Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Movies, Part 1

I just finished watching Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet for only the second time, so I thought I'd devote one whole post to my latest impressions of the film. The movie, in case you haven't seen it, is Will's play filtered through the Godfather films, music videos (still a big deal in 1996), spaghetti westerns, and West Side Story. I don't want to get right into my criticisms, because they're only a few, but they're huge. Instead, let me tell you what I like about this film. Two words: The Look. It is a fantastic-looking film. Granted, the ubiquitous religious statuary gets old after awhile, but it does convey a sense of oppressive Latin Catholicism (a subject I know something about) really well.  It was filmed in Mexico City and environs, with the requisite picturesque urban slums--you know, lots of bright colors and cool-looking signs intermingled with gang graffitti and corporate billboards. The Capulets' sprawling colonial-era mansion provides a social and aesthetic contrast to all the pretty poverty, reminding us that both families are corporate bloodsuckers. Mexico's a good choice for the setting because it conveys the "foreignness" that Will's Elizabethan audience must have felt about the Italian setting of the play. It's an exotic locale, warmer, sunnier, more volatile, but not so far away that no one has ever been there. At the same time, the main characters are American, as are the cars (lots of cars) and, for the most part, the music. No Latin music here, which would have given the film a completely different feel. Some of the Capulets are overtly Latin--the Nurse has a pretty thick accent (which borders on caricature), and Old Capulet reminds me a little of my Sicilian grandfather: loud, choleric, and always holding a drink.  The Montagues are a little less nouveau riche--more corporate, outwardly dignified, and likely to resort to bribes rather than violence to get the job done.  A quick run-down of the players:

Tybalt seems to be taken right out of West Side Story by way of East L.A. He's really "The Prince of Cats," as Mercutio calls him in the play--feral, feline, dangerous. That's him in the top left corner. In the opening "gas station scene," Luhrmann channels spaghetti westerns with Tybalt's dramatic entrance, squinty survey of the scene, and slow-motion cigarette drop--which ends with a shot of his ornate bootheel grinding out the butt. A lot of movie history there. Mercutio is just as "other" in the movie as he is in the play. He's African-American (as is "Captain Prince," the police chief who's supposed to be his kinsman) and a disco-dancing drag queen at the ball.  Shakespeare meets Paris is Burning. The first scene is really the best, when the "Montague Boys" encounter the more stylish Capulet gangsters at a filling station and end by blowing it up. That's Benvolio in a still from that scene, bottom right.

In a bit of style-overkill, Friar Laurence appears at first in his greenhouse, shirtless, explaining to a couple of little boys about poisons and medicines (the scene I discussed in the last post). He's got a huge tattoo of a cross on his back, like a gangbanger instead of a priest. And I have to say, a shirtless priest alone with two little boys means something different in 2009 than it did in 1996.  The scene can't help but creep you out a little.

Here are a few more stills:

Those are the Montagues, and Romeo with Mercutio before the masque. On the left, Friar Laurence and muse. The music is cool, too--the little boy singing Prince's "When Doves Cry" in the church choir is wonderful.

The main characters: Leo DiCaprio looks the part--he's got that "fallen angel" thing going on, a little bit teen heartthrob, that totally works visually. He spends a lot of time underwater--that's Luhrmann's innovation--in what used to be the balcony scene. This is funny, of course, because Titanic came out at about the same time, and so we saw a lot of Leo underwater that year. The two movies kind of merge in your mind, an accident of cinematic history.  Leo's facial expressions are a bit overdone, but you can't blame him for trying to counteract his utter inability to say the lines. Gotta work with what you have. Claire Danes is completely insipid. There is absolutely nothing special about her Juliet, and it's hard to see what even soggy Leo would find so alluring about her. And I don't mean her looks--she looks okay. But she's got none of Juliet's fire, none of her sudden realization that her life has been a lie. She literally rolls her eyes like a petulant teenager. Juliet would never do that--even a modern Juliet. She doesn't grow up at all, as she does in the play--she utters the "if looking liking move" line as if she has no real idea what she's saying. I suspect Luhrmann was so busy with his wild editing and Hollywood allusions that he didn't think it worthwhile to get these kids an acting coach who really knew Shakespeare.

And that's the heart of the problem. The language is utterly, completely irrelevant. In fact, I cringed whenever I heard the characters speak (except for Pete Postlethwaite, who plays Friar Laurence--he was okay). I wanted them to stop talking, because for the most part, they didn't even get what they were saying--at some points it was plain that they hadn't the faintest idea what the words meant. They compensated with more facial contortions, eye-rolling, and just plain yelling. The film cuts the text by almost half, which I suppose is a blessing. No "torches" speech, for example. Mercutio's Queen Mab ramblings are now the result of ingesting a hallucinogen, which I confess I didn't like a bit. As if imagination is just another rush, a toxic neurological effect. Bad, sad idea.

