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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: May ::
Re: Movies and Luhrmann
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1265  Wednesday, 8 May 2002

[1]     From:   Evelyn Gajowski <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 7 May 2002 09:04:23 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann

[2]     From:   Martin Steward <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 7 May 2002 17:25:13 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann

[3]     From:   Annalisa Castaldo <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 7 May 2002 12:28:53 -0400
        Subj:   RE: SHK 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann

[4]     From:   Bruce Fenton <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 7 May 2002 14:22:20 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann

[5]     From:   David Wallace <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 07 May 2002 18:19:44 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann

[6]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 7 May 2002 18:43:21 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Evelyn Gajowski
 <
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Date:           Tuesday, 7 May 2002 09:04:23 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann

To Mari Bonomi:

Baz Luhrmann is not the first director of a cinematic text to draw
distinctions between the Capulets and the Montagues.  As Lou Giannetti
points out, Franco Zeffirelli does so, too (in a way, moreover, that
parallels Baz Luhrmann):

        Color symbolism is used by Zeffirelli in *R&J*.  J's family, the
        Capulets, are characterized as aggressive parvenues: their
colors
        are appropriately rich reds, yellows, and oranges.  R's family,
on
        the other hand, is older and perhaps more established, but in
        obvious decline.  They are costumed in blues, deep greens, and
        purples.  These two color schemes are echoed in the liveries of
        the servants of each house, which helps the audience identify
the
        combatants in the brawling scenes.  The color of the costumes
can
        also be used to suggest change and transition.  The first view
of
        J, e.g., shows her in a vibrant red dress.  After she marries R,
        however, she wears blues. . . .
                                (*Understanding Movies*, 2nd ed., 1976)

Evelyn Gajowski
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Martin Steward <
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Date:           Tuesday, 7 May 2002 17:25:13 +0100
Subject: 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann

Mari Bonomi writes, 'The Chorus tells us that the families are "alike in
dignity" but Luhrmann makes the Capulets crass and crude, while the
Montagues are icy-cold elitists'.

Surely "alike in dignity" simply means of the same rank?

As eager watchers of the Duke of Edinburgh can testify, elevated social
rank does not confer immunity from being "crass and crude".

m

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Annalisa Castaldo <
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Date:           Tuesday, 7 May 2002 12:28:53 -0400
Subject: 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann
Comment:        RE: SHK 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann

>the one glaring, wince-making, head-scratching moment was the final
>death scene where Juliet opens her eyes and smiles a loving goodbye to a
>tearful Leo.  This is not in the play.  This play is a tragedy.  Tragedy
>means that all ends ill.  Above all the lovers do not get a chance to
>say goodbye. Shakespeare's version is that the lovers do not say
>goodbye.  That is the whole point about the ending - it is tragic.

I agree that Romeo and Juliet saying goodbye isn't Shakespeare's
version, but I don't see how that makes it less tragic. Brooke's ending
(Shakespeare's most immediate source) has an hour long goodbye after
Romeo takes the obviously much more slow acting poison. It may even be
perceived as that much more tragic, because Romeo dies knowing his
decision was wrong and his heroic, loving act pointless. If tragedy
really is "all ends ill" I think this version fits the bill as well as
Shakespeare's.

I have very mixed feelings about this film, but I find the ending oddly
suspenseful. It was almost as if Lurhmann is toying publicly with the
idea of derailing the plot and allowing the lovers to escape their
fates.

Annalisa Castaldo

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Fenton <
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Date:           Tuesday, 7 May 2002 14:22:20 EDT
Subject: 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann

Mari Bonomi wrote:

>He titled his work "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet" but it is
>not. It is Baz Luhrmann's.

One thing we might keep in mind in our criticism of Lurhmann is that
film (and theater) is a truly *collaborative* effort.  The script is
only one piece of a film - often, even that piece is a collaborative
effort in itself.  Branagh's Hamlet has a "making of" feature that
includes an incredible volume of notes and direction that Branagh added
to the original Shakespeare script.  In fact (I am not sure on this), I
believe Branagh gets writing credit for the film right along side
Shakespeare - even though the spoken words are not his.

