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Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

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First, I have a selfish reason for starting a post on this film; I haven't seen R&G in years, and I am wondering if anyone who is familiar with the film could confirm for me that this cursory description of it is more or less accurate (the context in which I make this remark will become clear in the near future):

. . . it's a little like watching
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
, in which the heroes use modern English until they wander into a scene from Hamlet and start talking all Shakespearean.

I phoned a friend last night who sang the film's praises back when it came out, and she said I was accurate enough; and I checked the "Excerpt" and "Surprise Me!" features at the page for the book at Amazon.com, and what glimpses I saw of the play there seemed to more or less confirm this passing characterization; but still, just in case ...

Second, the even bigger point is that I stumbled across Roger Ebert's zero-star review of the film last night, and he makes a very interesting argument:

The theatrical experience of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern," which I saw in London during its first run in the 1960s, was an intellectual tennis game between playwright and audience, with Shakespeare's original text as the net. There was an audacity and freedom to the way Stoppard's characters lurked in the wings of Shakespeare's most perplexing tragedy, missing the point and inflating their own importance - they were the ants, without the rubber tree plant. The tension between what was center stage and what was offstage was the subject of the entire evening.

There is no offstage in the movies. The camera is a literal instrument that photographs precisely what is placed before it, and has trained us to believe that what we are looking at is what we should be looking at. Any medium that can make a star out of Mark Harmon can make heroes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This is the sort of observation that could haunt my thoughts for weeks to come ...

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Good point by Ebert. In addition, as I said in this post in the Shakespeare on Film thread:

The film version cuts almost all the lines that might be interpreted as hinting at the possibility of an Author at work and makes the whole thing much more absurd than the stage version.

Therefore, IMHO, the film is not "accurate enough."

Edited by BethR

There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

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I've never seen the play, but I *love* the film. It's absurd, yes, and wonderfully so. And does it get better than watching Gary Oldman and Tim Roth goof around together for 90 minutes? Yes, in fact... throw Richard Dreyfuss in and the film is actually better. I think it's one of Dreyfuss's finest performances.



Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.


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Well since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is on my "favorite writing" list, I better add my two cents.

I think I'm with Ebert on this one. The transfer between mediums just doesn't work for me, and I'm not sure it could have worked. Aside from the points about the camera's "eye" that Ebert makes, I think the main problem is that there is no equivalent of the "empty stage" in film, and the empty stage was crucial to this play. To have the early scenes transplanted to a forest where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are actually travelling and doing something and interacting with a world that really exists is the complete opposite of what the play works hard to portray: two men in a physical and philosophical vaccuum (Hamlet scenes not included). The screen can't convey a vaccuum. The closest the filmmakers can come is to make the reality that is being filmed as fluid and surreal as possible, which I guess explains all the random absurdity that got added into the film. (Roz pulling a giant sandwich out of his pocket, Looney Toons style, for example.) It's kind of funny and interesting as far as it goes, I think, but it doesn't really work as a substitute for the stage.

Which is not to say that this is a bad film--it's funny, well-acted, and it's so bizarre that on its own I'm sure I would enjoy it. But the play was much more to me. (Especially now that I was lucky enough to see a fantastic production of it at my local playhouse).

The film version cuts almost all the lines that might be interpreted as hinting at the possibility of an Author at work and makes the whole thing much more absurd than the stage version.

Yeah, I definitely thought that the play dug deeper into its own existential implications. I think what I really love about the play is that it is genuinely funny, absurdist stuff in the beginning--but it becomes increasingly real and urgent as it goes on, until it works itself into a genuinely touching tragedy and an existential nightmare at the end. Though I wonder if we have a different attitude toward those "hints of an Author at work", as you put it. To me, they all point to a capricious, apathetic, and cruel Author--he reminds me of the puppet-master God of some particularly disturbing strains of Predeterminism I've encountered (with poor R and G as the helpless, hopeless, eternally damned Non-Elect). It's spiritually signifcant for me as an example of what I don't believe God to be.

From what I remember of the ending of the film (and I haven't seen it since high school) the film mutes the horror and tragedy of the play's ending--as I recall, it ended pretty much on the same note of apathetic nihilism that Life of Brian did. I much prefer the sincere grief that the play inspired in me.

The saddest part for me is the very last line, where Rosencrantz(or is it Guildenstern?)--right before they die--says, "well, at least we'll know better next time." At first it sounds like a sliver of hope for the characters, until you realize that this is the next time, and they've been saying it to each other since Hamlet was first performed and will continue to say it--then die--until the last time it is performed. They can never learn, never break the cycle. Scary stuff, as a metaphor for how the world really is. It reminds me to be glad that I do not believe that's really all there is. (That line might have been in the film too, but I never made the same connection until I saw it performed.)

Edited by ThePersistanceOfWaffles

Kent Brockman: Now, here are the results from our phone-in poll. 95% of the people think Homer Simpson is guilty. Of course, this is just a television poll, which is not legally binding. Unless Proposition 304 passes, and we all pray it will.

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