Saturday, April 24, 2010

Al Pacino's Sad-Dad Eyes

The 2004 film of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford, was better than I expected. I mean, Al Pacino as Shylock. I still shudder whenever I think of the embarrassment that was Looking for Richard, Pacino's documentary about playing Richard III.  Godawful.  This wasn't anything like that disaster. For one thing, it's a period piece, all velvet and silk and funny hats, and I confess I love those.

Pacino wasn't really Shylock, he was Pacino playing Shylock, but it still kind of worked. Before I go any further, however, I have to fess up about something that completely colored my viewing of this film. Al Pacino with a beard is a dead ringer for my dad. For real, it was freaky. He's got those same sad Italian eyes, and, unfortunately, that same east coast accent. For this film, he kind of gave it a foreign lilt, but it still sounded faintly Lower Manhattan, or maybe East Boston (where my dad grew up). This film really plays up the father-daughter drama, so that kind of weirded me out, too. Many women of Italian-American heritage have ambivalent relationships with their fathers--it's that Catholic, patriarchal culture, I guess--and I'm no exception. So it was pretty wrenching to see Shylock tear up (which he did a lot in the movie) and run around wailing after Jessica leaves. Also, the movie makes Jessica herself more ambivalent about her betrayal of her dad. The very last scene has Jess looking out into the distance, and then at her mother's turquoise ring, which, as the film would have it, she didn't trade for a monkey. That, apparently, was just a rumor, which gives the whole thing--Shylock's rage, Jessica's indifference--a completely different spin. Tubal tells Shylock about the monkey-trade, you see it in Shylock's imagination, but clearly it's just a reflection of what the Jewish community thinks about Christians: they're indifferent to history, mindlessly acquisitive, prodigal in their recreations.

Pacino wasn't equal to the language, but that's to be expected. For the whole first part of the film, before the really dramatic stuff, he speaks his lines in this halting and annoying way--not a trace of the sly, even snide tone you'd expect Will's Shylock to have. And I have to say, when he gets to the "well, then, it appears you need my help" speech in Act 1, he totally channels Brando as The Don, when he says to Bonasera at the beginning of The Godfather I, "you don't offer don't even think to call me godfather, and yet you ask my help...".

Yeah, you could say that movie played a part in my family mythology...but we won't go there today.

Pacino even has that raspy voice down. But mostly, it's his eyes that carry this film. Really, those sad, Italian basset hound eyes. They fill the whole screen. And they're so filled with tragedy, with a lifetime of oppression and disappointment, you can totally forgive Pacino for phoning in his lines. This guy has presence! Who cares about poetry?

Okay, I do. But this is a film, not a play. It's visual medium, and words are necessarily secondary. Even without the fabulous poetry, it's still a great story.

A lot of interpretation is possible in film, and this one definitely takes a strong stand on several issues that are only implicit in the original text.  I mentioned the liberties the director took with the Shylock/Jessica pathos.  He also does a lot of "filling in the blanks" on the homoerotic front. Antonio is unambiguously in love with Bassanio. And Bassanio, while perhaps not as passionate about it as Tony, has obviously not discouraged the sentiments. During Antonio's Act 1 speech about melancholy, he's looking out the window and sees Bassanio arriving, looking young and delectably full of life. Totally hot, in a velvety Renaissance sort of way.  Antonio's buddies suggest he's in love, and he protests way too vociferously. As he's gazing longingly out the window.


Jeremy Irons is great as Antonio, I must say. He looks like he should be in Death in Venice, not this play. He's definitely got that Aschenbach thing down. Aging gay man who sees his youth fading, hopelessly in love with a feckless, somewhat selfish youth. Closeted, tragic.  If you wanted to explain what "melancholy" means to someone who doesn't speak English, you could just show them this picture.

When Bassanio shows up to ask his friend for a loan, they have their discussion guessed it, Tony's bedroom! And Bassanio lounges on the bed invitingly as he's making his pitch. Then, after Antonio promises to help him--pain etched in every sad line of his face--B. kisses him goodbye. A for-real kiss, not a dry peck.

