Indeed, Pacino likes to cite a line he heard from a member of the Flying Wallendas, the tight-rope-walking trapeze act: “Life is on the wire, everything else is just waiting.” And he thinks he’s found a way to bring the wired energy of the stage to film and the film close-up to the stage. “Film started with the close-up,” he says. “You just put a close-up in there—D.W. Griffith—boom! Done deal. It’s magic! Of course! You could see that in Salome today.”
He’s talking about the way he made an electrifying film out of what is essentially a stage version of the play. (And then another film he’s called Wilde Salome about the making of Salome and the unmaking of Oscar Wilde.) Over the previous couple of days, I’d gone down to a Santa Monica screening room to watch both movies (which he’s been cutting and reshaping for years now).
But he feels—after six years—he’s got it right, at last. “See what those close-ups fix on?” Pacino asks. “See that girl in the close-ups?”
“That girl” is Jessica Chastain, whose incendiary performance climaxes in a close-up of her licking the blood lasciviously from the severed head of John the Baptist.
I had to admit that watching the film of the play, it didn’t play like a play—no filming of the proscenium arch with the actors strutting and fretting in the middle distance. The camera was onstage, weaving in and around, right up in the actors’ faces.
And here’s Pacino’s dream of acting, the mission he’s on with Salome:
“My big thing is I want to put theater on the screen,” he says. “And how do you do that? The close-up. By taking that sense of live theater to the screen.”
“The faces become the stage in a way?”
“And yet you’re still getting the benefit of the language. Those people aren’t doing anything but acting. But to see them, talk with them in your face....”
Pacino has a reputation for working on self-financed film projects, obsessing over them for years, screening them only for small circles of friends. Last time I saw him it was The Local Stigmatic, a film based on a play by British avant-garde dramatist Heathcote Williams about two lowlife London thugs (Pacino plays one) who beat up a B-level screen celebrity they meet in a bar just because they hate celebrity. (Hmm. Some projection going on in that project?) Pacino has finally released Stigmatic, along with the even more obscure Chinese Coffee, in a boxed DVD set.