Tag Archives: Shakespeare

294. TITUS (1999)

“Why makest thou it so strange?”–Demetrius, “Titus Andronicus,” II, 1.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Alan Cumming, Laura Fraser, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Matthew RhysAngus Macfadyen, Osheen Jones

PLOT: Titus Andronicus, a Roman general, returns from conquering the Goths; he imprisons the queen Tamora and her three sons, killing the eldest boy as a sacrifice to the gods. Back in Rome, the emperor is dead and the popular Titus averts a civil war by supporting Saturninus for emperor against the rival claim of his brother; once on the throne, Saturninus surprises Titus by taking Tamora as his queen. Tamora and her secret lover, the Moor Aaron, then set about plotting revenge against Titus and his entire family.

Still from Titus (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Written in the style of the Jacobean revenge tragedy, “Titus Andronicus” is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and perhaps his most disliked by critics; some even went so far as to speculate that the play must be misattributed to him, as Shakespeare could not have written such trash. Harold Bloom scathingly called it “a howler” and “an exploitative parody” and suggested Mel Brooks would be the director most suited to the material.
  • Julie Taymor adapted this film version from her off-Broadway stage production. Titus was her debut film, although she had achieved fame, and won a Tony award, for her 1994 Broadway stage production of “The Lion King.”
  • Taymor chose production designer Dante Ferretti because he had worked on one of her inspirations for Titus‘ look: Fellini Satyricon.
  • An orgy scene had to be edited (reportedly, to excise male genitalia) to earn the film an “R” rating.
  • Reputed auto-fellator Steve Bannon served as one of the executive producers.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For this adaptation, Taymor fashioned four short, digitized dream sequences that she calls “penny arcade nightmares.” We selected the one where Lavinia remembers her own rape, imagining herself as a doe (with a deer’s head and hooves) menaced by ravishing tigers. Trip Shakespeare, for sure.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Paper bag brat; those are twigs that were her hands; Shakespearean video games

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Julie Taymor gives Shakespeare’s least-respected, bloodiest play an anachronistic avant-garde treatment, with fascist emperors riding in convertibles, Roman orgies, “penny arcade nightmares,” and all of the rape, dismemberment, and people-eating that we associate with the Bard’s work.


Original trailer for Titus

COMMENTS: “Shakespeare was a drive-in kind of guy.” I don’t think Continue reading 294. TITUS (1999)

229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
–T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tom Stoppard

FEATURING: , , , Iain Glen

PLOT: Two of Hamlet’s old school chums are summoned to Elsinore to glean what afflicts the moody prince. Along their journey they encounter a traveling troupe of Players, whose leader offers to a put on a performance for them. Magically transported to the castle from the Players’ stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves trapped within the convoluted machinations of the royal court, confused as to their own identities and struggling to keep their heads while discussing basic questions of existence and fate.

Still from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • Adapted from his own 1967 hit play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is the first and (so far) only film directed by accomplished playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (who also contributed to Brazil).
  • The title comes straight from “Hamlet,” from the very last scene (Act V, Scene II). Arriving in Denmark to find nearly everyone in the royal court dead, the English ambassador bemoans, “The sight is dismal,/And our affairs from England come too late./The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,/To tell him his commandment is fulfill’d,/That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
  • Though it received tepid-to-positive reviews from contemporary critics (with most of the negative reviews comparing it unfavorably to the stage experience), Rosencrantz & Guildenstern did bag the top prize at the 1990 Venice Film Festival.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I suspect I take no risk of spoiling the ending (the title itself gives something of a hint as to our heroes’ ultimate fate) by singling out the execution scene of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. The former has a look of a man of reason who’s been broken by the illogical; the latter sports the complementary look of a man of whimsy who’s been worn down by niggling reality. Both accept their fate in states of differing exasperation.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Heads,” “heads,” “heads”…; am I Rosencrantz or are you Guildenstern?; play within a play within a play within a movie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tom Stoppard’s semi-medieval world is one of modern wordplay, post-modern comedy, existentialism, tragedy, and ambiguous identity. As it stands, the movie is perhaps the only example to be found in the “Nihilistic Farce” genre of cinema.


