in his book Cosmos and in his equally fascinating TV serial Cosmos (1980). It is even more commendable to note that Hypatia, a citizen of Alexandria in Egypt had no relationship with Spain and yet a Spanish filmmaker, Amenábar, decided to make a feature film centred around her life. And Amenábar’s film Agora went on to become the highest grossing film released in Spain in 2009 and won seven Spanish national film awards (Goyas) that year.

Who is Hypatia? She was the daughter of the last recorded librarian of the famous Alexandria library. This library was the most famous one in the ancient world (it existed for some 600 years from the 3rd Century BC to the 3rd century AD) and contained enormous knowledge gathered by Alexandrians who copied on scrolls accumulated knowledge of civilizations and nations far away by searching each passing ship that traded the goods from the East and the West, keeping the originals in the library and replacing the originals with copied texts that resembled the originals on the ships. Moreover, the Egyptian rulers sent people to faraway centres of learning to procure scrolls (ancient books) of knowledge. Unfortunately for humankind, the great resource of knowledge was burnt partially or completely by fires on  three or four occasions, once by Julius Caesar, once during the lifetime of Hypatia, then by the decree of the Coptic Pope Theophilus in 391 AD and, finally, during the Muslim conquest of Alexandria in 642 AD.

Now, Hypatia was not merely the daughter of the librarian of Alexandria but also the head or principal of the Platonist school of Alexandria imparting the knowledge of Plato and Aristotle to her students of varied religions and nations. She is often considered to be the inventor of the hydrometer that calculates the specific gravity of liquids to this day. And she was obsessed with the movements of celestial bodies with respect to the earth, especially the theory of the sun being the centre of the Universe propounded earlier by Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC) —a scientific inquiry by Hypatia, which is discussed in Amenábar’s film extensively. But tragically Hypatia is stoned to death after being caught in a web of politics involving Christians and pagans in Alexandria, the seaport city of Egypt that exists to this day.

What is agora? “Agora” is a term for a gathering place, for athletic, spiritual, artistic or political activity in an ancient city. Amenábar’s film Agora deals with events that take place at the agora in Alexandria during life of Hypatia, mostly based upon historical facts with some fiction thrown in by the talented scriptwriters Amenábar and Mateo Gil, who are also Spanish film directors of repute. Amenábar cast English actress Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, and Ms Weisz does a commendable job but Amenabar would have been more historically accurate if an older actress had been picked for the role, simply because Hypatia was not as young as Ms Weisz looked when she died. The film brings together a group of great actors from different countries, including French actor Michel Lonsdale, who plays Hypatia’s father Theon the librarian, and the Iranian actor Humayoun Ershadi, who plays Hypatia’s slave and research assistant.

Instead of accepting the movie as a tribute to astronomy and to an unsung lady who promoted science, many viewers have taken offence at the depiction of the fundamentalism of the early Christians that led to Hypatia’s cruel death when she was neither a pagan nor a Christian but a true scientist and academician. The film was screened by the distributors at the Vatican before its release and there was no official objection to the movie from the Catholic church. And there are many who refuse to accept the accuracy of Gibbon’s and Sagan’s writings. But some vital facts remain undisputed—Hypatia existed, she was killed by a mob, and she was one of the earliest recorded woman astronomers in history. And Amenábar’s film Agora has helped immensely to bring this lady and the importance of the famed Alexandria library to the limelight.

Movies like Agora underline the importance of feature films in disseminating historical facts that would have remained unknown to many otherwise. Movies like Agora are examples of one country taking interest in another’s history and bringing together actors from various lands to celebrate the life of a remarkable individual stamped out of popular discussions because society is embarrassed about the events that led to her death. Movies like Agora celebrate the importance the rulers of certain countries, such as Egypt, gave towards accumulation of knowledge from distant lands, even if the process was colored by deceit and money-power.

P.S. This famous Alexandria library has now been rebuilt in 2002 on the original site of the destroyed library with funds from UNESCO to house 5 million books. (The new library’s director is Ismail Serageldin, a former Vice President of the World Bank.)

Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadé (2004) has been reviewed earlier on this blogAmenábar’s film Mar Adentro (The Sea Within) (2004) has also been reviewed on this blog.