Sunday, 8 October 2017
Whim and caprice dominated the ‘60s. It was a period of slow convalescence from the aftermath of the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the Great Depression; a period of unrest and revolt, resulted from a protracted hopelessness the people had felt towards the grim prospect of the immediate future, and a just indignation of their unrelieved squalor. It was also a period that saw a light to the problem of an identity crisis that seized the lost and the dispossessed, as the collective repugnance for tyranny and enforced servility necessitated a call for self-liberation. The naiveté of going against the conventional, as this self-liberation invariably took form, culminated in a radical iconoclasm that favoured a constitution of individuality that obstinately resisted any outward influence. The Theatre of the Absurd was, in a sense, a riposte to this pervasive “counterculture” that sought to disentangle from the past through an arbitrary myth-making. Often in a mock-parodic manner the movement took aim at the absurdity of the cultural phenomenon by acting out this absurdity, attempting to extract meaning from the meaningless, aestheticising the trite and the mundane.
This trend of reinventing selves was, at bottom, merely a reaffirmation of the nature of human identity. According to Heidegger, a being is thrown into existence by the external force with which it comes into contact. This understanding negates the view that a person’s identity is essentially an organic actuality that thrusts its presence consistently on its surrounding. Modern theatre tends more to Heidegger’s conception of a mobile identity, whose manifestation consists of a series of states of being that are variable and precarious. In a strict sense no character can achieve full authenticity as the identity, whose embodiment hinges on the narrative in which it plays a part, is never tied down to one defining aspect. Imitation is a key element whose means those characters, their lack of a fixed personality renders them almost characterless, resort to in adapting themselves to the world.
This acknowledgement of selfhood as fundamentally subservient to the dictates of nature is a reverse take on Jean Luc-Godard’s films, whose emphases on the primacy of self-autonomy makes a strong claim for humanity as unfettered by the shackles of social protocols. The characters often behave oddly, unbosom their thoughts and feelings freely to the point where their speech makes little sense. With caprice as their only guidance their stories rarely resolved without a tragedy or two; they epitomise a hedonism that has no other end or purpose other than exhausting happiness to the point of death. On the surface these films seem to be celebrating the ‘60s’ teen spirits at its most melodramatic and audacious – on occasions, they even serve as a moral parable, a cautionary tale for the coming generations, or would-be emulators. As in Band of Outsiders, the philosophy is a reckless exchange of the prosaic for the criminal, in its perverse way of redeeming a life largely frustrated with its general futility and aimlessness.
The story concerns two errant vagrants, Franz and Arthur (presumably named after Kafka and Rimbaud, both of whom died during their prime), and a girl, Odile, whom they befriend in an English class. They hatch a plan of robbing Odile’s wealthy uncle, a decision that seems to be made on a whim and attached with no importance or purpose until, however, it is forced into operation, much to the astonishment and reluctance of the wide-eyed Odile.
Shot in an idiosyncratic style that made Godard the founding figure of French New Wave, the film, as judged in its entirety, is as much about the youth culture of the ‘60s, all its absurdity and waywardness, as it is an exploration, and indeed testament, of the refractory nature of our fluid identity. The tendency to behave impulsively and unreasonably, as what induces many of the characters’ outrageous mischiefs, indicates a destitution for social awareness. What characterises this peculiar spirit of ‘60s counterculture is ultimately what makes us humans – in the particular respect where our resources fail us, where our claim for superiority inevitably succumbs to the immense nebulousness of a changing reality, where our dread of the future compels us to an impasse, miserable and dejected.
Monday, 21 August 2017
Every adversity in life is a test of one's fortitude, the occasion of which, as proved invariably in the past, man is capable of defying destiny, of reversing the inexorable course to which life is doomed to tend. Too often we sympathise with the travails of the dogged, indefatigable fighter, whose hard-on victory we shed tears of relief and admiration, and whose stories and examples we evoke when in need of a boost of morale or motivation, that our notion of heroism has come to be hallowed with a glow of divinity peculiar to those who triumph in their fights. Those who fail – the martyrs who labour for nothing, who die without fulfilling what they die for – they are regarded with no less sympathy, but to recount their stories we averse, refusing to be reminded of what ultimately makes us humans – our inherent and infinite capacity to fail.
To face up to one’s failures, especially with the forlorn hope that such failures can ever be remedied, requires a special kind of courage. William Inge’s 1950 play, Come Back, Little Sheba, suggests that such courage hinges on an almost implausible light of positivism in the midst of a demoralising gloom. “Doc” Delaney is a former alcoholic who resigns to life’s perennial discontents, giving up a promising career in the medical to be yoked to a faded belle, Lola, whom he married out of obligation for their child, conceived out of wedlock and soon died. Their unhappy marriage subsists on an affectatious ritual of referring to each other as “daddy” and “baby,” and a false cheerfulness supplied mainly by Lola’s interminable prattle, often provoking nothing more than a monosyllabic response from her apathetic listener.
The pretense does not hold long. A college art student Marie, whose bobby-soxer image belies a simmering lustfulness that mesmerises those around her, comes to stay at the Delaney’s as a boarder. Friction begins to show between Doc and Lola, who clash with their differing opinions as of whether Marie, already bespoken, is allowed to play fire with another man. For Marie reminds both of their youths, Lola a beguiling coquette pursued by myriads dashing young men, and Doc a consummate academic with a bright future ahead.
Daniel Mann’s 1952 film adaptation rightly centers on the sterling performance of the actors, Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster, who bring subtlety and resonance to a kitchen-sink drama whose pathos verges on the platitudinous. The couple’s ruggedness in the wake of Doc’s relapse attests to the moral of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, published around the same period as the play, that “man can be destroyed but not defeated,” and conveys a tenderness that reveals their love to be steadfast despite their mutual rancour. There is a sadness when Booth, moving and endearing in her enforced verbosity, announces to Doc, returning from the hospital dazed but gratified, that it is time she ceases dreaming that Sheba, her missing little dog, would ever come back to her life, and they should face the reality with their chins up; this is a sadness that may be temporarily assuaged by an inspired positivism but is never completely removed from doubt.
Wednesday, 12 July 2017
Despite its varied forms or narratives, all Gothic fictions revolve on a fundamental contrast: that between the tenuous comfort of an isolated self and the dangerous fascination of an intrusive otherness. The Victorian is an age characterised by its obsession with the supernatural – poised on the verge of modernity, with scientific advancements like Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species inspired missions to unlock the myths of the natural world, people began to take notice of what lay outside their limited knowledge of things, of anything that is external to the closed domain of humanity. This curiosity for the unknown provoked an appraisal for the known – the immutable social system was revealed as hostile to the cultivation of individual minds, and time-honoured ethics such as that dictating a woman’s role in a traditional domesticity a menace to the preservation of personal integrity.
The negotiation between the old and the new, the internal and the external, is the dominant theme of Victorian literature. Freedom was a concept that had no longer a purely theoretical abstractness; its pent-up force sought outlet finally in the practical efforts of the few, exerting far-reaching impacts that would, in consequence, changed face of the social climate. Even for those to whom the prospect of freedom was not too implausible a dream, but altogether an unattainable privilege, their growing distrust with the old values and ideals that they used to hold dearly to triggered stirrings of rebelliousness against their secluded lives.
A typical Gothic fiction dramatises this struggle of attaining the freedom of self. Women are chiefly the voice, their stories a model for the oppressed to stand up against the injustice of their present conditions, or the tyranny that condemns their lives to endless fear and suffering. Passivity is no longer a mark of feminine virtue, but an impediment to one’s pursuit of future happiness and self-fulfillment. Instead of resigning to fruitless dreaming, those doughty women set out to rewrite their destiny.
But not all women in those stories start in a place where their sense of resoluteness or intrepidity is readily evoked in the face of adversity, nor are they wholly aware of possessing those qualities. Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight features a heroine who is constantly questioning her own sanity. It is clear from the outset that her husband isn’t totally innocent in the matter: he reproaches her for her incessant forgetfulness and, later, a paranoiac hallucination which convinces her that the gaslight would inexplicably dim whenever he is out. The unravelling of the mystery seems too facile, with every obvious clue pointing to the husband as the cause of the wife’s affliction. He is callous and scornful during his wife’s many mental break-downs, flirting behind her back with the servant and slipping out every night to tend to an unknown personal business.
Intentionally or not, the play’s want of suspenseful elements heightens this uneasy complicity between the playwright and the audience, to the extent that, as the heroine’s suffering of her husband’s cruel treatment becomes increasingly acute, our collective moral conscience is called into question. This manipulation of audience’s response constitutes in the main the mechanism of filmmaking. A filmmaker is, in a sense, more of an interpreter than a storyteller, whose invisible presence thrusts more forcefully between an audience and the film. It seems normally the case that, when viewing a film, especially for the first time, one is allowed not much freedom in diverting from the fundamental perspective through which the story is told.
