‘Boo-YA‘, ‘my father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse‘, ‘say hello to my little friend‘, ‘I’ll bet she’s got a GREAT ASS‘ etc. etc. – when it comes to the diminutive Al Pacino his larger than life performances have certainty penetrated the popular movie lexicon. The BFI can be a fickle mistress, as a long-standing member she has treated me to numerous memorable events from the gorgeous glitterati to the cult movie caverns over the years, but it can be something of a crap shoot to not only get a seat from a successful ticket ballot, but even get notified of a ballot in the first place. It’s a curious thing, I’ve lost count of how many events they’ve added at the last-minute (the Linklater Boyhood Q&A and Nicole Kidman Q&A being the most recent) yet failed to notify members through the numerous communication channels we have available today, or maybe the spam folders on my devices are simply fucking with my diary – I dunno. In any case Twitter came through for me this time, unsurprisingly this event sold out immediately months ago with one assumes the theatrical as well as the movie elite of London fighting for tickets to see big Al in the flesh, but a fellow colleague discreetly squawked yesterday that a couple of seats had gone back on sale so I successfully swooped in and secured a seat – back of the net. Before we begin here is the blurb which should give you some context to the event.
So moving quite significantly out of my comfort zone to the play itself I guess, the first part of the gala was a capture of the Pacino and Chastain starring resurrection of Salome from the Wadsworth theatre in Los Angeles (directed by Estelle Parsons), the second a documentary he made back in 2011 on earlier runs of the piece which has been intermittently screened around Europe over the past few years – a quick trawl of YouTube shows screenings in Dublin and Venice. Culled from Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play in a single act it recants in Biblical design the titular temptress stepdaughter (Chastain) of Herod Antipas (Pacino), a porcelain skinned femme fatale who requests the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter as a reward for dancing the dance of the seven veils, much to the disgust of her incestuous angled stepfather and the secret delight of her mother Herodias. The documentary which amusingly is some twenty minutes longer than the play details the artistic wrestling of not only bringing the play to the stage, the backstage rehearsals and creative struggle, but also serves as a primer on the life and work of Oscar Wilde and his controversial history. Not content to maintain two strands Pacino also decided to direct the film version of the play so Wilde Salome follows three strands, his simultaneous filming of recalling his 1996 directorial debut Looking For Richard. The limit of my Wilde knowledge is a GCSE syllabus reading of The Importance Of Being Earnest and like any vaguely educated simpleton a smattering appreciation of some of his great one-liners (I heard his Paris death-bed quip ‘Either that wallpaper goes…or I do’ again recently in some unrelated context and ‘laughed out loud’ as the kids are saying these days) so I came to the play cold, I can’t say it particularly grabbed me with the suggested fiery passion but the documentary was a far more successful endeavour.
The staging of the play is in modern dress on a single set and it certainly smoulders with Pacino’s and Chastain’s charismatic power (although this was filmed when she was a total unknown and had only graduated from Julliard a few weeks earlier which is just insane), with a Shakespearean Iambic pentameter I have to say I found the direction and material less than engaging. This is my problem no doubt, as a product of the UK grammar school system I surprise myself at still quite liking Shakespeare on the rare occasions I see a performance or watch a movie translation, but the rather cluttered style of close-ups and choppy editing did the performances no favours, and the simple subject matter of corrosive lust, its overwhelming defeat of mortal boundaries and quelling of human decency didn’t particularly ignite other than during a few line readings. Pacino plays Herod in a quite flippant and whimsical fashion (even generating a few laughs), playfully leering at his stepdaughter as she coyly manipulates his immoral Old Testament affections, Chastain a unruly flame haired succubi with a rather inscrutable drive to demand such an unforgiveable sin – the execution of the mortal who baptised Jesus. Again it’s my failure but I find it difficult to fully connect with this style of material sometimes, I cant appreciate the characterisation or the characters journey in such a artificially enforced environment, and the drab and linear direction didn’t particularly punch proceedings up, cinematically speaking.
Much more successful was the documentary which provided a self-deprecating, behind-the-scenes and not always flattering portrait of Pacino, of the chaotic turbulence of juggling a play, a film and a documentary straddling the former two at the same time, as well as providing a primer on the life and work of Wilde. This at least gave a feel for how a production is mounted and the associated pressures from a financial and artistic standpoint, and as someone who knew very little about Wilde other than his persecution for ‘sexual deviancy’ and his rather sad and lonely death if the purpose was to educate further on his legacy then mission accomplished. It’s kinda interesting that popular academic thought seems to agree that Wilde wasn’t persecuted for his homosexuality per se, the Victorian authorities felt he was much more dangerous as an outspoken socialist with a subversive anti-establishment credo, smearing him as a degenerate on moral grounds in order to eradicate his increasingly popular following – the more things change, the more they stay the same eh?
So finally we alight on the main purpose of the gala from a Menagerie perspective, to see the aged Michael Corleone / Tony Montana / Vincent Hanna / Sonny Wortzik / Frank Serpico / Ricky Roma / Kevin Spacey DELETE AS APPLICABLE in the petite flesh. Well, unlike some of these starry events this had a great atmosphere which Pacino revelled in, he’s quite evidently a natural performer who adores being in front of a crowd, completely engaging, exuberant and amusing who took on the audience and Stephens Fry’s (actually pretty good and well-considered) questions with an excited interest. Much of the queries concerned his love of the theatre, of Wilde and the play itself rather than any movie related anecdotes, but it was all mustered through with such an infectious sense of enthusiasm that although I can’t recall any specific moment to share you’ll have to trust me that this was an entertaining chat. Unsurprisingly Jessica Chastain didn’t get quite as much attention but she seemed engaged and thrilled to be part of the event, recalling how stunned she still is for being cast as a total unknown against such a powerhouse cast and somehow managing to hold her own both on stage and screen in her first filmed performance. It’s not the most original opinion in the world and it certainly won’t detonate a furious critical debate but I consider Pacino’s turn as the incrementally corrupted head of the all-powerful Corleone clan as one of the greatest, if not the greatest film performance in history, a very different internalized movie performance from a theatrical requirement, it’s all in the eyes and identify me a better scene than this which provides such a palpable sense of terror and resigned menace percolating on a characters face.
All in all a long day spent at the BFI but ultimately a fruitful one, and very much a vision of things to come as now we settle in for a gruelling schedule at the Southbank. I’ve got ten films programmed over the next four days alone (I’m taking Friday ‘off’ to concentrate on some other priorities), it’s a pretty darn eclectic mix of international cinema ranging from France to China, from Guantánamo to Palestine, from Spain to New Zealand and beyond, not to mention they’ve also erected an electronic portfolio of screeners this year. I’m not sure what we’ll have access to from the exhausting portfolio of 248 films but like any committed purist I will of course be making every effort to see the festival selected movies as god intended – on the big screen. Publication is embargoed on much of the material for at least a fortnight so I’ll be busy scribbling behind the scenes for Sound On Sight, I might try to throw up some trailers of the material I’m catching sans commentary just to keep things ticking over at the Menagerie. So this successful event was an appetising little aperitif of the feast of things to come for October, keep me in your celluloid prayers gentle reader as once again we charge into another long campaign;