Sunday, December 21, 2008

THEATER OF WAR -- and an interview with documentarian John W. Walter

The very title -- THEATER OF WAR -- opens up so many possibilities. The phrase refers primarily to the arena, real or symbolic, in which war takes place (but what kind of theater is war -- something out of Antonin Artaud?). It also describes the play involved here, Mother Courage by Bertolt Brecht), the rehearsals for a production of which form the spine of the film. For anyone who's ever taken part in live theater, war is not a bad metaphor for what sometimes goes on -- between playwright and director, director and actors (we won't even get into the technical staff) until, one hopes, a kind of peace is declared, followed by performances and the judgment of critics and audiences (which can lead to yet a whole new war). Finally though, the film that bears this title is most about theater folk and real war--bloody, vicious, unnecessary (think Iraq, Vietnam, Bosnia, Rwanda) -- with the former trying to find a way around humanity's insistent need to wage the latter.

John W. Walter's film (he directed, edited and was co-cinematographer with Felix Andrew) is, like its title, necessarily all over the place. In addition to tracking rehearsals of Mother Courage during the 2006 in-the-park production by the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, the film offers interviews with its leading lady Meryl Streep (above) about the acting process, her role, and the meaning of the play itself. Others interviewed include playwright Tony Kushner, who did the adaptation; novelist and teacher Jay Cantor; Public Theater directors/heads Oscar Eustis and George C. Wolfe; and composer Jeanine Tesori (Ms Streep sings some of Tesori's work here, and better, I think, than she handles the Abba songs in Mamma Mia). Then Mr. Walter heads off in the direction of Brecht himself: the man's life, work and even his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (has there ever been a sillier, less felicitous moniker?) before he vacated the United States for post-war Germany. (Walter even gives us an image of Brecht on a Dresden china plate, in which he looks remarkably like a young Henry Kissinger.) We also travel to the outskirts of Prague to a famous plain of war where we visit a strange kind of cemetery in which the skulls and bones of the departed -- over eons -- have been stored in high, wide rows that fill the screen.
Bertolt Brecht, left, beside a slightly older Henry Kissinger.
Does anyone else see a certain resemblance?
(Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.)

There's a lot going on here, and even for those of us fairly "up" on the people and events, it proves a heady mix in which the "seams" often show (more of this in the interview below). How well it works for you will depend, I think, on your own appreciation of the people interviewed and of Brecht and this particular play. While I did not find a moment of the film uninteresting and agree with many, maybe most of the ideas and opinions expressed, by film's end I did not feel I'd taken a step closer to better understanding of the questions raised by the film. This is frustrating, but then so, for me, is Brecht. I have never seen a production of any his plays -- professional or amateur/university -- that I felt worked very well. The point is, I guess, to keep trying: to understand ourselves, Brecht, theater -- and our everlasting need for war.

A few days after I'd seen his film -- which opens Christmas Eve at NYC's Film Forum -- I had a good, long talk with Mr. Walter via phone (he was in Michigan and I in New York). The following is as much as my arthritic fingers could manage to type while the director, buoyantly and very quickly, spoke....

TrustMovies: You've been a film editor (My Kid Could Paint That) in between your direction of the 2002 documentary How to Draw a Bunny and this year's Theater of War. How big a part of the directorial process is editing?

John W. Walter: They are two different things. The director ultimately is the guy who takes responsibility for the story telling. The production part of a movie is where you are out shooting and directing the shoots. The end product of this shooting is a bunch of footage, but the end product of the editing process is a finished film. My bread and butter gig is editing and it is a very satisfying one.

When I am directing and editing my own work, I feel pretty keenly the difference between the two. As a director, I feel I am digging myself into a hole, but as the editor, I am digging myself out of that hole! It all goes together somehow, and for me this is something that just works.

In this film, for instance, what does a play that was put on in 2006 has to do with a the version of it that was produced in 1949 -- and what do both these events have to do with the theater process, and with war.?

It's true: Your movie includes so much. How did you decide to organize it, or did the information you gained begin to organize things for you? Did some of the organization come during the editing process?

Before I started working on the film, I had a sort of shape in mind. I was going to investigate -- document -- these different stories: the NY Public Theater's production of Mother Courage and the story line of how this production of the play took shape in rehearsal. Then there was the parallel story of the play itself and of how this woman, the main character, tried to get through The 30 Years' War with her family intact. And then there is the story of Bertolt Brecht and how he had to leave a successful life as poet/playwright and go into exile. Then how he returned to Germany after the war and staged this play. I wanted to concentrate the movie along montage principles.

How do you mean "montage," in this particular case?

The way I use montage contradicts its meaning, in a sense, in that the meaning is in the connection between all these things, sort of like a way a collage works. You see all these different scenes and they become part of the meaning, the composition. Via film editing, this can become a way to create a kind of seamless whole. But in my work, I like to let the seams show.

