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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: February ::
Re: Baz Luhrmann's R + J
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0538  Monday, 25 February 2002

[1]     From:   Martin Steward <
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        Date:   Friday, 22 Feb 2002 17:52:37 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0525 Re: Baz Luhrmann's R + J

[2]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Friday, 22 Feb 2002 18:25:16 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0525 Re: Baz Luhrmann's R + J

[3]     From:   David Wallace <
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        Date:   Saturday, 23 Feb 2002 15:16:15 -0800
        Subj:   Re: Baz Luhrmann's R + J


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Martin Steward <
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Date:           Friday, 22 Feb 2002 17:52:37 -0000
Subject: 13.0525 Re: Baz Luhrmann's R + J
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0525 Re: Baz Luhrmann's R + J

Alan Sanders, I think in response to my post, wrote, "One thing is
certain about the expressive qualities of Baz Luhrmann, you either like
it or hate it". But actually I made it pretty clear that I liked R+J and
hated Moulin Rouge.

Sam Small commented, "Whenever I see glitz, glamour, TVs, hand guns and
youthful gymnastics in a Shakespeare production I know that the director
is ashamed and embarrassed about Shakespeare's poetry". I could not
disagree more, if we are talking about Luhrmann's R+J - as my comment on
"Sword 9mm" was supposed to make clear, I thought the film brilliantly
celebrated Shakespeare's wonderful, but alien-sounding poetry. Just
because you concentrate on the unfamiliar aspect of something, does not
mean that you are ashamed of it - indeed, it was refreshing to see
Shakespeare's language celebrated as something exotic, wild, and a
little bit dangerous. Muttering it like everyday conversation never
achieves such a pitch of intensity.

I agree with Sophie Masson's opinion that "Luhrmann... is a highly
gifted designer and atmosphere-setter; but his understanding of
character is nil, his feeling for passion is just lots of noise, and he
is superficial in the extreme". Nonetheless, I would argue that some of
the things he is lauded for, such as his use of the camera and fluent
visual sense, were not in evidence in Moulin Rouge. Alan Sanders liked
"the creativity inherent in the script and the visual story-telling",
for example. Sounds great, but I'm damned if I saw any of it. On this
subject, another quote from Sam Small comes in handy: "good acting and
good films are in the eye of the beholder", he writes, soberly, adding
as proof, "Do you know some people actually don't like 'Citizen Kane'??
Gosh!" Gosh indeed. The greatness of this film is not in the eye of the
beholder. Consider what Luhrmann has the camera do in Moulin Rouge: its
movement seems so kinetic and electrified, but this is largely an
illusion - much fuss is made between scenes, when the camera is made to
sweep across the Parisian skyline from one window to another. But what
happens when we get to the actual scene, where "understanding of
character", as Sophie puts it, becomes important? Well, nine times out
of ten, we get unimaginative, static mid-range shots of the actors'
torsos, and virtually no visual commentary on the content of the scene
at all (although the truly awful screenplay - what on earth is all that
La Traviata stuff about? - probably did not help; I never thought I
would feel myself cringe as Jim Broadbent delivered a line...). Now
think back to those wondrous hours you have spent watching Welles's
film, specifically the interviews between Thompson (?) and Kane's second
wife (forget her name, the opera 'singer') - the lighting, the framing
(the acting!) - and the way in which Toland's magnificent crane shot
(can you figure out how it was one...?), focusing in through the
saloon's window, says so much about prurience, invasion, etc. Now that's
how to do ground-breaking things with a camera in the service of your
narrative. Lurhmann - pah! he probably didn't even have to do proper
crane shots - you can produce boring images on a computer nowadays,
without having to break a sweat. Sound and fury, as someone once said.

m

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Friday, 22 Feb 2002 18:25:16 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 13.0525 Re: Baz Luhrmann's R + J
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0525 Re: Baz Luhrmann's R + J

When Baz Luhrmann's R+J first came out, I was absolutely convinced I was
going to hate it. Of course, being Shakespeare, I still had to see it.