Once the script of a film is done, whether by one author or
collaborators, the next phase of collaboration begins-  the director's
vision is often very different from the author's but both parts are
necessary in bringing the vision to life on film (or on stage).  I agree
with Mari - the work is not Shakespeare's it is Luhrmann's - but I would
say the same for any work on stage or film.  Just look at how different
the Olivier and Branagh Hamlet are: each a unique interpretation of a
director's vision.  Anyone who tried to do a 100% Shakespeare driven
film or play based solely on the text without any of their own input or
creativity would be doomed to failure.

Contemporary screenwriters today have to contend with far more creative
license of their directors than we are dealing with in Luhrmann's R+J -
whole storylines and characters are changed or deleted on the whims of a
director.  For Shakespeare to be produced today in modern films such
interpretation and director input seems inevitable.  Luckily, the
respect for the language and its timeless beauty makes most film
directors fairly loyal to the text.

Luhrmann is a creative person who used the script as a partner, not a
dictator in his production.  I happen to think he was successful but
either way, we should embrace this process since it is so crucial to
creativity for film and stage productions.

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Wallace <
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Date:           Tuesday, 07 May 2002 18:19:44 -0700
Subject: 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann

  Sam Small writes:

> (Brian Willis) does, however, challenge us with "Can anyone criticise
> the film [R+J] and explain how it distorts the play or the text?"  Well,
> the one glaring, wince-making, head-scratching moment was the final
> death scene where Juliet opens her eyes and smiles a loving goodbye to a
> tearful Leo.  This is not in the play.  This play is a tragedy.  Tragedy
> means that all ends ill.  Above all the lovers do not get a chance to
> say goodbye. Shakespeare's version is that the lovers do not say
> goodbye.  That is the whole point about the ending - it is tragic.  Poor
> Luhrmann failed to understand this basic tenet of drama like the rest of
> his irritating film.

I must disagree with Sam Small's assessment. I have no recollection of
the scene he describes and I have seen the film at least a score of
times since I use it in the classroom with 13-year-olds. I do recall the
scene where Juliet wakes up in the tomb and smiles as she sees Romeo as
per the Friar's astonishing plan. (Why wouldn't she smile?) I would not
describe the subsequent moments as a "loving good-bye to a tearful
Leo".  The scene departs considerably from the text by omitting the
Friar, but the dramatic payoff is ample. Dramatically we are presented
with a Juliet who must endure witnessing her lover's anguished death and
a Romeo who must realize his fatal error. I thought it a bold choice in
tune with the themes of the play.

Many modern productions omit Paris' final appearance. Omitting the
Friar, as well, condenses the action and focuses it on the lovers. The
choice brilliantly illuminates Juliet's lines from 1.5: "My only love,
sprung from my only hate!/Too early seen unknown and known to late!" If
anything, the scene intensifies the tragedy by demonstrating how a mere
second would have averted the outcome. Romeo saw "too early" and
"understood too late". Luhrman handles the motif of "too early and too
late" very adroitly by providing another scene wherein Balthasar
witnesses Juliet's "funeral" (seeing too early; understanding too late)
and immediately communicates this news to Romeo. He provides a scene
wherein Romeo speeds out of Mantua just as a FedEx messenger arrives
with the letter that would avert the tragedy. (Romeo too early; FedEX
too late.) If anything, I'd say Luhrman did this dramatic motif justice
and then some.

During the scene that Sam Small disparages, my young students invariably
begin shouting at the TV monitor in a vain attempt to avert Romeo's
death. I've had kids throw things at me because they were so angry (as
if it were my fault). And they KNOW the ending. I've had kids weeping
and passing around my tissue box. Trust me, for the film's target
audience (kids) the scene is effective. I don't see that the tragedy is
intensified by NOT providing the characters a "chance to say good-bye".
When did such a notion become a criteria for tragedy? How is it an
improvement over witnessing a Romeo who must realize his error and a
Juliet who is helpless to prevent his death? I believe Luhrman's choice
intensifies the tragedy and I will not be surprised to see stage
productions incorporating the device (if they haven't already).

Regards. David Wallace

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Tuesday, 7 May 2002 18:43:21 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1252 Re: Movies and Luhrmann

Thanks to Mari for an intelligent post. I think that finally the larger
issue we are discussing here has been raised.

What is Shakespeare?

Filmed Shakespeare, and the study of it, has been ridiculed as a waste
of time. Mari has wisely questioned the value of categorizing Luhrmann's
film, and as a consequence, the performance of Shakespeare.

