THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 03: ‘Despair and Die’; Richard III and Anarchy in the UK

Posted in criticism, literature, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2016 by drayfish

richard iii richard

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

I had no idea Shakespeare was a such a punk.

I mean, I’ve read Richard III before.  I remembered how unnervingly charming the central character was, even in spite of (or perhaps because of) his physical and psychological deformity.  I recalled how drenched in blood the narrative becomes, starting with the overthrowing of Henry VI (whose death occurs before the play even starts) and descending from there into a whirlpool of slaughter, with Richard happily carving up his family, colleagues, conspirators – and even country when it descends into a full blown civil war.  But reading it again, and then watching Ian McKellan’s feisty film production, Richard III (1995), it all became so obvious:

This is the ultimate punk rock story. 

Sure, Shakespeare missed the heyday of the punk period – his play was first performed four centuries before The Ramones were transformed into Hot Topic’s best selling t-shirt.*  And sure, the only time that ‘music’ is mentioned it’s when Richard is gloating about how sweet the sound of two young boys being murdered will be (although those could conceivably be Misfits lyrics).  But the whole play’s sensibility is so anarchic and anti-establishment that it’s hard not to picture Shakespeare in a Mohawk and sleeveless denim, shouting the plot in the face of the police officer he just tried to glass.

Shakespeare was young when he wrote Richard III.  The play is said to have been penned around 1592 when he was still in his late twenties, just starting to flex his muscles in the leap from an actor to writer.  And this youthful exuberance shows, in all the best ways.  This feels like the work of an audacious young writer, one willing to push boundaries, upend historical record, and risk offence.

The Richard Shakespeare presents  has become infamous for his delighted scheming.  He stands alongside Iago from Othello and Edmund from King Lear in pantheon of charismatic Shakespeare villains, but to me he outstrips them both because (at least for the first portion of the play) he’s so utterly, irredeemably badass.  Full of scene-chewing sarcasm and bile, he laughs at the snivelling halfwits that make up his family and colleagues, all of whom he knows he can dance like puppets.  He uses and discards people without compunction.  At the height of his power he is able to seduce the woman whose husband he killed, literally while his corpse lies beside them.

He’s a character so comfortable in his ruthlessness that he doesn’t even bother inventing a justification for his villainy.  The closest that we get comes in his opening soliloquy in which he says he is just bored:

Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,

Have no delight to pass away my time (1.1.24-5).

The war is over, and there’s nothing else to do, so why not burn everything down for the fun of it?  It’s no wonder that the play’s signature line, spouted by the ghosts of everyone Richard has murdered becomes ‘Despair, and die!’  ‘Trollin’ for the LOLS’ presumably read a little less poetic.

And Shakespeare clearly has a ball with Richard’s gleeful, unrepentant, pantomime evil.  Near every line the character speaks has a wicked double meaning that throbs with evil portent if you’re in on the gag.  ‘Well, your imprisonment shall not be long; / I will deliver you’ (1.1.114-5), he says to the brother whose murder he has already planned; ‘A greater gift than that I’ll give my cousin’ (3.1.115) he says to the boy he has already marked for death; ”Tis death to me to be at enmity; / I hate it, and desire all good men’s love’ (2.1.60-1), he says to a gathering of his royal family, almost the entirety of whom he is about to murder, frame, threaten or manipulate into ruin.

He blows up or hollows out every monarchic ceremony he confronts.  He fakes the call to rule – pretending to be unwilling to accept the crown that he has manipulated and schemed for until his fellow countrymen beg him for it.  He throws a conversational hand grenade into a scene of familial peacemaking – ‘Oh, are you guys all patching things up?  Cool, because I forgot to tell you that because of all of you our brother was killed, like, five minutes ago.  Nice job, bro.’  He perverts one scene of courtly romance by staging it over the corpse of his conquest’s dead ex-husband, and perverts the next trying to convince a mother to marry off her daughter to him, despite the fact that he happily killed most everyone else in their family.  He slaughters prisoners.  He snaps at and berates his military advisors.  And as he upends each of these sacred, kingly duties, you can almost hear the voice of Sid Vicious, shouting into a beer-soaked microphone:

Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive.**

The full scene of Richard’s seduction of Anne alone is a fantastic expression of this punk ethos.  Anne, furious, berates Richard with charges of murder, but he twists her rage into a perverse attraction, corrupting everything sacred by robbing it of meaning.  If her husband Henry was such a great guy, he says, then it’s probably better off that he’s dead, because we live in a world of sin.  And Richard himself, he claims, is less suited for hell, as she claims, than he is for her bed, because she’s so hot.  He even claims that his attraction for her is the reason he murdered her husband, and ultimately turns ‘love’ itself into an infection by remodelling her insult (‘thous dost infect my eyes’ (1.2.148) into a come-on (‘Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine’ (1.2.147-9)).  Their warped, psychosexual exchange culminates in an offering of murder as romance: when she says she wants him dead, he actually offers her a sword:

[he lays his breast open: she offers at it with the sword]

Nay, do not pause, for I did kill King Henry,

But ’twas thy beauty that provoked me.

Nay, now dispatch; ’twas I that stabbed young Edward,

But ’twas thy heavenly face that set me on.

[she falls the sword] (1.2.179-82)

And when she flinches, dropping it to the ground in horror, he hands her the weapon again, upping the ante: ‘Take up the sword again, or take up me.’ (1.2.183)

Ian McKellen’s Richard III (1995) (he not only stars as the title role, but co-wrote the screenplay with the film’s director Richard Loncraine) not only understands this punk sensibility, it doubles down on it.  From the opening titles – in which Richard guns a man down in cold blood, and the name of the movie is splashed in bold red across his face, one letter appearing with every blast – through to the film’s end, in which Richard, grinning, hurls himself backward off a building into a consuming ball of fire, the film continuously pushes its boundaries, testing offence.  In McKellen’s version Richard mocks the children that he’s about to murder.  Robert Downey Jr., while literally in the middle of having sex with a stewardess, gets (somehow) stabbed through the chest.  There are hangings.  People get their throats slashed in the bath.  Richard sits bopping along to a big band album while happily flicking through photos of the guy that he framed and had murdered.  In a fever dream, McKellen appears with his face twisted into a grotesque mutant boar.

And what else?  What else…?

Oh, yeah: Richard turns England into Nazi f**king Germany.

Which is pretty wild.

Richard III Nazi

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

Even as a way of showing how perverse Richard and his corrupted rule have become, even as a natural extension of the original play’s punk spirit, of the evoking Godwin’s rule is a bold move.  Not that it doesn’t have precedent.  For Shakespeare, the sitting Queen of the time, Elizabeth, was granddaughter of Henry Tudor (Richmond in the play), so there was no way he was going to make Richard, the guy who her grandfather defeated, sympathetic.  Charmingly maniacal was fine, but someone to empathise with?  Hell, no.  So Shakespeare’s Richard became a ghoulish creature: a nasty, withered hunchback, who spent two years in the womb, and arrived sneering and chewing at the world will full grown teeth.  McKellen and Loncraine can be seen to be simply continuing this demonization of Richard in their film by taking it to the next extreme: Nazis.  And so, with a few cosmetic tweaks (the swastikas are swapped for boars heads), suddenly England is being policed by jackbooted thugs, war is declared, and Richard is one hunt for a religious artefact away from being punched in the face by Indiana Jones.

The element McKellen and Loncraine perhaps best capture is the seduction of the viewer.  One of Shakespeare’s most ingenious moves in the crafting of his play was to make Richard alluring to his audience.  When he first begins his anarchic campaign of upending of the status quo, Richard playfully invites the audience along for the ride: Watch me screw around with these idiots, he says.  See me set up my dumb brother.  Watch as I get away with all this crazy crap and take the throne for myself.  And then, with glee, he goes ahead and does it.  All of it.  He weaves an elaborate web of lies that only we in the audience know is a complete load of bunk and smiles at us, sharing the joke.

‘Was ever a woman in this humour wooed? / Was ever a woman in this humour won?’ (1.2.227-8) he asks us after winning over Anne, then immediately adds that he’s going to kill her too eventually: ‘I have her; but I will not keep her long’ (1.2.229).  He makes us his confidant, tempting us into laughing along as the world burns.  We become, in effect, accomplices.  Tickled by this schadenfreudeian thrill, we share in his murderous glee, delighting as goes about thinning the herd of the fatuous, idle rich.

