Oct 19, 2009

Beckett, Pinter, Pop Culture

One of the more startlingly unlikely cultural legacies of mid-century drama is the line that runs from Beckett to Sanford and Son, with a crucial side tour through Pinter, but there it is. Given that strange genealogy, I'm inclined to keep an open mind about these things, but I'm less than convinced by a few other recent claims about the purported pop-cultural influence of the oft-paired Sam and Harold. The first was at Thomas Garvey's Hub Review, where, in trying to figure out why Pinter's work doesn't seem to pack the punch it used to, he theorizes:
Listening to The Caretaker, in fact, I was struck again and again by how his voice has become the lingua franca of so much pop culture. Saturday Night Live appeared just as his output began winding down, and its skits were often rife with light, dumbed-down riffs on his central trope of oblique threat. Then came Quentin Tarantino, whose dialogue is essentially a degraded, high-school version of Pinter's "comedy of menace," re-fitted with fresher pop references (and goosed along by literal threats of torture and rape). But a funny thing happened to the Theatre of the Absurd once Quentin Tarantino and Lorne Michaels got their hands on it: it went meta, and lost its powers of critique.

The irony-has-lost-its-sting critique is fair enough, even banal by now, but looking for traces of Pinter in SNL and Tarantino seems a stretch. Then along comes the Times' Jason Zinoman, whose review of the would-be horror play Ghost Light lays another trend at the feet of these two mid-century masters:
My advice for macabre theater artists is to...look to Beckett and Pinter, who were inspirations for the great horror boom of the 1970s. Roman Polanski wanted to film “Waiting for Godot”; and before William Friedkin shot “The Exorcist,” he adapted “The Birthday Party.” People say horror doesn’t work onstage, but trust me, if you dare to look closely at great 20th-century drama, it’s right there, hiding quietly, like a body buried in the basement.

That's some great trivia and good advice, but honestly, contemporaneity isn't causality. Pinter was a giant, but I don't think even he would claim that he invented menace, subtext, or suspense, let alone irony.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comment, Rob, but to be clear: i was never saying that Pinter invented menace or that these directors were influenced because they were around at the same time. Friedkin and Polanski have said so themselves. And you can throw Wes Craven and John Carpenter into the mix as well. If you would like more convincing, not to worry: my book on the history of modern horror (which includes interviews with all these guys, minus Roman P who is apparently busy at the moment) will cover this territory more exhaustively -- when i finally get around to finishing it. Speaking of which, back to work. best, Jason Zinoman