I felt disengaged and turned off by the first twenty minutes of the film
(oddly enough, this pattern repeated itself with Moulin Rouge). I just
hated the hyperkinetic style and cringed in my seat. Then, the scene of
R+J's meeting drew me in. The film settles and the story begins to pull
the film. (The equivalent scene in Moulin Rouge: when Ewan swings "Your
Song" and we are swept into a neo-Buzby Berkley world where the lovers
dance on the clouds in the Parisian sky).

I agree that the actors are mismatched. However, to call what Luhrmann
is doing totally wrong without knowing the overarching theory of his
first three films, is a mistake. He calls "Strictly Ballroom", "R+J" and
"Moulin Rouge" his Red Curtain Theatre Trilogy. The simple methodology
uniting the three is that he 1) takes something very foreign to modern
audiences in film and places it in a different modernized visual context
and 2) he continually reminds us that we are watching a film. Strictly
Ballroom takes ballroom dancing and makes it exciting to watch. R+J is
not meant to satisfy fans of Zefferelli's version; it makes the language
the star by placing it in visual terms. Hence the prologue is placed on
screen in word blasts, shots of guns called "sword", Juliet wears angel
wings and Romeo is dressed like a knight/pilgrim for their holy palmer's
kiss.  And many more. Moulin Rouge takes the musical and makes it visual
(brilliantly using the legend of Orpheus as its source story). All have
some mixed results, but one cannot deny that they are thought-provoking.
And that I continually hear that the teenagers really love his R+J
because they fully understand what is happening.

Brian Willis

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Wallace <
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Date:           Saturday, 23 Feb 2002 15:16:15 -0800
Subject:        Re: Baz Luhrmann's R + J

I'd like to add my observations to those of various contributors on the
subject of Baz Luhrman's R&J. I had no occasion to see the film in
theatrical release and first viewed it on video. My intent was to
preview the video in the hope that it might prove a useful teaching tool
for my 8th grade Drama students (ages 13-14). As I watched, I
immediately began to excitedly take notes as I came to realize that the
film would clearly provide a rich context to discuss the play from the
perspective of the art of film making rather than from the more text
based approach they might expect in their English studies. Indeed,
little of the text survives intact. The lines that remain are so
drastically edited that Luhrman is obliged to tell the story anew though
symbol and imagery.

I find there is much to admire in the film. The opening sequence that
establishes the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets is
accompanied by music that features swelling voices delivering an angelic
hymn contrasted with the galloping rhythms of a 1950's Western. This
juxtaposition is reinforced by a multiplicity of examples of Catholic
iconography incongruously present in a society that has clearly
substituted the worship of guns for the worship of God. Luhrman neatly
justifies the dialogue ("Put up your swords") by repeatedly offering
close ups of handguns emblazoned with trademarks such as "Sword 9 mm" -
suggesting that "sword" is such a dominant trade name that all handguns
are called 'Swords' in somewhat the manner that all facial tissues are
called "Kleenex". Moreover, he provides a range of sound effects for the
guns (clanging and clinking of metal, the 'swish' of blades etc.) that
alert the viewer to the fact that he is acknowledging the original
context of Shakespeare's play while simultaneously transposing it into
an imaginary world that somewhat resembles a Latino influenced Southern
California or, perhaps, Miami. If it were not done with such bold and
playful panache I might complain that it is altogether too unsubtle. But
I confess to being seduced.

With similar boldness he provides a long shot of an enormous statue of
Jesus (significantly in disrepair and under reconstruction) poised
between the tall office buildings belonging to the Capulets and
Montagues. In a play whose theme might be encapsulated as "love thine
enemy", this powerful symbol is easy for my young students to
apprehend.  Luhrman's consistent use of camera shots from above assists
my students in understanding the role of fate (or God) in driving the
action of the play by repeatedly suggesting that the events are being
perceived from above (heaven, the stars). I would argue that Luhrman's
ability to substitute visual imagery for imagery buried in text is the
correct course for a film-maker and useful in leading students from the
film into the play and back again.