Clip from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

COMMENTS: Sometimes it’s just better to stay home. This lesson is Continue reading 229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

CAPSULE: CATCH MY SOUL (1974)

AKA Santa Fe Satan

DIRECTOR: Patrick McGoohan

FEATURING: Richie Havens, Lance LeGault, , Tony Joe White, Season Hubley, Bonnie Bramlett, Delaney Bramlett

PLOT: An adaptation of “Othello,” set in the Santa Fe, NM area in the summer of 1967. Traveling preacher Othello (Richie Havens) comes across a remote commune in the desert and eventually settles there, becoming the defacto leader and falling in love with and marrying Desdemona. This does not sit well with Iago, who plans revenge on Othello, manipulating everyone around him, including his wife Emila.

Still from Catch My Soul (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Catch My Soul is definitely of an artifact of its time, and the merging of Shakespeare and gospel makes for a unique interpretation, but it’s a pretty straightforward presentation of the basic story.

COMMENTS: Catch My Soul was an intriguing moment in the careers of everyone involved. It was the only feature film directed by Patrick McGoohan, who’d proved himself earlier directing episodes of “Danger Man,” “Secret Agent” and “The Prisoner”; it featured the acting debuts of singers Richie Havens and Tony Joe White, as well as performances from cult favorites Susan Tyrell and Lance LeGault; and on top of all of that, the cameraman was Conrad Hall of “The Outer Limits,” In Cold Blood and Cool Hand Luke, among others. It was based on an acclaimed stage show and with that pedigree, it should have been a memorable addition to the genre of rock musicals. Instead, Catch My Soul barely opened at all—practically ignored by the public at large and garnering scathing reviews, the film disappeared from theaters only to reappear a year later under the title Santa Fe Satan, and was as successful under that title as it was under the original. The film then pretty much disappeared from view, never released on VHS and barely mentioned at all. McGoohan disowned Soul shortly before release and barely talked about it, except for one mention in a mid-90’s interview. For a long time the only available evidence of the film’s existence was the soundtrack LP, the most praised element of the film, which could be still be found in used vinyl bins even well into the 2000s. It was long thought to be a lost film, until the recent unearthing of a 35mm print in North Carolina and the subsequent discoveries of a 16mm print and the camera negative found in the bowels of 20th Century Fox studios.

Now that Soul has been rediscovered and can be seen with some 40 years of perspective, it seems that the initial reviews were too harsh and mean spirited. Far from being a hippie-themed train wreck, the film is an interesting curiosity showing how Shakespeare’s work is constantly adapted to reflect contemporary times. It’s especially fitting that McGoohan was the one to direct this, since he starred earlier as an Iago-inspired character in another musically-oriented Continue reading CAPSULE: CATCH MY SOUL (1974)

LIST CANDIDATE: MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: River Phoenix, , William Richert

PLOT: A young, narcoleptic gay prostitute searches for his mother, with the help of a slumming fellow hustler who is heir to a fortune.

Still from My Own Private Idaho (1991)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: My Own Private Idaho weaves two weird premises together: the story of a narcoleptic searching for his mother and a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part I.” The movie then adds surreal touches and sets it all inside the world of gay street hustlers.

COMMENTS: Sometimes the line between a “glorious mess” and a plain old-fashioned mess can be very thin, and very personal, indeed. I couldn’t really argue with anyone who sees Idaho as an eccentric gem, but the film has always seemed more like a failed experiment to me. A “Henry IV” adaptation set in the world of street hustlers might have made a good movie (although Idaho suggests that a different approach, with less actual Shakespearean dialogue and no Keanu Reeves, may have been required). Similarly, a bittersweet indie about a narcoleptic hustler searching for his lost mom might have made a good movie. But when slapped together, the two storylines don’t really work; Idaho feels like an interesting story that keeps getting interrupted by a high school class’ Shakespeare rehearsal.

