The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 28.132  Thursday, 30 March 2017

 

From:        Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:        Thursday, March 30, 2017

Subject:    New SBReview: Shakespeare, Cinema, Counter-Culture: Appropriation and Inversion.

 

[Editor’s Note: I am delighted to announce the publication of a review by Kelly A. Rivers of Pellissippi State Community College of Alisa Grant Ferguson’s Shakespeare, Cinema, Counter-Culture: Appropriation and Inversion. All SBReviews are peer-reviewed and are archived at the SHAKSPER web site’s Scholarly Resources section: http://shaksper.net/scholarly-resources/book-reviews in book-quality PDF files.]

 

SBReview_28:

 

Ferguson, Alisa Grant. Shakespeare, Cinema, Counter-Culture: Appropriation and Inversion. New York: Routledge, 2016. Xi +178 pp. $140.00. (ISBN-978 0 415 82300 5). 

 

Reviewed by Kelly A. Rivers 

Pellissippi State Community College 

 

SBReview_28:

 

          Ferguson, Alisa Grant. Shakespeare, Cinema, Counter-Culture: Appropriation and Inversion. New York: Routledge, 2016. Xi +178 pp. $140.00. (ISBN-978 0 415 82300 5). 

 

Reviewed by Kelly A. Rivers

Pellissippi State Community College

 

At first glance, the title of this text calls to mind images of the mainstream understanding of “counter-culture”—hippies, radicals, and protestors. The subtitle’s use of inversion further strengthens a reader’s initial reaction by reiterating the idea of anti-mainstream culture. However, Alisa Grant Ferguson’s use of both counter-culture and inversion challenge any initial assumptions. In her text, Ferguson attempts to connect these terms to the idea of carnival—ala Bakhtin—so that the festival concept of social inversion (a topsy-turvy world where the elite are “dethroned” and replaced by the grotesque) influences the use and depiction of some of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.

 

Ferguson, a Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Literature at the University of Brighton, UK, focuses attention on films of the late post-modern, fin-de-siècle period. She positions her text as a response to the critical history of Shakespeare on film which overwhelmingly reflects “the romanticisation of the past” as well as the fervor for New Historicist and Cultural Materialist renderings of Shakespeare and his texts (xvi). Rather than standing with or against any particular theoretical approach, Ferguson attempts to “situate…[these] Shakespearean appropriations in a socio-cultural context” (xxiv). In particular, she draws attention to films that are, for the most part, outside of the conventional Shakespeare-on-film canon: The Filth and the Fury (2000, UK, dir. Julien Temple), My Own Private Idaho (1991, USA, dir. Gus Van Sant), Dogme#4: The King is Alive (2000, Sweden/Denmark, dir. Kristian Levring), Hamlet Liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) (1987, Finland, dir. Aki Kaurismaki), Festen (The Celebration) (1998, Denmark, dir. Thomas Vinterberg), and Hamlet (2000, USA, dir. Michael Almereyda). On the whole, Ferguson examines these films to reveal the ways in which the directors appropriate Shakespeare (both the author and the playtext) as a way of overturning conventional or traditional perspectives of Shakespeare as a cultural hegemonic figure; instead, she concludes that these counter-culture appropriations use Shakespeare as “a tool to uncrown dominant ideologies” and, therefore, use “the Shakespearean texts themselves as a means by which to destablise the norms and apparatus of hegemonic authority, be that socio-cultural, canonical, or cinematic” (xiv). In other words, Ferguson argues that these films “reclaim” Shakespeare for his fringe culture appeal; they use his texts to change or invert the way we conceptually understand Shakespeare by injecting a sense of “play and festivity” (xiv).

 

Ferguson presents her argument in a series of case studies. Chapter One explores the documentary about the Sex Pistols, The Filth and the Fury, for its connection to and use of Richard III. Sections of this chapter explore the use of Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film as a way of connecting Johnny Rotten to Richard himself, the band’s anti-monarchy stance to Richard’s attempt to thwart traditional succession, and the band’s position on the margins of musical culture to Richard’s own marginality (13). Chapter Two examines the structure of My Own Private Idaho, which employs fragments of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts I and II to predict Shakespeare’s future in the margins of cinema (he will not be the main figure; instead, pieces of his text will be used to evoke and provoke reactions from audiences). In particular, Ferguson observes that throughout My Own Private Idaho, the physical body is shown in fragments—disembodied parts—just as the texts of Henry IV, I and II are used in snatches rather than complete scenes or narration (55). The Dogme95 movement, which rejected mainstream (primarily Hollywood) methods of film design—especially special effects, props, and other artificially created elements, and the movement’s influence on The King is Alive serve as the basis for Chapter Three. This film (the fourth in the Dogme95 series) presents a vision of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Kristian Levring’s film, according to Ferguson, challenges the tenets of the Dogme95 Manifesto because Lear and Shakespeare “[appear] to emerge reborn but unscathed, … [but is] a somewhat conservative approach to appropriation and to Shakespeare’s enduring attraction” (58). 