No one would object that a printed text of a play of Shakespeare - the
author's own words - is Shakespeare (despite the fragmentation of the
text in textual studies). Nevertheless, when performance or film takes
the same words written by our author/playwright, all of a sudden the
parameters of what is Shakespeare seems to change.

I doubt that most people would question that an RSC performance of one
of his plays, no matter what quality the auditor deems it to be, is
Shakespeare.  Again, ANY performance of the play, no matter what
company, whether it is professional or amateur, children or adults,
"good" or "bad", American or English or Chinese or Zulu, when it uses
the text of the play as written by Shakespeare, and even when it cuts
the text and no matter how severe the cuts, IS Shakespeare.

The same standard must be applied to Shakespearean plays on film. When
an artist, whether it is Olivier or Welles, Branagh or Taymor,
Zeffirelli or Luhrmann or Almereyda, use the text of the play, that is
Shakespeare. Whether you like the film or not or even if you find it
painfully wretched, IS STILL SHAKESPEARE'S WORDS and hence it is
Shakespeare. The difference is that people disagree about whether it is
good Shakespeare or very bad Shakespeare.

I both disagree and agree that the film is Baz Luhrmann's Shakespeare.
It is Luhrmann's VERSION of a Shakespeare play but nonetheless it is
still Shakespeare. Even when there are cuts in the text, or additions
(such as the awakening of Juliet as Romeo downs the poison, which by the
way is NOT an invention of Luhrmann's - he is aware of the theatrical
history of that scene and made a choice to present it in the way of some
of his predecessors), still the text is Shakespeare. Even in a different
world, Luhrmann has every right to call it W.S.'s R+J because he is
honoring the playwright as well as placing a "brand name" in the title
of his movie. Whether one likes it or not is actually irrelevant here,
because it is a performance of a play by a playwright.

I think that this issue becomes more clouded as we move away from
precise Shakespearean text. Kozintsev is clearly still Shakespeare
because he uses Russian translations of Shakespeare's words. But what
about Kurosawa or other works like opera that take a Shakespearean plot
and characters and transform it? As great as those films or operas can
be, it can be debated whether they are strictly Shakespeare. I would
tend to think they are, although I would not call the film William
Shakespeare's Ran or Throne of Blood.  Nonetheless, Shakespeare clearly
deserves reference and mentioning when discussing the work.

The quandary: personal tastes do not qualify whether a film or
performance is Shakespeare. It is, regardless of that taste. To say that
"only my Shakespeare is correct" creates an artificial and personally
oriented Shakespeare, one which destroys the very universality that we
like to celebrate about Will's work. I apply this standard to myself as
well.  There are certain things I do not like in my Shakespeare, but if
I tell others that it is not Shakespeare, I am wrong. Believe it or not,
Luhrmann taught me this lesson. I went into that film DEAD SET against
it, vowing that I would hate it. I have to admit, seeing the first
twenty minutes did not change my mind on first viewing. But when the
visual style began to settle down and the story really began to kick in,
despite my stubborn attitude, I was charmed and won over. My eyes were
opened to new ways of performing Shakespeare. For the first time, I saw
him as not merely a stage entity, but as a cultural force that can be
molded in so many different ways. I also had some gripes about the film,
some of which still exist. I am not attempting to deify Luhrmann (or
myself as some have suggested. I am not really trying to force anyone to
like him; I am actually still trying to defend Shakespeare on film from
the initial attack made in a post here. I just chose Luhrmann as the
battleground because it was the film that made me throw aside my own
prejudices. Rather than allowing faults or a disagreeable to style to
taint our subjective experience of these performances, I am trying to
call for a more open view of what these films are trying, and indeed DO,
accomplish.

As for "alike in dignity", the description is not just "alike". Their
dignities are alike, but I think that the first scene and many
subsequent scenes in the text prove that both families can act very
undignified. They talk of thrusting heads and maidenheads against walls,
the patriarchs reach for swords when their wives comically assert they
need canes (hardly dignified to reach for a sword). Part of the tragedy
is that only with the death of the lovers can the fathers reach the
dignity that is their potential. They do break forth to new mutinies
after all. Respectfully to Mari, I think that the film accurately
reflects our age, where too many people reach for a gun or a weapon to
solve their quarrels.  It is an ageless problem, one which Shakespeare
was aware of himself and one which he put into the play.

Brian Willis

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