McKellen’s Richard is Effectively an Elizabethan Tyler Durden from Fight Club.  He peers out of the screen at us, breaking the fourth wall and scampering across every layer of text to drag us into his cynical amorality.  And the first (and most famous) speech of the play is a perfect enactment of this seduction.  Here, the opening portion of the soliloquy (‘Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious by this sun of York…’ (1.1.1-2)) is delivered into a microphone, turned from an expositional aside into a beguiling toast of false flattery to a room full of the people he despises.  But it is in the second portion of the speech that he gets metatextual.  At first growling to himself as he uses the urinal (‘But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks…’ (1.1.14)), he eventually transitions into a direct address to the audience once he catches sight of us in the bathroom mirror.  It’s a wonderfully jolting piece of staging, emblematic of his beguiling stretch beyond the boundaries of his fiction: he peers out at us through a reflection of himself, his delivery dripping with sarcastic malice.***

Richard III close up

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

And from that point on, Richard is all of our focus.  Indeed, if there is one criticism that could be levelled at this film it is the decision to cut almost everything from the script not featuring, nor directly about, Richard – but it is entirely the right impulse.  McKellen is captivating in this film.  He tears every scene up, right through until the film’s frenzied, reworked endpoint, with the country beset by civil strife of his making, the monarchy rocked with multiple murders that he arranged, and Richard plunging himself backward into a maelstrom of hellfire, chewing a delighted grin.  He repurposes a line that in the play is delivered to his army: ‘Let us do it pell-mell; / If not in heaven, then hand in hand to hell’ (5.3.310-11), offering  the ultimate anarchist, punk-rock end.  He may as well have shouted ‘YOLO’ and flicked everyone off, with the new king, McNulty from The Wire, left to wonder why he too ever bothered to give a f**k.

Richard III YOLO

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

Of course, by this point the viewer has long since become immune to Richard’s charms.  Like the punk movement itself, Richard’s  unchecked nihilism has played itself out and eventually the fun is over.  Richard becomes king – he win the day; getting it over on all his stupid relatives – but he doesn’t know when to stop, and inevitably pushes his twisted campaign too far.  As the play progresses he devolves from a charming schemer into a myopic, pathetic bully.  He starts lashing out at his underlings.  He turns on his loyal lackey Buckingham and has him killed.  He has his nephews murdered, even though they are already imprisoned at his mercy.  He’s not being witty or clever.  He’s no longer stinking it to the man.  He is the man.

McKellen’s version plays this tipping point beautifully, presenting it as the culmination of Richard’s blinding arrogance.  In this version he is shown sitting in state, watching his own coronation being played on a black and white film projector as the dispirited members of his court sit idle.  The camera circles him as he issues orders to Buckingham dismissively, barely turning his head, and smirking in cruel delight.  All the swagger that had so energised him earlier, the crafty, energetic conniving, is now slumped into facile complacency.  And it is in this moment of masturbatory self-reflection that he orders the royal heirs – his young nephews, who he has already imprisoned in the tower – dead.

Throughout the play Richard has brilliantly used his appearance to knock his accusers off guard, to make them underestimate him.  Oh, so you think I’m wicked just because I look freaky, and cannot flatter you? he asks his enemies, even as we are watching him perform a master-class of flattery and wickedness.  It makes people underestimate him.  And by this midpoint of the play we realise that he has done the same thing to us, the viewer.  We get charmed by Richard initially because he appears to be telling us the truth, taking us into his confidence in a way he seemingly never does anyone else in the play.  We are his co-conspirators, and the sensation is intoxicating.  But, of course, he’s not really treating us differently to anyone else.  We are just seduced like his followers were – just like Anne was – at the start of the play.  And we too will be ignored when we’re no longer of any use.

