Tag Archives: Play adaptation

CAPSULE: WAITING FOR GODOT (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Lindsay-Hogg

FEATURING: Barry McGovern, Johnny Murphy, Alan Stanford, Stephen Brennan

PLOT: Two chatty hobos wait in a landscape of rubble for the arrival of the mysterious Godot, who seems increasingly unlikely to show.

Still from Waiting for Godot (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There is nothing that’s weird about this version of Waiting for Godot that isn’t weird about its source material. The film transplants the surreal masterpiece to the big screen fully intact, serving as a filmed document of the classic play. As possibly the greatest piece of existential theater ever devised, Godot is self-evidently strange in its minimalist approach to the great questions of man’s purpose and the presence of a higher power, and its defiant resistance to straightforward explanation or simple interpretation. The film is respectful, even reverential, and serves as a straightforward representation of the work for anyone who has no other opportunity to experience it live.

COMMENTS: There’s a certain amount of cheeky fun in writing up the plot synopsis for Waiting For Godot. After all, ’s landmark play is probably literature’s finest example of “the story where nothing happens.” There is no arc, no growth, no movement whatsoever. Two men wait for Godot to come; he does not. They say they will leave; they do not. The particulars change from one act to the next (a circumstance that draws notice, if not comprehension, from one of the principals), but the result is the same. The entire play is predicated on nothing happening. Which makes its point all the sharper; there may be no purer expression of the essential, beautiful futility of life. As Beckett wrote in another context, “I can’t go on; I’ll go on.”

As such, Godot doesn’t really gain much from realization in film. The abstract, desolate setting (sometimes rendered as a bare stage) is given a gritty, realistic feel on the screen. Lindsay-Hogg does mix broad overhead shots with attentive close-ups, expanding the emotional vocabulary of the actors. But there’s only so much you can do without wrecking all that is uniquely Godot. It’s not like we’re going to “open it up,” following the characters to a new setting or adding in flashbacks to Vladimir’s life before. The play’s the thing, and film (a medium for which Beckett himself did not think Godot appropriate) is just a means of capturing it in perpetuity.

This Godot is part of an ambitious effort to film all of Beckett’s plays. It stands out from its brethren: lasting longer than any of the playwright’s other works, boasting an unusually large cast (of five), featuring actors who exchange dialogue and are allowed to move about the stage. Beckett was relentless in eliminating anything inessential or ornamental; he wrote the original Godot in French, a language in which he was less skilled, to keep his language simple. Over time, Beckett’s plays get shorter and shorter, he dispenses with names, puts his actors in pottery or buries them in sand, and begins to favor incomprehensible monologues. By contrast, Godot is downright old-fashioned.

It’s also easy to forget how enamored of early film comedy Beckett was (a love borne out in his only venture into the medium, Film). The persistence of innocence in a cruel world, the difference between erudition and wisdom, the bowler hats: all put one in the mind of or . It’s easy to see why comedians and clowns have been drawn to the leading roles, from Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin to Steve Martin and . This film’s cast is made up of stalwart Irish actors who had performed the play together many times, so while they tap into the comedy inside the absurdism, the performances are smartly crafted, unaffected, and comfortable with Beckett’s voice. (They even opt for his preferred pronunciation of the title character’s name: GAH-doe.)

But I’m sidestepping the key question: Is it weird? There is a factor that is prodding me to include it, and that is the presence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on the List, which is based on a play that I find greatly entertaining but far more explicable and less “weird” than this. But while Godot is most certainly a challenging play, one which posits any number of unlikely and unexplained premises, and one in which answers are not forthcoming (Beckett argued that the play says everything there is to say), in the final analysis, Godot filmed is still Godot, no more than it was, weird by virtue of its origins rather than anything inherent to the film itself. This Godot is an excellent record of the play, but like a movie of a lobster-and-grape-jelly sandwich, it’s only weird by virtue of what it captures, not what it is. If you’re looking for a Waiting For Godot that does more to take advantage of the unique qualities of the movies, well, you’re going to have to wait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[John Murphy’s] performance is pathetic, heartbreaking, and surrealistically hilarious… Although ‘Waiting for Godot’ is basically a single set piece, Lindsay-Hogg’s camerawork and blocking is so inventive that the theatricality of the work (which bogged down previous televised versions) is carefully reinvented to accommodate the cinematic medium. The result is not a filmed play… but rather a thoroughly cinematic experience. – Phil Hall, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

(This movie, along with the entire “Beckett on Film” cycle, was nominated for review by Caleb Moss. Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
–T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tom Stoppard

FEATURING: , , , Iain Glen

PLOT: Two of Hamlet’s old school chums are summoned to Elsinore to glean what afflicts the moody prince. Along their journey they encounter a traveling troupe of Players, whose leader offers to a put on a performance for them. Magically transported to the castle from the Players’ stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves trapped within the convoluted machinations of the royal court, confused as to their own identities and struggling to keep their heads while discussing basic questions of existence and fate.

