Al Pacino’s delightful 1996 Shakespeare documentary, Looking for Richard, was falsely described by some critics as the actor’s directing debut. Six years earlier, Pacino had codirected and starred in another pet project, The Local Stigmatic, -an adaptation of Heathcote Williams’s 1964 play about a pair of alienated working-class men (Pacino and Paul Guilfoyle) who take out their frustrations on a famous actor (Joseph Maher). In 2000, Pacino directed a third feature, Chinese Coffee, an adaptation of Ira Lewis’s play about a friendship between old West Village friends (Pacino and the late Jerry Orbach), which is damaged when the former asks the latter to read a novel based on their relationship. This week, all three hit DVD in a box set, offering fans a chance to see a lesser-known and illuminating aspect of the actor’s talent.
Though far from perfect, the films are revealing, because they suggest that Pacino, who started out on the New York stage, is still a theater artist at heart-—a fact apparent not just in his choice of material (and in his often grandiose acting), but in his direction, which manages to be at once cinematic and stagy; all three movies boast odd images, edits and effects that catch the viewer off guard. (In Chinese Coffee, Orbach describes Pacino as “a creature of the night,” then hallucinates him appearing and vanishing like a wraith.) In the accompanying documentary Babbleonia-—a conversation between Pacino and New York University film professor Richard Brown at the Actors Studio-, bits of which precede each film—the star describes his forays into filmmaking as personal experiments, and seems surprised that anyone would want to see them, much less that they would like them. “I recently showed my 15-year old daughter The Local Stigmatic,” he says. “I shoulda waited.” Pacino buffs should not. —Matt Zoller Seitz