Richard is repeatedly shown invoking a telling imagery of horses.  He declares ‘I run before my horse to market’ (1.1.160) when he is getting ahead of himself in his scheming; calls himself a ‘pack-horse’ (1.3.122); and in the lead up to war seems particularly obsessive about horses, shouting for one when he wakes from his guilty nightmare (5.3.177), commanding his soldiers to ‘Spur your proud horses hard’ (5.3.340), and repeating the word four times in twelve lines of dialogue while issuing his battle plans (5.3.289-300).  And of course, after all of this, as he meets his end, abandoned on the battlefield, his famous final lines cry out to the universe for one thing:

‘A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!’ (5.4.13).

What we realise is that we were his horse for the play.  We held him aloft in our delight of his scheming.  But when that relationship turns sour – when we lose the sense that he is a whip-smart underdog punching upwards, and instead see him (as everyone else in the play has all along) as simply a petty, psychotic despot punching down, his charm is overthrown (to borrow a phrase) and we, his loyal horse, buck him, leaving him for dead.

And that’s where the film concludes: in Richard’s pseudo-suicide; with fire and death and fury.  But the most punk thing about the original play is that it doesn’t just end here.  It keeps going.  The genius of Shakespeare’s play is that it doesn’t sputter out on empty nihilism; or paper over it with a superficial happy resolve.  Having used Richard to denigrate the social order, belittling monarchy and embracing anarchy, Shakespeare flips the script and punks out on punk itself.  The play celebrates the restoration of the monarchy that Richard tore down, now with a renewed significance.

Indeed, despite having scoffed at the idea of kingship, Richard too, in the end, proves to be just as blinded by its charms.  Despite doing everything in his power to debase and undermine the position of king – himself having stripped that title of all meaning – on the day of battle he still believes that his name as England’s monarch will inspire his soldiers to fight for him.  Richard – rogue, anarchist, and sociopath – reveals that even he didn’t believe his own disaffected swagger.  But unsurprisingly, his men, disenchanted, fail him, despite being superior in numbers.  He becomes a victim of his own cynicism.

Just as punk music gave way to New Pop, just as postmodernism subsided to allow for post-ironic embrace of sincerity, Richard III reaffirms the monarchy by first blowing it up.  By undermining the whole position of king and kingship, Shakespeare fills the concept with meaning.  And so this, the final play in Shakespeare’s eight-play account of the War of the Roses* ultimately asserts that the people of this world need a king – their rightful king.  Shakespeare might have used the image of a ‘bottled spider’ and a ‘foul bunch-back’d toad’, McKellen might have used the Nazis and mutant boars, but both show the inherent danger of a nihilistic anarchic impulse that collapses in on itself when there is nothing else left to believe in.

*             *             *

AS AN ASIDE:

Briefly, I should mention that I also listened to the audio production of Richard III, directed by David Timson and starring Kenneth Branagh, but I found it a little difficult to embrace.  Amidst some strong performances there are also a few moments of woeful overacting – even after you make allowances for the non-visual medium.  Clarence’s performance, in particular, is so hysterical that I was a little glad when his untimely death arrived, and Branagh himself doesn’t seem to entirely have a handle on his character.  His Richard spends the first half of the play fluctuating between a squirmy obsequiousness and a hiccoughy, giddy glee at how wicked he thinks he is, constantly rolling his words around in his mouth like he’s the moustache twirling villain of a telenovella.  To be fair, he gets considerably better when he embraces the ugly, snarling side of Richard later in the play, berating his soldiers and snapping at underlings, but as it is the early scenes that show Richard’s blindsiding charisma, it feels like something of an opportunity missed.

*             *             *

* Punk was a movement in the mid seventies that rejected the excesses of mainstream rock.  It presented itself as anti-establishment and railed against the perceived evils of ‘selling out’.  It was about non-conformity and individual freedom of expression.

** This quote may have only been apocryphally attributed to Vicious.  But misapplying quotations without academic scrutiny?  That’s pretty punk.

*** The movie is also subversive in other, more subtle ways too.  This play is famous for its dialogue not simply by virtue of being a Shakespeare play, but because this text in particular has one of the most iconic opening lines in history: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’  Here, however, it is 10 full minutes before a single line of dialogue is spoken, as the stage setting is done in a lush, non-verbal montage.

