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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: May ::
Re: Apologia Pro Sententia Sua
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1211  Wednesday, 1 May 2002

[1]     From:   Stuart Manger <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 30 Apr 2002 23:32:54 +0100
        Subj:   SHK 13.1201 Apologia Pro Sententia Sua

[2]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 30 Apr 2002 17:17:39 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1201 Apologia Pro Sententia Sua

[3]     From:   Al Magary <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 1 May 2002 03:15:04 -0700
        Subj:   Slippage of standards? or expectations?

[4]     From:   Don Bloom <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 1 May 2002 09:25:52 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1201 Apologia Pro Sententia Sua


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stuart Manger <
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Date:           Tuesday, 30 Apr 2002 23:32:54 +0100
Subject: Apologia Pro Sententia Sua
Comment:        SHK 13.1201 Apologia Pro Sententia Sua

I dig open more cans of worms: if Charles W is inveighing against the
baleful effect of film and TV on Shakespeare - and I am not sure that I
am inclined to disagree - then where would he place Branagh?

Stuart Manger

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Tuesday, 30 Apr 2002 17:17:39 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 13.1201 Apologia Pro Sententia Sua
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1201 Apologia Pro Sententia Sua

I just find it interesting for Charles to complain that Shakespearean
academics are not qualified to critique the field of film and film
performance and then, he applies critiques of art as some kind of
analogy for Shakespearean film performance.

Charles, if it is so insignificant, why do you find it also dangerous
enough to spend inordinate amounts of wasted time fighting it?

Brian Willis

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Al Magary <
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Date:           Wednesday, 1 May 2002 03:15:04 -0700
Subject:        Slippage of standards? or expectations?

Charles Weinstein wrote of the "slippage of standards":

> I have a series of audio tapes consisting of 60-minute versions of
> Shakespeare plays broadcast over U.S. radio during the 1930s.  The
> leading roles are played by well-known movie stars of the period.  The
> most interesting performances are those of Edward G. Robinson as
> Petruchio and Humphrey Bogart (yes) as Hotspur...
> These actors learned their craft in the
> legitimate theater of the early twentieth century...

Some blindfolded drama critic (with scales in one hand) may judge that
there has been an absolute slippage of standards, but I think Mr.
Weinstein is trying to weigh Granny Smiths and Valencias.  As the world
has changed since the 1930s, so too have the nature of theater and
films, along with their audience expectations and, thus, market forces.

To start with, at a play in a standard theater with proscenium stage, or
at some outdoor performance, an audience member in the middle of the
orchestra sees actors who are 50 or 75 feet away, and someone seated in
the balcony sees--well, he sees little people way down there.  This is
why actors of some age can play characters who are a lot younger, actors
of some plainness or ugliness may play beautiful characters, and we are
pleased to be credulous.  It is best not to sit in the first row and
look too closely at either actors or sets (this is an absolute rule at
the ballet, I think).

Take by comparison an unconventional performance at a small theater.  It
may have a thrust stage, catwalks, scaffolds, a trapeze--indeed, it may
be theater in the round or in a corner of a brick warehouse--and members
of the cast may prance up the aisles and sit out scenes next to you.
Actors of some age or harshness of features may battle mightily for the
audience to suspend its disbelief.  The theatrical experience is quite
different, even hazardous if someone tumbles into your lap.

Turn now from stage to screen.  When plays and other stories were first
filmed, closeups were sometimes rare--indeed, many movies right into the
1950s have so many crowd scenes, long shots and medium shots, and
virtually no closeups, that it is positively painful to watch them on
the TV screen, for sometimes you can't even see what characters look
like.  (Along with other effects, DVD enables zooming, if offered on old
movies.)  In any case, for several decades, actors of some age or lack
of attractiveness were employable in a wide range of film roles, and
Hollywood has always spent a lot of money on makeup, hair styling, and
costumes to help the make-believe.

In the process, movies have become more believable and accessible than
stage plays.  But as transformed, drama written for the stage found a
new venue and one may argue that it needed to in order to stay alive.
(Compare the struggles of opera, symphonic music, and classical ballet
to stay relevant and find young audiences.)

Now we are in the 21st century.  Film resolution has improved, projector
optics are fine, screens are enormous.  Cinematographers put their
smaller cameras against the nose or eyes of actors.  Indeed, some movies
now feature so many close-ups that they are claustrophobic.  (Back off,
will you, the viewer silently begs; where are we, and what's the scenery
like?)  The actor of some age or homeliness--well, he may have to fight
to get a range of roles.

To get to cases, further, Edward G. Robinson (b. 1893) was already 37
when he got more roles starting in 1930, and may well have been over 40
as Petruchio on the radio.  More plausibly, perhaps, Humphrey Bogart (b.
1899) may have been past 35 as Hotspur.   Old, with distinctive,
well-trained voices (well-practiced, too, for actors made many more
films when studios owned them), they must have been a sensation on the
radio.

