Thursday, April 16, 2015

William Friedkin | The Birthday Party

being told
by Douglas Messerli  

Harold Pinter (screenplay), William Friedkin (director) The Birthday Party / 1968

It’s interesting that Harold Pinter’s play, The Birthday Party, was written at about the same time that Günter Grass’ novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) was being composed,* for the Pinter play features a character—a kind of surly man-boy figure, Stanley. who is treated almost as a child by his quite dotty landlady, Meg—who, like Grass’ man-child, Oskar Matzerath, is given a tin drum (an absurd birthday gift from Meg, who claims, with her usual illogic, to have chosen it because the former piano player didn’t have a piano). And somewhat like Grass’s fiction about the infantization of an entire populace, Pinter’s play, as I read it, suggests that if you accost any down-in-the-heels Britain with the issues having to do with the Irish and the Jews he will quickly turn into a driveling idiot unable to communicate in any way other than a new-born’s babel.

In the play these two quite maddeningly “dilemmas” arrive to face the down-and-out ordinary English bloke in the form of two frightening boarders, Goldberg and McCann, who enter the filthy sea-side home of Meg and Petey in order to menace and verbally torture the spiritually sour, somewhat intellectually challenged Stanley by ripping up the columns of the local newspaper and reconfiguring them into unreadable pillars of words and images and peppering him with inane questions and meaningless riddles such as “What have you done with your wife?” and “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

     A birthday party for Stanley—who insists it is not his birthday—follows, where he, the near “bonkers” Meg, and the sex-starved Lulu are plied with plenty of booze and temporarily blinded by the villains who switch off the lights, insist that the celebrants play “blind-man’s-bluff,” and, finally, destroy Stanley’s glasses. The very process, it appears, of being forced to celebrate with such enigmatic forces sends Stanley over the edge—a bit like Tennessee Williams’ sexually abused Blanche DuBois—as he is bundled off, presumably to bedlam if not to his death.

     Ten years after its London premiere—a production which apparently so confused and scandalized the British public that it closed after only 8 performances—American filmmaker William Friedkin determined to film the work. 
     The result is a fascinating in work that, with regard to its actors’ ability to convey Pinter’s stunning turns of language and logic, proceeds quite excellently. Dandy Nichols and Roger Shaw are particularly brilliant as Meg and Stanley, and, as the two would-be villains close in upon their prey, Patrick McGee as McCann and Sydney Tafler as Goldberg show off their thespian talents as well. 
     While some critics have complained that the work is not cinematic enough, I would argue that Friedkin has done a credible job portraying the sense of increasing claustrophobia with his camera jumpily cutting across the surfaces of the filthily cramped rooms, particularly the kitchen and living room where most the action takes place. Although there are some references, as in Joseph Losey’s The Servant, to the fun-house possibilities of mirrored images, for the most part Friedkin relies more on the fitful creak of his seemingly hand-held camera.

     The central problem with the Friedkin production is perhaps that it is too artsy, particularly in its extended scenes during the enforced black-outs, wherein it appears that Friedkin determined to up his ante by briefly imitating Stan Brakhage and other film experimenters. Friedkin’s genius has always been his ability to take slightly exploitive and poorly written works of pop literature and turn them into works of high art, as in The Night They Raided Minsky’s, The Exorcist, The French Connection, and To Live and Die in L.A. By attempting to transform an art-house work such as Pinter’s play into a kind of formal experiment in cinematic language he distracts from the most important thing that the playwright’s work offers: the spoken word, which Pinter deliciously tortures in this work even more than his criminal one-night boarders intimidate their pre-determined prey.
     If the denizens of this nightmare flophouse cannot cope with the realities of their world, it is because they have no language in which to express it. While Petey shouts out to the devastated Stanley as they take him away, “Don’t let them tell you what to do,” we know that that is precisely the problem with Stanley, Meg, and Petey himself; their cliché-ridden language utterly determines how they behave and what they do. Their identities are limited by their delusions of themselves, the play ending with the truly blinded Meg (she does not even know that her beloved man-child has been taken from her life) suggesting to Petey that during the drunken melee of her last evening “I was the belle of the ball…I know I was.”

Los Angeles, April 16, 2015

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2015).

*The Birthday Party premiered in 1957, while  Grass’s novel was published in 1959 and translated into English in 1961.

I had forgotten until I recently watched this film that my former next-door office friend, Max Rosenberg, had been line producer of the Friedkin production. Max used to appear in my Sun & Moon bookstore about once a week in search for new titles he might produce. Once in a while, he’d even buy a copy of a book, suggesting that it seemed perfect for production. But no productions, obviously, ever occurred. I believe Max was well beyond his prime in those days, long after he had produced his numerous horror films with Amicus. Most of the films which he working on, he claimed, were being shot and released in Spain. Rosenberg died in 2004.  

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