Monday, December 29, 2008

"We are not we": Scene 26, Opening Night

"I am not me. I used to be me. I'm not me anymore"
- Myrtle in 'Opening Night'

The final scene of John Cassavetes’ Opening Night is the most thematically complex, and at the same time, one of the most exhilarating passages ever committed to film. It’s the final surprise in a movie in which the characters are so stubborn that you expect them to abandon the movie midway. And in essence, that is what Gena Rowland’s ageing stage diva does. Halfway through the movie, sick of having act to in a play which makes her confront her dwindling beauty by playing a menopausal second wife, she refuses to act. Instead she deviates from the script in every way she can think of – changing the script around to suit her own mental state, ad-libbing, playing to the gallery. This non-acting is an act of great cinematic daring, and Cassevates walks a tightrope between the lines dividing art and self, reality and illusion, creativity and madness. He maintains it right upto scene twenty-six, where matters are brought to a head in a manner that is fitting and unexpected.

We have already seen the scene which ends the movie play out earlier, during the rehearsals of the play. Its a tense scene between two thespians, Maurice (Cassevates) and Myrtle (Rowlands); we have already seen her disdain for it's artificiality and the violence shown towards her character, which she cannot separate from violence personally directed at her. Myrtle is also shaking off the effects of the alcohol which almost prevented her from being able to stand in her earlier scenes. To complicate matters further, Myrtle and Maurice were once a couple, and we have already seen him reject her twice in the movie. Backstage before the start of the scene, we see her say "I'm going to bury the bastard". The stage is set, literally, for a incendiary finale, an offer which the director gleefully refuses.

They start off the scene in character and according to script. But then, surprisingly, suddenly, Maurice responds to Myrtle’s ad-libbing and triggers off a stunning free-association improvisatory exchange that lasts fifteen minutes and changes the entire tone of the movie. Cassavetes’ character in the movie has been hanging around the edges, careful and cold, admitting at one point that he could not afford to take the kind of on-stage risks that Myrtle seemed desperate to take. But Maurice on this night can sense (and so can the viewers on screen and off) that this scene will never get done unless one works with Myrtle. However, instead of indulging her, as everyone in the movie has done upto this point, he challenges her by raising his own game. He answers her frank confession of "I am not me" with a melodramatic wisecrack ("We are not we"), and forces her into open combat instead of self-pity. Even as they try and top each other, one can sense his and Myrtle's surprise, and their increasingly infectious delight at the turn of events. Cassevates the actor often gets overshadowed by Cassevates the director, but few could have changed gears so quickly and convincingly and hilariously.

The scene covers a striking amount of ground – incorporating ’40s Hollywood-style repartee, the improvised, off-rhythm dialogue of independent cinema (a trend which Cassevates fathered) and slapstick both verbal and physical. The actors switch wildly in and out of character until the dividing line becomes indistinguishable. It may have been scripted, but the way it plays out, it doesn’t seem like it. By the end, the play's audience is in splits, and the characters are also finding it difficult to control their smiles of amusement and pride. The movie, which could easily have ended in apocalypse and seemed no less effective for it, ends with euphoria and forgiveness, and most enduringly, after two hours of exploring the destructive nature of art, a paean to the redemptive nature of creativity.

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