**** In their order of historical chronology: Richard II, Henry IV pts 1 and 2 and Henry V, Henry VI pts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III.  However Richard III was written before the first four plays in this list.

richard-iii-(1995)-large-picture-still

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

Texts mentioned:

Richard III, screenplay by Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine, directed by Richard Loncraine, adapted from William Shakespeare.  (United Artists, 1995)

Richard III by William Shakespeare, ed by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson (Cambridge University Press, 1968)

Richard III by William Shakespeare (audiobook), directed by David Timson (Naxos, 2001)

Batman v Superman: Brawl of Jaundice: Some Thoughts

Posted in comics, criticism, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2016 by drayfish

batman-v-superman-trinity

[SPOILERS, obviously, for Batman V Superman…]

As is no doubt already evident, I was not a huge fan of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.*

Beyond that, there’s probably not much else that needs to be said.  It’s been a few weeks since its release.  The initial rush of the film’s critical panning, and the reactive rush of its defenders (usually accusing reviewers of being shameless Marvel fanboys involved in some grand conspiracy  concocted by Disney and funded by the illuminati), has, for the most part, subsided.  At this point the film can be judged on its merits…

And it’s a train wreck.  People can see well enough for themselves what a stain this film has been on the DC universe.  Admittedly there is fun to be had in this flop, but it requires work.  If you can somehow divorce yourself from what a sophomoric hit job it does on three of the most iconic characters in modern history (Wonder Woman escapes this dumpster fire with the most dignity by virtue of being largely disconnected from the plot), it is actually kind of hilarious.

Not intentionally, of course.

There’s not a single successful joke or moment of levity in this whole turgid squall of unconvincing CGI. But it does take one of the (literally) stupidest plots ever conceived and treats it with such unearned gravitas and self-seriousness that it is impossible not to be amused. It’s like watching a Dumb and Dumber sequel directed by Werner Herzog.

‘This is all super deep and heaps philosophical and stuff,’ it pouts, before Lex Luthor jitters his way into frame, starts spouting gibberish, and the whole thing reveals itself to be based on an unfinished Power Rangers script.

The film even, ironically, ends up offering a better description of itself than any of its enraged film reviewers managed:

It’s an exploding jar of human pee.

If it only weren’t so interminably boring that kind of self-destructive numb-nuttery could be respected.  But the film simply is what it is: exactly all that director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are capable of producing.  They threatened as much with their tone deaf, moronic Man of Steel, and they followed type here, leaning in to their own failure with an obstinate, unearned arrogance.

Countless articles have already agreed on the same handful of points.  Yes, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was a twitchy Max Landis/Mark Zuckerberg caricature, insufferable to watch and unfathomably ridiculous in his motivations.  No, none of the characters had any emotional or psychological coherency.  Of course the film doesn’t follow through on any of the trite, pseudo-philosophical concepts it name-checks in its opening half.  The fights were a grey mush with cartoon physics.  The editing was disjointed.  The dialogue stale.  The pacing baffling.  Zack Snyder’s juvenile fetishistic objectivism infected every frame of film.  And yes, its best attributes, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, were sidelined to make room for two-and-a-half interminable hours of watching a pair of narcististic, asshole psychopaths beating on everyone in sight because they are both too stupid to have a conversation that would literally clear up the entire plot in a sentence.

And if you make the mistake of trying to scratch the surface of the film’s meandering tangle of inane plot logic, you simply tumble down a well of idiocy from which there is no escape.  Why did Luthor try to get Superman all riled up about Batman if he was just going to kidnap his mother anyway?  Why did Luthor create an unstoppable killing machine?  Who did he think would be able to stop it once it killed Superman?  Why did Luthor …in fact, why did Luthor do literally anything he does in this film?  Literally.  Why did Wonder Woman think she could steal back a digital picture?  Does she not realise how computers work?  Why is phantom Pa Kent stacking rocks on a mountainside?  He can’t be a memory, because he tells Clark a story that he had never told him before, so either Clark is just hallucinating some meaningless nonsense, or he’s talking to a ghost.  Does this universe have ghosts now?  And ‘Save Martha’?!  On and on and on and on and on…  Down the rabbit hole of stupid lazy narrative contrivance.