And you have. But the viewer then has to do more work in a way, putting it all together.

I like to think of it as the viewer is having more fun. It's a kind of escapist thing from the mainstream. I make movies because I love movies. I'm someone who is blindly following his own enthusiasms.

THEATER OF WAR director John Walter -- Photo Credit: Sarah Shatz

How can you tell what is actually mainstream? By its box-office results, as with the success of The Dark Knight?

I think you can also tell by the faces of the people walking out of the theater. Are they dead-looking or alert? For instance, I was really happy with the response to a screening we had in Traverse City, Michigan. Most of the people in the audience were not NYC insiders, just everyday people. But the themes in this film -- war, protecting our children, the responsibility we have for the actions of our government -- these were things that most people at that screening could relate to: everyday realities that include themes more accessible to the average viewer than, say, with all due respect, those of The Dark Knight.

Mafia hit-men are another questionable subject to me, something rather disproportionately represented by our films and TV in terms of how numerous they really are in our society. I mean, how many Mafia hit men do you, have you ever actually known?

I've questioned that, too -- particularly with all the hoo-haw over The Sopranos. So then, how do we get a film like yours out there so that it can be seen by lots of "everyday people"?

Through critics, writers, blogs, people like you doing what they do. Every avenue helps.

Bertolt Brecht, his life and work, seems to have been a big influence on you and your film.

What was really fun for my wife and me, after we had finished with the Public Theater rehearsals, we went to Berlin for a month, set up an editing room, and just soaked in that vibe, spending a part of every day in the Brecht archive, going through his bookshelves, his notes and photos. We even went to see a production of Mother Courage that was being done in Berlin at the time, and we saw it twice.

Since I have never encountered even one production of any Brecht play that I thought worked at all fully, I would have loved to have been able to see that 1949 production.

There was an East German movie made of the play, not entirely successful because it was more filmed play than something imagined cinematically. But it was definitely worth seeing because it has the same cast as the famous 1949 production.

The use of the old photos in Theater of War was very interesting: After awhile you began to feel like you were almost there.

It's tricky. As a documentary filmmaker, you are dealing with the situation of working from old photos and trying to give them "movement" -- which of course you can't do. So you find yourself wondering, how did Mother Courage's shoulder stand at that particular moment? How long did it take her bend over, to react? Things like that. So in a way your film becomes an attempt to communicate your own experience to the audience -- this journey that you as filmmaker took.

I found watching the film brought back to me a lot of the anger I felt when, at the behest of the Bush regime, we first went to war against Iraq. Maybe because I am an older viewer, it also sent me right back in to our time in Vietnam, and it was so obvious that we were making the same kind of mistake all over again. You must have been just a boy back in the time of Vietnam.

My situation involving Vietnam was like Jay Cantor's (the writer/professor featured in Theater of War) regarding WWII. It's something that lies just over the horizon of your own experience: Its presence can be vividly felt but not touched. So it requires an extra effort, an act of the imagination, to come to terms with it.

Brecht himself, as a young man, had to go through WWI, and then he saw it starting all over again in WWII. When I was going through Brecht's bookshelves, there were a lot of books about atomic weaponry, both in German and in English. He was clearly interested in this subject. In fact, he rewrote his Galileo play after the atomic bomb went off. Before this, he was focusing on economics and did not realize that physics also had the ability to change everything. His journals are fascinating in terms of the perspective on the American home front from an outsider's point of view. After going back to Germany post-WWII, he tried to publish a book of compiled newspapers clippings, documents and photos all put together from a poetic angle.

Had you earlier been involved in legitimate theater -- from the insider's perspective?

No. I was coming to it as an enthusiast, but not as an insider. I think I have always experienced theater more as literature.

I have come to it from the other side, as either a performer (way, way back) and later as a playwright. Regarding Brecht's plays, I have never seen a performance of any of them that I felt really brought the play fully to life -- or meaning. Because of this, I have never held the writer in that high esteem. For years, from the time I first came to NYC back in the 1960s, my only experience with actual live productions of Shakespeare's plays and many of the classics -- generally came from the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival's work. With few exceptions, I would leave thinking what a pile of crap each play was. It was not until I started going to The Pearl Theater's performances here in NYC, from which, finally, I did not get some unnecessary and often wrongheaded concept "overlaid" on the play, that I came out honestly appreciating what these plays really were about, what they offered and why they were "classics."

Writers are incredibly vulnerable. They need good interpreters. And you need a master interpreter for a master playwright. To use a musical analogy, what would it be like if there was not a Rostropovich or Jacqueline du Pre or Glenn Gould to give contemporary audiences their musical experience with the classics?

No comments: