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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: March ::
Re: A Renaissance in Need of Reform
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0809  Friday, 15 March 2002

[1]     From:   Laura Blankenship <
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        Date:   Thursday, 14 Mar 2002 12:28:51 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.07395 Re: A Renaissance in Need of Reform

[2]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Thursday, 14 Mar 2002 10:45:21 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.07395 Re: A Renaissance in Need of Reform

[3]     From:   Martin Steward <
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        Date:   Thursday, 14 Mar 2002 22:06:33 -0000
        Subj:   Declining Critical Standards

[4]     From:   Stuart Manger <
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        Date:   Thursday, 14 Mar 2002 23:38:22 +0000
        Subj:   SHK 13.0800 Re: A Renaissance in Need of Reform


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Laura Blankenship <
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Date:           Thursday, 14 Mar 2002 12:28:51 -0500
Subject: 13.07395 Re: A Renaissance in Need of Reform
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.07395 Re: A Renaissance in Need of Reform

>I'm not so sure.  Cibber, Tate, et al., felt they were making necessary
>improvements:  Shakespeare got it wrong -- for example, it is obvious
>that Cordelia and Edgar were made for each other -- and it fell to them
>to fix it.  Film directors may believe that their adaptations make the
>plays more understandable, enjoyable, "commercial"  or (worst of all)
>"relevant" to some undisclosed referent, but I don't think they are so
>presumptuous as to suggest that they are improving the plays for all
>time.

As someone who is teaching a course that is using adaptations of
Shakespeare, I wanted to say a couple of things.  First, many of my
students have said they've enjoyed the Shakespeare plays better than the
adaptation.  We've done two so far--King Lear/A Thousand Acres and
Twelfth Night/Your Own Thing.  We'll be doing Hamlet and Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern Are Dead and Gertrude and Claudius.  So far, the majority
don't seem to think of the adaptations in terms of making the play more
relevant.  I see adaptations as interpretations, just as our scholarly
papers are interpretations.  Many of my students have also said that
they wouldn't have enjoyed the adaptations nearly as much without having
read the original.  They like knowing what's been changed and thinking
about why the adapter would have made that change.

I have to say, too, that I, myself, am not a big fan of contemporary
adaptations of Shakespeare, per se, and that this class is an experiment
that I'm not sure I will repeat.  I am interested, however, in the way
Shakespeare's work seems to permeate our culture still, and part of that
pervasiveness is represented through modern films, tv shows, etc. that
adapt Shakespeare for their own purposes.  Whether these attempts are
"better" or "worthy" in some kind of aesthetic way doesn't really matter
to me.  I find them intriguing nonetheless.

Laura Blankenship

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Thursday, 14 Mar 2002 10:45:21 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 13.07395 Re: A Renaissance in Need of Reform
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.07395 Re: A Renaissance in Need of Reform

> > Brian Willis's point is well-taken (that film
> adaptations of Shakespeare
> > are the Late 20th Century equivalents of the
> Restoration adaptations),
>
> I'm not so sure.  Cibber, Tate, et al., felt they
> were making necessary
> improvements:  Shakespeare got it wrong -- for
> example, it is obvious
> that Cordelia and Edgar were made for each other --
> and it fell to them
> to fix it.  Film directors may believe that their
> adaptations make the
> plays more understandable, enjoyable, "commercial"
> or (worst of all)
> "relevant" to some undisclosed referent, but I don't
> think they are so
> presumptuous as to suggest that they are improving
> the plays for all
> time.

Larry is correct. I wasn't really asserting that the Restoration
playwrights were attempting to correct what they perceived as
deficiencies in plot or that the current and growing list of
Shakespearean filmmakers are doing the same. Of course, several of the
Restoration playwrights claimed that they were correcting errors of plot
that Shakespeare made and Larry is right to point this out. It is
different from the reverence that most modern adaptors have for the
originals.

Last night, I finally saw "O", which is now out on home video. Frankly,
I must say I was stunned and breathless at the end. We never really had
an extended discussion of this film when it first appeared but perhaps
we could now.

"O" may be the first instance of a Shakespearean film in the current
crop or "Renaissance" which eschews the language but finds modern
equivalents for every major plot point. "10 Things I Hate About You"
generally attempted this on a less successful scale. I didn't quite like
10 Things and thought it began to fall apart as the film progressed. It
also never knew how to deal with the "Katherine problem" and dumped the
issues raised by Petruchio's treatment of her by removing them
altogether.

"O" dumps none of the plot elements of Othello nor does it ignore even
the basic scenic structure of Shakespeare's original. The play and its
issues are poignantly raised despite the transference of its setting to
Palmetto Grove, an academy high school with Odin James (O.J., get it?)
as its lone black student.  What shocked me into loving this film is
that Othello was gently portrayed by Mekhi Phifer and his descent into
rage ably performed. Iago, here Hugo, is played with a quiet desperation
for love by a pre-teen heartthrob Josh Hartnett (the film was shelved
for two years due to its highly controversial nature). Julia Stiles
gives an outstanding performance as Desi, a Desdemona who is not afraid
to break the color line, to stand up to her dad or to Odin when he
questions her faithfulness. Martin Sheen is focused and the emotional
foundation of the film. His grief at the events of the finale remind me
of the scene at the beginning of Apocalypse Now (when he actually
suffered a major health issue during the product onscreen).

The film is framed by a voice over from Hugo. The voice over is far from
awkward; it explains Hugo's motivation and his perspective, the view
that ultimately causes the downfall of them all. The film introduces a
major visual image that stands in and illustrates Odin's tenuous place
in Palmetto Grove. He is a hawk among white doves, soaring above the
rest but quite unable to cohabitate (at least according to Hugo). If one
is familiar with the play and how it moves, we can see how screenplay
writer Brad Kaaya follows the original's structure flawlessly. I was
breathless at how every major character finds their equivalent
effortlessly in this locality: Hugo does the screening on the basketball
team while Cassio gets the credit as a point guard (Hugo calls himself
the "utility man", a valid basketball term and equivalent to Iago's
ensign), Desdemona is the daughter of the Dean who is told by Roger
(Roderigo) at Hugo's insisting that Odin is abusing and sleeping with
his daughter, Mike (Cassio) is going out with the ho of the school, and
the substitution of basketball for war is well served by the camera
work, an on-the-court in-your-face handheld style. (Apparently not a
conscious replication of "Saving Private Ryan").

There are a handful of interpolations, which work or don't work I
suspect according to individual biases. Being very competitive sports,
drug use is involved. Martin Sheen's character has no equivalent in
Othello, but does provide an insight into the psyche of the young
characters. He acts much like the Duke in Romeo and Juliet, the
semi-choric figure who embodies our anger and grief. I think both work
to enhance the film's transposition to the modern high school setting.
Perhaps the issue of violence in school may have been ridiculous just a
generation ago, but it seems transcendently poignant here. With
Columbine and many similar incidents occurring and being thwarted
seemingly monthly, the finale somehow doesn't seem that far off.

Perhaps that finale might not work for some.  Personally, I regret that
in exchange for greater insight into Iago's motivations, his great
biting sense of humor was jettisoned (or perhaps had no place in this
adaptation which inevitably had a serious tone). However, any film that
leaves me emotionally raw and vulnerable at the end of it must be
counted a success. No, it's not Olivier in black face, but it doesn't
try to be. It acutely notes that the current high school shooting
tragedies germinate in feelings of jealousy and inadequacy in
emotionally developing human beings who feel that the only way to get to
the level of the hawk is to bring the hawk down.

A Renaissance is not just a rebirth; it can also be a reformation, a
rethinking, of what makes a genre.  Shakespeare did not merely reiterate
old tales. His genius was reworking those tales for his audience's
modern sensibilities and making it relevant for them.  "O" succeeds
brilliantly at that by using a very old tale and one familiar to us. One
feels regretful for the downfall of the protagonists and those
manipulated by the truly jealous character of the piece, Iago/Hugo. And
that is all one can ask for a dramatic evening of entertainment.

