“A Master Builder,” Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play is the last of three great theatrical projects of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn that have been made into movies. The film opened this week at the New York Film Forum.
Normally filmed stage productions, no matter how talented the actors or how brilliant the playwright, end up being stilted affairs, so much so that the general feeling is that a play cannot be successfully filmed other than as a method of archiving the stage production.
This truism is disproved by the collaborations of the experimental stage director Gregory and the performer-writer-collaborator Shawn. The first, “My Dinner with Andre,” came out more than 30 years ago (in 1981) and proved to be a quirky and engaging experiment in both theatre and film in which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory are filmed doing nothing more than talking during dinner, albeit, eventually, the meaning of life and more important things.. A decade later Gregory and Shawn collaborated in bringing the rehearsal of David Mamet’s version of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” to the screen as “Vanya on 42nd Street.” Both of those projects were filmed by Louis Malle. Malle died not long after the latter movie (his last), and so this latest collaboration by Gregory and Wallace was filmed by Demme, who is perhaps best known for “Swimming to Cambodia” (a theatrical performance film) and “Silence of the Lambs” (a highly successful commercial crime drama/horror film).
I’ll return in a bit to the differences between the filming by Malle and Demme, but for the moment it’s worth noting that the surprising immediacy of all three of these films has very little to do with the film direction. All three movies have something that is almost completely absent in modern American film—intellectually challenging dialogue exchanged by actors who actually appear to be engaging in conversations with each other. This may seem like something that ought to be inherent in any drama, whether staged or filmed, but when you see a production by Gregory, you realize that the essence of theatricality, done right, is the ability to draw the viewer into the drama, solely based on the words and how they are delivered, and that the trick is seldom seen anymore. In each of these three films, the power of words exchanged by actors totally guided by a particular view of the playwright’s script is astonishing. In each of the three, there are moments when you simply lose yourself in the exchanges of ideas and emotions that are so deeply personal that you forget that you are watching a production and become a spectator of a genuine human interaction. In “Vanya on 42 Street,” in which the actors arrive in street clothes to rehearse the Chekhov play in a condemned theatre in Manhattan’s Time Square district, the interaction is so absorbing and the pace of the drama so compellingly managed that when intermission is announced the viewer is shocked into realizing that it is a play he is watching.
The effect is not merely owing the Gregory’s genius as a stage director. It is because of the immense amount of work and attention to detail that the director and willing actors lavish on these projects. “Vanya on 42nd Street” was in rehearsal for several years and in the end never saw the stage. “A Master Builder” was rehearsed by Gregory for over a decade. This kind of dedication and meticulousness has no analog among spoken performances. Movie productions are hailed for their preparation when actors spend several weeks together. The economics of theater require that projects are rehearsed largely during out-of-town productions. But by the time Gregory’s plays (and all three were only movies) are seen by the public, all artifice has been wrung out of them. The acting has reached a point that it is no longer “acting.” There should be another word for it. It has reached the point that you do not need to suspend your disbelief—the characters are actually delivering their words from deep within their actual beings and they are saying them to people who they know will react in the unpredictable ways that humans react to each other. It is a method of acting that no other director, stage or film, can elicit.
In some ways “A Master Builder” is the most challenging of the three projects. The first one, “My Dinner with Andre,” is an exploration of wonder and imagination by two intellectuals who respect each other and are grappling to explain their souls to each other. This was remarkable enough, but it only involved the exchanges between Shawn and Gregory who have an extraordinary degree of mutual stage empathy. The Chekhov project involved a large ensemble, and therefore was many times harder to elicit genuine interpersonal interactions in Gregory’s way, but the gorup acted a play that, though tragic, was shot through with humor, absurdity, flamboyance and pathos so that audience reactions took a ride that was unpredictable, but not uniformly intense.
“Master Builder,” on the other hand, is (at least to me) an almost impossibly difficult work to perform. It is uniformly grim. The relations among the characters have been frozen over time into unrelieved misery. The cause of this is the central character, Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn), a man who dominates those around him so imperiously that his desires are all met: sexual, material, social, professional. And yet Solness is sick of life and too craven to even consider ending it. He has climbed the bourgeois ladder, accepting all the requirements that such a life exacts and adopted all the beliefs that such a life depends on. To Solness everything is a negotiated bargain. For everything received, one must pay. He is obsessed with the knowledge that his professional success is an asset that must have a corresponding liability. He also knows that it is not only he, but also all those around, that must pay. The obligations he has imposed on others, his wife, his employee, the man whose business he ruined for his own career and his personal assistant, all pay for his success. He acknowledges, however, only a debt to his wife. But she is beyond willing to accept anything from Halvard. Bourgeois herself, she has been reduced to considering only her “obligations” and “duty,” to her husband and to everyone else. She fits in the bourgeois scale as servant to Halvard’s master.
