Monday, July 13, 2020
10:00 AM |
The Film Meme No. 79
[79th of 100].
The celebrated plays of William Shakespeare, we are told, are the best Western literature has to offer. We know the reasons for the acclaim: how they have given us spirited tales of such prolific range, from comedy to tragedy to historical dramas, each one a product of its time, but also inventive enough to transcend that very quality; how they've enriched the English language not just through word coinage or quotable phrases, but also how memorably they've created a tapestry of imagination; and how they've shown us a way to present drama steeped in psychological depths, making characters not just movers of plots but also well-springs of human complexity. But truth to tell, it was never easy learning to appreciate Shakespeare, especially for those who are not natural-born to his tradition and language. And his language -- Elizabethan English dripping in iambic pentameter -- takes study and getting used to, but those who persevere do deserve all the pleasures of the texts they will be getting. All of this to say I very much appreciate popular culture that makes Shakespeare a little bit more accessible without sacrificing so much of the playwright's original inventions. It could be through spectacle. Have you seen Julie Taymor's magical direction of A Midsummer Night's Dream
on stage? It could be through careful modifications of time and milieu, the new setting a measured objective correlative we could safely digest themes with. Have you seen Michael Almereyda's New York-set slacker Hamlet
, or Baz Luhrmann's American jazzy Romeo + Juliet
, or Richard Loncraine's 1930s fascist Britain-set Richard III
? Or it could be just through undeniable and sheer directorial vision. Have you seen Kenneth Branagh's majestic Henry V
 or Laurence Olivier's expressionistic Hamlet
? Each of those films brought me a little more closer to loving Shakespeare without the intimidation that goes with the territory. But if we have to cite one film that has done so much in the contemporary rendition of Shakespeare, it has got to be this 1968 version of the famous story of doomed, star-crossed, young lovers set in Verona, Italy. As orchestrated by Franco Zeffirelli, it brought fire and carnality to the play, something it has never been done or seen in before. The secret was in casting actual young people to play the drama's teenage protagonists -- and in the blossoming Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, we could very well understand the characters' wilful petulance, their whimsies, their overwhelming passions, their recklessness, their rebelliousness, their hyper-articulate declarations. Of course they do this and that! They're lovestruck teenagers trapped in a blood feud between their warring families! Whiting and Hussey deliver all these, and in their sheer youthful beauty, we get the butterflies in the stomach that is the very signal of having fallen hopelessly in love. This casting was actually quite revolutionary in 1968. Previous adaptations of the play have always tended to cast older actors to play the young lovers, of the belief that Shakespearean heft required adult maturity to be properly handled. Hence, in George Cukor's 1936 version, you got a 34-year-old Norma Shearer to play Juliet and a 43-year-old Leslie Howard to play Romeo. Beholding them begs verisimilitude. Luhrmann, in his MTV-style 1996 version, took Zeffirelli's cue, casting the age-appropriate Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes right at the cusp of stardom -- and it also worked! But Zeffirelli's remains the gold standard, aided ably by strong performances and by Nino Rota's brilliant score. [Who can forget the film's thematic solo, "What is a Youth?," before it was bastardized as "A Time for Us" by Andy Williams?] For me, I will forever remain, near the tragic end of the film, a trembling witness in Juliet's bedroom at the rise of a new morning, with a naked Romeo being awakened sensually by sunlight and by the song of a lark. I remember holding my breath. That scene was such a quickening for me. I was 12. And I think I knew in that instance, seeing Romeo's glory, that I was gay. What's the film?
For the introduction to this meme, read here
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
GO TO OLDER POSTS
GO TO NEWER POSTS