 

The final chapter focuses on Hamlet and explores three films that “use [Hamlet] as a language of resistance and festive inversion” (87). Section one examines Hamlet Liikemaailmassa, or Hamlet Goes Business, as a parody film that mocks the film noir genre, the cultural capital of Shakespeare, and, most importantly, the authoritative structure of capitalism (95). Section two returns to the Dogme95 series and concentrates on the first film in the series, Festen, or The Celebration. This film, according to Ferguson, does not overtly use Shakespeare’s text but offers enough clues and references to the play that savvy viewers would see its connection to Hamlet (105). The final section covers the only “conventional” appropriation of Shakespeare, Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000, USA). Ferguson examines the significance of the omission of the gravedigger scene and the inclusion of Halloween (and its cultural significance) as a replacement motif for it (126).

 

Overall, Shakespeare, Cinema, Counter-Culture: Appropriation and Inversion offers readers an alternate way of approaching several intriguing films. The author displays thorough knowledge of existing critical conversations (about the films and the concepts of festivity and carnival) as she attempts to engage many of the critics who study these areas (especially in Chapter Four). The clearly defined and delineated chapters, as well as the expansive use of endnotes and outside sources, display careful consideration of both topic and audience. Any reader unfamiliar with the films can reasonably connect with the arguments. More than the others, chapters one and two call attention to aspects of the respective films that some viewers would not otherwise pause for and contemplate; these two chapters reveal avenues for discussion that could potentially generate fresh angles from which to view the films.

 

Unfortunately, these two chapters only suggest possible ways to see Shakespeare’s influence. In Chapter One, the description of Johnny Rotten as an appropriation of Richard III raises some eyebrows, but more than anything, it is to Olivier’s performance of Richard III rather than the Shakespeare’s character that this identity is linked. In addition, while the claims about Shakespeare’s disembodied presence in My Own Private Idaho appear as intriguing observations, the argument in this chapter is based upon extreme close-reading and theoretical application that, at times, seems unrealistic. On the whole, most of the observations made in Shakespeare, Cinema, Counter-Culture do nothing to connect the festival and carnival nature of Bahktin to the films. In fact, the major premise upon which the book’s argument is based—that these films speak to Shakespeare’s “fringe appeal”—fails to be proven. The identification of Shakespeare as a fringe figure is not discussed or explained; therefore, it cannot be proven conclusively. In fact, the existing tradition of Shakespeare scholarship—especially Shakespeare’s role in popular culture from the 1990s to the turn of the century—opposes Ferguson’s claim. If anything, the fringe aspect of her argument rests with the far-from-mainstream classification of most of the films she discusses. The films featured in the case studies fall outside the purview of casual scholars; the availability of foreign films (like the Dogme95 series) prove to be inaccessible to most students of Shakespeare. 

 

These issues are compounded by the lack of an overall conclusion; the book ends with the discussion of Hamlet (2000). While the introduction clearly states that the book is a series of case studies, the omission of a comprehensive conclusion results in a lack of closure or unity. As a result, Ferguson’s case study structure creates a fragmented argument—one without an established foundation or a discussion of the argument’s relevance. Due to the theoretical and critical nature of the book, a reader needs a well-developed final section that addresses how the ideas of playful inversion and festival appear in other films or how the study of Shakespeare-on-film benefits from this approach.

 

While not a text for the casual reader or for those unfamiliar with current Shakespearean criticism, foreign films, or critical theory, Shakespeare, Cinema, Counter-Culture: Appropriation and Inversion will appeal to scholars interested in case studies of these films and Shakespearean appropriation in late post-modern European cinema. For all others, this book requires a hefty dose of indulgence.

 

 

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