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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: April ::
More Shakespop
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.0746  Tuesday, 22 April 2003

[1]     From:   John W. Kennedy <
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 >
        Date:   Friday, 18 Apr 2003 09:17:38 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0743 More Shakespop

[2]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Friday, 18 Apr 2003 09:40:26 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Pop culture references

[3]     From:   Richard Burt <
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 >
        Date:   Friday, 18 Apr 2003 10:02:27 -0400
        Subj:   Re: A Dream of Hanoi corrected


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John W. Kennedy <
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 >
Date:           Friday, 18 Apr 2003 09:17:38 -0400
Subject: 14.0743 More Shakespop
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0743 More Shakespop

Michael B. Luskin <
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 > Writes,

>There is an interesting Internet cartoon, Red Meat, which updated once a
>week.  One of its characters is PAPA MOAI, though there is nothing else
>that looks like Shakespeare or Twelfth Night.  Here is the URL, one can
>easily look at other strips from this site.
>
>http://www.redmeat.com/redmeat/2003-04-08/index.html

Alas, "Moai" appears to have no reference to Shakespeare at all.  It is
simply the Rapanui word for the colossal statues peculiar to Easter
Island, of which the character "Papa Moai" is one.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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 >
Date:           Friday, 18 Apr 2003 09:40:26 -0700 (PDT)
Subject:        Pop culture references

For the cyclical listing of Shakespeare references:

In the 1993 horror comedy Army of Darkness, directed by Sam Raimi and
co-written with his brother, as the army of skeletons advance, one of
them comically screams out "Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war".
What really grabbed my attention was seconds later when another one
quoted the Bastard from King John: "Blows, blood and death". Obviously,
the Raimis know their Shakespeare.

Brian Willis

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Richard Burt <
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 >
Date:           Friday, 18 Apr 2003 10:02:27 -0400
Subject:        Re: A Dream of Hanoi corrected

[Editor's Note: This is a corrected version of a post from Friday.]

A Dream of Hanoi (dir. Tom Weidlinger, 2002) documents a bi-national and
bi-lingual American and Vietnamese co-production of A Midsummer Night's
Dream in Hanoi, the idea for which came from a dramaturg, Lorelle
Browning who works at an Oregon college not named in the film. Focusing
less on the performance of the play than the efforts and tensions
arising behind-the-scenes in the three months before the production
premiered, this feel good film takes as its ostensible subject the kinds
of intercultural problems that arise from trying to integrate the two
theaters. Though the subtitles at the film's beginning announce that the
production "built a bridge" between the Americans and Vietnamese, and
sounds liberal minded and well-intentioned, the film is basically a
disturbing, sad, and unacknowledged exercise in latter day U.S.
(cultural) imperialism.  What makes this film particularly appalling is
the way it does not acknowledge a disparity between the production and
the film. Unlike the bi-national theater production, the film is
mononational. It has only one director, an American, and the film uses
utterly conventionally, a male voice-over narrative in English, supplied
by F. Murray Abraham. While Vietnamese used in the film is translated
into English via subtitles, the English is not translated into
Vietnamese via subtitles. The film is clearly directed, then, to an
American audience. And it quickly becomes clear that the production of A
Midsummer Night's Dream is tilted toward the American audience who will
watch the film. Using the evasive passive tense, we hear that "it is
agreed" that the American director, Allen Nause, who has a Vietnamese
woman translator present, will lay out the basic ideas, with the
Vietnamese director, Doan Hoang Giang, taking a secondary role as the
person who implements the American's views. Somehow, this division of
labor will produce a "uniquely Vietnamese interpretation."

In addition to the American and Vietnamese director having unequal
billing, Browning's presence is explained in bizarrely custodial terms.
She is there, the narrator says, "to defend Shakespeare's text against
misinterpretation and mistranslation." No criteria are supplied to tell
us how Browning or anyone else in the film is deciding on what is
interpretation and what is misinterpretation. Even more mystifying, the
Vietnamese parts of the play are translated into contemporary American
English subtitles, not back into Shakespeare's text. In stunningly
reactionary fashion, Shakespeare is held up as a magic wand which the
Americans can turn into a baton to brow beat the poor Vietnamese
director, staff, and actors into doing the play the American way. When
insisting on her view of the play, Browning tells the Vietnamese
director that Shakespeare is a better director than he is or than she is
or than the American director is. And Doug Miller, the actor who plays
Lysander and claims to bring a revolution to Vietnamese theater by
openly kissing a Vietnamese actress on stage, says "We're going from
zero to Shakespeare in three months." Destination Shakespeare is a
given, here, and one would never know from Miller's comment or from the
film that the Vietnamese director had already done King Lear or that
Shakespeare had been performed in Vietnam before Browning arrived.
Despite the pretence of a co-production, then, the traffic should move
in one direction, as far as the Americans are concerned. They are not
there to Vietnamese their American Shakespeare; they are there to
Americanize the Vietnamese.
And the performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream looks entirely
conventional. No cast member likes inexpensive and unimaginative
costumes because the costumes are "ugly" (the cast are right). In
contrast to many innovative Chinese, Indian, and Japanese productions of
Shakespeare, there is no use of electronic media. Except for indigenous
elements the Vietnamese director threw in, such as six servants for
Puck, this production A Midsummer Night's Dream is absurdly retro, as if
Max Reinhardt were directing it. When we see the ending of Act Four, the
narrator reassures us that "everything is forgiven. Everything is
settled." We are obviously supposed to read this comment on the play as
applicable to the cast and directors as well. While the filmmakers and
acting companies assume that the production was wonderful, we can tell
that it was well worth missing.

One of the many questions the documentary never asks is why American
actors, directors, and a dramaturg would want to reconcile with their
Vietnamese counterparts by using Shakespeare. Why not bring an American
playwright such as Tennesee Williams or Eugene O'Neill? To be sure,
Shakespeare is part of world literature and an international playwright
since the nineteenth century. But the film implies that Shakespeare is
American, or at least something that Americans possess and can bring to
Vietnam as if for the first time. Why no attention is paid to how the
Vietnamese have already produced Shakespeare, given that the director
and dramaturg are aware of this performance history, remains a mystery.
Along similar lines, one wonders why the Americans chose A Midsummer
Night's Dream to perform in Hanoi. Given Kurosawa Akira's use of
Macbeth, Hamlet, and Lear in his films, Ran, The Bad Sleep Well and
Throne of Blood, and given the performances of tragedies in Vietnam, it
seems quite amazing that no one in the film bothers to explain the
choice of the play.

A hint is supplied by a comment made by Doug Miller, who points out that
the dream of his experience in Vietnam is like that of the dreamers in
the play when they awake and can't be sure whether what they remember
actually happened or not, deciding that, in his view, it didn't. But the
full meaning of the film's title becomes clear only as one analyzes
various raging symptoms in the film and film website and learns, via
comments made by the film editor, of the filmmaker's prior visit to
Vietnam and relation to Browning. One of the more startling aspects of
the film, given the opening subtitles, is the way that the promotional
materials distance the film from the Vietnam war. The film, we read, is
"the first American documentary about American/Vietnamese relations that
does not focus on the Vietnam war or its legacy of human suffering." I
would argue that this statement is one of numerous pathological
blindness the filmmaker has toward his own project.
The film, to my mind, is in fact really about the Vietnam war, not about
Shakespeare. But even if the press material were correct, one would have
to wonder why it would be worth pointing out that the film is the first
documentary not to focus on the war and its legacy. Why should we assume
that shifting focus is automatically worthwhile? The filmmaker's dream
here is clear: Weidlinger (and the other Americans?) might awake from
the nightmare of Vietnam as if it never happened. The film is not
Hanoi's Vietnamese dream of Shakespeare; it is about Wiedlinger's
Shakespearean dream of Hanoi, a dream that it is no longer Communist but
instead subject to the liberating forces of Western market penetration.
This reading is only fully apparent when one learns that Weidlinger
actually saw combat in Vietnam and that he, not Browning, who is his
wife, came up with the idea to take Shakespeare to Vietnam. Since was a
dramaturg for Shakespeare at the time, he suggested to her that they
take Shakespeare to Vietnam. According to the film editor, Maureen
Gosling, who presented the film when I saw it, Weidlinger became a
"total peace activist" after his tour of duty in Nam. " Yet the absence
of this behind the scenes story only prompts one to ask, "What did you
do in the war, Daddy Wiedlinger?"

