Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Can’t you see? We are dying.

Sophie’s Choice (1982): directed and written by Alan J. Pakula

The debate has dated back to Plato, to what extent does having a lofty theme as the subject of your artwork qualify it as being good art? In other words, is “bad” art justified by examining an important subject? And, then, to what extent do I critique the film on its narratives machinations, most of them lifted from the novel? It’s a quandary a place myself in by thinking too much. I wrote a lead, I wrote another lead, I wrote two varying opening paragraphs, deleted both and started again. Thus was the quandary that arose from my attempt to review Pakula’s 1982 film. And it’s odd that I should find myself thinking so much about (reviewing) this film, of all films. Because despite being a film that covers two and a half hours Sophie’s Choice is not one with a dense narrative strand. At the very least, the story – the “main story” – is incredibly basic.
Stingo is our protagonist (a loosely used term, he is more of a window for the audience to experience the other two main characters, but more on that below), a budding writer who moves to New York in the late 1940s ready to eke out that great American novel. It’s a literary trope that has worked for better and for worse because what MacNicol’s adequately performed Stingo amounts to – a trope. Other than his writer’s quest his character motivations are specious. Convention dictates that he, in all his facileness, shall encounter someone (s) more exciting than he and add some zest to his existence. And, he does.

Enter Sophie and Nathan….

(NOTE: I suspect that even those who have not seen Sophie’s Choice have already had the specificities of that choice spoiled for them. And, in assessing the film a by-the-way at the very least seems essential. Thus, spoilers after the jump…)

The couple live in the upstairs and are involved in a torrid love affair, they fight violently, they make up passionately and their fervour for live presents Stingo with just the sort of life through which he can participate in vicariously. Of course the already unsettling relationship the two have is revealed to be made from even more dire issues. Like Nathan’s schizophrenia manifested in his violent outbursts and paranoia. And, Sophie, darling Sophie and her dilemma of being separated from her children and being placed in a concentration camp; and then the fateful act of having to choose which one lives.

Pakula adapted the novel for the screen (his first screenplay, on his own) and ignoring the arguments for and against faithful adaptations of literature to the screen the script suffers from its seeming inability to decide which story it wants to place more emphasis on. It’s not so much that the story of an infatuated “writer” and the machinations he falls into in navigating his feelings towards a traumatised woman don’t make for good cinema. It’s simply that as a protagonist (de facto or no) Stingo materialises in such a wholly ineffectual manner that although his purpose becomes relegated to acting as a receptacle for our feelings towards Sophie it becomes frustrating to experience. And the ineffectuality of his character spills over to the other two leads. So enamoured is the text, and thus the film (and how could it not be when it derives its title from it) with the decision at the root Pakula his thriller-esque ways directs the film as if the entire thing si about THAT moment. And it is, but it shouldn’t be. And, so, the choice emerges as the best orchestrated scene of the film but only because everything around it is not given as much credence. But, it’s ironic because on one hand it seems enamoured with that and conversely seems unwilling to dispense the complete narrative to THAT story. Which is one in a series of frustrations.
Most frustrating? The character of Nathan. Titbit, Kevin Kline made his film debut in the film and speciously created character aside it’s an impressive thing he does vacillating between being a cheerful gallant and an explosive heathen. Impressive, but still frustrating because it comes across as a narrative so mired with incidental, inexplicable bad luck all the while as Stingo dithers on the cusp of being a creature worthy of the cinematic treatment. For, even though perpetual spectators exist, they do not typically demand the limelight unless there is something to be addressed. It becomes then not offensive but incredibly trite that the bow that ties it all up is the fact that the tragedy of the past and the ultimately tragedy of the present exists as a receptacle through which Stingo can achieve his “coming of age”. Especially since we’ve been given no reason to be invested in said coming of age.

The film closes with a recitation of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Ample Make This Bed” as Stingo observes the couple for the final time. I suspect we should observe and think how beautiful and poetic and tragic, but Sophie’s Choice doesn’t earn any true emotional reaction from me that the poem seems to suggest. True, Streep is effective as the eponymous Sophie but I am not as enamoured with her here as Stingo, the film or history is. For example, it’s not my favourite performance of the year, muchless my favourite Oscar winning performance from Streep, and thus hardly a contender for “best performance of all time” in my eyes. What she is here is flawlessly in control of her faculties as a performer and effective as needs me throughout, and especially superlative in the climatic scene. But, a good performance from her (and what I consider to be an equally good, if less measured performance Kline) does not justify the tedium which accompanies the film.
Boredom is a not a legitimate critique. And feeling boredom at a film about suffering under the Nazis is especially bad form, but Sophie’s Choice does not justify its existence to me. Not in the half an hour flashback, not in the first half and its opening scenes where the three performers never combine to form that trio of “friendship” that seems essential nor in the final act where we must mourn for what could have been between Stingo and Sophie. And, Pakula – to remind us that this is about serious things – bathes it all in the most sombre of light and colour and necessitates that it all develops as gradually as possible, possibly an attempt at being organic but only ends up coming across as lethargic and unfeeling to me. Making for an ultimately lifeless receptacle of a film. Grade: D+


Paolo said...

I liked it more than you and Nick Davis did but I agree about it's flaws. In a way I see Sophie as a femme fatale within a melodrama. But that's also because she's seen from a masculine perspective in that women are supposed to be hiding shit from men and that there's something romantic about double lives and shit like that.

Also, Kevin Kline, to my memory has only sucked twice but when he does, as he does here and in Wanda, he sucks hard and is a bellowing, grating presence on screen.

Squasher88 said...

Wow, a D+!! I didn't think you would hate it THAT much. I was personally disappointed by the film myself, but I'm not sure if that was due to the incredibly high expectations I had. Still, I think it's a pretty decent film.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

paolo i ended up watching it again this past sunday and my issues seemed to be only more glaring. and, like, i really don't want to make stingo's coming of age trivial, but the film makes it such - and i can't help but find it to be almost tosh-like.

curious it is that you don't care for kline in a fish called wanda, which is probably my favourite performance of his.

squasher it's really difficult to approach completely unblemished because the legend is so great, a critical darling of the year, streep etc, but it just really doesn't work for me. a strangely limp experience, for pakula particularly who came off such a great decade before.