But were they cast as Romeo on the silver screen?  Henry V?  A dozen
other of Shakespeare's protagonists?  Take tall, handsome, blue-eyed
Edward G.  Robinson--oops, no!  Robinson was no Romeo or King Harry.
Love him as I did, I'd have to say he always looked more like a frog.
Bogart was often nasally and always twitchy and noirish, and likewise no
Romeo or king.  Classical training only takes you so far.

(For R&J, anyway, Mr. Weinstein really needs to be more realistic about
who can plausibly play those roles in today's movies or most stage
productions.  (The 1996 Romeo + Juliet, if filmed the previous year, had
Claire Danes, 16, and Leonardo di Caprio, 23.)

In his distaste for "Al [Pacino], Claire, Leo and others" in filmed
Shakespeare, I think Mr. Weinstein is really reacting against movies
and, probably, television of the last three decades, and maybe he is
shooting in the direction of the right target but not hitting it.  The
market does cater to the demands of youth, and they want youth,
attractiveness, and sizzle in their actors.  Standard TV shows are, I
find, unwatchable because of all the interchangeably handsome young men
and conventional blondes with small noses.  And brilliant teeth.  Acting
is uniform, bland.

The NYTimes has not been alone in observing that there are unfortunate
consequences when visual media like movies and TV are driven by such
limited aesthetics.  What has happened, the Times asked a few months
ago, to mature-looking actors?  Most of the leading men, like Tom Cruise
and other $20-million kings of the box office, look young all the time,
whereas the great actors of the past were always mature adults--e.g.,
E.G. Robinson and Bogart.  Some stars like Harrison Ford and Russell
Crowe can defy the need to look 19 or 25.  Where today's producers do
want an aging star like Clint Eastwood, he is often cast opposite an
actress 30 years younger.  As for actresses, they sometimes work
steadily until about 35, then have to leave until they look old enough
to be in character parts.  (Tom or even Clint would never have to play a
dad, but playing a mom or waitress or broken-down alcoholic or hag in a
horror movie seems to be the fate of every actress.)

Today's audiences are, it seems, demanding less and less of film even as
filmmakers are, technically, more and more capable.  Actors can now
migrate among movies, theater, and TV, even commercials, without risking
their careers, but only sometimes do they take roles far from the safe
and expected (two cheers for Pacino).  And increasingly, the only movies
at the multiplexes are those that can be advertised in 15 action-packed
seconds in Thursday primetime.

These aspects of modern entertainment media are, I suggest, what Mr.
Weinstein, and the rest of us, should really develop some good rants
about.  Market aesthetics is what really makes for bad Shakespeare in
the moviehouse, not just the predictable lack of classical training of a
16-year-old Juliet.

Al Magary
Member of the audience

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Don Bloom <
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Date:           Wednesday, 1 May 2002 09:25:52 -0500
Subject: 13.1201 Apologia Pro Sententia Sua
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1201 Apologia Pro Sententia Sua

Charles Weinstein offers this explanation of the apparent decline in
acting:

> The cinema-driven erosion of these minimal standards of competence, a
> process celebrated and encouraged by Academia and exemplified by Al,
> Claire, Leo and others, may prove to be a momentary aberration in the
> history of the performing arts.  I hope it may.  But while the outcome
> is still in doubt, complacency is not in order, and the only watchword
> is <<Ecrasez l'Infame>>.

I don't think it is altogether fair to blame the movies for a decline in
acting (real or not). While the stage and movies are related they are in
many ways quite different, and while the goal (intense emotional
experience) is the same, the means are not. You can see why this would
be from simply looking at the way movies are made -- that is, piecemeal
in accordance with a complex set of parameters including locale,
lighting, costume, make-up, scheduling, and available funding. The
director and crew shoot this piece and that piece and then stitch it all
together in the editing booth. Stage plays run as one continuous unit --
no close-ups, no panoramas, and severe limitations as to lighting and
special effects. Movies have the advantage of the camera and the
wonderful things it can be made to do, but also the liability of it. The
image is flat, whether huge or tiny, and there is no living person there
-- just a bunch of moving dots of light.

A person in a position to know once told me that in stage acting you
project a character and in movie acting you project a personality. The
limitations of the screen severely restrict how much character can be
gotten across and that's why many (most? all?) of the greatest movie
actors generally do a version of the same personality from movie to
movie. This is true even of those film stars who came to the movies from
successful careers on the New York stage, and were able to cross back
and forth. But some movie actors never learned how to act on the stage,
or had no gift for it, while some successful stage actors never made it
in the movies (what they could do live in a theatre did not come across
the silver screen).

This does not argue against Mr. Weinstein's point, which, though I tend
to agree with it, is open to dispute as to its accuracy in depicting
both art training and acting. The problem, as I see it, does not lie
with the movies as such but rather with the vanity of film stars who
want enjoy the prestige of the stage without having the gift, or at
least the training, for it. This problem is compounded in doing
Shakespeare where the awe inspired by the Great Works (coupled with the
Elizabethan language) reduces any number of them to blithering idiots.

Cheers,
don

PS: For the benefit of CW's enemies, I am neither affirming or refuting
his judgment of "Al, Claire and Leo." I am not familiar with the
specific work(s) in question, and am speaking only generally about
acting for stage or film.

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