The story, therefore, is a kind of social realist melodrama from a century ago that is unlikely to appeal to a contemporary audience, whose attention span as well as their empathy has been reduced by our own narrowness. But the difficulty is greater than that. The play is not one of the earlier works like “Doll House” or “Ghosts,” which sensationalized the Western theater with their brutal political-social critique. (Perhaps only Strindberg could flog the bourgeoise like Ibsen.) At the point in his career he wrote “The Master Builder,” Ibsen took as a given the relentless criticism of social convention. This play, however, began a new phase, one where he would add psychological insight and (necessarily) expand his theatrical palette by adding approaches that would stretch the stage’s power to represent. “The Master Builder” can plausibly be presented as a performance of Halvard Solness’s internal thoughts. And that is the approach taken by Wallace Shawn who produced the screenplay. The liberty he takes with the play makes the point. Solness is first seen hooked up to modern hospital monitoring devices. The point is that the main character is approach an end-of-life crisis and that everything that takes place must be seen in that context. If you miss that point, there are several added “dream-like” sequences which suggest that Solness is slipping from consciousness. This particular contrivance, it seems to me, is unnecessary. Those who cannot pick this point of view from the dialog or direction are probably not going to be watching this film anyway; the rest (including all who watch it) are likely to be offended by the condescension. But the device is not long employed and is not a great distraction.
With this solipsistic psychological approach, one can understand the perspective of Solness without having to accept each of the details. Solness often comes across as the more long-suffering of the greatly suffering characters, but the fact is the suffering is all engendered by Solness himself. He claims to Doctor Herdal that he allows his wife to believe a slander against him because he owes her a great debt. “Debt” is a bourgeois concept. Solness committed a crime against her, but believes he can buy off his guilt, even though the coin he offers itself turns out to be false.
The equilibrium of suffering is upset by the unexpected introduction of the young Hilda Wangel, who soon reminds Solness that 10 years ago to the day, he had forced himself on her when she was 12 (or 13 the play says, making it somewhat more clear her unreality), when he promised to come back in 10 years to take her away and make her a princess. She has now come to claim her right. Solness remembers none of this, but soon accepts it because she seems not to incriminate him for the violation. And she is the only person who has not become irredeemably broken by his callous selfishness. She prods him on to act less selfishly, and does so by also bringing life back into his empty soul. Solness was more than willing to accept her dreams for herself and him, even though, at every turn, she with good nature reminds him of his own short-sided meanness and how much of a cad he was to her and everyone else. Their exchanges make up the central intellectual debate of the play. The audience is never quite sure where Wangel stands, but watching Solness pour out his withered soul to her is gut-wrenching.
It is difficult to imagine a more perfectly realized production of this play. It is true that its point of view is not necessarily the definitive one, but it follows that choice with relentless logic. The acting is impeccable. Those, like me, who watch almost no television will be shocked to see Julie Hagerty (Aline Solness), who was last seen in Airplane in 1980. Her appearance not only shows that tempus fugit, but also that she has acting chops that Hollywood inexplicably failed to employ for over three decades. Her interactions with Solness are achingly icy, but she has so thoroughly internalized the damage done her that she in the end does not want to see his destruction. Larry Pine plays the perfectly good-natured Doctor Herdal, the only character who has not been manipulated by Solness and the only one who fails to comprehend the strength of the web that has trapped the rest of the characters. Andre Gregory’s small role as the dying and ruined mentor of Solness is powerful. The relationship between Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce (Hilda Wangel) form the central pivot of the play. She is perfectly ambiguous. Is she seducing him or teasing him? This depends on whether she believed his promises to a small girl he took advantage of or came for revenge. Solness denies vigorously that he acted the monster, but soon accepts it because he thinks she provides his last hope for a relationship unspoiled by his fear, his manipulation and his self-centeredness. But he is such a narrow character that he can do nothing but offer unrealistic acts of bravado, after much coaxing. Where this will lead becomes as inevitable as his own unrelenting wretchedness to those around him had proved.
Of course the entire project revolves around Wallace Shawn. I must admit that it seemed implausible to me that Shawn could pull off the role. After all, Solness is sought after by all the women he encounters. Those reading the play without sufficient imagination (like me) would probably think that a “leading man” actor was necessary to make the role plausible. Shawn, however, is such a talented actor that he can use the audience’s initial discomfort with the dissonance between his appearance and his effect on women to dramatize the fact that the narrative is a non-naturalistic story told from his own perspective petrified by years of unchecked self-indulgence. His attempts to seduce Wangel become exercises in self-delusion. That delusion has an inevitable price, which is obvious to all who watch the unpleasant behavior of one who is so used to acting the lecher that he cannot see his own ridiculousness.
While the stage direction and acting are top-flight, I will offer a quibble here. The film direction of the other two projects by Malle was essentially unobtrusive. It was not static—there were close-ups and cross-curing—but it did not draw attention to itself. Demme’s filming, however, relied much less on the sure-handedness of the stage direction. At the beginning, for some reason, some of the scenes were filmed by hand-held cameras. Moreover, the use of cross-cutting during dialogs became so pronounced that it diluted the in-the-moment magic of the stage directions. The use of music, although not as excessive as most movies make it, was nonetheless unnecessary. The acting itself was quite enough to produce the desired audience reactions. In fact, the music tended to draw attention to itself by overemphasizing what the production is trying to convey. The use of the music of Sibelius (a Finn) evidently to provide suitable Scandinavian flavor to a play by Ibsen (a Norwegian) came across as a typically pretentious Hollywood affectation. That said, the film direction was fluid and for the most part stayed out of the way of Gregory’s staging.
For those unfamiliar with Ibsen, be warned that this is not an “uplifting” experience. It is, however, a nearly perfectly realized work of art. And great art, which is hard as granite, is seldom “uplifting.”