Saturday, December 20, 2008

You can't turn it off

Beowulf begins with the bard exclaiming Hwaet! (the ancestor of our "What!" but meant, in this context to stand for "Listen to this!"). That arresting moment occurs in a different type of production when you realize that the conventional frame doesn't contain the story; it comes early in Noises Off when the action on the stage is suddenly interrupted by the director of the play, striding down an aisle of the theatre from behind the viewer and upbraiding the performers on the stage for getting it wrong; it comes at the end of EXistenZ, a film about virtual reality, when one participant, dazed by the ordeal, plaintively inquires, "Tell me the truth, are we still in the game?" In The French Lieutenant's Woman, you're aware of it from the first and watch the actors go continually from the 20th century to the 19th and back again, but it also adds to the viewer's uncertainty about the motives of both the Victorian characters and the modern actors who play them in the film within a film.

In England, My England, Tony Palmer's "experimental biography" of 17th-century composer Henry Purcell, the "What!" moment comes immediately after watching Simon Callow crowned as Charles II upon the Stuart Restoration in 1660; with no warning, someone off camera hands Charles an already-lit cigarette, which he begins to enjoy as the camera pulls back and reveals a 21st-century London theatre employee assisting Callow backstage during a performance about the dissolute monarch and his court. Though much is known of Restoration England, and the works he composed even during a short life of 35 years guaranteed Purcell a place among the immortals of music, there are few verifiably documented facts about the composer's own life, a condition reflected in the movie itself, which conveniently has Purcell born in 1660, the year of Charles's Restoration, whereas it is more likely that he had actually been born the year before. The haunting march that begins the funeral music he composed for the 1694 funeral of Mary II, Queen and Consort of William III (the same music was used for Purcell's own funeral a year later) may be remembered as the music that begins Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, where its use was either boldly apt or a travesty, depending on how you look at it.

In the Purcell film, it's interesting to see that the actor Callow encounters when he returns to his dressing room is Murray Melvin, who was wonderful in his minor role as Lady Lyndon's chaplain in Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and does a brief turn here that reminds me of Tom Courtenay in The Dresser. Callow himself is always great; he was memorable as Emanuel Schikaneder in Miloš Forman's Amadeus, with Tom Hulce, as well as in Mike Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral, but for me, one of his most characteristic and loathsome roles was the cynical barrister in an earlier Newell film, The Good Father, with Jim Broadbent and Anthony Hopkins. Callow often portrays the kind of sang froid that would have enabled him to write the entry in Samuel Pepys' diary for October 13, 1660, upon witnessing the execution for treason of Thomas Harrison, one of the Parliamentary regicides:

I went to see Major General Harrison hung, drawn, and quartered; he looked as cheerful as any man could in that condition.

In fact, that line is spoken in England, My England, though it is used to refer to the posthumous fate of Oliver Cromwell.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

No comments: