Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Friday, February 27, 2009


The great English playwright and Nobel prize winner Harold Pinter passed away on Christmas Eve at the age of 78. Very few artists can claim to have had their very name become an adjective found in most standard dictionaries but Pinter is on that short list. Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "Pinteresque":

"Of or relating to the plays of Harold Pinter; marked especially by halting dialogue, uncertainty of identity, and air of menace."

Well, what does that tell us? It's basically like saying that "Hitchcockian" refers to the suspense and tension in the films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. If you haven't seen it yourself it doesn't mean much at all. Hitchcock's brand of black humored, sophisticated suspense is quite different from what might be expected.

Pinter was for many years a mystery to me. Absurdly, I first tried to read The Birthday Party when I was 12 years old. I wasn't THAT precocious-at least not about literature. Movies were my thing and at that time I making my way through the films of William Friedkin. Friedkin directed a film version of the play scripted by Pinter himself and starring Robert Shaw in 1968. It was a film I could not find at the time. So, when I found the play at the local library I dove into it to imagine what kind of tense and shocking thriller the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist could've made of it. What I discovered instead was a strange text full of specific words in strange combinations about some guy named Stanley who may or may not be on the run from some people who may or may not intend to harm him. Maybe. Nothing was certain the least of all the plot which at 12 years old is basically what seems to be the entire purpose of narrative fiction. I basically tossed the play aside as pointless and inexplicable. The only part I liked was a three page scene in which two strange men, Goldberg and McCann interrogate Stanley using a rythmic dialogue that reminded me of the famous "Who's on First?" sketch by Abbott & Costello. But again, it was words, words, in strange alternations with these...weird...PAUSES...

Years later I gave Pinter a second chance with something a little easier The Dumb Waiter which is like Quentin Tarantino's entire career in one act. I had just read Waiting for Godot and suddenly the whole thing clicked. I "got" what Pinter was all about, at least early Pinter which is what I prefer. He seemed to be combining in a wholly original, almost intuitive way the kind of absurdist theater of Becket and Ionesco with theoretically more realistic settings and a slangy language that sounded like snatches of overheard conversations edited to a cadence. The Dumb Waiter is like a gangster version of Godot with the two hitmen waiting forever for their orders to kill-neither understands their place in the universe any more than Vladimir or Estragon in Becket's play. But what Pinter adds to the mix is this veil of language- a veil so thick that no one can break through the games of wordplay, of question and non-answer, of pause before response.

This is the brilliance of Pinter's conversations-perfectly sculpted to dance around meaning, to create ambiguity as to what the REAL meaning might be. This goes beyond subtext, it's a kind of SUBconcious text. In Pinter's final screenplay, his reworking of Anthony Schaffer's much more straightforward thriller Sleuth, we get gems like the following quid pro quo between Michael Caine and his wife's new lover a struggling actor played by Jude Law:

Andrew: Why have I never heard of you?
Milo: You will before long.
Andrew: Really?
Milo: In Spades.
Andrew: That sounds threatening.
Milo: Does it?
Andrew: Doesn’t it?

So much of what makes Pinter unique can be found in that exchange of words-all in concealment of meaning. The two men are merely testing each other and it starts with words.The "air of menace" the OED refers to is there as well "in spades." But this is something that one needs to see performed in order to understand. Pinter was a stickler for his "...", "PAUSES", and "SILENCES" each with it's own meaning. When I finally saw The Birthday Party I saw how actors like Shaw and Patrick Magee could bring this menace between the lines alive. Watch this clipto see what I mean:

Pinter's influence is incalculable. David Mamet and Patrick Marber are clearly working in his shadow in the theater while Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson exhibit his use of quiet tension on the big screen. Along with Kafka, he has meant a great deal to me in my own writing and I continue to return to his work like a fountain of inspiration.

For more info check out my review of Kenneth Branagh's Sleuth HERE