Saturday, April 29, 2017

Jonathan Demme | A Master Builder

pie in the sky
by Douglas Messerli

Wallace Shawn (writer, based on the play The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen), Jonathan Demme (director; after the unstaged direction by Andre Gregory), A Master Builder / 2013
Adapted from Ibsen’s late play by Wallace Shawn, directed for years in workshop productions by his often time collaborator, Andre Gregory, and directed for film by Jonathan Demme, A Master Builder, as critics have noted, demonstrates the influences of not only these three  creators, but of the brilliant acting throughout, particularly by Shawn as Halvard Solness, Julie Hagerty as his long-suffering wife, Gregory as the elder architect whose career Solness has destroyed, and, most notably, Lisa Joyce as Hilde Wangel, the young woman who expressly remembers Solness’ promises from 10 years previous, when she was just 12 years of age.

Ibsen is one of my very favorite of 19th-early 20th century playwrights, but his plays, if not carefully directed, are often talkative and stagey, with their realist conventions not always making a perfect fit with their often shockingly didactic explorations into everything from inherited syphilis, rising feminism, and, in this play, a series of egotistical and manipulative actions, including what today we would simply describe as child abuse, by the play’s presumed “hero,” Solness.
      Like many plays, however, Ibsen’s hero is a terribly failed man, even a scoundrel who has made himself wealthy not necessarily through his great architectural achievements, but for his

careful recreation of towering “castles” for upper class families. These often fantastical museums to nostalgia might today be compared to the projects of mansionization that are crumbling many well-to-do neighborhoods from New York, Chicago, to San Francisco and, particularly, Los Angeles. The goal is to destroy perfecting charming, “ordinary” homes—the kind of “box” in which Solness’ wife grew up—and turn it into a kind of fairy-tale villa (which even the “master builder” mocks) where the residents can live out lives of fantasy wealth, wealth alone, apparently, not being enough.
      Yes, the beautiful 19th century mansions of Nyack which the movie presents as stand-ins for the Norwegian turn-of-the-century creations, do look, today, quite impressive. But even at the time of their building, they were already privately-built museums dedicated to the past.
      As Shawn’s version begins, we see the “great” Solness suffering what we might think as a heart attack, hooked up, in a grand but purposeful anachronism to a modern heart monitor. Nurses, dressed of the period, move in and out of what appears to be part bedroom and part of his architectural offices. Evidently, the suffering builder will survive, so suggests Dr. Herdal (Larry Pine), also a regular confidant to Solness’ wife.