Playing up the homoerotic hints in the play really works on the screen. It gives the story more psychological--and less philosophical--weight, and thus makes it more modern. Abstract ideas like justice are hard to translate into pictures. Unrequited love and father-daughter pathos are easy, because you can see emotions pretty clearly in camera close-ups. We're not much for abstractions these days, or larger ethical dilemmas. We like feelings, not ideas. Pictures, not words.

We also like simple moral oppositions, and we get lots of those here, too. The movie starts with a little visual history of Renaissance anti-Semitism.  Venetian Jews are stigmatized, ghettoized, and even lynched by religious fanatics in the first few minutes of the film.  The most gripping image in those first few minutes is that of a lock clanging shut on the gates of the Jewish ghetto/prison. So we're set up to be on Shylock's side from the beginning. Combine that with lots of extended shots of Al/Shylock staring mournfully into the distance, missing the camera's eye--and thus, ours--by only a few feet, and you have a pretty simple morality play.

The excessiveness of the Christian contingent is extravagantly represented by Portia's lavish estate. She owns a whole island, which her suitors row across to--sort of Mystic Isle of Avalon meets Balmoral Castle.  The mansion would put any royal palace to shame, and the gardens make Versailles look modest. Portia herself (played someone named Lynn Collins, whom I'd never heard of) is pretty in a Jane Austenish way, Nerissa only slightly less so, as befits a best friend. The movie really plays up the horror of the courtroom scene, so when the Venetians retreat to Belmont afterward for the Return to Romance ending, they seem superficial and soulless.

There are some sensationalizing moments--the aforementioned lynching, for example. When Bassanio seeks out Shylock with the intention of asking for a loan, he finds him slaughtering a lamb. Very graphically. I'm pretty squeamish about animal cruelty, so I had to look away. But in that small, visually arresting scene, we can see all of the play's sheep/lamb imagery sort of compressed into one violent moment.

Venetian hedonism is a visual theme in the film--the creepy Salerio and Solanio are portly middle-aged leches who drink too much and spend a lot of time in whorehouses. These gratuitous scenes gave jobs to a lot of young female extras willing to stand around topless. According to one reviewer, Venetian prostitutes were required by law to walk around showing off the merchandise because of the "rampant homosexuality" of the era. I read that statement over a few times, and still couldn't figure out how it would have worked, if it was indeed some sort of law. I mean, was it because there were lots of men in drag, pretending to be ladies of the evening in the age before surgical implants? Or maybe it was because the authorities thought that a lot of bare-breasted women would deter men from becoming gay?  Weird. I suspect that those scenes--and scenery--were just in the film to put a little more sex into a story that was really about other, less titillating things. Like justice, and human community, and loyalty.

I know. Dullsville.

The courtroom scene is the heart of the film, as it is in the play. It really lets Pacino do his moral outrage thing, a la And Justice For All--when Shylock says "Fie upon your law!" (a line that isn't in the play), I couldn't help but hear a younger Al yelling "You're out of order! The whole court is out of order!"

That's the problem with famous actors playing (more) famous roles--their resumes tend to get in the way of the performance.

In the courtroom, everything is literalized. When Bassanio offers Shylock three times the money Antonio borrowed, he brings in a chest full of gold. When Shylock reminds the Christians that they keep slaves, the camera cuts to a rich guy with an African slave. Just in case we don't believe him.

Bassanio, I should point out, is played by Joseph Fiennes--the same guy who played the neurotic Will in the popular, Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love. I have to confess I really disliked that movie. There was something annoyingly smug about it.  And I guess the imagined private lives of my favorite authors just don't interest me much.

I'm in the minority, I realize. More on this in the future, when I tackle the messy Authorship Question.

Anyway, the courtroom scene is set up like a rowdy football (soccer) match, with the Christian and Jewish contingents yelling at one another, and lots of unpleasant cheering when Shylock gets his come-uppance.  Portia-as-Balthasar looked pretty good (see pic), but totally sounded like a woman. This reminded me of a funny thing in the play. When Portia gets back from her fake lawyer gig, Lorenzo hears her before he sees her. And recognizes her voice! "That is the voice," he says, "or I am much deceived, of Portia."

