It’s telling that William Friedkin has returned to directing adaptations of plays in recent years; his work with Tracy Letts on Bug and Killer Joe has been more about locating renewed cinematic energy through conceptualization and staging than finding new avenues for digitized nostalgia. In a 2012 interview, Friedkin explained how “35mm has been a pain in the ass” and stated that he has no interest in using digital cinematography to recapture a look from the past. Those words can’t help but retroactively inform The Boys in the Band, perhaps the most timely film Friedkin ever made and a quintessential example of a director whose interest in opening up and maintaining spatial situations takes on self-sustaining proportions. When Steven Soderbergh recut Raiders of the Lost Ark in 2014, he called Steven Spielberg’s visual prowess “high level visual math shit,” a description that could be applied to Friedkin’s film as well, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Friedkin likes to frame himself as a craftsman, a blue-collar type who works with his hands, which often manifests in films about homosocial relationships, most notably in The French Connection, Sorcerer, and To Live and Die in L.A. Those films revolve around violent expression, often in a literal sense, and Friedkin’s contribution to the narrative is a visual tack to match. The same applies to The Boys in the Band, though its operations are more oblique and less explicit, since Friedkin’s entire goal with the film seems to be a de-theatricalization, taking Mart Crowley’s stage play (and stagy screenplay) and giving its characters the mobility afforded by the cinematic medium or, to state it negatively, denied by the theater. In the opening moments, as the various characters are seen jostling about the Upper East Side in differing locations, Friedkin relates as much, with editing and camera movements standing in for dialogue and exposition.
There remains, however, a swath of consistent dialogue throughout, especially once the principal characters have gathered at the apartment of Michael (Kenneth Nelson) for a dinner party. In fact, the dialogue itself is frequently stilted and wholly theatrical, hewing closely to that of the play; on film, the pacing and tone plays automatic, as if comebacks and quips are being deployed on autopilot, as lines meant to draw reactions from viewers rather than revel in constant punchlines. When one character says to another, “You’re jealous, aren’t you?” and he replies, “No, I’m Larry,” the exchange is less insightful into either man than representative of the wholly written and labored game of verbal tennis that constitutes Crowley’s nose-smashing dialogue.
And yet, there’s a claustrophobia to the interactions, especially once Alan (Peter White) lashes out at Emory (Cliff Gorman) and bloodies his face, causing the group to paradoxically splinter into a cohesive whole, as they play a game of “telephone” that entails each man calling someone they believe to truly love. And it’s here, throughout the film’s final third, that the proceedings become decidedly mismatched, as Friedkin’s attempts to dynamize interactions and “keep the dialogue interesting,” as he states in an interview, seem to muddle the point of Crowley’s work entirely.
In a film where revelation is forged through abandoning self-imprisonment or, at least, engaging psychological reckoning by radicalizing social consciousness, Friedkin’s tracking shots and quick pans seem there to discomfit the issues at hand. It’s akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s decision to shoot Rope with the illusion of a single take; as scholar D.A. Miller has explained, that decision seems an unconscious need to engage an excessive formal choice to complement what remains just off screen (the male protagonists’ homosexual relationship). One extreme finds another, but here, Friedkin neglects to trust stasis as a powerful statement in itself. Had Friedkin chosen to retain the staginess, he would be making a more complex formal statement, one where medium specificity isn’t competing with narrative. Although Friedkin’s choices are purportedly in the name of complementarity, the philosophical effect is actually the opposite: He’s assuaging discomfort by conventionalizing character turmoil in the name of good drama.
Much like the 2008 DVD, this new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber has some significant video issues. Color balancing looks rough and consistently off, suggesting the image has been over-exposed. Moreover, focus and image depth vary from shot to shot; at some points, figures even look a bit fuzzy, which are problems that should have gone out with the arrival of DVD. In close-up, the film looks better, with visible grain and better focus. The transfer has definitely been struck from a print, which is obvious given the specs of dirt and debris throughout, but it appears little effort has been given to restoration work, which is curious considering William Friedkin’s participation with interviews and commentary on this release. The Blu-ray does boast a new DTS-HD sound mix, though at two channels, it’s serviceable and strong, but by no means a game changer. Unfortunately, no subtitles—not even an SDH track—accompany the release.
It’s the William Friedkin show in these assortment of supplements. The director’s feature commentary is quite excellent, as is nearly the case with all of his commentaries, because he’s such a verbose, generous speaker, willing to delve into any facet of the creative process. He also talks throughout the film and doesn’t simply let it play or lose his train of thought. Friedkin claims that his role on the film was to make it move and find clever ways to dynamize Mart Crowley’s script; Friedkin likes the challenge and says he found directing this film more challenging than The French Connection. Friedkin is also adamant that he preferred to remain ignorant of cast member sexual orientation and that "we didn’t really talk about it," suggesting further that the film’s content became something that Friedkin viewed himself as wishing to soften or, at least, keep at arm’s length. It’s a thoroughly fascinating listen and a necessity for those wishing to study Friedkin at any length. Also included are three featurettes, totaling about 45 minutes, which explain the film at various stages, including pre-production, Friedkin’s contribution, and its enduring legacy, as living cast and crew detail their mindset at the time of release.
With an image that’s faded and at times fuzzy, Kino’s Blu-ray of The Boys in the Band needed more time in the studio.