Sunday, March 6, 2011
My Zinc Bed
"Don't we most of all resent the person who helps?" (Victor Quinn)
It seems to me no accident that, while Americans didn't invent alcoholism, they had to invent its demonology. I don't know to what extent David Hare was speaking from experience, but his script for the film (aka "TV Drama")My Zinc Bed,(1) adapted from his stage play, does mention some of the horrors of alcoholism. But he also brings up one of the best arguments against AA: that it does little more than replace one addiction with another, trading alcohol for a methadone of misery.
Almost twenty years ago, I accompanied a friend to an AA meeting. Listening to the stories people were telling that night about their lowest lows made me realize that I would have to go a very long way into drink before it became anywhere near the problem it had become for them. But the first time I heard one of those people speak about how many years or months or days it had been since his last drink, it was clear to me that he was really counting down to his next drink.
The best definition - and best narration of the nightmare - of addiction that I know was written by the Frenchman Pierre Drieu La Rochelle in his novel Le Feu Follet:
"And, having reached the abstract and illusory point of the cure, that is, when his [Alain's] intake was down to zero, he finally realized what the habit meant. Although he seemed to be physically separated from drugs, all their effects remained within his being. Narcotics had changed the color of his life, and though they seemed to have gone, that color persisted. Whatever life drugs had left now seemed impregnated with them and drew him back to them. He could not make a gesture, pronounce a word, go somewhere, meet someone, without an association of ideas leading him back to drugs. All of his gestures resembled that of injecting himself (for he had taken heroin in solution): the very sound of his own voice could no longer awaken anything within him but his fate. He had been touched by death, drugs were death, he could not, from death, return to life. He could only plunge deeper into death, and so back into drugs. This is the sophistry drugs inspire to justify relapse: I am lost, therefore I can take drugs again."(2)
This is the diagnosis of a man who has already resolved to end his own life. And yet look at how easily this passage can be used to describe the condition of anyone who is in the thrall of desire. That would appear to be what Victor Quinn, in My Zinc Bed, has learned from life, and he tries to pass his knowledge on to two people, Elsa, the woman he marries, and Paul Peplow, a writer he employs. Both of them are "recovered" addicts - she of cocaine, he of alcohol. What Victor ultimately imparts to the two of them is that being cured of addiction may be good for their bodies but not at all for their emotional or creative selves.
This may seem like a repellent idea on the surface, but for Hare, a writer - one of the most neurotic endeavors imaginable - the practice of self-transcendence is fraught with hazards. Why are so many writers alcoholics? Walker Percy once asked why William Faulkner went on a bender right after he finished Light in August. His answer, somewhat arguable, was that it was the only way that Faulkner could return to earth without being injured by the fall.
John Cheever, a lifelong drinker, wrote in his journal of 1968: "I must convince myself that writing is not for a man of my disposition, a self-destructive vocation. I hope and think it is not, but I am not genuinely sure. It has given me money and renown, but I suspect that it may have something to do with my drinking habits. The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar."
As for My Zinc Bed, I'm afraid that I didn't have to be informed in the end credits that it was based on a play. After all these years of adapting plays to the screen, why did it have to be so obvious to me that a film with just three actors and just two principal locations - both indoors - was originally conceived for the stage? A film doesn't have to be spectacular to be a good film. It isn't always obliged to show us everything that a play would have to tell us. It needn't take place in a real street or a real park, even if such real places could help establish the reality of the people who're doing all the talking.
The ultimate model for this sort of thing is one or another of Bergman's great "chamber films": - intense dramas involving three or four people (or just two in Persona). Bergman had a visual sense that made these potentially claustrophobic films satisfying as films.
If the actors are good enough, the proximity of the camera to them is an improvement over the stage. In My Zinc Bed, there is Jonathan Pryce, who is a great actor and does beautifully as manipulative business tycoon Victor Quinn. There is Paddy Considine, who is suitably hangdog as a blocked, reformed drunk. And there is Uma Thurman, who is quite good - at last - as Elsa, Quinn's wife, always teetering on the brink of a relapse into who knows what. Thurman gets top billing in the opening credits, and is enough of a star, I suppose, to deserve it.
At one point in the film, Pryce looks out of a window and says, "summer's end." I suppose it would have seemed trite for the director to give us a shot of something outside that would have made those evocative words more substantial. Some directors would have at least run the camera around the block a few times just to break the monotony of three people yammering away.
Closer (2004) was a film in a similar vein that took a successful stage play and transformed it into a satisfactory film. Mike Nichols, the director, had enough experience of both media to know how to translate the less than scintillating play, by Patrick Marber, into a film that is as good as it could have been. Hare's play is better as written, but he needed someone like Nichols to bring it to life on the screen. Hare has directed a few good films himself, like Wetherby (1985), but entrusts his own script of My Zinc Bed to Anthony Page on this occasion, who is a respected stage director but a mediocre filmmaker.
When we last see Paul walking along a sunlit street, narrating the death of Victor and the fate of Elsa, and asking Victor's ultimately rhetorical question, "Who wants to be cured of desire?", the sense of relief is too great for a film that only lasts an hour and nine minutes.
(1) The title refers to one of the last lines in the film, when Elsa identifies the body of her husband, Victor: '"At last," she said, "Victor lay on his zinc bed."'
(2) The Fire Within, Richard Howard translation. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965)