My philosophy is, if I throw enough words against the wall about how you should get out of the recliner and support your city theater artists, some of 'em have gotta stick. But this week, your second assignment is to head out to the coolest video/DVD store near you and rent a flick that's been swallowed by stacks of Nicolas Cage's latest bomb. Failing that, theater folk should just dip into their cigarettes-and-alcohol till and buy the damn thing. I did, and four viewings later, I still discover new ironies and fresh, subtle reversals and reflections. I speak of The Designated Mourner, which is about as close to the international stage as you can get without having an unknown customs agent pick through your underwear at an airport (OK, so the home screening's an inferior experience). Written by Wallace Shawn, the American playwright preeminent in finding tender beauty in perversity and profanity, and directed by British playwright David Hare, it was filmed in London on weekends during the 1997 West End run of the play's world premiere. The same staggering cast--Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson, and David de Keyser--deliver a series of alternating monologues directly to you, as they offered them staring right into the eyes of English ticketbuyers. Far from feeling static, the device emphasizes the jittery intelligence and baroque texture of Shawn's language. He's never been afraid of stringing together big words into singsong phrases and creating neatly visual metaphors, but here, when a character speaks of "idiotic arpeggios of self-approbation" and another calls morality "a terribly worthy old urn...that's really rather ugly, if you bother to look at it," you feel that Shawn the wordsmith and Shawn the squirrelly little anarchist are toiling mercilessly from the same wicked blueprint.
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The Designated Mourner really didn't blow me away until the second time I saw it. The great essayist Stanley Crouch reports much the same experience in a piece he wrote about the film for his collection Always in Pursuit; he organized several viewing parties with different combinations of friends for the movie's short run at the Angelika in New York. The descriptive passages can be so mesmerizing, you are captivated by the images in your head and rather slow to piece together the film's ominous plot (it definitely has one, if told only in recall). But once poetry and story converge, you are thrilled by the scope of Shawn's saga about "the passing of an order" as told by a trio of diverse witnesses to the transition.
Mike Nichols, famed stage and film director, is said to be making his feature-film debut as a thespian here. That surprised me, but come to think of it, the only time I'd seen him perform before on a screen was in old TV footage of his skits with Elaine May. His performance in The Designated Mourner is deceptively casual, off-hand, lightly and charmingly smug; the hostility and the arrogance of his character cloud the set gradually but relentlessly, like cigarette smoke in a closed room. He plays Jack, a man who, by his own admission, is smart enough to know that the great poets like John Donne offer something beautiful, but not smart enough to get to that beauty. This is most unfortunate, because he has married a "poetry reader" named Judy (Miranda Richardson) whose father, Howard (David de Keyser), is a leading literary light in the unnamed country where they all live. We soon realize that in this unspecified time and place, the people can be classified into two groups--"the readers of poetry" and the people like Jack. In his youth, the sanctimonious Howard had written about people like Jack in an essay called "The Dirt Eaters." But there has been a power shift in the country since then, and the uncouth, the uncultured, and the lowbrow have taken power. Howard has been forced to switch from prose to poetry so he can berate them and remain untouched himself. But we soon learn that the rise of the people like Jack is of a totalitarian nature, and that both writing and reading poetry is a crime against the state. The folks in Howard and Judy's circle begin to disappear or be gunned down in public places, and the resentful Jack watches their panic with twisted satisfaction from the sides.
To summarize the story line of The Designated Mourner is to trivialize and even make it sound ridiculous. Shawn never relates all this with didactic explicitness, but anecdotally, which is one of the reasons the film might be difficult to grasp the first time you see it; events are alluded to incrementally rather than described and contextualized. Though ostensibly a memory piece, the play is written so that we learn things as the characters learn them; the film is simultaneous plot and exposition. Once you become prehensile enough to appreciate the script's style and substance, you are knocked breathless by the pity and the scorn, the sympathy and the satire with which Wallace Shawn treats "the readers of poetry" and Jack. Of course, he and director David Hare were lucky to assemble actors who can really tango with ambivalence. We're lucky their work has been immortalized on film--Miranda Richardson uses her patented square-jawed, purse-lipped chilliness to convey the conflicted feelings of a woman who truly loves a man not as aesthetically inclined as she. The whiskey-throated David de Keyser, who has the smallest role as Howard, is effortlessly, brutally condescending; you can feel your entire existence dismissed with one lift of his eyebrow.
What makes The Designated Mourner so nifty is that Wallace Shawn has plenty to say about the public-arena flogging of intellectualism and the sterility of that same intellectualism when oh-so-clever scholars sit around in cafes and conduct cerebral circle jerks. In the end, though, he has captured and identified a special kind of hauteur, one that's ubiquitous but rarely acknowledged--the disdain many people feel for individuals who genuinely love poetry, big ideas, complex expression. It's a toss-up as to who's the more arrogant--people who feel elevated by art, or people who hate those who feel elevated by art--but Shawn makes us see they have a lot more in common than either would admit.