Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Recovered Film Review #29-A: “Poof! You’re a Movie! On the Screen Adaptation of David Auburn’s Play, PROOF” * Nancy Keefe Rhodes * Broadcast on Women’s Voices Radio, WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM on 10/20/2005 And now “Poof! You’re a Movie!” – a look at what happened to David Auburn’s award-winning play, PROOF, on its way to the screen. You might be among the fortunate here in Central New York who saw The Redhouse’s wonderfully well-directed & acted stage production of this play about a year ago. It isn’t that you won’t recognize what’s on-screen out at Manlius Cinema, but there is good news & bad news about that transformation. I’m going to start with the bad news so you will fully appreciate the good. PROOF is the story of a young Chicago woman, Catherine, who must bury her brilliant but quite crazy father Robert on her birthday. Catherine has been rattling around in the house caring for Robert & neglecting her own life & talent. She & those around her fear she may have inherited his instability. Her claim that she has authored an astounding new a mathematical proof is disbelieved by both Robert’s graduate student, Hal, and Catherine’s sister Clair, who has flown in from New York for the funeral to get everybody in ship shape. That PROOF began life as a play means that putting it on-screen to begin with presents a problem. As you can see in this case, it isn’t just the basic problem that plays showing up on-screen suddenly seem way more talky than they ever did on-stage, but let’s start with that. The first rule of screen-writing is that showing trumps telling, because the ways movies & theater approach telling stories are just fundamentally different. Stage abstracts & enacts. It treats background differently than film does, so that the characters stand out & are enhanced. I had misgivings when I noticed that David Auburn’s co-author on this screen adaptation was Rebecca Miller. Two months ago I reviewed her film, THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE, here, a film with memorable & tremendously moving moments – also about the heart-wrenching, costly & misplaced love between a father & daughter, & a film with many of the same flaws that PROOF has. Yes, I blame Rebecca Miller for those flaws, though I can’t for the life of me figure out what turned David Auburn’s head so that he abandoned several of the finest parts of his meticulously constructed play. After a while it dawned on me that PROOF the movie is fiercely anti-stage. First, it abandons the porch upon which the play’s entire action occurs – that domestic outpost, that architectural metaphor for the border between our public & private lives. Then there are the times the film literally loses its characters in the camera’s frenzy at being free to wander about Chicago. It took me a moment to find Catherine & Clair in one crowded street scene – very distracting – & Catherine’s ride home from the airport near the end – she’s not in it. These are major mistakes & you’ll have to spend a lot of energy staying focused on what really are fairly nuanced actions. The other major metaphorical abandonment is that here in the film, Hal who seduces Catherine rather than the right way round. Theater not the only thing that travels poorly to the screen. Think about how genius travels, especially the sort that most of us can’t understand. Numbers make my eyes glaze over. When Hal & Catherine make cocktail chat out of prime numbers theory, that mostly leaves me in the dust. In Catherine’s surprising but plausible seduction of her father’s student, David Auburn provides a glimpse of how her mind might also be capable of moving – decisively, brilliantly, hiply – well, with genius. The film version takes the wind out of her sails as both a woman & as a prodigy. Now she is merely angry at times, although her anger is part of the good stuff. As in the scenes with her sister. Rarely has sisterly bickering had more bite & huff than Gwyneth Paltrow & Hope Davis bring it here. What the camera can do, when it settles down, is pay attention to some extraordinary acting at close quarters, especially from Paltrow, who also starred in the London stage production. So, is Catherine’s genius really any less exotic to us than such current movie characters as Domino the bounty hunter-model, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, or Pocahontas in the forthcoming NEW WORLD? I wonder. But most of us do understand losing our grip. I’m grateful beyond measure that somehow Robert’s own final proof survived to the screen – though now it has a reading in a cozy study instead of the frigid winter-night lawn where it belongs. Here is what he’s been scribbling: “Let X equal the quantity of all quantities of X. Let X equal the cold. It is cold in December. The months of cold equal November through February. There are four months of cold & four months of heat, leaving four months of indeterminate temperature. In February it snows. In March the lake is a lake of ice. In September the students come back & the bookstores are full. Let X equal the months of full bookstores. The number of books approaches infinity as the number of months of cold approaches four. I will never be as cold now as I will in the future. The future of cold is infinite. The future of heat is the future of cold. The bookstores are infinite & so are never full except in September.” I felt sorrow & pity, which I guess is proof they still managed to pull it off. * [914]