With George Cukor’s 1944 film adaptation of Gaslight the viewers are subjected to an emotional trial that sees Ingrid Bergman’s Paula Alquit systematically driven mad by her wicked husband Gregory, played by Charles Boyer. Both were acting against their types: Bergman reduced to a crumbling frailty that was oddly efficacious with someone whose tall, robust frame, and whose faultlessly dignified mien, earned her roles in the past of a more fearless, dogged temperament (in fact it was Cukor’s intention that the character should seem in appearance contrary to the tortured victim she then becomes); whilst Boyer swiveled between his signature lover’s charm and a shuddering viciousness.
What ultimately distinguishes Gaslight from other Gothic thrillers of the period is the timelessness of its subject - that our greatest fear derives not from the threat of what we don’t know, but the unsuspected danger inherent in what we know. Gaslight is a perfect metaphor for this: it consists in both light and darkness, offering at most temporary, tentative relief that is constantly accompanied by signs of its imminent extinction.
Wednesday, 31 May 2017
Life is a mixture of comedy and tragedy- tragicomic if both aspects are given equal measure of awareness; melodramatic when the two extremes are ratcheted up to a boiling point. For most people, it is only natural that they take the good with the bad. An ingrained fatalism dictates their attitudes towards the vagaries of human fate; therefore in joy they wait agonisingly for the day their good fortune is suddenly wrested from them, and in sadness for the glimpse of light that signals a gradual upturn of the dire condition. “Nothing lasts forever”- this well-worn adage becomes almost the guideline of their survival, and a perpetual reminder that life is ever mobile and unpredictable.
Every current of life, regardless of the varying destination it tends to, returns and oscillates invariably between two points: suffering and the struggle to survive. They are as much the fundamentals of human condition as the impetus for the cultivating of human resourcefulness: it is the battle of will between the irrevocable fate and the indefatigable resilience of mankind.
Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey explores the extent to which men are capable of withstanding endless misfortunes whilst keeping alive the infallibly optimistic outlook of life. The story is set in 1950s’ Salford, a former industrial town that weathered a gradual decline in commerce and population as people left for the cities to seek for better fortunes. 17-year-old Jo and her errant mother Helen were amongst those who struggled to keep afloat in this implacable squalor, moonlight-flitting from one derelict accommodation to another. The relationship between the mother and daughter was a contentious one; their exchange abounded in sardonic humour and throwaway barbs. Desperate to be released from the straits, Helen ran off one day with an insolent cad, and the abandoned Jo was impregnated by a black sailor and afterward befriended a kind homosexual art student, Geoffrey.
Tony Richardson’s 1961 film version justly evinces a dogged hopefulness that, according to Delaney, is the keynote of the play. But whilst, in the play, this positivism is somewhat weighed down by a sense of unremitting oppressiveness and self-inhibition the cramped locale evokes, Richardson negates this vital contrast by expanding the visual scope, wherein the interiors are much wider, and the characters are taken out into the open, roaming frequently in the country and the dockside.
By muting the ambiguous overtone that makes the original story not only a celebration of human endurance, but an unvarnished observation of the difficult life in post-war Manchester, the film is evidently keen on conveying an edifying message that the brave of heart will eventually triumphs all obstacles. The play nonetheless is much more sceptic in its tone, as the ending sees Helen, back from her disastrous marriage to tend to her pregnant daughter, rush out in the shocked knowledge that her grandchild may be half-black. Although she promises Jo that she is only going to get herself a few drinks, there is no knowing if the fickle Helen will keep her word this time. Jo, left alone again, smilingly hums a tune Geoffrey teaches her, seemingly still in the dark of her friend’s earlier departure.
The film instead closes with manifest signs of hope: Helen is really back from the bar and Jo stares bedazzled by a sparkler. This overall image of hope is accompanied by a more sympathetic portrayal of characters: Dora Bryan as the mother whose maternal instinct atones for her failure as a responsible parent, and Rita Tushingham as a more likeable Jo whose flares of rebelliousness is a result of being perpetually exposed to harsh fate. Like all young sufferers, Jo often discloses her feelings in deceptively simple address: “I’m not frightened of the darkness outside. It’s the darkness inside houses I don’t like” is her way of expressing her wish for a more stable, loving household. One would suggest that such precocity could not have been any more exquisitely captured if the play weren’t written by Delaney when she was only 19.