Disturbing consequences of Weidlinger's own repressions of his past
follow from his profound misrecognition his own motives. Far from
repairing damage or making restitution for what he / we did to the North
Vietnamese, Weidlinger is clearly there to fight the war all over again,
this time using Shakespeare and capitalism in an attempt to win. Worse
than the conservative and unimaginative interpretation of the play,
however, is the way Shakespeare is used as a stalking horse to promote
Western capitalist interests, including "training" the Vietnamese in
marketing techniques and disciplining their work schedules. Moreover, we
begin to grasp the importance of how the narrative is structured and
coded as American. The plot of the film is basically that of Busby
Berkeley's 42 Street-"hey kids, we're in a show--but wait, the show
might not go on---but don't worry, the show must go on, and the show
does go on!" Apart from being contrived and cliched, the problem with
this generic framing and coding is made clear early on as we move form
the rehearsals into a travelogue section of Hanoi and hear about various
Western "emissaries" who are bringing the market to Vietnam and training
the Vietnamese to work like Westerners. The project is tied into a
marketing operation designed to wean the Vietnamese from exclusive
dependence of state support for their theater. (Corporate support of
Browning's production is unmentioned and apparently an unquestioned
good, and politics do count after all. Later, the narrator and Americans
later gush when they think Bill and Hilary Clinton, who were visiting
Hanoi, might attend the opening night. They didn't.) In what seems
initially like an irrelevant section written by the Ford Foundation, we
hear all about the way the Vietnamese don't know how to sell (ticket
selling becomes a major issue) and how they need to be trained to work
longer hours. An American woman scoffs at the Vietnamese for working
only two hours and then taking a two and half hour break. A major crisis
occurs when the Vietnamese ministry cancels the planned performance
seven days before it is scheduled and moves the production to another
theater, "built by the Soviet Union," we hear "as a gift to the
Vietnamese people." (The Americans believe that no one will come because
they can't sell tickets. What they don't understand is that this is a
political function, and the elite send out their invitations. So the
theater is more than half full the night of the first performance.)

What seems external to theater, however, is soon carried into the
theater production itself, where the Vietnamese actors bodies are being
disciplined and subject to work speed up, as if hey were really
rehearsing for jobs and capitalist, Western friendly Vietnamese economy.
Thus, Browning insists that the Vietnamese director has to make his
actors move more quickly and pick up the pace (all this in the name of
Shakespeare), and, in one of the film's saddest moments, the woman in
charge of lighting lays down the law to her Vietnamese crew that they
most work according to her schedule. A Vietnamese man then translates
her orders to the crew, telling them they must do as their "American
friend" wishes. In a later interview, a Vietnamese actress says, with a
poignant mixture of resignation and quiet and calm defiance, "If you
Americans keep getting angry at us, we will be very sad." As may have
become clear in this account, the authorities using Shakespeare to do
the disciplining in this film are nearly all women. In addition to
Browning and the lighting director, another major player in the film, a
marketing director, is a French woman. By fronting his wife and not
acknowledging his relation to her (in the film or anywhere on the
website), Weidlinger not only has her do his dirty work but also
reproduces and even apes (slyly mimics?) strategies the British used in
colonial India. As Indira Ghosh has shown, Englishwomen who traveled in
India, apparently emancipated from Victorian patriarchy, were free only
insofar as they subjected (civilized and disciplined) the colonized
people. Unsurprisingly, the Americans think of themselves as liberated
when it comes to Vietnamese women. The actress playing Helena, Kristin
Martha Brown, castigates Vietnamese notions of what counts as feminine.

