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The best Shakespeare on film


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Next week I'll be helping teach a Regent College extension course at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (yee haw! - one of my favourite spots on earth). As well as stagings of ROMEO & JULIET, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, RICHARD II, HEDDA GABLER and THE PIANO LESSON, we'll watch some film treatments: Baz Luhrmann's and Franco Zeffirelli's versions of R&J, and Trevor Nunn's TWELFTH NIGHT.

(M)Leary, I noticed in your movie journal that you just viewed the Luhrmann. Thoughts? (By the way, I think the brackets around "M" is a very nice touch.)

Anybody else want to weigh in on these or other Shakespeare films?


Ron

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Thank you. I am trying to capture semantically the cypheric nature of cyberspace monikers. Or something like (that).

I have seen R+J twice this year. I have always been a fan of that film, Lurhmann really is one of the treasures of this modern age.

Cons: Danes' and Di Caprio's aren't what they could be. Thanks to the clever staging of Luhrmann, they pull it off. I suppose age-wise they are closer to the original, but I wonder if they could not have found someone less whiney for these parts. Danes has her moments, but they both seem too flat to be in love.

Pros: It is worth listening to the commentaries. They talk alot on them about how the project really was an attempt to do two things. One, to capture the real "spectacle" nature of the original productions. Shakespeare knew that to get the unwashed hordes into the theater, he needed something quick, violent, flashy, and sexy. The script of Romeo and Juliet is obviously all of these, but R+J really tries to embody this. Second, they wanted to update the language of the script. Not the text of the script itself, but the cultural language. So they went through the script and identified all of these cultural codes that could be transferred to now. Thus swords=flashy gunplay, youth=bold urban abandon, etc...

Great date night movie, but so much more. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts post-screening.

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When I was in high school I really didn't like Baz Luhrmann's R+J, but I revisted it last year after Moulin Rouge! became one of my favorite films of recent years. And surprise, surprise...I liked it!

Also as an English major and taking many Shakespeare classes probably didn't hurt either. Same thing happened with Shakespeare In Love. When it first came out and I saw it and I didn't like it, but after taking numerous Shakespeare classes and reading most of The Bard's work, I began to see how much is really there. While I still like Saving Private Ryan better, I don't feel as bad about Shakespeare winning the award.

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Correct me if I'm wrong, Ron, but didn't you once say that Ian McKellen's Nazified Richard III was the best Shakespeare film you had ever seen?

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Correct me if I'm wrong, Ron, but didn't you once say that Ian McKellen's Nazified Richard III was the best Shakespeare film you had ever seen?

laugh.gif Are you trying to discredit him simply by stating that?

I'm a fan of that Richard III. I'm a bigger fan of Taymor's Titus, Kurosawa's Ran and Branaugh's Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V. I really want to see Throne of Blood.

Coincidentally, I read an interview with Harold Bloom on Friday and he was asked if he had enjoyed any of the nontraditional Shakespeare adaptations. He identified only Kurosawa's two, though I wouldn't be surprised if he hasn't seen very many. I also wouldn't be surprised if he saw them and didn't like them.

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Russell Lucas wrote:

: Are you trying to discredit him simply by stating that?

Not at all! I love that film too! Certainly much better than Olivier's version.

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I have seen R+J twice this year. I have always been a fan of that film, Lurhmann really is one of the treasures of this modern age.

Cons: Danes' and Di Caprio's aren't what they could be.

Leo wasn't able to handle the complexities of the text, but I thought he brought a lot of the right qualities to the role. And I had no complaint about Ms Danes: she might not have been cast at the RSC, but neither did she throw away the language, and in some ways she seemed the very personification of Juliet, to me.

I wonder if they could not have found someone less whiney for these parts. Danes has her moments, but they both seem too flat to be in love.

I didn't find either of them whiney (or flat, for that matter), but it's been a couple years since I saw the video, so I'll give that some thought while viewing it next week and get back to you.

... the project really was an attempt to do two things. One, to capture the real "spectacle" nature of the original productions. Shakespeare knew that to get the unwashed hordes into the theater, he needed something quick, violent, flashy, and sexy....

