From the Chicago Reader (February 15, 1991). — J.R.
PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS: ON THE SET OF DEATH OF A SALESMAN
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Christian Blackwood.
I’ve never seen Volker Schlondorff’s 150-minute made-for-TV film of Death of a Salesman (1985), which Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies awards high marks: “Stunning though stylistic remounting of [Dustin] Hoffman’s Broadway revival of the classic Arthur Miller play with most of the cast from that 1984 production. A landmark of its type. Executive-produced by Hoffman and Miller. Hoffman and [John] Malkovich both won acting Emmys. Above average.” But a friend who has seen it, and who loves the play, tells me that she disliked the film: all the actors seemed to be off on their own tangents, she said, and there was little interplay between them.
Whether the Schlondorff film is good or bad, Private Conversations: On the Set of Death of a Salesman, the 82-minute documentary that Christian Blackwood made about the making of it, is endlessly fascinating, for reasons largely irrelevant to the worth of the Miller play or this particular production of it. Part of the open-endedness of Blackwood’s film comes from the fact that if Schlondorff’s film works the reasons are here, and if it doesn’t work the reasons are here — perhaps in the same circumstances. Some documentaries give the impression of having too little information to impart; this one often seems to have too much. Blackwood structures the material lucidly — it’s easy to follow — but there are many different and even antithetical ways to interpret it.
This film — which incidentally I’ve seen only on video — about the making of a film of a play raises a good many questions about theater, film, and (more peripherally) television, about their divergences as well as their meeting points. These often become, in turn, questions about documentary, and about the real.
Quite early in Private Conversations (which is showing at the Film Center tonight) Schlondorff delivers the following speech to his cast and crew, in his imperfect but expressive and even eloquent English: “How all this will translate on film I don’t know. This is an experiment. These walls” — he indicates the studio set — “don’t quite fit. It is not so much that we wanted to make an economy but to make clear from the beginning and all the way through [that] this is not a real house. Because if you have that much reality, you don’t need that many words anymore. This being a play, a reality should be created through the words. If the reality is there anyhow in front of the camera, they don’t need to talk that much, and it doesn’t fit together then.
“You will contribute greatly by creating reality through your performance. Everything should be fake except the emotions — they will be true and they’ll be what we’ll be moved by. The main thing will be that [with] the camera, being that present, and the mike with it, being that present, you will automatically perform differently, whether you want it or not.
“In the beginning, you may still look for, where is the audience? Now of course there is no audience; ultimately your audience is Willy Loman [the title salesman, played by Hoffman], because you’re all performing for him. So what we have to do here is not reproduce what you’ve done already [in the Broadway production]. We really have to re-create it. And that’s why I’m at least as nervous as all of you together.”
Until he gets to Willy Loman, Schlondorff could just as easily be describing Blackwood’s film. The reality of Blackwood’s documentary is also dependent mainly on words, and its performances are also profoundly affected by the presence of cameras and microphones — and not only by the cameras that we see, but by the one that Blackwood (the cinematographer as well as the producer and director) is holding, the one that allows us to see the other cameras.
What is Schlondorff’s opening speech, after all, but a highly theatrical performance? While he’s delivering it, Blackwood cuts from him to the cast and crew to various details on the set — the canvas chairs bearing the names of Hoffman, Schlondorff, Miller, and Malkovich, for instance. Much of what he cuts to is probably material shot on other occasions, but the words are what carry both the “narrative” and our sense of reality. One wonders, moreover, whether he’s offering his performance not only for the cast and crew of Death of a Salesman but for Blackwood’s camera and microphone. (Ironically, he seems more in command when he’s delivering this speech than when we see him directing.) Is Blackwood’s film merely recording this event, creating it, or somehow altering it?
The film offers more than one precis of its own contents. After an introductory stretch, we get some skeletal credits introducing us to a cast of characters, each character accompanied by a photograph: “Arthur Miller/playwright; Dustin Hoffman/Willy Loman; John Malkovich/Biff; Volker Schlondorff/director; Kate Reid/Linda Loman; Stephen Lang/Happy; Michael Ballhaus/director of photography.” Then we get Schlondorff’s speech, another summary of the film’s contents. Next we cut to Schlondorff explaining Hoffman’s daily work routine to someone, an account that offers an equally relevant inventory: he wakes up at 4 AM, spends three hours on makeup, starts to shoot at 8, works for 12 hours, then devotes 2 hours to screening the daily rushes (or “dailies,” as they’re called). He goes home at 10. (The remainder of the film focuses on the various stages of this schedule — apart from Hoffman waking up.)
Blackwood then cuts to Hoffman, who’s seated in a rocking chair and explaining, “I’ve finished my second shift. . . . We don’t want to complain on camera,” he adds, laughing self-consciously. Then he adds, equally self-consciously, “I love my work.” His fatigue and his awareness of Blackwood’s camera seem equally operative here.
On the one hand, Private Conversations often seems to “truly” document the tensions, creative decisions, deliberations, and interactions involved in filming Death of a Salesman, all of which exist independently of Blackwood and his crew. On the other hand, we often seem to be watching a spectacle staged especially for the benefit of Blackwood and his crew. And for much of the time, likely as not, no two spectators would agree on which is which.
