Saturday Night Fever, Equus, The Lacemaker, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
• SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER has a thoroughly credible story line, infectious acting, constant motion, and endless amounts of verve and vitality. Whether there is "never a dull moment" in it for you will depend largely on (1) how much you relish frequent scenes of ballroom dancing to the accompaniment of jukebox music, and (2) whether you enjoy the unvarnished depiction of lower-middle-class Italian life in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. That life is depicted with great attention to fidelity, down to the character-portraits of each member of the family. There is sometimes an element of caricature, but on the whole the Brooklyn milieu is just as well done as is the Philadelphia milieu in Rocky.
In a way, "not much happens": the events are of not much interest or significance in themselves, but are largely instrumental toward rounding out the characterizations. The film is a perfect vehicle for John Travolta, who acts and dances, makes love and war, all with equal verve and abandon. The film has an R rating largely because of the endless stream of gutter language—which is, however, not used simply for effect but as a reflection of the persons and the mores depicted.
The film is a vivid "slice of life," with just a hint of nascent idealism, which never compromises the plausibility of the characters or their motivations. Some will say that the film is merely an explosion in a cesspool, whereas others will say, more plausibly, that the vividness of the action and the incisive details of characterization are enough to lift it to the level of art. At any rate, the "slice of life" is lively and illuminating, and the pace of the film never lags. These features alone are enough to place it, if not in the top drawer, considerably above average film fare.
• EQUUS was an excellent play. It's about the last play that should ever have been made into a movie. Richard Burton is about the last actor that should have been selected to play the title role. Sidney Lumet is a fine director—given the right material. This material is entirely wrong for films. In his memorable essay "Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures," the famous art critic Erwin Panovsky describes the differences between stage material and screen material. The essence of film is motion. On the stage, "Hamlet can enthrall just lying on his couch, hardly visible, by his great speech alone. But with movies, the spectator is in permanent motion. The eye identifies with the lens of the camera, always shifting in distance and direction." Bodies move in space, but even when motionless as the Rock of Gibraltar they are invested with a semblance of movement—approaching, receding, turning, dissolving, recrystallizing. "The invention of the sound track did not change the basic fact that a moving picture, even when talking, remains a picture that moves, and does not convert itself into a piece of writing that is enacted. It remains a series of visual sequences held together by an uninterrupted flow of movement in space."
When we do have monologues in film, we get facial close-ups. Why? In film what we hear is fused with what we see, and the sound cannot express more than is expressed at the same time by visible movement; so the face of the speaker shows "every subtle movement of the features, imperceptible at a natural distance, and becomes an expressive event in visible space, and thereby completely integrates itself with the expressive content of the spoken word—whereas on the stage, the spoken word makes a stronger rather than a weaker impression if we are not permitted to count the hairs on Romeo's mustache." In film, everything that happens in time, even thoughts and feelings, must be thus made visible.
All these precepts are violated in this very uncinematic film. Lumet should have read Panovsky and learned what his medium can and cannot do before venturing on Equus.
• THE LACEMAKER is a low-keyed and leisurely paced French film, and the presentation of the story is disarmingly simple and direct. Its scope is modest; there are really only two characters, a boy and a girl. But the film succeeds in being engaging, subtle in its own way, and hauntingly tragic. Just when you think its simple exposition is too slow and that the film is starting to drag, you begin to realize where it's going, and why the bit-by-bit accumulation of character-detail is taking place. To see it is to pass through a pleasure-pain experience like hearing Messaien's "L'Ascension."
This is no stereotypical tale of lost love. Each person is a distinct individual, not a type. The usual classifications won't fit either. He is not the total blackguard nor she the entirely innocent victim—a viewer who sees it in this way has missed the subtlety. He saw dangers that she didn't see, acted to forestall them, and could do it only by rejecting her. Yet the very innocence and simplicity, which later wasn't enough for him, was the very thing that attracted him to her—and would presumably attract him to anyone else who came after. One realizes that there is no solution at all to some kinds of human problems, even when they involve just two people (never mind a whole nation or society).
If the final effect of the film on the viewer is mixed, it is probably because, at some level or other, the pessimistic implication of the story comes through, while yet it has been so poignantly rendered that, as with all good art, we are happy that it was set before us so well, retaining both its artistic integrity and its total commitment to truth.
• 1977 was a fine year for actresses. Three more sensitive performances are racked up in I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN—by the great Swedish actress Bibi Anderson (the psychiatrist), Kathleen Quinlan (the patient around whom the film centers), and Sylvia Sidney (another patient). The film is finely crafted and done with considerable flair and imagination: for example, the powerful forces within her resisting recovery are personified before us in fantasy scenes (much as Freud's Id, Superego, and Ego were often thought of as separate persons, like the Trinity)—a cinematic device which adds to the drama and is suited to the medium.
This film, however, is emphatically not a feminine counterpart of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Cuckoo's Nest had the structure of a Greek tragedy, with all the cumulative power of that art form. Rose Garden remains essentially a psychological case history, the story of one person's long road to recovery after the indelible scars wrought in childhood. Psychological realism is given first consideration.
When it takes two years of therapy (as in this case) for the patient even to feel physical pain, the amount of mental anguish involved, as the "forbidden material" is brought to the surface, is simply incomprehensible to most persons. Even the film gives no real idea of it: though one knows that there are many steps in the "working through" process which are missing in the film, the recovery when it occurs is somewhat too quick and pat to be believable. Nevertheless, allowing for cinematic license, it is a credible and persuasive case history.
Viewers should not see the film to be amused. It is in many places harrowing to watch, and does not contain a steady beat of humor to lighten the suffering as was done in Cuckoo's Nest. Here it is conditions, not concrete individuals, that we hate. The pulse does not beat faster in mounting tension; but one does imaginatively identify with the central character, and the result will seem inspiring to some, depressing to others, and perhaps merely informative to the remainder.