Old Times (Pinter, 1971)

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I saw Old Times from the front row of the Pinter Theater. Sitting so close, looking up at the actors, I couldn’t help but be in awe. The experience was magical for me, sacramental (with a little ‘s’). The posture I received from the performance was gelassenheit, through it I encountered the numinous.

In The Orthodox Way, Bishop Ware writes that

Unless we start with a feeling of awe and astonishment–with what is often called a sense of the numinous–we shall make little progress on the Way. (pg. 13)

The numinous has a rich history in the Orthodox tradition; it is an overwhelming presence of the transcendent, a feeling of being surrounded by the divine.The natural reaction to the numinous is fear and attraction (mysterium tremendum et fascinans). In art, this can be a common experience: being uncomfortable and overwhelmed yet unable to look away. Theologically, this is the human experience of God (i.e. “fear and trembling”).

I find this experience aesthetically linked to minimalism. To experience the numinous is to be renewed, but not to comprehend; it is an experience that is both immersive and confounding, just like Pinter’s plays. In Old Times, one is never sure of the relationships of the three characters as they move from distance to intimacy, sexual attraction to competition, etc. Clues are thus contradictory, but they are also missing. Silence plays heavily, conversations disappear into the void (aporia) and time slips by unremembered. There is a constant sense of watching 3/4ths of a story, like trying to draw a face through a veil.

This was my aesthetic experience of Old Times, one that I find religious. In a stylistic analysis, I want to draw out three elements of Pinter’s minimalism that create a play which embodies gelassenheit. I have already mentioned the first, silence, and it is intrinsically tied to the second: scarcity. The style of Old Times is scarce, in words (silence) but also characters (three), location (one), acts (two with or without interval), and production design. As Pinter notes, the set consists of

A converted farmhouse

A long window up centre. Bedroom door up left.

Front door up right.

Sparse modern furniture.

Two sofas. An armchair.

For the second act, Pinter lavishly replaces the sofas with divans to create a whole new room. This world (an incomplete house) is the perfect setting for a play laced with the numinous, which can be touched but not held (as by the hands of female models).

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The third element is concreteness. Representing the abstract can take on abstract style (like the use of filter’s and macro lenses in The Double Life of Veronique). Oppositely, the abstract can also be represented as in Old Times, with simple, concrete actions and blocking that brings a bold physicality to the work. This reveals the transcendent through the material, resisting the too-often religious push to focus on the immaterial (which can crush art). In Old Times, the physicality of the actors (their proximity or distance, etc.) is vital to the play’s energy. Regardless of the digital future of art, art must begin as physical process or it will wither (it will lack earth as Heidegger would say).

There are many touch points with this work of theater and the world of film, particularly the corpus of Ingmar Bergman (consider the similarities between Old Times and Persona, including that Liv Ullman played in both). For myself, an aspiring artist inspired by these minimalist works, the trick is to find fresh ways to invoke the numinousTwo of the best filmmakers working on this now are, in my opinion, Lars Von Trier and Steve McQueen. But this is stuff for another post. Today I wanted to meditate on Old Times, one of my favorite artworks, and the possibilities it holds for a sacramental approach to the aesthetic.

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