But on one level, the play is true to its history. Elizabethan theater was a blending of classes and class-specific genres. For the masses we have explosions, squealing tires, lots of weaponry and plenty to look at. For those of us who've read Shakespeare and want to see our erudition validated, we get--signs and billboards. This, I thought, was kind of brilliant in a debased way. Here are some examples:

Every one of these (and there were many more in the film) is a quotation from or reference to a play--and not the obvious ones, either. Timon of Athens and the Henry VI plays are right there alongside Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth. Something for everyone. A Shakespeare professor can watch this film and feel like the director knows how well-read he is, and appreciates his superior perspective on the action.

But a lot is lost here. I realize that cinema--and pictures in general--are the poetry of our age. We make our metaphors that way, we understand irony that way, and we see ourselves that way. The world is a visual construct. But here's what's lost: nobility. I know it sounds corny, but listen up. We are speaking, writing animals. That's what makes us different from the other creatures with whom we share this planet. We think in words and communicate (mostly) in words. Words elevate us--that's why all our most important rituals are language-centered. The Tempest shouldn't be reduced to a billboard. I'm not saying this film shouldn't have been made--far from it. I think it's fascinating, and says a lot about where we are in history. It's truthful, and I appreciate that. But it's not great. It's not timeless--not even as enduring as the Zeffirelli one, from 1968, which is still the standard-bearer for "popular cinema Shakespeare," as far as I'm concerned. Without the words that make Juliet more than a pretty girl, make Romeo more than a hormonally-overwrought teenage dude, this play is just about a particularly intense hook-up that went really bad. Even that billboard above, from The Tempest, seems like an epitaph for something wonderful that's been lost. When seen in the context of Prospero's actual speech, it's not without irony:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Will says it much better than I can, so I'll leave him the last word.

Next: Back to the play.


  1. I was hoping you would write about the films. So what about the 1936 Cukor? or the 1968 Zeffirelli? My high school senior class screened the Zeffirelli circa 1971-72, oh to be 17 again.

    Baz Luhrman's Strictly Bsllroom was lovely--but, I hated Moulin Rouge and I didn't see this version of Romeo and Juliet based on reviews.

    Gotta run out the door, but I want to ask about some of the other modern filmed versions.

  2. I'll definitely write about the Zeffirelli--that's my era too (class of 74) and the film made a big impression. To me, those actors are Romeo and Juliet, which says something about its aesthetic appeal. I also hated Moulin Rouge--a plotless wonder. The 1936 R & J was so roundly panned--but maybe I'll take a look at it. There's a BBC one, too--I will look at that. There'll be at least 1 more movie post, maybe two. At this rate, I'll finish this play around New Years' (hope not--already itching to get to the Merchant). Btw--I don't want to be 17 again! I was a clueless idiot. Maybe 27, though...

  3. I like so many of the films made of the Bard's plays, of the "updates" my favorite is Scotland, Pa with Maura Tierney in the Lady Macbeth role.

    As to being 17 again, I agree that 27 was great--but when I made the comment I was thinking about the aphrodisiac-effect that the Zeffirelli R & J had on the female student body. I just wish that I had known what my options were at the time. Sleazy--->potential lawyer.

  4. you being a discriminating thinker
    does the authorship question hold any interest for you as a way of understanding the play?
    Ed Larson

  5. Dear Ed,
    You know, I'm not an expert on that, quite honestly. I have to say that even in the Shakespearean Academy (of which I am not a part), the question seems to have generated not much interest, at least on this side of the Atlantic. It's true that some of the earlier plays may have been collaborative efforts, however--this isn't one that they think that about. It seems to have been most certainly the work of a single author. Now whether that author was a glover's son from Warwickshire who moved to London to become an actor, a playwright, and a theatrical shareholder--well, there's some, but not a ton of evidence for that. If you have thoughts or insights on the question, I'd love to hear them, however! There's still a lot I have to learn about Will and his times.

  6. Great piece, Gayle. I was immensely irritated by the stilted dialogue as well. As much as I enjoyed some of the visuals, they only added to the unmoored, inarticulate feel of the speech. I think it would have been a far better movie if it had been entirely rewritten, like Jane Austen's "Emma" was for "Clueless".

    Have you seen Julie Taymor's "Titus"? I think it's the best cinematic Shakespeare update I've seen. I love Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet", but it's fairly traditional in its approach. "Titus" manages to go somewhere deeper and fresher, imo, maybe because the horrific nature and relative obscurity of the story lends itself to a cinematic re-envisioning.

  7. Thanks for the tip, Livius. I have not seen "Titus," but will on your recommendation. After I re-read the play, that is--haven't looked at it since college. Although now that you mention it, it may be more suited for a visual treatment than some of the more "poetic" works. Perhaps there's something more (post)modern about it than R & J, which is, despite its pop-cultural allure, pretty deeply rooted in its context.

  8. I think you may be right about that. R&J has become such an integral part of our cultural vernacular that it inevitably both resists and inspires re-envisioning. Gimmicky, hackneyed treatments can't help but ensue.

    "Titus Andronicus", on the other hand, is rarely performed and little known. It's not packed with ingrained cultural iconography, and the depths of its violent depravity are probably better suited to a contemporary cinematic treatment than to a theatrical performance.

  9. Another vote for Traymore's Titus. Clearly Titus Andronicus is not considered one of the Bard's masterpieces, but the Traymore film was incredible, also an update.