In The Sea Gull (1968), Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of the celebrated Chekhov play, characters’ charms become their tragedies. No one is judged. To the camera, desires are not foolish, but sincere and complex; the ambiguities of human behavior are recorded with a sense of loss. Careful dissolves bridge each act, signifying passions that drift from allegiance to allegiance before they ultimately fade. Tepidly received upon initial release, the film has all but disappeared from cultural memory. It’s available almost nowhere, unreleased on VHS or DVD. As part of its Prince of the City: Remembering Sidney Lumet retrospective, the Film Society of Lincoln Center resurrects this forgotten film, perhaps the late director’s most misunderstood, for one screening on Saturday, July 23.
Revisionism has simplified Sidney Lumet to a “New York” director. He etched his own, energetic cinematic city around the same time as did his contemporaries, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. An artist of contrasts and conflicts, Lumet’s triumphs were explosive, but his failures were quiet. His oeuvre was conspicuously uneven, and he was often visibly out of his element when working outside the city. This tendency to praise every Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) while tidily forgetting such films as The Sea Gull, as well as other films that exist in the annals of the Lumet canon, simply reflects a recent impulse to project an overarching theme onto Lumet’s body of work. He has been cited as one of New Hollywood’s most committed moralists, a purveyor of a strictly American conscience, but these characterizations are limiting. He was more a director who attached himself to strong, individualistic source material and brought his unobtrusive eye to it, seeking to discover his characters rather than pass judgment on them.
Discourse surrounding Lumet’s The Sea Gull has always pointed to what it should be rather than what it is. Released in an age when stage-to-screen adaptations were dime-a-dozen, the film was saddled with insults that it was too obviously stagey, that the Chekhov text itself was anathema to celluloid. Chekhov purists, like the playwright himself, insist that the play is a comedy. Stanislavski once said that it should be directed, instead, as a tragedy.
Lumet adheres to the latter. Clumsy dreams and confusions stream through his film. Everyone loves the wrong person. Set on a Russian country estate in the late 19th century, the film involves four principals – young aspiring actress Nina (Vanessa Redgrave), aging and pompous veteran Arkadina (Simone Signoret), passionate and frustrated writer Konstantin (David Warner), and self-aggrandizing novelist Trigorin (James Mason) – and a slew of supporting players whose longing for one another, misguided if understandable, ultimately results in tragedy.
Never a particularly idiosyncratic visual stylist, Lumet employs a moody, autumnal visual tone that anticipates disillusionment. The whole film is shot in a melancholic haze, muted blues and grays against ripe, green pastures; death sits next to life. Characters, like Redgrave’s charismatic and naive Nina, flutter limply across the screen with a sense of impending doom. Each character is an eccentric, but Lumet chooses not to overplay these eccentricities as one would in a typical tragicomedy. We realize each character is tragic from the start. They are all somewhat listless, flushed with grace yet pathetic; he feels for the quiet, sad suffering these eccentrics undergo, though his pathos is gentle and understated.
Free of judgment, The Sea Gull functions on a level of subtlety Lumet was never able to attain later in his career. His humanistic eye exposes the thoughts, dreams, hopes, and fears of each player. Lumet’s best works have made use of this exact quality – Dog Day Afternoon, perhaps a more prescient study of the American media than the oft-lauded Network (1976), was so powerful because Lumet, with a careful degree of nuance, recorded the emergence of the anti-hero as a celebrity in our modern world with a documentary realist’s eye. Al Pacino’s Sonny was not strictly good, nor was he bad; he was simply there, a layman caught up in the swelter of a city whose irrationalities dictated its shifts in mood. With The Sea Gull, Lumet’s intention seems not to interpret or intensify the original text, but, rather, to reveal it.