Friday, 5 May 2017
In comedy a happy ending does not always resolve all. The case in point is Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, whose hilarity so overtly predicates on the wretchedness of the victim that, when one laughs there follows inevitably a conscience tug that one is gloating over someone’s misfortune.
My disquietude may seem misplaced here, for the importance of the play is really on its revolutionary illustration of an upending of the age-old hierarchy in traditional domesticity. Henry Hobson is the imperious, blustering, perennially sottish shoeseller bestriding his three unmarried daughters, who skivvy away at the shop and the household without pay. The story is set in late 19th century Salford, just a few miles from where the first suffrage movement germinated. The play presents a hallmark in heralding the birth of female empowerment: Maggie, the eldest daughter who is deemed too old to be marriageable at 30, is impelled to prove her father wrong by marrying William Mossop, the most skilled bootmaker in the shop, and gradually gaining upper hand with her calculated mind and steely ambition. The moral lesson seems to be, crudely, that parents should not underestimate their children’s potentials, and that upward mobility is an insidious power in transforming a society.
If it seems that I am equivocal with the play’s ostensible feminist statement, it is because I sense Brighouse’s doubt regarding the prospect of the rising number of self-made, independent women. This is especially evident in the characterisation of Maggie, who, despite embodying a fine mixture of sense and intelligence, is too set on fashioning her humble husband to become the top shoemaker that, instead of unfettering from the paternal yoke and asserting her strength, she is merely lurking in the outsized shadow of her father’s. The final triumphant moment with Maggie and Mossop patronisingly proposing working partnership with the ailing, subdued Hobson seems more of a vindictive display of their reversed fortune than a solicitous love for the defeated party- here lies the pathos that single-handedly eclipses whatever positive message the play wishes to convey.
David Lean’s 1954 adaptation of the play brilliantly enlivens a story that may seem too austere for silver screen. There are inventive moments of great comedy: like the opening scene with Charles Laughton’s paunchy, endearingly fractious Hobson tottering up the stairs to his room like a drunk high-wire artist, and the sequence when he, also drunk, trying to catch the reflection of the moon in a puddle only to be confronted by his own bloated face staring stupidly back at him. As Lean’s last film in black-and-white, the visuals yield a symbolic pessimism for the future: Maggie and Mossop discuss their marriage plans in a pleasure garden that is bounded by industrial plants and river floated with scums.
Saturday, 1 April 2017
There is a notion that life is a futile pursuit of the ever-unattainable balance. Men are creatures of contrariety, incessantly flitting from one extreme state of mind to another; rarely predictable and always volatile. Human caprice has a way of conciliating the opposing sensations, of confounding their differing values and gradually assimilating them into one. That explains why we sometimes find ourselves irresistibly drawn to the things we fear, or react with sudden repugnance someone to whom we’ve harboured a long-standing affection. Balance has no part in this ceaseless tumult of the warring forces- and yet all our life we strive for it, even if the vision of it is a glimmering star that winks at us fools who try unavailingly capture it.
Less about the ongoing, workaday struggle to find balance in life, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance is more concerned with the corrosive effect of keeping up a semblance of balance amidst the mounting chaos. At first glance the story seems to carry an obscure portent: Agnes and Tobias, along with Agnes’s sozzled sister Claire, are the lethargic suburbanites whose equable state is galvanised by an untoward visit of their “best friends,” Harry and Edna, who are hounded out of their household by a nameless fear. In an unforgettable moment (with its improbable comedy) the distraught couple proceed to invite themselves to stay indefinitely with Agnes and Tobias, as they assume they are bestowed the permanent right of their friends’ unconditional succour when in distress.
Reading Albee’s play one feels like an outsider witnessing the unfolding of an event that, even after the curtain drops, one still can barely make head or tails of. The reason isn’t with the inaccessibility of speech- the characters rarely prevaricate and often express themselves in the bluntest terms. But one is nagged with the sense of intruding on a conversation that one is not part of and the speakers, probably noticing that they are under inspection, occasionally put on a stilted display of emotional flourishes that contradict their real intents.
There are so many aspects of human condition that can be manifested through one simple sentence or gesture. Such is the understated power of the economy that Albee exerts to an ingenious effect that recalls Hemingway, and allows the directors and actors a relatively broader, and emptier, canvas to evolve their individual ideas. In the case of Tony Richardson’s 1973 film adaptation of A Delicate Balance, the director does not exploit much of his creative license but chooses to stay faithful to the source material. And the result is not too different from that of reading the play in print: that most of the time one is befuddled.