Let’s listen to Blackwood now, speaking not in Private Conversations but about it: “On the set of John Huston’s Under the Volcano I had been very much a voyeur, observing without interfering. Hence my calling the film Observations Under the Volcano.” (This film, which I haven’t seen, will be showing tonight immediately before Private Conversations.) “In this instance, with words being essential to the play, and the objective that of translating the play into a film, there was an intense collaboration between Arthur, Volker, and Dustin. I decided to become an “eavesdropper,’ listening in on conversations between director and actors, between director and playwright. Hence the title Private Conversations.” The film’s central ambiguity can be located in the quotation marks that Blackwood places around “eavesdropping,” and what they imply.
But there are many other ambiguities. Who, for instance, is really directing Salesman? For a good bit of the time Schlondorff seems like the junior partner in a trio of directors headed by Hoffman and Miller; as executive producers, they often appear to be running the show. Between takes we sometimes see Hoffman as well as Miller indicating to other actors and one another — as well as to Schlondorff — how they think certain speeches and scenes should be performed. “You guys must decide why she comes into this room,” Hoffman instructs the other actors at one point, “even if you have to add a line.” Miller on occasion suggests alternate line readings.
The tightest bond in this trio seems to be between Miller and Hoffman. At one point, Schlondorff is literally seated at their feet while they’re sitting in chairs; and significantly, Hoffman’s urban Jewish accent as Loman often seems modeled on Miller’s. At various points during the film, Hoffman appears in silhouette speaking about the personal importance of Miller’s play to him — the fact that his father was a salesman, that the play was the first one he ever read, and that it was the first he performed in his first acting class. Such declarations intensify our sense that Schlondorff is an outsider, removed by nationality and language as well as by cultural background from the experience that links Miller and Hoffman.
One of the tensest sequences in the film occurs when Schlondorff asserts his power as director; the occasion is a confrontational scene between Biff and his father in a hotel room when Biff discovers Willy in the arms of a floozy. Schlondorff objects to the way that Hoffman and Malkovich embrace one another, which he seems to find false, or at least forced: “I’m not so sure about this mutual embracing.” Hoffman counters that the gesture is “in the play,” but then reluctantly agrees to drop it. (Malkovich isn’t heard from on the subject.) A bit later, when the scene is being replayed without the gesture, Hoffman’s voice drops, and Miller remarks, “I can’t hear what he’s saying.” Schlondorff says, “I can’t either.” Later Miller criticizes Hoffman’s performance, and Hoffman counters that he lost control over it when he was told to speak louder. Then Hoffman suggests to Miller — dropping his voice to a whisper — that cutting out the embrace, which was part of the stage production for a year and a half, is what threw him off, and that he’s still “searching for an equivalent.” Still later, Hoffman tells Schlondorff, in response to criticism, “I don’t disagree with you — I’m sure you’re right,” whether about the embrace or something else is not fully clear; he also remarks that he’s too tired at this point to be moved by Malkovich’s tears in the scene they’ve just played together.
The film abounds in little conspiracies of this kind, with the voices often dropping into confidential registers. The fact that Hoffman seems to be whispering so that Schlondorff won’t hear him, even though we do, creates a rather divided and contradictory sense of intimacy; at this moment we’re being invited into a club that excludes Schlondorff but includes anyone (including Schlondorff) who might happen to be watching Private Conversations. Later, when Hoffman is speaking to Schlondorff, it’s a club that apparently excludes Malkovich.
If my friend is right about Schlondorff’s film lacking interaction, could this be because so many interactions are taking place offstage and in between takes? Is Blackwood part of these interactions or merely a witness to them? How, in fact, is Blackwood’s film affecting Schlondorff’s?
Blackwood’s film chronicles visits to the set by Tony Randall and Werner Herzog and lots of goofing around between takes — Hoffman and Charles Durning dancing a polka together, for example. But the bulk of what we see and hear is the theory as well as the practice of translating theater into film — what the presence of cameras and microphones and the absence of an audience do to actors. Malkovich, dissatisfied with the second take of one scene, remarks, “It’s written well for a play, but for a film it’s different.” (I haven’t seen Malkovich onstage, but if the comments of friends are reliable, there’s a qualitative difference between his theater and film work, which suggests that theater may be his only real medium.) At another point Hoffman observes that film permits actors a freedom of movement they don’t have in the theater, where they always have to address the audience; but he also notes the sheer economic pressures that rule Hollywood production and tend to make multiple takes prohibitive.
In a recent TV interview, Joe Mantegna characterized acting on the stage as energizing and acting for films as draining. Certainly the cameras and microphones here, which Blackwood sometimes interposes between us and the actors, seem to have a vampiristic effect — not only on the actors but at times even on the viewer, as if the recording equipment were sucking life out of the bond that links actors and audience. Whether this process is diminished or intensified by television and video is an issue that’s never raised in Private Conversations; but considering the fact that Schlondorff’s film was made for television, it’s a question worth considering.