Similarly, there is no point dipping into the slew of incredibly ill-conceived ‘think piece’ articles that arose in the wake of the film’s simultaneous bad critical reception and mammoth opening weekend.  Anyone trying to argue that the ‘age of the critic is dead’ or that ‘fans don’t care about quality’ is just wilfully peddling redundant clickbait.  The reason for that momentary disparity is – and was at the time – painfully clear.  Fans have been clamouring for a Batman and Superman film for generations – there is a reason why the World’s Finest comic crossovers have always sold out.  But that doesn’t invalidate the cinema score of B, and a second week record drop off in ticket sales of 69% when it was facing no competition.  The result is clear: the film’s initial monster box office prove that the idea of this film, not the film itself, drew people in.  Sight unseen it broke box office records; once the audience got a look they rejected this mess completely.

But despite all this, I did want to share some of the thought that occurred to me as I watched this thing unfold.  Not because I think they are particularly insightful or original, but because this film led me through a rollercoaster of realisations, some hopeful; at least one truly horrifying. So what follows is a kind of reverse director’s commentary (because it is the director I am frequently commenting upon)…

Batman-v-Superman-Superman-Flood-Scene
IMAGE: ‘Yeah, hi.  We get the messiah imagery, Mr Superman.  Thanks.  Can you please just save us from drowning now?’

About ten minutes in – once the flashback within the fantasy within the dream sequence had already strangled the script into incoherency – I became aware of something that actually helped me let go of a lot of my anxieties.  I realised, all at once, that neither Batman nor Superman actually appear in this movie.  And I mean that literally.  There are characters labelled ‘Superman’ and ‘The Bat’ that show up, characters that wear vaguely similar (if gothed-down) costumes, but even if there were a way to bring this up on a charge of copyright infringement, the case could ever be proved.  Because nothing else of the history of the Batman and Superman characters remain.  Every defining characteristic has been jettisoned so as to refashion them into the most derivative ultra-hardcore-awesome version of them possible.

Here, Superman mopes and abandons the world because he doesn’t like it when humanity asks him to please stop crushing them like bugs.  Here Batman kills and uses guns.  Here the death of his parents didn’t inspire him to try and prevent others from ever having to feel that same pain; it instead taught him to become a sociopath:

‘I bet your parents taught you that you mean something; that you’re here for a reason.  My parents taught me a different lesson.  Dying in the gutter for no reason at all.  They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.’

This narrative is, I realised, just an Elseworlds edition, written by an angsty eleven year old.  What, it asks, would it be like if Batman was a murderous, mutilating lunatic, hypocritically exploiting the death of his parents as an excuse to indulge his every urge for wanton mayhem because awesome?  What if Superman was an aloof ubermensch, bored with the world and training himself to ignore its pain, who just wanted everyone to leave him alone for like five minutes, dad?!  Geez!

In a move that serves as more of a commentary on his own psyche than anything that these icons have ever represented, Snyder – either profoundly misunderstanding the characters, or just not giving a damn because it looked superficially ‘cool’ – has hollowed out both figures into the narcissistic power fantasies of an entitled, self-righteous douchebag.  You can almost hear the echo of teenage Snyder’s inner monologue moaning about how hard it is to be rich and powerful when everyone expects you to succeed.

At this point, around a third of the way through the film, after Metropolis and Gotham had been geographically established to be one city, I was becoming more and more surprised at exactly how much latitude DC and Warner Bros. had given a hack storyteller like Zack Snyder to cripple the world-building of their cinematic franchise.

To use just a couple of the several examples that present themselves during the film: Snyder decided that it would be hilarious to take the character of Jimmy Olsen – in the history of the Superman story, traditionally Superman’s loyal ‘pal’; overeager, if accident prone cub photographer – and immediately put a bullet in his head:

“We just did it as this little aside because we had been tracking where we thought the movies were gonna go, and we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?”

He thought it would be fun.  You know – like a psychopath.

And it struck me how absurd, and obtuse this decision was.**  Because to non-fans watching the film Olsen appears as just some random CIA operative, killed as a display of hostility.  The only people for whom this ‘joke’ lands, therefore, are those who are fans of these characters and their histories.  To a fan – and only to a fan – the ‘joke’ is that a pivotal component of the mythos they love has been unceremoniously slaughtered for no reason.  His death is not shown to have any unique impact upon any of the characters in the movie.  It’s not done to make a point about sacrifice, or heroism.  He’s just killed because, ha ha, you liked him and probably expected more.  (Also, if you like Mercy Graves, Luthor’s assistant, don’t get too attached either.)