The worst offender of all is Browning. According to the film editor,
while the Vietnamese director wanted to do King Lear, which had already
been done in Vietnam, Browning insisted that they do a comedy instead,
because that had never been done before. The Vietnamese co-producer and
set designer, Do Doan Chau, finally has enough after Browning interrupts
him, and asks repeatedly why she does not respect him and why she does
not let him speak.  Ever the wronged party, we see her wipe away a tear
in response. (The Americans nevertheless also present themselves as the
victims here. The American director says he feels he is "being used" and
Browning says she "feels betrayed" when she learns of the last minute
cancellation) When they think they may not getting their way, Brown and
Browning insult the production. Brown says she feels embarrassed because
the Vietnamese performers "are so bad." About the dancers, Brown says
"they have no rhythm." And in some of the film's most tasteless moments,
we hear the American women use militaristic metaphors as they stake out
their positions.  Browning says, for example, says when refusing to cut
more than the 400 lines she has already cut she is "sticking to [her]
guns." Similarly, the woman in charge of lighting says of the light
board she has to learn that she felt like Captain Kirk taking over a
Klingon war ship.

The last disturbing consequence I will comment on is the way the film
pretends to be bi-lingual while actually promoting English. As the film
progresses, we see the Americans learning to pronounce Vietnamese lines
and the Vietnamese actors learning how to perform their English lines.
But the film clearly sees English as the dominant language and shifts
from doing interviews with Vietnamese who don't speak English to focus
on a young Vietnamese man in charge of tickets sales, who speaks English
(quite well).  He is presented as closer to us precisely because he has
learned our language. The Frenchwoman in charge of marketing never
speaks a word of French, and when she goes shopping in Ho Chi Minh city
speaks to a Vietnamese hotel clerk in English (who has been Westernized
and can work the job precisely because he knows English). Among the
films least sensitive moments, the film closes at a cast party and we
hear Karoke sung to an American song "What's going on?" as the credits
for the Vietnamese music in the film go by with a Vietnamese actor
singing in English.

If the film so clearly lets us see ugly Americans doing Shakespeare to
the Vietnamese, one might ask whether the director intends to have us
see the theater production that way. I don't think so. The Vietnamese
are interviewed, to be sure, but only so that the film can appear not to
be imposing its values on them. The documentary camera is presented as
transparent throughout. Instead of a critical perspective that invites
us to analyze the co-production, we are presented with emotional
responses cast members and directors have: they laughed, they cried,
indeed. Actors respond to interview questions, but we never see the
interviewer nor do we hear him ask questions. A critique of the film
becomes available only because the film is a walking set of Browning's
and Weidlinger's unconscious symptoms. And the film's greatest humor
lies in the moments where we see the Vietnamese thwart Browning's
ambitions. The transfer of the performance scheduled for the main
theater in Hanoi to the Soviet theater in Ho Chi Minh city is
hysterical. Similarly, at the end of the film, when the cast member are
exchanging teary hugs and complimenting each other, it's clear that the
Vietnamese are largely just being polite, and some of them clearly
loathe the Americans, who mistake their courtesy for affection. In one
case, a Vietnamese actress repeatedly rehearses the line "don't
humiliate me," addressing it to Brown, just before the opening night
performance. The expressions on the faces of Browning and her fellow
Americans are priceless when a Vietnamese actor who has talked with the
Vietnamese Ministry of Culture & Information tells them that the
Vietnamese feel that the Americans "don't know who they are dealing with
or why they are there and that they don't belong there." Somehow
Browning and Weidlinger just can't hear what they're being told: "Yankee
go home."

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