River Phoenix, only two years away from his fatal overdose, is beautifully cast as the fragile prostitute who falls into a spontaneous slumber when stressed (and the life of a street hustler does tend to arouse the occasional stressful situation). He’s dreamy, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. Keanu Reeves, on the other hand, isn’t very good—but in this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At this point in his career, the world did not yet know that Reeves was a bad actor, and the same pseudo-sophisticated mannerisms that would earn him well-deserved jeers for his portrayal of Jonathan Harker in Dracula play here as a campy stylistic choice. Since his lean torso and boyish sensuality suit the character physically, his weak-jawed, ersatz Prince Hal somehow fits into the entire subplot’s unreal design. It’s a case of a director turning an actor’s weakness into the film’s strength. William Richert is fine as Bob, the Falstaff substitute. Regular readers will want to keep their eyes open for weirdo favorites (in a rare seductive role) and (in a more substantial and stranger part).

Mild surrealist touches (the hustlers carrying on a conversation from the covers of male jerk mags) jostle with gritty street realities and scenes lifted almost wholesale from “Henry” to form a concoction that is occasionally interesting and touching, but which also feels cobbled together and frustratingly inconclusive. Idaho does, however, unquestionably tilt toward the weird end of the spectrum. The Criterion Collection upgraded this catalog title to Blu-ray in October, 2015.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…cracked and beautiful… a strange duck of a film, beyond comparison: street-boy angst intermingled with Shakespearean conceit.“–Stephen Hunter, Baltimore Sun (contemporaneous)

140. PROSPERO’S BOOKS (1991)

“This is as strange a maze as e’er men trod
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of: some oracle
Must rectify our knowledge.”–Alonso, “The Tempest” [V,I]

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: Prospero, a magician trapped on an island with his daughter and native spirits, conjures a tempest to wreck a king’s ship on his shores. Once the monarch and his party are in the wizard’s power, he puts into place an intricate plan to restore himself to his former position. The text of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is followed faithfully, but is supplemented with peeks at twenty-four lavishly illustrated volumes in Prospero’s magical library.Prospero's Books (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • Prospero’s books are mentioned only a couple of times by Shakespeare in “The Tempest.” In the first act of the play, Prospero says that before being shipwrecked on the island he salvaged certain volumes from his library “that I prize above my dukedom.” (The implication in the scene is that Prospero was so concerned with his studies that he neglected courtly politics and fell victim to a conspiracy to oust him). Later, Caliban speculates that Prospero’s magical powers come from his books. In the play’s final scene, Prospero throws a book(presumably his collection of magic spells)  into the ocean.
  • John Gielgud, who played Prospero in four major theatrical productions, had a lifelong dream of starring in a film adaptation of “The Tempest.” Over the years he approached Alain Resnais, , Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Welles about directing the project, but all of the plans fell through for various reasons.
  • Prospero’s Books was shot entirely on videotape rather than film so that Greenaway could digitally manipulate the images, making it one of the very first digitally produced films.
  • The movie was filmed entirely in a studio in Amsterdam and contains only interior shots.
  • Greenaway made a 23-minute short for British television, “A Walk Through Prospero’s Library,” commenting on the film’s opening three and a half minutes, in which he explains the one hundred (!) mythological references in the parade that occurs as the opening credits roll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Prospero’s Books contains dozens, if not hundreds, of lush, luscious, baroquely structured, interlaced images, and yet it’s the acres and acres of nude flesh that you remember most. Still, the most shocking image illustrates Prospero’s volume called “An Anatomy of Birth”: a pregnant woman peels back a flap of skin from her torso to reveal the gooey fetus, and beating organs, within. According to the narrator’s description of the tome, “…the pages move, and throb, and bleed. It is a banned book.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s an (almost) all nude adaptation of “The Tempest”; that should be enough for you. If it’s not, then consider the fact that a narrator constantly interrupts the story to describe the contents of Prospero’s magical books, including such tomes as “An Atlas Belonging to Orpheus” (“when the atlas is opened, the maps bubble with pitch”) and “A Book of Travellers’ Tales” (illustrated with “bearded women, a rain of frogs, cities of purple ice, singing camels, Siamese twins”); Greenaway shows us the contents of each book in a transparent overlay or a window that opens on top of the main action. If that’s still not enough for you, recall that the fairy slave Ariel is played by three separate actors, the youngest of whom urinates nonstop, and that a team of white horses suddenly wanders onto the set during Miranda and Ferdinand’s courtship scene. Your high school English teacher would not approve. This is acid Shakespeare.

