"All the same, there was something going on which remains true, even when the words and pictures are mostly made up."
In 1990, playwright Tom Stoppard directed a movie version of his acclaimed play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. In the first week of the shoot, somebody remarked that Stoppard wasn't moving the camera very much. Although Stoppard had consulted with his friend and former collaborator Steven Spielberg prior to the shoot, he realized that he had actually forgotten that he could move the camera. So he resolved to move the camera in week two. Then he found that moving the camera could be quite difficult. So in week three he stopped moving the camera.
Something about the British approach to cinema is vividly captured in the above anecdote. At any point in the preparation of this film, which ended up being flat, distant and visually dead, did anybody on the production side think of asking the aspirant director about his visual approach? It seems they didn't.
Yet in 1984, Stoppard had written a magnificent film, which he did not direct, for the newly-formed Film Four Productions, who were using television money to make feature films, a new idea in Britain at that time. Squaring the Circle was directed by Mike Hodges, who had earlier been acclaimed for Get Carter, and would later win praise for Croupier, both intense, cold-blooded takes on the British gangster movie. This is another tale of organized crime: it deals with the attempt to set up an independent union, called Solidarity, in communist-run Poland in 1980.
Hodges became attached to a script which used theatrical language to tell its story, and a budget which did not seem adequate to capture the historical sweep of the events depicted. Unfazed, he exploited the language of theater, fused with that of cinema, in a bold and unashamed manner. Stoppard had created a narrator/interlocutor figure who talks to the audience and explains the political background of the story, interrupted and assisted by the characters in the film. Hodges thought of Anton Walbrook in La ronde and saw no reason why such an approach couldn't work. And he thought of Fellini and Amarcord and saw no reason why lacking the money to realistically portray the crowd scenes and the Polish locations should be a problem. (In fact, Hodges had just acted as English dialogue director for Fellini on And the Ship Sails On, so cellophane oceans were fresh in his mind.)
This theatricality allows British actors to play Polish and Russian characters without jeopardizing credibility, since the kind of credibility aimed at is a rather flexible one. As the narrator, American Richard Crenna brings an amused curiosity to his role, exploiting his sympathetic rapport with an audience, something he always had going for him, in an unusually direct way. The Brits include John Woodvine (whose slight air of classical-theatre stiffness ideally equips him to play a stuffy politico), Roy Kinnear (looking like a flustered egg, shameless as ever in his mining of whatever comic gold may lie buried in a scene), a nubile Tom Wilkinson and, as Lech Walesa, the head of Solidarity and the hero of the piece, Bernard Hill. Hill's later role as captain of the Titanic suggests something of the embattled nobility he brings to the part, and might also prepare us for the ending. "Between August of 1980, and December of 1981, an attempt was made in Poland to put together two ideas which wouldn't fit," warns Crenna. "The idea of freedom as it's understood in the west, and the idea of socialism as it's understood in the Soviet empire. The attempt failed, because it was impossible, in the same sense that it's impossible, in geometry, to turn a circle into a square with the same area. Not because no one's found out how to do it, but because there's no way in which it can be done."
(Parenthesis One: Because of the pre-Glasnost moment when this film was made, its ending is somewhat gloomier than it might have been a few years later, when Walesa had become his country's president.)
(Parenthesis Two: Is making a film for television a bit like trying to square the circle, trying to impose cinematic value on a medium which often seems comfortable imagining itself as radio-with-pictures? Hodges' work here suggests that it can be done, and in a subtle, intelligent and surprising manner.)
Throughout, the sets created by of Polish designer Voytek, who had collaborated previously with Skolimowski and Polanski, and is the only Pole closely involved in the movie, create an unreal yet consistent and solid world for the story. Solid, yes, but fragmented: walls do not meet, leaving gaps through which studio scaffolding gleams. A world coming apart at the seams. The fake bookcase from in front of which a succession of Polish leaders broadcast to the nation seems more dependable than the houses and factories of the embattled nation. It's all an elaborate feint in the direction of Brechtian alienation, a pop-art juke-box world haunted by the shade of Ken Russell's day-glo biopics and Fellini's imaginary memoirs.
"We are not a poor country. We are badly managed."
Despite the essentially serious, and potentially dry, nature of the story, playfulness abounds. A restaurant patron regales Crenna with a potted history of Poland using bread rolls to enact the country's periods of division and reunification, ending cheerfully: "That's the true picture. Apart from the bread rolls. You won't find a basket of bread rolls pit out on a cafe table in Poland."
Stoppard does a magnificent job making the essentially decent Walesa interesting—he holds back his hero's first appearance for the entire first act, allowing the Polish leaders to characterize him as something of a crank, obsessed with erecting a memorial (forty metres high) to the workers killed in the 1970 strikes. We meet the man at last, under the glare of the world media, and Hodges cuts to an overhead view reducing Walesa's little home to an open-plan doll's house, crowded with press-men. When Walesa gets his monument, he finally justifies it, and himself: "We used to show up there every Christmas with stones in our suitcases. We'd build a little monument, and the police would kick it over and take us away. They won't kick this over in a hurry."
Even if the lines between good and bad characters are sharply drawn, Stoppard takes time out from anatomizing the communist leaders with a cartoonist's blade, to give them unexpected grace notes. The sinister General Jaruzelski, one of Walesa's greatest opponents, wins points by refusing the order an armed suppression of Solidarity, as had been done with the 1970 strikers. "They returned to work!" argues a politician. "Not all of them," says the General: "Not the ones who were dead."
Later, having become leader of the cabinet, the politburo and the armed forces, he polishes his medals before a TV broadcast and wonders, self-consciously, "You don't think the effect is a little... South American?"
"Right and wrong aren't complicated. When a child cries, 'That's not fair!' the child can be believed."
That gloomy ending: Hodges pulls one of his distinctive retreats, withdrawing from the scene, creeping out with his camera, as Walesa tells his wife they've failed, and that "We may have to be apart for a while." His arrest is imminent. Hodges had baffled his American producers on The Terminal Man by pulling away from an emotional scene—"It's too painful, we don't want to see!"—rather than wallowing in the pornography of misery. His discretion here is another grace note, marking the point at which the film's more Brechtian devices cease to distance us from the drama. That slow pull back is inexpressably sad, and seems to stretch the elastic of our connection to the character, even as it denies us the easy gratification of seeing a fine actor emote for our benefit.
(Parenthesis Three: the best thing about Brechtian alienation is that it doesn't work. We relate anyway, if the story is well-told, and bogus accents or fluttering backdrops offer only a tissue-thin barrier against emotional involvement. A teardrop dissolves it. But the efforts of the Brechtian do create an atmosphere of sophistication, discretion, a pleasing indirectness and a flavouring of irony. Emotion is de-emphasized in favor of the exploration of ideas, with the result that emotion can work unhindered in the background, ready to pounce and floor you just as you're innocently meditating on questions of economics and power politics.)
Alas, this movie, which is quietly revolutionary in both theme and style, is unlikely to receive an airing except via a Hodges retrospective or a Stoppard retrospective, both of which would be desirable things, but would tend to marginalize the movie itself, which should be loudly trumpeted as one of the finest bits of political television/cinema/theater ever.
Squaring the Circle played on TV a couple of times and fell through historical fault lines into dusty neglect. Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette was the Film Four production that broke out of the TV set onto the big screen, inaugurating a new era of social realism rather than Brechtian burlesque. While in America, it was another Richard Crenna movie that came to sum up the approach to political cinema in the eighties—Rambo: First Blood.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.