Exactly! Well, I'm not sure that his motivation was to attract the unwashed hordes - they showed up in sufficient numbers for DICK TWO and plenty of others, even without speed, violence or sex. But for this particular story, about these kids in this setting, yes, utterly appropriate. That's what I love about this version of the story: the style suits the story, form fits theme, and I love that.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts post-screening.

You bet!

Ron

Edited by Ron

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Correct me if I'm wrong, Ron, but didn't you once say that Ian McKellen's Nazified Richard III was the best Shakespeare film you had ever seen?

That and Trevor Nunn's TWELFTH NIGHT are my favourites, yes.

I think R3 goes off the rails in the battle sequence toward the end, where they try to make a war movie out of it and don't really pull it off, but apart from that it's extraordinary. Don't know how many times I've seen RICHARD III onstage, but I can never tell one scheming politician from another, and all the machinations get lost in a generalized blur. In this film that all became clear - a real accomplishment. And the scene where Richard courts Lady Anne over her husband's dead body has always seemed one of the most problematic and difficult in all of Shakespeare - in this version it works wonderfully. Wow.

Ron

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I'm a fan of that Richard III.  I'm a bigger fan of Taymor's Titus, Kurosawa's Ran and Branaugh's Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V.  I really want to see Throne of Blood.

I haven't seen the Kurosawas, but want to. Kenny's MUCH ADO and HANK CINQ were fabulous - pity about the Danish monstrosity, eh? And I'm waiting to see TITUS until I've got a big screen to watch it on.

Coincidentally, I read an interview with Harold Bloom on Friday and he was asked if he had enjoyed any of the nontraditional Shakespeare adaptations.  He identified only Kurosawa's two, though I wouldn't be surprised if he hasn't seen very many.  I also wouldn't be surprised if he saw them and didn't like them.

Harold Bloom. Nontraditional. Nuff said.

Ron

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Also as an English major and taking many Shakespeare classes probably didn't hurt either. Same thing happened with Shakespeare In Love. When it first came out and I saw it and I didn't like it, but after taking numerous Shakespeare classes and reading most of The Bard's work, I began to see how much is really there. ...

Love that film! Tom Stoppard's a clever lad, to be sure. It came back to mind many times two weeks ago when I was in Shakespeare's Globe in London - identical, so far as I could tell, to what was in SIL.

Ron

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Ron,

Good to have you back, by the way. I hope all is well in Vienna. At least better than when I last saw it (in The Third Man. - I assume they've rebuilt some things.) I'd love to hear about your conference.

Quick thoughts on R+J (by Luhrmann): [spoilerS for all Shakespearean tragedies - they all die]

  • >I use this film when discussing symbolism in cinema and so I have a number of examples of rather good and recurring imagery used throughout. 1st: Water - easily the strongest symbol. It is everywhere in this film, and I believe symbolizes death. The first time we see Juliet, her face is under water. Romeo - sitting looking at the ocean. Then, the first time they see each other it is through the aquarium. Everything about their relationship is overshadowed by their impending death. Their wooing scene is in a pool. After Merc, Tybalt, R, and J die, it is raining or begins to rain. Mantua - locale of Romeo's banishment - looks like southeastern Tuscon - desert - a sign of his safety or reprieve from death. And of course, when Romeo jumps down from the balcony after the consummation of their marriage fortells his "impending doom" whiule looking at him submerged in the pool.

>Luhrman makes some interesting choices: 1. The costumes the night of the ball are nice. Romeo as a knight (pilgrim) and juliet as an angel (saint). 2. The religious imagery is true to Shakespeare's intent, I believe. It is ever present and is almost irrelevant in light of the acts of both heroism and villany that are carried out in its name. 3. The ecstacy Romeo takes that represents "Queen Mab" makes sense of a speech that has always bothered me. It doesn't progress the plot or an important character and is waaaaaay too long. And Merc's delivery of that monologue is way over the top in this movie as well.

>Finally, just to be sure, I thought you should know about this film's role in what Luhrmann calls the Red Curtain Trilogy. This film is the second installment (Strictly Ballroom precedes and Moulin Rouge! is the last). Luhrmann claims that his goal was to tell the same story (forbidden love) three times but each time, to use a device other than direct language to communicate the deepest elements of love between the main characters. Those devices, respectively in the three films are, ballroom dancing, shakespearean verse, and pop music.