Short clip from Prospero’s Books

COMMENTS: In 1979,  produced an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest that featured a naked adult Caliban Continue reading 140. PROSPERO’S BOOKS (1991)

CAPSULE: THE TEMPEST (1979)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Heathcote Williams, Toyah Willcox, Jack Birkett

PLOT: Prospero, a magician and the rightful Duke of Milan, conjures up a tempest to shipwreck

Still from The Tempest (1979)

his usurper on the remote island where his lives with his virgin daughter and the magical creatures he’s enslaved.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Shaking up Shakespeare with a storm of weirdness, Derek Jarman’s The Tempest is an interpretation of the Bard’s final play featuring bizarre costumes, ample nudity, and an out-of-place, out-of-time closing song and dance number. The main argument against it making the List, however, is that this isn’t the weirdest—or even the nudest—adaptation of “The Tempest.”

COMMENTS: “This is as strange a thing as ever I looked on,” says seaman Alonso when he first discovers Caliban. Although Derek Jarman’s wild interpretation of The Tempest may not be quite the strangest thing you’ve ever seen, if you went into it expecting to see a dry Masterpiece Theater-style rendition of Shakespeare’s most fanciful play, you’d likely be shocked. Jarman keeps Shakespeare’s text intact (although it’s truncated for running time), but slowly teases out the hallucinatory elements in the magical story. The movie is set almost entirely in a dusty, abandoned English manner illuminated by candlelight. The early reels court a Gothic horror feel, with the spirit Ariel’s first appearance presaged by poltergeists rattling chandeliers and dramatic flashes of lighting. The makeup and costuming, beginning with Toyah Willcox’ unruly braids cut to uneven lengths and decorated with hanging beads, starts strange and gets ever stranger as the film approaches its baroque climax. The frequent nudity, although always tasteful and rendered with a classical sense of composition, is continually surprising. It’s difficult to imagine in 2012 how shocking the male full-frontals must have seemed in 1979, but the flashback to the obese witch Sycorax breastfeeding her adult son Caliban still delivers a jolt today. More weirdness results from the late appearance of bizarrely costumed carnival dwarfs (some in drag) as fairy spirits of the magical isle, as the movie builds towards its extravagant wedding climax. In this notorious ceremony, a dozen sailors in starched white suits appear from nowhere to perform a style production number, and jazz singer Elisabeth Welch appears in a downpour of flower petals wearing a glittery showgirl headdress to croon the blues number “Stormy Weather.” Although the song title reflects the play title, this mournful tune about lost love is not the ditty most brides want to hear at their wedding reception. The performances in The Tempest are merely adequate. Pop singer Willcox makes for a endearingly sexy Miranda. Jack Birkett’s bald, raw-egg eating Caliban has been criticized as overly grotesque—indeed, at times he comes off like he’s playing Igor in a Frankenstein film—but compared to Heathcote Williams’ bland (and too young) Prospero, he’s a delight. This is not an actor-centered production, and none of the performers threaten to upstage the lush production design and Jarman’s florid imagination. The Tempest may not be as kinky and outlandish as Tromeo and Juliet, but if conventional Shakespeare doesn’t have enough kick for you, this bizarre variation might just be the answer to your Bard blues.

Many critics reflexively describe The Tempest as “homoerotic” because of Jarman’s openly gay lifestyle and past films, but the nudity here is non-sexual, there are as many females as males disrobed in the film, and there are no textual or subtextual homosexual relationships (unless you really stretch things looking for an unrequited Ariel-Prospero passion). This is, demonstrably, Shakespeare’s “strangest” play: the word “strange” appears in The Tempest at least nineteen times, more than in any of his other works.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…a most bizarre version of Shakespeare–one that’s not for all tastes…”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews (Blu-ray)

POSTMODERN MINIMALIST SHAKESPEARE AT THE LOCAL INDY FRINGE

Bill Shakespeare’s play, Richard III, has always been a play about duality. Done right, it is a fun play, juxtaposing equal doses of black humor with rich, high octane melodrama.  It’s also a tough, balancing act and, perhaps for this reason, its usually not anybody’s idea of  first choice when tackling the Bard, but I suspect Indiana director and actor Tristan Ross revels in the challenge.

