Equus (Lumet, 1977)

Continuing on my mini-little-seen-Lumet marathon.  Everyone knows Equus as the play that Daniel Radcliffe did a nude scene for.  That’s pretty unfair, considering how good Lumet’s film version from 1977 is.  I’d love to hear people’s thoughts if they’ve seen this one.  I found it a difficult (in a good way) film.

Equus is an odd film in Lumet’s catalog.  It falls right in between Network and The Wiz, neither of which are particularly “NY films” as he’s known for.   It is, of the Lumet films I’ve seen, one of his stagier and more claustrophobic films.

Equus concerns the interplay between psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Richard Burton in a great turn) and young patient Alan Strang (Peter Firth in one of his first film roles).

Strang is committed by his parents for intentionally blinding six horses with a metal weapon.  The relationship between the men is tense and uncertain.  As Dysart attempts to uncover the psychosis of the boy he gradually begins to break down himself, questioning his relationship (or lack thereof) with his wife and the general positive influence of psychiatry.

Equus, for all of its controversy, really touches on many issues and situations far beyond a simple nude scene.  Some of the themes:

-The advantages of pain

-The advantage and detriments of psychiatry and therapy

-The inherent vice in everyone.  The idea that vices may not in fact be vices at all

-Homosexuality – as closeted, as naive, as denial.

-Religion – as power, as detrimental force, as metaphor.

Lumet covers these themes in a variety of ways.  His film takes on the appearance of monologue to camera/audience by Dysart, crosscut with flashbacks to his interactions with Strang and Strang’s own flashbacks.  The flashback-within-a-flashback structure is such that it makes both characters unreliable.  Neither tells us everything in a solely first-person account.  Much exposition is buried within and colored by another character’s perspective.

Let’s take a look at some of these themes.

The advantages of pain: Dysart finds it difficult to simply convince Strang that the latter is cured.  Dysart, in fact, seems to believe that he does have such a power, but that, by disallowing Alan’s pain to remain, he will take away the boy’s visceral experiences and, (implied) his conflicted sexuality.  This idea, that pain can be useful, has some rhyme in the idea hidden in here that homosexuality is not a sin, and therefore, should not be cured.

The advantages and detriments of psychiatry: in addition to the above paragraph, Dysart also finds that therapy can be detrimental to the therapist.  The responsibility of power, but also the transfer of pain, which in some sense occurs when “curing” does not seem mutually beneficial.  Lumet supports this idea through the wonderful moments in Dysart’s office between Dysart and Strang.  The blocking is such that the men wrestle for control of some kind of a stage.  Both want to be patient and both want to be therapist, but neither wants to concede nor take full responsibility.  The movement that Lumet choreographs keeps things constantly and consistently tightly framed but still kinetic.  The men move frequently – in and out of chairs, around the room.  They pace and they trade places.  It’s very effective.

The inherent vice in everyone: there’s a fantastic moment in the film – maybe my favorite – when a female convinces Strang to take her to a pornographic theater.  Strang’s father, Frank, unexpectedly appears, yanks Alan from the theater and marches him to a bus stop.  Lumet’s frames when Frank first appears, and then again at the bus stop are beautifully composed – keeping Alan in the foreground in the former, and Frank in the FG in the latter, again playing with power, but this time ironically.  The person in the background of the frames is the one with the power.  It’s a reverse-usage, but one that makes us work.  We don’t know how either man will react either time and Lumet’s frame reinforces this unease.  The inherent vice here is represented by Frank’s presence at the theater.  When Alan refuses to go home with him it’s a gorgeous moment of realization for the young man.  That sin is a part of the world.  That other people do “bad” things.  That he’s not a bad person.  That he has information that other people don’t.  It’s such a strange time and place in a narrative for a coming-of-age sequence, but it works perfectly and strangely.  Alan’s realization is not slow and blind as a child’s, but sudden and very nearly gleeful.  The performances in this moment are perfect, and the beats where Alan refuses to accompany his father are played so well that we actually feel sorry for the older man.  Great pulling of sympathies.

Homosexuality and religion: there’s a metaphor, not a very subtle one, throughout Equus, of the horse to a man.  Lumet, and more accurately, writer Peter Shaffer, make the argument against a constricted, conservative viewpoint.  A chilling frame in Lumet’s film shows, and via camera movement compares, a painting of a horse with bridle to a distorted painting of Jesus with cross.  Religion in Equus is not the evil.  There are direct comparisons being made, though.  For one, human on horse = cross on back.  Alan is the human on the horse.  Therefore, Alan is the cross.  This is not Lumet’s or Shaffer’s view, this is Alan’s parents’ view.  This is, of course, the reason that Alan needs to be “cured”.

But the comparison is not simply for Alan, it’s also for the horse.  If Jesus, as per the painting, is the object of torture and ridicule, so to is the horse.  The horse, once a powerful, godlike figure for Alan, becomes the bane of his existence and the source of his pain.  Alan tortures the horses in part because they are witness to his lack of virility, but also because he has nothing else to empty his frustration on.  It’s an appropriate comparison, and one that, somewhat counter to the former, makes the religious elements less menacing.

We also have to consider the look of the painting, which is truly horrific.  In fact, I found it terrifying to look at.  It’s far from your stereotypical religious symbol.  It feels ripped from an exploitation magazine.  This is another part of the point.  It feels extremist intentionally, and is representative of a brand of religion that is almost cartoon-like, chaotic, and of course blind.

There’s much more to be said about this film and, as you might be able to tell, I’m still working it all out in my head.  The climactic sequence is actually difficult to watch, and Lumet makes us see it all in much detail.  Maybe I’ll post more on this film when I’ve figured more of it out.


About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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