Tuesday, May 29, 2007

half a thought about half a film...

In the last few days I've seen The Nic Hytner directed film of Alan Bennett's The History Boys, at least some of it, and the largely derided Pirates of The Carribean: At World's End, the third part in the trilogy, and probably the most subversive film of the decade so far. Hopefully I'll get round to writing up the scientific proof of the latter statement soon, but i wanted to splurge something out about the Bennett first...

I know it's bad form to bad mouth a bad film when you haven't seen all of bad it, and I reckon anyone that knows me wouldn't exactly be surprised that I didn't like it, but it warrants mention because its more than just something I don't like, it's something that's actively bad and is part of a larger, deeply pernicious, movement in both our cultural and political life, and because it raises some interesting questions about the relationship between a text and its medium.

THB rests its appeal on a nostalgia for something that never existed. The 80s boys' school in which the titular boys and their teachers do their education is a kind of incessently and aggressively charming ideal of Englishness as manifested in liberal poshness. If it was a person, it would think it was Stephen Fry. But it wouldn't be.

This is a world without bullying, in which the trauma of adolescence goes no further than being a bit sad that you fancy someone who doesn't fancy you back. Oh yeah, and it's a world without bullying. At a school. In the 80s. Where people are pretty open about their homosexuality. And there's no bullying. And no one feels the pressure or stress of work even though they're all trying for oxbridge. And there's no bullying.

The problem isn't so much that the film is unrealistic, but that it relies on your acceptance of its world not as a an explicit fantasy, but as a moment in a vaguely defined past - both your own past (school days, best of your life, etc etc) and the country's (When I Were a Lad This Were Nowt But Posh Schools). The rampant liberalism of the pupils might, at a push, feel reasonablish were the film set now, but of course the film can't be set now, because it specifically wants to avoid talking about now, because it wants to take you away to a world of notnow, a world of used to in which things were better and there was a sense of fairplay and decency. And whether or not you care for it seems to me to rest on whether or not you want to go there, whether or not your prepared to buy into it. Of course, kids always used to be better behaved, and the world has always been going to shit, but it's a necessary assumption of a particular kind of of conservatism that things only really started to get bad recently, and that the recent past is a foreign country in which you can and should have a pleasant holiday in order to build up your contempt for the modern and specifically the modern and young.

Of course, the film has been less feted than the play on which it is based - a play I haven't seen, but that's not going to stop me making wild assumptions. I'd imagine that they managed to get away with this in the theatre, and I do mean get away with it. The camera has a particular way of looking which the spectator in the theatre doesn't, and which, it seems to me, can expose evasions, faults and inadequacies which might not be evident on the stage. For one thing, location in film is detailed and specific, in theatre the specific and detailed location is the here and now that you're in. So I would expect that the film makes it feel very much more like we are supposed to be recognising 1983, and that there is very much more to recognise. A realistic visual film language makes you relate to the text (by which I mean both the spoken word and the action) very differently when compared to a realistic (or more usually a neo-brecthian/realistic-minimalist) visual language in theatre. (Which reminds me that I ought to go back to Raymond Williams' excellent Text and Performance someday soon.) Patrick Marber's Closer is another filmed play that suffers in this way. Sometimes, it seems, you just can't say those words on film without looking like a cock. And maybe you can in the theatre. In some cases i suspect this is to do with the language having an irreducible theatricality. In some cases (and i think THB falls into this category) the theatricality masks or partially masks the flaws, or at least makes them seem insignificant. I guess I need to think about what this means for a theatre maker. Can film point out the dishonesty in our art, and help us find a language which avoids these evasions?

For all of this, I very much prefer the way of looking (hearing, seeing, feeling, experiencing) that the theatre offers, not because it is partial (film of course, is partial in its own ways, and dishonest in its own ways too), but because of the possibility of reaching a point where evasion and dishonesty is no longer an option, where what you are seeing no longer partial because it is what is actually there.

1 comment:

wilko said...

I have seen the play and not the film,and think that you are almost certainly right Alex that the film exposes the massive holes (dramatic, thematic, narrativatic and otherwise) in the script. The play is quite funny, but it is also sentimental bullshit.