Tristan Ross as Richard IIIRoss has brought his post-modern, bare-boned, minimalist adaptation to the local IndyFringe Theater at 719 East St. Clair in Indianapolis, where it plays Thursday-Sunday until January 24.  This Richard III is the first of Ross’ planned series of cutting edge, contemporary Shakespeare plays with his “No Holds Bard Productions.”  If Richard goes well, Ross hopes to tackle Julius Caesar.

Ross’ adaptation is a concept-heavy Richard III, employing eight actors for fifteen roles.  Taking dualist themes to a refreshing extreme, Ross has issued his artist statement from his No Holds Bard website, “The characters all represent duality and I’ve done my best to make it as much of an ensemble piece as possible; that is, reducing Richard and strengthening the rest.  The duality is a reflection on Richard’s dual nature.  Every character is cast with a double.  For instance, one actor will play Elizabeth and Hastings.  Elizabeth is compassionate, sympathetic, and aware of Richard’s treason.  Hastings is competitive, vindictive, and believes Richard is her ally.”

Does Ross’ concept work?  For the most part, yes.  He has clearly thought the play Continue reading POSTMODERN MINIMALIST SHAKESPEARE AT THE LOCAL INDY FRINGE

12. TROMEO AND JULIET (1996)

“Body piercing.  Kinky sex.  Dismemberment.  The things that made Shakespeare great.” –Tagline for Tromeo and Juliet

DIRECTED BY:  Lloyd Kaufman

FEATURING: , Jane Jensen, Lemmy, Debbie Rochon

PLOT:  Alcoholic Monty Que and unscrupulous Cappy Capulet have a long running feud dating back to their days as partners in a low-budget sleaze movie studio, and they have passed on their personal vendettas to the next generation.  Monty’s son, Tromeo, falls in love with Cappy’s daughter, Juliet.  The two young lovers must overcome the bloody gangland antics of their friends and family, Juliet’s upcoming arranged marriage to a self-mutilating meat-packing heir, and Cappy’s tendency to beat Juliet and lock her in a plexiglass box, among other crossed stars.

tromeojuliet

BACKGROUND:

  • Original drafts of the script had the parts played by costumed characters from other Troma studio releases: The Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman, and so on.
  • Much of Shakespeare’s original dialogue was included in the rough cut, but most was removed after negative audience reaction.
  • Rock n’ roll cult figure Lemmy (of the band Motörhead) played the role of the narrator for free, and also donated the song “Sacrifice” to the soundtrack.  Several less famous bands also donated songs for free or for a nominal price.
  • Shakespearean actor William Beckwith played the role of Cappy Capulet under the pseudonym “Maximillian Shaun” because he was a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild and Tromeo and Juliet was a non-union film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Many of the more memorable images in Tromeo and Juliet are too obscene to be depicted in stills.  The best sequence is when Juliet’s belly unexpectedly and rapidly distends and splits open to give birth to…  a surprise.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Redoing a classic Shakespearean tragedy as a low-budget, offensive farce is a promisingly weird, if obviously gimmicky, premise. Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma team were inspired by the concept, however, and put more creativity into the project than they did in their usual formula schlock fare. The typical Troma anarchy and bad taste reign again here, but the producers add a healthy dollop of bargain-basement surrealism (Juliet’s disturbing sex dreams) and some on-the-cheap arthouse effects (the lovemaking scene in a plexiglass box against a starry backdrop). The result is a movie that’s completely unpredictable, despite a plot known to every high schooler. Tromeo is revolting one moment, and oddly sweet and beautiful the next, an incongruity that only adds to the weird atmosphere.

Short promotional clip for Tromeo & Juliet

COMMENTS: Troma is a low-budget film producer/distributor formed in 1974 to promote Continue reading 12. TROMEO AND JULIET (1996)