June 23, 2009

The Birthday Party (1968)

Roger Ebert wrote about the lead actor in this film of Harold Pinter's play in his review of it,

Thirty seconds after Shaw appeared on the screen, I was still waiting for his entrance.

Ebert gets the feel of this film exactly right- Shaw's character, Stanley, is so unsure at the end of the play of his own existance that he has lost his own ability to make a speech. Everything happens in this play somewhere else- every part of the story is not revealed to us. We see the spirals of the galaxy, the jagged edges of the star, but not the interior, not the thing that links together the story and makes it make sense. The story sounds simple: in a sordid building society somewhere in an English town ('on the list' (What list?) according to the landlady, lives Stanley. Stanley may have once been a pianist- or he may not have been- he possibly came from Maidenhead, at least that is what he tells us but we have no way of knowing that it is true and all the way through the film Stanley's ability as a narrator are cast in darkness. Anyway two men turn up, Goldberg and McCann who might know Stanley or might not. The landlady, Meg, tells them it is Stanley's birthday- they organise a party and after a grim drunken night, Meg ends up with a headache, Stanley with a mental breakdown and their neighbour Lulu loses her virtue.

So what's going on? Well lets start with something we can talk about and make sense about. The environment in which this film takes place ressembles somewhere that Pinter once stayed at. Its dirty and horrible- its the kind of boarding house that you can still find in places in Britain (I've stayed in one in Durham and one in Sheffield) and its not the kind of place you would ever want to go back to much. Slices of fried toast are the extremes of culinary perfectionalism, the tea is cold, the cups are dirty, there is dust everywhere and noone ever washes up anything. Stanley is there as a boarder and has been there for a year- and he looks it. His clothes are dirty and threadbear- he wears glasses that are off kilter and hasn't had a shave in a month. Meg is also dirty, fat and disgusting- her jowels almost have another unkind part in the film. She is a stupid and yet bossily arrogant woman whose breezy sensuality is that of a fetid rotting corpse. Her husband Petey, with one exception at the end, has turned from a man into a shell- nothing lives inside him save the ghost of his own resignation to the fate and foilibles of life. Into this come Goldberg and Mccann- the one the very exemplar of cheap charm, the other a gloomy sullen Irishman.

I have moved from environment to manner- and in a sense the film allows us to do that- though let us be in no doubt that whereas Petey and Meg might have some reality to them, Goldberg and Mccann perform rather than exist. Goldberg is he tells us an expert on the neccessary and the possible- at least he tells Lulu as he seduces her- the neccessary comes before the possible he states and in a sense both he and McCann are possible performances of neccessary characters- they develop out of themselves but they are themselves merely performances. Pinter draws attention here to the artificiality both of personality and of the distinction between the character that we create and the character that we are- cleverly the film creates both the sense that character is and is not fully formed. Perhaps though it is with Stanley that the film's development of character is most important: William Friedkin the director coaxed out of Robert Shaw the actor one of the great performances of all time in this film.

Shaw's performance alternates between fear, agression, flirtation, bemusement and finally nothingness. He is able to portray a man who is insistant about his own identity ('do you know to whom you are speaking' he asks Meg) and yet who by the end of the film, through some horrifying moment, is completely broken down, positioned like a doll in the suit and ready to be sent to the Kafkaesque Monty. Stanley in a sense is an everyman- the moments where the film is seen through someone's eyes it is Stanley's eyes it is seen through. We receive a point of view shot from his perspective both when he loses his glasses and when temporarily he loses his sight- in this sense he represents all of us, guilty because he has a past and that past is not one he favours recalling. Stanley draws our attention to the disgusting environs, he reacts without lying (see Goldberg) or illusion (see Meg) but by realising how awful a state he is in, sitting in a boarding house drinking cold tea. In a sense he is an existential hero- a hero whose existance is in peril and because we know so little about him- this pianist down on his luck- and all we know might be lies- his peril is that that confronts us all, the moment when character dissolves into memory, when psyche dissolves into subconscious Jungian imagery.

I cited Kafka above- and he is the spirit of European literature who most reminds me of this film. Josef K was woken from his bed by investigators, Stanley is interrupted at breakfast- but the motif is the same. The political subtext may be obviously antitotalitarian (and is particularly good on C.S. Lewis's bete noir the medicalisation of political discourse- in that sense Lewis's NICE and Pinter's Monty anticipate the ghastly psychiatric wards of Soviet Russia)- though there are things I do not understand about that, why Goldberg and McCann are Jewish and Irish, whether the fact that they belong to an organisation denotes that Pinter envisaged the privatisation of terror, what the link between sexual corruption and political corruption (a deliberate swipe at Orwell's 1984 no doubt in which puritanism is the handmaid of totalitarianism) is. I do not pretend to understand this or understand the plot on the first point but I hope this article has tempted you to watch this film and work it out for yourself.


James Higham said...

Lulu losing her virtue might be like the restaurant at the end of the universe - has a habit of repeating itself.