Snyder’s ‘gags’ consist of weaponising the history of Superman against the people who love it the most.  What the viewer loves and recognises is used to hurt them.  On a textual level it is analogous to the way Luther is later shown baiting Batman with the death of his parents, or ghoulishly blackmailing Superman by kidnapping his mother.  Snyder aspires, apparently, to be like the unhinged jag-off he places as the antagonist of his hysterically buffoonish plot.  And to his absolutely-no-credit, he succeeds.

His botched characterisation of Batman too shows a similar contempt for the future of the franchise.  Because although having Batman indiscriminately use guns and murder criminals might be cool in the short term (‘Wow, he set that guy on fire!’ ‘Whee, he crushed that guy’s face with his car!”), it immediately undermines any future appearance of the character.  Not only does it make him boring – any moron can grab a gun and run into the street to kill someone; what makes Batman extraordinary is that doesn’t resort to his enemy’s cowardice – it also means that in future there is no reason not to kill Joker or Two Face.  Given that he has now proved himself willing to kill innumerable common street thugs (and knowingly brand them so that they can be killed by other people later) he cannot suddenly become precious about murdering his rogues gallery.  The next time the Joker turns up in a film and Batman doesn’t immediately kill him, he will look like a hypocritical fool.  And I don’t say that happily – I never want Batman to be judge, jury and executioner – I am merely pointing out that by this idiotic film’s own logic, his character has tipped over into a realm of murderous vigilantism from which he cannot return.  They’ve either made him a boring killer, or a hypocrite.  Either way, he is to become the mass-murdering, gun-toting, fascist head of this universe’s now thoroughly compromised ‘Justice League’.  And that’s not the origin story of a team of ‘heroes’, it’s Dick Cheney’s dream journal.

Batman v superman MARTHA

IMAGE: ‘Well my dad’s name wasn’t Jonathan, SO YOU DIE NOW!’

Later, I would be even more shocked to recognise the wealth of source material that DC had allowed Snyder to burn off.  Not only does he waste The Dark Knight Rises’ battle between Superman and Batman, but the Death of Superman story also gets worked over in a ‘surprise’ third act ‘twist’ (honestly, calling this a ‘twist’ is such a ludicrous capitulation to this story’s gormlessness that it beggars belief, but whatever).  Rather than allowing Snyder to take a swing at one adaptation of an iconic story as he sought to set up their future franchises, for some reason they let him strangle two at once.

The Death of Superman, in particular, is a controversial storyline.  It’s not that beloved, but it is famous.  It’s iconic.  More importantly, it’s a storyline that could have been used to great effect in a larger arc of movies, something built to over multiple films that would have been enormously impactful and bold.  Instead, it was turned into a weird narrative Hail Mary at the end of an already overstuffed film, robbed of all of its gravitas.  It simultaneously removes all stakes from both Superman’s death (instead of the world losing a Superman that they admire, everyone is just freed the headache of having this super-powered alien stomping around their major cities) and his inevitable return (once it becomes clear that he can just die and come back from the dead arbitrarily, what future stories can threaten him?)

And it probably goes without saying that the clumsy setup for the larger DC universe was underwhelming.  Crammed into the lead up to the title fight by way of an unnecessary cameo by Wonder Woman (don’t get me wrong, I liked Gadot’s take on Diana Prince, but she had no reason to be in this plot), the best the film could concoct was a USB filled with trailers for Warner Bros.’ upcoming cinema releases?  Suddenly Lex Luthor, the inept bad guy whose greatest success was sneaking a jar of piss into a government building, has proved himself so bad at his job that he actually gathered together and named the members of the Justice League, just cause?  He even gives them logos!  Just like shoving Gotham and Metropolis across the bay from one another; just like making Batman a murderer because it’s cool; it’s narratively expedient (read: lazy), but shrinks this universe into a series of hackneyed conveniences.