As the film progresses, Luhrman introduces the motif of water (absent
from the text) but developed in a very consistent and satisfying manner
here. Our first view of Juliet is unusual - her head submerged in a
basin of water. That image is duplicated, later, with a similar shot of
Romeo at the Capulet's feast. This 'baptism' (if you will) or
'anointing' of the youngsters prepares us to accept their eventual
sacrifice. Water is present at every significant moment of the film (and
noticeably absent in the arid imagery of Romeo's banishment in Mantua).
Romeo and Juliet first encounter each other from opposite sides of an
aquarium. They pledge their love in a swimming pool (a delightful
variation on the traditional balcony scene). Tybalt is slain and plunges
into a fountain at the base of the statue of Christ. His and Mercutio's
death are greeted by a rainstorm. Romeo, later, plunges from Juliet's
balcony into the swimming pool and from her vantage Juliet receives her
prophetic perception of Romeo dead in a tomb. The list goes on. I
receive many intriguing speculations from students pondering the
symbolic use of water in this film.

In teaching my young students the importance of costuming, Capulet's
"old accustomed feast" provides a wealth of opportunity. Benvolio's monk
costume exemplifies his role as peacemaker. Lady Capulet's choice of
Cleopatra reveals her anxiety concerning her waning beauty and her
vicarious pleasure at thought of her daughter wedding Paris. All the
major characters reveal some aspect of their personalities in the choice
of costume. Mercutio's sexual vulgarity is clear in his decision to
appear in drag and the dance he performs before a towering depiction of
Our Blessed Lady, again, reinforces the many contrasts of the play:
vulgarity/purity, light/dark, love/hate, early/late. All of these themes
are boldly present throughout in a manner easily understood by
youngsters who, clearly, are Luhrman's target audience.

Friar Lawrence's' eventual dependence upon the "powerful grace that lies
in plants" is neatly integrated into the film. His depiction as
something of a new age health enthusiast (quaffing home brewed tonics)
is contrasted with the casual drug use of Mercutio (who associates Queen
Mab with a hit of acid or, perhaps, ecstasy). Transposing Romeo's line
"these drugs are quick" from the play's conclusion to the drug-distorted
film sequence at Capulet's party is rather chilling. Embellishing the
role of drugs in the play with the widespread use of drugs in our own
culture is something my students can easily understand.

Luhrman's decision to cut both Paris and the Friar from the final scene
is amply rewarded by his decision to condense the action of Romeo's
final moments. My students frequently start shouting at the tv monitor
as Juliet begins to revive just as Romeo uncaps the poison. It is
simple, here, for me to explain how the notion of "too early seen
unknown and known too late" finds its final expression in a story driven
by haste. Moreover, I can return to Shakespeare's text and discuss the
dramatic difference offered by the presence of Paris and the Friar and
compare that context to the dramatic significance of creating a Romeo
who must recognize his own fatal error and a Juliet who must witness her
lover's agonized death.

I think the film has too many intrinsic merits for me to wish it to be
something it does not strive to be. When the film was first released, I
overheard senior students arguing its merits and defects. Some loved it;
some disparaged it as MTV Shakespeare. Certainly the latter criticism
can be argued - but only if one cherishes the version in one's own
imagination (or Zefferelli's film or some favourite stage production). I
can appreciate that the film will not appeal to all sensibilities. But I
reject the notion that the text is the film's chief redeeming feature.
The colloquial delivery of many of the actors and (in some instances)
incomprehensible mumbling takes some getting used to. I would not
commend the film on the strength of the performances or as an example of
how to effectively deliver verse. I admire the film as an adaptation
that remains true to the major themes of the play and develops those
themes in a unique and satisfying manner. Many young students will argue
that Romeo and Juliet are not TRULY in love and see the story as a kind
of cautionary tale (obey your parents etc.). I have no wish to encourage
children to rash extremes (or suicide) but the film offers so much
Christian imagery that it is simple for me to lead them back to the text
and to the sonnet that Romeo and Juliet first share. When I point out
the religious imagery which dominates that playful, flirtatious
exchange, they begin to become more alert to the text and to the way the
themes (here and elsewhere) are developed through patterns of imagery. I
feel confident the film is a useful tool for arousing them to a richer
understanding of the play and to the ability to develop a nascent
understanding of the variety of ways a given text may find dramatic
expression.

Cheers! David Wallace

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