      A former architect, Knut Brovik (Gregory), whose son, Ragnar (Jeff Biehl) works for Solness as a draftsman, visits him, along with Ragnar’s fiancée, Kaia Fosli (Emily Cass McDonnell), who works as Solness’ bookkeeper, descend upon him, trying to get the master b  uilder to allow Ragnar to design a lake-side villa, helping him to establish his own career and to be able to finally marry Kaia. But Solness, putting down Ragnar’s accomplishments, will have no part in it. He, like so many a bitter old man, is terrified that the “younger generation” will do the very same thing that he has to Brovik, ending his career.
     What he doesn’t know, nor do we—at least immediately—is that Solness is truly on his death bed, and that most of the rest of the play will consist of his own personal wrestling with a guilty conscience for his most definitely evil ways.
      Both Ibsen’s and Shawn’s versions, despite evidence to the contrary, are really plays about the three beautiful women in Solness’ life: his more than loyal bookkeeper, Kaia, his beautifully aging wife, and the soon-to-be interloper, Hilde, who after waiting for 10 years for Solness’ promise to return to her provincial home and take her way into a castle, decides to visit him and his wife—in this instance dressed in a pair of white shorts with other clothing to her possession.
     To make all of these females’ attentions to the elderly master builder believable, I suspect, the role should be entrusted to a still handsome agèd matinee idol, someone like Clark Gable in  The Misfits or, at least, Humphrey Bogart, despite his whistling dentures, in Sabrina—or better yet, Harrison Ford in the remake of that film. The short-statured, slightly pixie-like, now elderly, Shawn cannot quite convince us that he might be so very attractive to any of these women, even if, 10 years earlier, he might have cut a more-dashing figure. But then Ibsen, himself, who based some of his play on his own infatuation with a young 18 year-old Austrian-Tyrol girl, was never a beauty either—at least to my knowledge. And Shawn gives the role his all, imbuing it with a kind of straight-forward commitment to both his delusions and his guilt that does great justice to his character and material. After all, he has gotten where he is by guile, smarts and celebrity, never by true sexual appeal.
     He has used the devoted Kaia to keep Ragnar close to him, the assistant he insists has no natural talent, but upon who real talents he relies. He has used his wife, perhaps even unintentionally, as a tool to begin his career, selling off the vast property on which her family home once stood—after a fire has destroyed it along with their two baby sons—in order to create many of the middle and upper-class properties upon which he built the houses that made him famous. And he has used the young Hilde for his sexual desires—even if he was not able to consummate that relationship. Certainly, he now is intrigued by that possibility. Solness is a kind of monster who explains the strangely fortuitous events that have occurred as emanating from a kind of strange mental power to make things happen: the destruction of his early competitor, the fire of his unloved home, the servitude of Kaia and Ragnar, and, now that she has reminded him, the seduction of the young Hilde.
        Coincidence has been converted by the egocentric master builder into a kind of mysterious will-power, a calling up of the supernatural that fascinates him, while haunting him as well. Like Strinderg’s Spöksonaten (The Ghost Story), Ibsen’s earlier  Bygmester Solness of 1892 is a play of spooks and ghosts that now haunt the architect’s  mind.
      Yet despite the symbolic gestures of both Ibsen’s plays and Shawn’s adaptation, this work is very much in the psychological tradition in which most of Ibsen’s later works functioned. As critic Michael Sragow, writing in an introduction to the Criterion edition, notes, Ibsen’s play and this film rendition is perhaps closer to Bergman than anyone else. Despite its dream-like quality, the truth is that Solness is suffering the guilt that many fear just before they are about to leave the living. And, although Hilde might appear to him as a teasing female magician—Joyce has a marvelous ability to convert every serious accusation about the past into a suddenly delightful giggle of conspiracy—she is, most definitely, also the angel of death come to visit Solness, helping rectify his former behavior, just as Sragow argues, like the ghosts come to save Ebenezer Scrooge.
     She alone helps him to realize that instead of closing the door to the young, that he must open it; that he must sign his approval for Ragnar’s designs, thus allowing him a possibility, despite his assistant’s seeming passivity, to create his own business. He must let go of Kaia she convinces him; and most importantly, and despite his acrophobia (an extreme fear of heights), he must allow himself to climb the highest steeple of his newly conceived home built for his  long-suffering wife and missing children (for whom, a bit like George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, they still maintain empty spaces)—the steeple from where, we now know, he has fallen and is dying from the results.
      This angel even attempts to redeem the life of Mrs. Solness, attempting to help her understand how to move on with life, despite her husband’s obvious daily failings, something Julie Hagerty conveys in her every movement, even as she cuts fruit for her husband’s morning breakfast.
      Throughout this film, Demme allows his roving hand-held camera to zoom in and out of rooms, focusing on the easy excuses for Solness’ own behavior while seeking out any sunny corner wherein the inhabitants of this house of subliminal horrors might find a sunny space in which to sit out their remembered past terrors: a front lit-up room where Solness excitedly rediscovers his almost forgotten past, a kitchen where Mrs. Solness finally gets up the courage to tell her husband of her own suffering, and a sunny window seat where she and Hilde sit for a few seconds to discuss the endless failures of her husband.
     If Joyce is a wonder simply for her constantly shifting expressions of the tragic and a giddy wonderment, Hagerty, in her last film role to date, is a marvel in her subtle portrayal of a woman who has lost everything but her own self-respect. Let us hope she soon returns to stage or film again.

Los Angeles, April 29, 2017