And Bassanio, her putative soulmate, didn't notice a thing during the whole trial.  Hmm.

I dig the little goatee.

Ms. Collins, as I pointed out earlier, doesn't really get Shakespeare--her Portia looks great, and is clever-seeming, but there's something missing there. The "Quality of Mercy" speech sounds like she's reading it before her high school class--but really, it's so cliched that it's hard to make it sound fresh, I think. Like about a third of Hamlet's speeches. She completely misreads--or mis-speaks--the "tarry a little" part. That should be said with deadly quiet. I about jumped off the couch when she shouted it at the top of her lungs.

The pretended sacrifice of Antonio is done with all the suspense you'd expect in a Hollywood film. Antonio weeps in fear, and later, in relief. It's awful to watch.

But the most moving moments in the film are Shylock's.  He crumbles with admirable restraint (for Pacino) when he realizes he's lost the case, and everything else that matters to him. At the end, he's broken and so alone it makes you want to cry. Even if you never cry at movies.

But the dad thing probably played a role in the waterworks, too.

The Venetians retreat to Belmont to forget what bastards they've been. Jessica is subdued, and we later find out why. The "ring game" between the Belmont women and their men seems hollow, and not at all funny.  In a pretty big deviation from the play, Antonio never gets his money back. He ends up solitary and excluded at the end, too--and we last see him fishing on Belmont Lake (or whatever it's called), all alone as the happy couples consummate their nuptials. From a modern perspective, he's as alien as Shylock. The Jew and the gay man, left out of the happy Christian-hetero ending.  Jess is there, too, looking out over the lake and twisting her mother's ring around her finger. Missing her dad.

I'm still choked up.

The most important thing you can say about this film is that it is in no way a comedy. Nothing funny about it at all. It's tragic, in the way Othello is tragic. That is to say, a modern way. It's a tragedy of a man so oppressed by history, by hypocrisy and bigotry, that he loses his own humanity. It's about the banality of evil (yeah, I know some people hate that phrase, but I think it's because they hate Hannah Arendt), and the ways people can justify just about anything to themselves. It's about the stuff that's left over when all those justifications and exclusions have been nicely knit up and agreed upon.

Human remains. 

So, I guess my assessment would be this.  The movie isn't Shakespeare--and not only because of the language. It's erased all the ambivalence and irony that inhabits The Merchant. But it's still entertaining on its own terms. And it looks gorgeous. Venice without the reek! I guess one could make an analogy there--the film has cleansed the play of the stink of equivocation...

Well, that's all I have to say about that. I think I'll go call my dad now.


  1. Hi Gayle. Great blog. I thought I would post a "random comment of the day." I was cleaning out my garage a few weeks back and found some old college papers from my Cornell days. I ran across my notes from your Freshman Writing Seminar- King Arthur Class from Spring '88. Anyway, I have very fond memories of the class. Just wanted to let you know that I thought you were a fantastic writing/literature teacher and I learned alot from your class. 20 years out of Cornell with an engineering degree, one of the key things that I still value was learning to write well and your instruction was part of that. Thanks, and I hope that brightens your day! BTW, like a lot of guys in that class, I had a bit of a crush on you :) Best Regards, James Steele

  2. Hi James--what a nice surprise! I remember those classes well--full of young, smart engineering students. For some reason the medieval lit sections attracted lots of you guys. You were all so witty and fun to teach--I was just a grad student then, and I learned a lot from you as well. I was a professor for about 15 years after finishing my degree, then left academics for advertising--I write web copy now, mostly, and raise a ten-year-old.

    This blog was fun--I kind of let it go last spring, but I've been thinking about firing it up again. Finding the time is a challenge...but I may give it a shot this spring. Thanks again for your nice note. You definitely did brighten my day!

  3. I'm not sure if I liked this one or not. I guess because pacino is sort of branded so to speak to me based on his previous roles. Of course, I loved the story but not sold on this adaption.

  4. At times it is hard to dissociate an actor away from his more common roots - Mr Pacino did not do bad though - just as he didn't in this film I reviewed of his on my site -

    Nice blog by the way.