Howard lacks even a healthy impulse for survival: There's no sign that he knows he could forge bonds with those who share his artistic goals and not his political ones, or vice versa. And he shuts out those who could be on his side. Jack wants to acquire intellectual refinement, but Howard considers him lazy and reduces him to a comic foil. Jack, who believes that all humans need narrative, slakes his thirst for stories by reading newspapers; then he takes to porno mags and television. Jack may see that all literature, whether "popular" or "elitist," grows out of the same psychological and erotic core, but he, like Howard, views the highbrow and the lowbrow as opposing sides of a continental divide. Once Jack acknowledges that he is a lowbrow ("someone who you might say liked to take the easy way in the cultural sphere -- oh, the funny papers, pinups -- you know, cheap entertainment"), he tumbles down a slippery slope.

Surprisingly, when Jack scrapes bottom, he becomes lyrical as well as reprehensible; he touches whatever emotions are authentic to him. This homunculus turns into the "designated mourner" of the title, "the only one left who would even be aware of the passing of this peculiar group," the group of people like Howard, who could read John Donne. But in the play's cruelest irony, he experiences an original aesthetic moment only after he stops thinking of dead poets and appreciates the sublimity of "the sweet, ever-changing caress of an evening breeze." This isn't merely a parade of paradoxes on Shawn's part. Jack, as a character, needs categories like "highbrow" and "lowbrow" to locate himself; Shawn, as a dramatist, breaks them down. Indeed, I think what Shawn is grappling with is the overflow of art, demiart, and "media" that lays siege to our brains and causes us to retreat into "highbrow" and "lowbrow" roles. Nichols invests Jack with such a whirl of smarts, smarminess, and helter-skelter libido that he makes the man's spiritual limbo dynamic. In The Designated Mourner, he and Shawn may not achieve Robert Frost's goal -- "a momentary stay against confusion" -- but they help us get a grip on our contemporary chaos.

If there's a central weakness in the acting, it's that David de Keyser is too comfy with Howard's cerebral self-satisfaction: He's the egghead you'd love to crack. But Miranda Richardson, as Judy, has an angular, awkward sensuality; when imprisonment nearly destroys her, she embodies ravaged nobility. And Shawn's admiration for Judy is complete -- that's what makes the play a wail for decency. Its mockery of "ideas that are like formalized greetings" or reflex statements like "I like poetry" or "I like Rembrandt" jogged my recollection of what George Orwell wrote about the gentleman criminal, Raffles: "All he has is a set of reflexes -- the nervous system, as it were, of a gentleman." But Orwell wasn't pillorying Raffles: He was viewing him from the vantage point of a degraded culture. Shawn may criticize self-adoring intellectuals, but on the whole his play supports Orwell's conclusions -- that snobbishness can be a check on cruelty and corruption, that its "value from a social point of view has been underrated."

Since his credits range from an exuberant farcical turn as the voice of the dinosaur in Toy Story to confrontational dramas like this one, critics have had a hard time pinning Wallace Shawn down. So does Shawn himself. When I recently asked him whether he'd read W.D. King's provocative study Writing Wrongs: The Work of Wallace Shawn (Temple University Press), he said, "Not yet. I have enough identity problems; whatever he'd say I was, I probably would try not to be." Over dinner, Shawn confessed, "I have a respect for pornography, and I have a respect for poetry. On the other hand, I don't own a television, because I do have a fear of having my brain destroyed, and I don't feel I have enough of a brain to afford the loss of any part of it. I'm not afraid of reading too much James Merrill -- I don't think six hours of reading poetry would hurt my brain or make me a worse person in any way. But if I were watching six hours a day I think that would harm me and I'd be quite terrified about it. If I sit around preoccupied with whether somebody spent the night in the Lincoln bedroom, or whether an actor spent the night with somebody who wasn't his wife -- if they get me obsessed with these issues, they can run the world happily without my attention, my interference, my reaction."

When it comes to interpreting The Designated Mourner, isn't High Art vs. Low Art one of those false issues, too? "It's not really the important distinction. You could say the Pet Shop Boys are disco music rather than symphonic work, but I find it smart as well as beautiful; it's making you smarter as you listen to it. When I'm in L.A. and driving around, I go through strange crises of playing the rock station until that drives me nuts with the self-pity and stupidity that you hear. Then I turn to the classical station and in some ways that's worse, because they only play the stuff that's soothing, mindless." So why, in The Designated Mourner, are the benchmarks of true art John Donne and Franz Schubert? "Because this is a strange dream; Howard is the sort of man who would listen to Schubert; and the film is really about Jack."

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