Armchair Cinephile

Reminiscing during the last few weeks about the late, great Katherine Hepburn, I've wished I had been able to see her perform on stage; undoubtedly that tough, assured personality projected well into even the largest theaters. Until I get my time machine out of the shop, there is always the new DVD release of The American Film Theater.

The AFT was a mid-'70s series of films instigated by producer Ely Landau, the idea being that Americans outside of New York might like to have access to great contemporary works for the stage. Marquee names were hired, and heavy-hitting filmmakers were recruited to adapt the plays for the big screen, instead of just bringing cameras in and shooting existing stage productions.

Predictably, many of the films retain the claustrophobic feel of their original settings. Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance (the film starring Hepburn) is entirely composed of formally blocked conversations in drawing rooms; there is little sense of a world outside. Other adaptations feel a little looser, even if their locales are constrained: Simon Gray's Butley is almost completely set in a professor's basement office, but is liberated by a dynamic performance by Alan Bates, a one-man banter factory whose life is caving in around him. His wife has left him, his boyfriend/colleague is fooling around, and Butley is such a nasty, bitter person it's hard to understand how he landed two lovers in the first place.

There's enough bitterness to go around in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, a movie full of awkward pauses and unnerving stares. Director Atom Egoyan is a big fan, and there's no doubt why: The dynamics in this emotionally abusive, all-male household get awfully itchy when a wayward son brings his wife home and she refuses to cower in front of all the manly posturing. (Ian Holm surely owes his role in Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter in large part to his performance here.)

The rest of the 10 films in the two boxes (four more will come in the fall) feature such actors as Lee Marvin (in Death of a Salesman), Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (in Ionesco's Rhinoceros), and, of all people, Stacy Keach playing religious revolutionary Martin Luther in John Osborne's Luther. The films are certainly of their time, and aren't all that meticulously cleaned up, but they are a remarkably successful attempt to preserve a generation's worth of stage drama.

Rather than capture a cross-section of popular theater, Beckett on Film interprets the entire body of work by one of the century's most important playwrights. Here again, famous actors appear - Jeremy Irons, Julianne Moore, John Gielgud, Timothy Spall, et cetera - but the directors are split between the established (David Mamet, Atom Egoyan, Anthony Minghella) and up-and-coming Irish filmmakers born into the author's legacy.

Given the experimental nature of these plays - many are under 20 minutes, one is a quicksilver 45 seconds - it isn't surprising that they're more visually exciting than the AFT's straight-ahead productions. One focuses on an isolated mouth; one has a monologuist's head seeming to float in a sea of black; one is in crisply beautiful black-and-white - and the directors aren't afraid to use their cameras. (Art world superstar Damien Hirst cranes and swoops around a debris-covered floor in Breath, for instance.)

Beckett was famous for despair, and some of these plays make pretty good cases for ending it all. The author's favorite, Endgame, had me aching to shoot my television for over an hour. But others are exhilarating: The three intertwined monologues in Play, for instance, are delivered at such a furious pace and are so crammed with text that it's difficult to imagine actors so virtuosic they could perform them live; the fact that the players (Kristin Scott-Thomas, Alan Rickman, and Juliet Stephenson) are buried up to their necks in enormous urns and caked in green dirt just makes the feat more impressive.

These projects were undertaken with the plays' interests at heart, but of course it's more common for filmmakers to adapt source material to suit themselves. With Akira Kurosawa in TPR's spotlight this week (see Special Screenings, page 22), it's a good moment to celebrate the arrival of two meetings between Japan's legend and the Bard: Ran and Throne of Blood are drastic retellings of Shakespeare's King Lear and Macbeth, respectively.

Ran, of course, marked the filmmaker's return to international glory. The haunting 1985 epic replaces the king's daughters with sons whose desire to inherit his power leads them to wage a bloody, stunningly filmed war on each other. As brutal as the fighting is, though, the agony of Lord Hidetora (the Lear character, played by Tatsuya Nakadai) at the tale's end makes their flesh-and-blood pain seem trivial. Throne of Blood, on the other hand, is from the director's early prime; the 1957 film casts Kurosawa stalwart Toshiró Mifune as the unfortunate husband. As in the later Ran, the filmmakers adapt to their ancient Japanese settings by incorporating Noh theater techniques into the performances. Here, especially, that heightens the tale's already creepy overtones - as do lingering images like a pervasive fog. In a perfect world, all art lovers would have easy access to the quantity and variety of theatrical experiences available to New Yorkers or Londoners. Films like these, thankfully, make the hinterlands a little easier to bear. •

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