Still from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • Adapted from his own 1967 hit play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is the first and (so far) only film directed by accomplished playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (who also contributed to Brazil).
  • The title comes straight from “Hamlet,” from the very last scene (Act V, Scene II). Arriving in Denmark to find nearly everyone in the royal court dead, the English ambassador bemoans, “The sight is dismal,/And our affairs from England come too late./The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,/To tell him his commandment is fulfill’d,/That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
  • Though it received tepid-to-positive reviews from contemporary critics (with most of the negative reviews comparing it unfavorably to the stage experience), Rosencrantz & Guildenstern did bag the top prize at the 1990 Venice Film Festival.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I suspect I take no risk of spoiling the ending (the title itself gives something of a hint as to our heroes’ ultimate fate) by singling out the execution scene of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. The former has a look of a man of reason who’s been broken by the illogical; the latter sports the complementary look of a man of whimsy who’s been worn down by niggling reality. Both accept their fate in states of differing exasperation.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Heads,” “heads,” “heads”…; am I Rosencrantz or are you Guildenstern?; play within a play within a play within a movie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tom Stoppard’s semi-medieval world is one of modern wordplay, post-modern comedy, existentialism, tragedy, and ambiguous identity. As it stands, the movie is perhaps the only example to be found in the “Nihilistic Farce” genre of cinema.


Clip from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

COMMENTS: Sometimes it’s just better to stay home. This lesson is Continue reading 229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

LIST CANDIDATE: FAUST (1994)

DIRECTED BYJan Svankmajer

FEATURING:  Petr Cepek

PLOT:  A grim “Everyman” is lured to a decaying theater and prompted to re-enact an

Still from Faust (1994)

adaptation of the Faust legend, with the lines of reality and fiction frequently skewed.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Svankmajer offers a strange and twisted version of the famous story with little in the way of exposition or explanation. Humans interact with claymation figures and life-size puppets, the scenery changes without warning from theatrical sets to real-life exteriors, and mysteries and ambiguities abound. While the foundations of the Faust tale are definitely there, they’ve been contorted and disguised into true Svankmajer surrealism.

COMMENTS:  I haven’t actually read any of the multiple versions of the Faust legend (most notably adapted by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe), so Svankmajer’s film was my introduction. The wordless opening depicts a sullen middle-aged man who is given a map with a red dot. After some strange happenings in his apartment, he decides to follow it and ends up in a dark theater populated by a silent crew and an array of stop-motion oddities. For reasons unknown, he dresses himself up as Faust and begins reading the script aloud, eventually making his way to a stage facing a recently-assembled audience. He gets stage fright and abandons the costume and stage, but continually finds himself back in character, summoning the devil’s demonic aid Mephisto, signing away his soul, and generally making a black magical mess of things. His real life merges seamlessly with his performance, as he switches back and forth between puppet form and human form, painted backdrops and the streets of Prague.

What makes Faust so puzzling is the lead character’s complete refusal to question what is happening to him—the viewer is in the dark for the entirety of the film, left to either coax out some explanation for the events onscreen or abandon any attempt at making sense of things (I opted for the latter). Our Everyman is compelled to act out the legend, with demonic apparitions and mysterious sights appearing in both the “stage” version and his supposedly real life, casting a dreamlike shadow over all of the proceedings. Two silent and conniving fellows follow him around, manipulating his actions without clear motivation. Like a more horrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the protagonist seems lost and aimless until he is speaking pre-penned lines out of a Faust script, eventually becoming the character he speaks for simply because there is little other choice. His strange experience is revealed to be cyclical: a host of unassuming “Everymen” have surely fallen prey to Faust‘s allure.

Regardless of the story’s meandering, perplexing structure, the imagery alone is enough to captivate any weird viewer. A clay baby forms itself out of an hourglass and proceeds to evolve through all the stages of life; huge wooden heads roll down a mountain path and assemble themselves into puppet forms of an angel and a devil; a restaurant table inexplicably spouts wine; a host of puppet royalty drowns in a painted sea; Mephisto takes on the eerily sculpted appearance of Petr Cepek when he speaks; a team of ballerinas harvest hay in unison; a human man gets down and dirty with a wooden devil disguised as a female puppet. It’s all there, and more! Along with, of course, Svankmajer’s noted ear for terrific and often unsettling sound effects.

It’s weird, it’s confusing, it’s imaginative: Faust transforms a familiar tale into a strange and compelling dream. The words remain true to the source material, but all of the visuals are wonderfully bizarre and often without precedent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Svankmajer introduces a dark, squishy, perversely surreal world: It’s part Lewis Carroll, part Kafka, part David Lynch and absolutely not American… Using stylistic elements that he’s developed over 40 years of film making — live action and stop-motion animation, wooden and clay figures, grotesque imagery and vivid sound effects — Svankmajer creates the warped, disturbing logic of a bad dream.”–Edward Guthman, San Francisco Chronicle

CAPSULE: BUG (2006)

DIRECTED BY: William Friedkin

FEATURING: Ashley Judd, , Harry Connick Jr.

PLOT: A lonely and none-too-bright waitress with a tragic past and an abusive ex-con ex-husband takes up with a mysterious man who is convinced that their ramshackle motel room is infested by bugs.

Still from Bug (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Bug is a well-acted, claustrophobic and dramatic exploration of paranoia that’s worth catching, but the mildly insane third act isn’t quite mad enough to get the movie involuntarily committed as one of the weirdest of all time.

COMMENTS: If you’re into paranoid delusion as entertainment, Bug is a must-see; if you’re not, it’s still worth a watch for its oft-clever script, excellent performances (especially Ashley Judd’s tragic white-trash turn), and uneven but whacked-out finale. Bug‘s origins as a stage play are always apparent—it plays out almost completely inside a dingy weekly-rate motel room that represents the protagonists sealed-off psyches—so don’t expect to get much fresh air or wide-open vistas. It’s slow-building, but always intense and claustrophobic, and the unrelieved tension may weary you after a while.

One things for sure: it’s an actor’s movie. Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon get the lion’s share of the lines, while the supporting characters—led by a buff, slick and abusive Harry Connick, Jr. as an abusive ex—present a layer of seediness in the external world that suggest fantastical escapism, however skewed, might be preferable to harsh reality. Shannon, who enters the scene as a mysterious stranger, conveys the fact that something is “off” about his character from the get-go merely through his disconcerting calmness and odd cadences (which lead to increasingly odd monologues). Shannon’s Peter is too alien for us to identify with, though, so all our empathy naturally flows to Judd’s Agnes, who may not be the brightest bulb in the marquee but who surely doesn’t deserve the misfortunes that fate has visited on her. Judd does a bang-up job, redeeming herself after a number of forgettable performances; she succeeds by projecting a hollow loneliness that sells her character’s improbable descent into madness as the only sane option open to her. Her line “I’d rather talk to you about bugs than nobody about nothin'” tells you all you most of what you need to know about her character; her often repeated “I don’t understand” tells you the rest.

Judd and Shannon begin an unlikely and desperate romance that’s hampered by an apparent infestation of tiny bugs in their mattress.  Bug strips and microscopes start to multiply in the tiny hovel as Peter’s obsession grows, but things don’t get truly weird until the odd couple line the walls with tinfoil to garble the CIA’s incoming (or outgoing) radio transmissions. By the time an unnaturally smug psychiatrist suddenly arrives looking for Peter, pausing in his attempt to convince Agnes to turn over the escapee to take a bong hit, we’re can no longer be certain whether we’re seeing events through a camera’s objective lens, or whether we’re watching Agnes’ version of reality, which as is distorted as the light cast by the blue-bug zappers bouncing off the foil-crinkled walls of the motel room. The finale is intense, verging on overwrought, and inevitably a downer. Tonally out-of-place blood and scenes of gruesome home dentistry seem inserted to fulfill a contractual gore quota set by distributor Lionsgate so they could market Bug as a horror film. It’s not, unless you’re horrified by the mind’s ability to skew reality to salvage some kind of emotional sense out of an impossibly cruel world.

Tracy Letts adapted the screenplay from his own off-Broadway play. Shannon originated the role of Peter onstage.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The shift in tone — reflected in the ever more panicky language, the anti-insect redecoration of the room and the gruesomeness of the violence — takes us from what begins as a grim, familiar drama into something much weirder. By the end, you wonder if you’re not hallucinating too… the creepiness of it gets under your skin. But ‘Bug’s’ relentless unpleasantness, which Friedkin bogs us down in instead of crystallizing it into what might have been a stylish head trip, can get to be a chore.”–Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)