There are still some nice touches. The theme of intrusion is vividly demonstrated through the lumbering camera, which at times comes dangerously close to the actors’ faces, and at others coolly observes from afar. The performance is first-rate: Paul Scofield, his void of expressions suggestive of habitual inertia, which is momentarily broken during an inflamed confrontation with Harry, is Albee’s archetype of quiet, browbeaten husband on the verge of an explosive crackup; Lee Remick as the prodigal daughter who is driven to hysterics by the unwanted visitors; Kate Reid as the alleged addict who delivers scraps of unvarnished wisdom when under the influence of alcohols; and Betsy Blair is positively chilling with her glacial menace. As the bucked-up matriarch whose stuttering eloquence betrays a brittle heart, and whose curtain line: “They say we sleep to let the demons out- to let the mind go raving mad, our dreams and nightmares all our logic gone awry, the dark side of our reason. And when the daylight comes again… comes order with it” aptly sums up the play’s symbolic message, Katherine Hepburn’s Agnes sometimes appears too austere and distanced to convince the audience of the character’s inner torment. But this is mere quibble.
In Albee’s preface to A Delicate Balance he reveals the play’s main concern as “rigidity and ultimate paralysis which afflicts those who settle in too easily, waking up one day to discover that all the choices they have avoided no longer give them any freedom of choice, and that what choices they do have left are beside the point.” This statement, in my mind, imposes a disquieting overtone to the play’s ambiguous ending: the pesky visitors are gone and the family are finally able to start their day in peace, but peace hinges on their consistent effort of eschewing realities, and maintaining a tenuous balance that they know will soon be disrupted again.
Wednesday, 15 March 2017
“Less is more” is a difficult balance to negotiate when dealing with proscribed subjects. There is always the concern that the illicit will no longer be as such if subjected to too much attenuation; or if the expression is couched in too abstract a language. Coarseness is at the nucleus of matters like sex and violence- attempt at over-refinement would be as ineffectual and absurd as giving a solemn speech to a table of revellers. In this case, less is definitely advisable, but only under the condition that it contains promises of the more.
As with Noel Coward’s Design for Living, there is barely any need for overexplicitness. The play centers on a ménage à trois in Paris 1932, during the period of Les années folles, or the “Crazy Years,” which saw the city’s artistic culture reaching an insuperable peak. Characters were drawn from real life: Coward indebted the play to his actor friends, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, whose long marriage was bedevilled by infidelities on both sides. The lines teeter on the edge of the risqué, wherein underlies a not too obscure implication of a homosexual relation. The New York audience embraced the play, though not without, perhaps, some apprehension. It became one of Coward’s seminal comedies that has been, curiously, the least revived.
For Design for Living seems in the main too contemplative and mordant for a light comedy. The three main characters intersperse their hysterical laughter with almost Freudian musings on human heart and its discontents, which, despite their lyricism, are symptomatic of none other than the weariness of the voluptuaries. But there are moments when one is moved to empathised with the characters and their self-imposed affliction- within this increasingly troublesome imbroglio somehow everyone is lone and dolorous.
Riding the coattail of the play’s Broadway success, a filmic adaptation came in 1933, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. There is very little left of Coward’s original: screenwriter Ben Hecht raffishly boasted that he eradicated all but one line: “for the good of our immortal souls.” Filmed a year before the enforcement of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code, Lubitsch and Hecht would have little qualms of making their main stars talk about sex without a sign of unease- in perhaps one of the most implausible moments in the film, Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) makes a deal with George (Gary Cooper) and Thomas (Frederic March) that their cohabitation should contain one stipulation: “No sex!” she exclaims, whilst chomping on a sausage.
The “Lubitsch touch,” whilst ruthlessly erased much of Coward’s meandering spoor, left intact the biting irony that ultimately attaches an ambiguous message to the light-hearted comedy. The film closes with the three lovers- Gilda married to her smarmy boss but leaves him to elope with the boys- joing their hands and swearing on a gentlemen’s agreement, an oath that they formerly failed to keep. In Coward’s play Gilda’s husband storms out on the knowledge of his wife’s decision to revert to her dissolute past, and the three main characters roar with laughter until they weep. I personally prefer the latter version to be the more effective.