Film: Dissecting the Sacred Cow

Why Dead Man Walking worked better on screen than stage

Sister Helen Prejean confers with Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins during the making of the 1995 film Dead Man Walking.

Does the theme — or for that matter, the cultural significance — of a work of art place it above criticism? Legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael endured criticism for knocking the hailed, nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah as tiresome and repetitive. Critic Armond White was labeled an anti-Semitic pariah when he had the gall to criticize Schindler's List, the first feature film ever seriously considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Spielberg, of course, had to settle for a mere Oscar.)

Kael and White have been on my mind ever since I saw Cincinnati Opera's recent production of Dead Man Walking. Hailed as the second coming of opera since its San Francisco debut, DMW virtually sold-out Music Hall and became the summer event for Cincinnati arts-goers and socio-political activists alike. At water coolers and cocktail parties throughout the city it took on a reverence generally accorded a pope's visit, and not just because it's roots were in Catholicism.

Sacred cow status aside, I found the production vaguely unsatisfying, even bothersome. And I couldn't put my finger on the problem until I revisited the 1995 film which, like the opera, was based on Sister Helen Prejean's 1993 memoir about ministering to Death Row inmates.

Books and movies — and, yes, operas — are different creatures and that knee-jerk dismissal "the book was better" is, for my money, a lame apples-and-oranges comparison.

My point is not that DMW, the movie, is better than the opera. It's that Prejean's basic material works better on film than onstage. Shot almost entirely in close-ups, the movie is an achingly intimate experience. Writer/director Tim Robbins rigorously avoids both sentimentality and sensationalism and serves the story with a close-to-the-bone realism the material demands.

The creators of the opera are a Broadway-savvy group, including four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally (libretto), theatre and film director Joe Mantello (staging) and composer Jake Heggie, the current golden boy of the classical world.

As staged in Cincinnati by Leonard Foglia the production was somewhat scaled down from San Francisco (it opens later this week at New York City Opera), but it still contained lots of audience-pleasing eye candy including flying scaffolding, an actual automobile, a slide show depicting a road trip, a chorus of skipping children and full frontal nudity which revealed as much about the creators' intentions as it did the actors' bodies.

This critical difference in approach was most evident in the one scene the film and opera both lifted verbatim from the book, Sister Helen's encounter with a motorcycle cop. In the film the scene is a near throwaway, an afterthought that plays out in about 30 seconds. In the opera it was a showstopper. You could practically hear the audience thinking, "Look, that cop's riding a real motorcycle!" Like everything else in the opera it was presented as spectacle. And that spectacle had a way of distancing the audience from the work's emotional core.

In the film the brutal rape/murder for which the accused is condemned is depicted in a series of carefully, even hesitantly, edited flashbacks which slowly reveal the horror of the crime without ever becoming gratuitous. And throughout the film we see photos of the deceased, who become genuine characters.

Onstage the crime was a set-piece prologue. But the victims, as devoid of personality as they were of costumes, ended up being props. (When the performers appeared in clothes for their curtain call the woman next to me asked, "Who were they?") The nudity, which was probably meant to underscore their vulnerability, succeeded only in throwing the audience out of the show before it even started.

In the film there is absolutely nothing attractive about Sean Penn's Matthew Poncelet. With his ratty goatee and shoe-black pompadour, he is the epitome of white-trash sleaze. When he talks about women, he makes your skin crawl. On stage the role of Joseph DeRocher, as he is called in the opera, was sung by John Packard, who originated the role in San Francisco. Nice-looking and well-built, the muscle-T clad Packard was dangerously close to being Stanley Kowalski, as eroticized as the inmates in an episode of the TV series Oz. He was, well, sexy. And that difference pandered to the audience's innate desire for romanticism, which is wholly wrong for this particular piece.

On film DMW is an emotionally draining experience: It has the uncanny ability to move viewers to stunned silence and tears. The opera, so enveloped in celebrity and political correctness, elicited the guaranteed, obligatory standing ovation. And with Heggie and Sister Helen joining in the bows after the final performance, who dared to carp? For that matter, who can blame Cincinnati Opera for producing a work which obviously put them in the national spotlight, even if it's an opera that will probably fade in about 10 years?

Still, once I watched the movie again, I realized my misgivings about the opera were really a sort of anger. It was as if all that theatricality had cheapened a profound intimacy which, perhaps, can only be found watching a movie. Or reading a book. The opera reduced the material to — dare I say it? — something almost offensive.

ALAN SCHEIDT is a freelance writer who has managed a repertory cinema and worked as a Classical music announcer/producer on public radio.

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