A special note: If you rent or buy the DVD version of "O", the second
disk contains the newly restored 1922 version of Othello. No, I do not
work for Lion's Gate films. :) Actually, the inclusion of an Othello
raises certain issues about this film's claim to be Shakespearean as
much as modern. I think it is a great move.

Brian Willis

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Martin Steward <
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Date:           Thursday, 14 Mar 2002 22:06:33 -0000
Subject:        Declining Critical Standards

I have heard it said that to quote somebody does not make the quoted
sentiments right. Nonetheless, I venture to assert that we might all
have something to learn from Shakespeare's greatest critic:

"Having announced my intention to give a course of lectures on the
characteristic merits and defects of English poetry in its different
eras; first, from Chaucer to Milton; second, from Dryden inclusive to
Thomson; and third, from Cowper to the present day; I changed my plan,
and confined my disquisition to the two former eras, that I might
furnish no possible pretext for the unthinking to misconstrue, or the
malignant to misapply my words, and having stamped their own meaning on
them, to pass them as current coin in the marts of garrulity or
detraction...

"...as long as there are readers to be delighted with calumny, there
will be found reviewers to calumniate. And such readers will become in
all probability more numerous, in proportion as a still greater
diffusion of literature shall produce an increase of sciolists; and
sciolism bring with it petulance and presumption... at present they
[books] seem degraded into culprits who hold up their hands at the bar
of every self-ekected, yet not the less peremptory, judge, who chooses
to write from humour or interest, from enmity or arrogance, and to abide
the decision (in the words of Jeremy Taylor) 'of him that reads in
malice, or him that reads after dinner.'...

"And now finally, all men being supposed able to read, and all readers
able to judge, the multitudinous public, shaped into personal unity by
the magic of abstraction, sits nominal despot on the throne of
criticism. But, alas!  as in other despotisms, it but echoes the
decisions of its invisible ministers, whose intellectual claims to the
guardianship of the muses seem, for the greater part, analogous to the
physical qualifications which adapt their oriental brethren for the
superintendence of the harem... [ ! ! ]

"I know nothing that surpasses the vileness of deciding on the merits of
a poet or painter... by accidental failures or faulty passages; except
the impudence of defending it, as the proper duty, and most instructive
part, of criticism. Omit or pass slightly over, the expression, grace,
and grouping of Raphael's figures; but ridicule in detail the
knitting-needles and broom-twigs, that are to represent trees in his
backgrounds; and never let him hear the last of his gallipots!...

"He who tells me that there are defects in a new work, tells me nothing
which I should not have taken for granted without his information."

m

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stuart Manger <
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Date:           Thursday, 14 Mar 2002 23:38:22 +0000
Subject: Re: A Renaissance in Need of Reform
Comment:        SHK 13.0800 Re: A Renaissance in Need of Reform

I know this is not strictly this list, but viz film's capacity to distil
the essence and core of great literature, can I just offer the
cautionary tale of the American film version of 'Lord of the Flies',
which should send shock waves of trepidation through anyone claiming
that film can adequately come to terms with very literary, very
word-based, other-culture based material.

We have all cringed at travesties, but that 'Flies' film has to be one
of the saddest, most wrong-headed misreading of a great work on film.
Now That was a  Tate, or Cibber to a great work, wasn't it?

If that means that film re-defines and re-fashions the cultural
constructs implicit in a work of literature, then Shakespeare is even
more likely to be shafted by clod-hopping cinematic maulings?  Everyone
claims to 'own' Shakespeare.

Apart from the Russian 'Hamlet' I cannot think of a film treatment of
Shakespeare that came anywhere near distilling its elusive essence. And
this list has in the past much debated even that modest claim for it. I
am afraid that just seeing Branagh on screen stops me entering the
experience - but I don't want to start that hare again. But in the
cinema we always seem to find ourselves in the grip of thespian
megalomaniacs striding onto the celluloid stage. You don't feel that
many latter-day Cibbers or Tates or other writers of a 'treatment' for a
Shakespearean film have humility and integrity for their chiefest
attributes.

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