Hope all that helps!

Have fun!

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Ron wrote:

: Kenny's MUCH ADO and HANK CINQ were fabulous - pity about the

: Danish monstrosity, eh?

What about Kenny's other film, AMOROUS EFFORTS MISPLACED? I think he might be the first director-star to make four Shakespeare films (five, if we count THAT BLACK DUDE, which he only starred in). IIRC, Peter Birnie began his interview with Kenny (around the time that THE DANISH MONSTROSITY, his third effort, came out) by noting that Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier had made only three Shakespeare movies each.

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Oh, and for what its worth. Brannagh's Henry V is my favorite cinematic shakespeare.

Anybody hear anything about the possiblity of knighthood for him?

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Call me stodgy, but I still think Zefirelli's R&J is definitive, if a bit breathless.

I confess, I haven't actually seen Luhrmann's R+J, but as much as I liked Simply Ballroom & (finally) Moulin Rouge, I probably won't.

For non-traditional Shakespeare, Ran is right up there, followed closely by the whip-smart California suburban highschool version of The Taming of the Shrew, Ten Things I Hate about You

Almost nobody agrees with me, but I think Branagh's Hamlet is self-indulgent and too dashed long.

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Call me stodgy, but I still think Zefirelli's R&J is definitive, if a bit breathless.
Okay, you're stodgy. Interestingly, I find the line on Luhrmann drawn pretty sharply down generational lines. I've given up trying to convince boomers he's brilliant. I just tell them, "It's not made for you." I don't know if you're a boomer, but the stodgy comment made me think of that.

Almost nobody agrees with me, but I think Branagh's Hamlet is self-indulgent and too dashed long.

Long, I'll go for, even tedious. Self-indulgent... no. Brannagh's performance is the only thing worth watching there. It's the horrendous cameos by lemmon, charlton heston and I think Buddy Hacket as ophelia that I can't stomach. Brannagh's got the chops to carry a three hour film, but its the others in the film who drop the ball performance-wise. Although that "Ghost of Hamlet" scene in the trees is painfully long and dull!

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Oh, and for what its worth. Brannagh's Henry V is my favorite cinematic shakespeare.
About a year and a half ago, I saw the St. Crispan Day's speech from the Olivier version (done while England was at war) and the Branaugh version. Same words, very different tenor. The older one seemed to carry the idea, "we're going to war, tra-la, tra-la, what heroes we will be." Brannagh was more somber. The battle scenes that follow are also widely different. The Olivier version has brightly colored sterile battle going on, while the newer version is muddy, bloody and dark. Make an interesting comparison that can be used to talk about the different ways people interpret the Bible (or whatever literature) or the different spin the Evangelists gave to things Jesus said and did.

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Haven't seen Olivier's version, but that Crispen day speech moves me to chills every time I see it. I have memorized it I love it so. He delivers it like a king who know what its like to be a commoner. I'm gonna go watch it again!

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BethR wrote:

: Almost nobody agrees with me, but I think Branagh's Hamlet is

: self-indulgent and too dashed long.

I was going to say something like, "Nay, to the contrary, I believe everyone who has voiced an opinion on this film so far here has basically agreed with you," but then DanBuck opened his cakehole.

DanBuck wrote:

: Brannagh's performance is the only thing worth watching there. It's the

: horrendous cameos by lemmon, charlton heston . . .

You, sir, are smoking crack. Heston's cameo is one of the few things about that film that I really liked -- and I know for a fact that I'm hardly the only critic who felt that way. I don't remember Branagh's performance well enough to say what I thought of it, but if it was anywhere near as over-the-top as his direction, then I guess it MIGHT have been worth watching in a sort of rubber-necking gawk-at-the-traffic-accident sort of way.

Darrel Manson wrote:

: Make an interesting comparison that can be used to talk about the

: different ways people interpret the Bible (or whatever literature) or the

: different spin the Evangelists gave to things Jesus said and did.

But of course. Not to mention the spin that we give the evangelists -- just compare Pasolini's version of Matthew, in which Jesus becomes a sort of proto-Marxist, with the Visual Bible's version of Matthew, in which Jesus becomes a sort of proto-Promise Keeper.

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8O THAT DANISH MONSTROSITY you speak of happens to be one of my favorite films! And it's easily my favorite film adaptation of Hamlet (yes, even more so that Olivier's and far superior to the horrendous Zeffirelli/Gibson version). Basically though, I love Brannaugh and all his films, though I have yet to track down Love's Labour Lost, though it looks rather interesting.

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What about Kenny's other film, AMOROUS EFFORTS MISPLACED? 

Skipped it. I so dislike that play, having had to act in it once. And I'd lost faith in Sir Kenny's self-directed projects by then.

I think he might be the first director-star to make four Shakespeare films (five, if we count THAT BLACK DUDE, which he only starred in).

At the time of HAM (his long, over-acted version of HAMLET) I remember reading that he was planning to direct films of all the bard's plays. Looks like he went off that idea.

Ron

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How do I delete a duplicate post?

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Ron,

Good to have you back,  by the way. I hope all is well in Vienna. At least better than when I last saw it (in The Third Man. - I assume they've rebuilt some things.)

Actually, I was in Mittersill and Salzburg, not Vienna. Didn't see any Von Trapps (or Nazis, so far as I could tell by looking), but I did see the "Sixteen Going On Seventeen" gazebo.

By the way, my wife Carol is often credited as the director of THE THIRD MAN, but that's absurd: she wasn't even born until 1951.

Thanks tons for the notes on R+J. I'll look out for the water imagery, the costumes, etc. And I'll try to find more about this Red Curtain Trilogy idea, poking around on the internet (though I quickly encounter my frustration with the internet as it's devolved into commerce: virtually every hit from the Google search engine is for a commercial site wanting to sell me DVDs. Oh for the days when the web wasn't one big Home Shopping Channel...)

Ron

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Anybody hear anything about the possiblity of knighthood for him?

Only if his movies start getting better again.

Brannagh's performance is the only thing worth watching there.

Wow, do we ever see this one differently! By the time we got to the scene where Hamlet instructs the players, I was yearning for a video editing machine to show Kenny out-hamming Hamlet. You know how every monologue about off-stage events had to become a voice-over to a montage sequence literalistically illustrating everything described? How I wanted to cut to a sequence of illustrative images from Kenny's performance to that point; "Do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings... It out-herods Herod. Pray you avoid it."

He needed a director.

Anders wrote;

THAT DANISH MONSTROSITY you speak of happens to be one of my favorite films! And it's easily my favorite film adaptation of Hamlet (yes, even more so that Olivier's and far superior to the horrendous Zeffirelli/Gibson version).

What did you find horrendous in the Z/G version? I thought there were a couple scenes that were marred by over-cleverness; Hamlet and Polonius in the library, Mel and Glenn spelling out their Freudian subtext, at least one other. But apart from those smudges, I felt it was very fine. For one thing, the Hamlet - Ophelia relationship made sense to me for the first time in any stage or screen version of the play, partly due to Helena's genius, of course, but I'm quite ready to credit Franco as well, and Mel matched her step for step. But I'd love to hear what it was you didn't like in it. (And I may even provide fuel for your fire, later, if I can find an interview Mr Gibson did about the role: for all I admire his actual performance, he certainly managed to say some dumb things in the interview!)

Anybody care to weigh in on Ethan Hawke's more recent foray into Danish territory? I only saw half, but liked it lots. I'm sure folks who like their Shakespeare neat would dislike it, as they disliked Baz's R+J, but I'm big on both - boomer that I am!

Ron

Edited by Ron

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After such a violent reaction to my affinity, I am backing off a bit. I like brannagh and I am no doubt biased to his performances. But what a shmuck to let Emma go! Her films got better and his got worse.

Anyway, yes, the film was poorly directed and just too dang big for its britches.

Hawke's Hamlet had me sleeping twenty minutes in, and I'm a fan. I much prefer ALL his other films.

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DanBuck wrote:

: Brannagh's performance is the only thing worth watching there. It's the

: horrendous cameos by lemmon, charlton heston . . .

You, sir, are smoking crack. Heston's cameo is one of the few things about that film that I really liked -- and I know for a fact that I'm hardly the only critic who felt that way.

Well, some people go for gimmicks... I don't.

By the way, can I say, I'm very excited to be the target of a post from Peter that contains both the words Cakehole and Crack(in reference to the drug).

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