Bafflingly, Warner Bros. and DC allowed a film to be made that leaves almost no wiggle room to build a future universe.   While Marvel’s long-term storytelling gradually thread individual stories into an expanding whole until The Avengers burst through the screen, Batman v Superman tries to immediately barf a universe into existence at once, and fumbles it on every level.  Narratively.  Thematically.  It paints future directors and artists into corners from which they cannot escape.  In their kneejerk response to the catch up to the Marvel franchise, DC seems to have allowed Snyder free reign to burn down their enterprise before it is even gets started.

By the time Superman helped armed terrorists get away by smashing up Batman’s car and the two ‘heroes’ were shoving each other through buildings, it became clear to me how utterly Snyder had even missed the point of each of the graphic novels he was ‘adapting’.  Snyder, in countless interviews, has bleated on and on about what a fan of comic books he is.  They are his source material, he claims.  His bible.  He has actors read them on set to help achieve the vision of the original work.  But it became clear that had he actually bothered to read any of the material from which he was stealing his aesthetics, he would have noticed the innumerable, direct contradictions in his plot points that bastardise the spirit of the original texts.

Snyder has repeatedly justified his presentation of the Batman character by citing Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a story he said shows Batman drinking and killing and using guns.  But even a cursory glance at the source material reveals every part of this statement to be factually wrong.  The retired Bruce Wayne stops drinking when he becomes Batman again.  His no killing rule doesn’t waver – he cannot even bring himself to kill the Joker.  That becomes the whole point of their final conflict, Joker kills himself just to ‘win’.  Batman uses rubber suppression bullets in is Batmobile (honest).  He even makes the opposite argument about using guns himself.  In a pivotal moment of the story Batman holds up a firearm and states unequivocally to his forces: This is the weapon of the enemy.  Of cowards.  We don’t use these.  That’s right: even the gristled old fascist, secessionist nutbag Batman of Frank Miller wont resort to the weapon that slaughtered his parents.

dark knight rises guns

IMAGE: The Dark Knight Rises by Frank Miller, which Zack Snyder totally read.

Similarly in the Death of Superman – a pretty dumb story, frankly, but one that is illustrative of what makes the character of Superman great – the point was not that Superman is so stupid he blindly runs in and gets himself killed by a storming rock monster.  It’s that he is willing to literally be the last one fighting.  The fact that in Snyder’s contrived ending Superman ignores Wonder Woman’s help – she who could have gone in and stabbed Doomsday with the kryptonite spear without dying immediately – is just another sign of how woefully myopic Clark is in this version.

It has always been obvious that Snyder is not the ‘visionary’ his advertising material declares him to be, but rather a mimic.  For years he has been humoured for taking comic book panels and slavishly recreating them on film.  His 300 and Watchmen films were in good part just live action restagings of the original books’ imagery (smothered with grain and sepia filters).  But that’s not adaptation.  At the very best it is translation.  In another context it would be plagiarism.  It’s certainly not evidence of someone with a vision, but rather a person who has to ape the work of others to make up for their own shortfall in creativity.  What is surprising, though, is that the decisions he makes in Batman v Superman show that despite his apparent adoration of all the pretty pictures, Snyder clearly never bothers to read the words coming out of the character’s mouths.  He takes a comic book medium too often unjustly accused of superficiality and, by transporting them to the screen actually does just turn them into empty pictures.

And all this made me realise, as I watched the myriad ways that the DC universe was collapsing in on itself, that Batman v Superman might very well be the most cynical, spiteful film ever made.  It hates its characters.  It hates its own world, and goes out of its way to undermine any subsequent worlds that might be built upon its ashes.

Most of all it hates you.  The audience.  The viewer.  Anyone foolish enough to want to go on its gaudy, wilfully asinine journey.  It clearly thinks that you – that I, that all of us – are stupid.  It does patronising things like telling us – multiple times – that there are no civilian casualties in the smouldering wreckages of Metropolis and Gotham, and it actually believes its audience is obtuse enough not to question that logic***.  It runs trailers for the perpetual forced franchise it wants you to invest in amidst a single film that has already descended into unintelligible drivel.  It alters the characterisations of its heroes to make them actively moronic and thuggish.  Thomas Wayne takes a swing at his mugger, endangering his wife and child with his pigheaded heroics.  Batman is tricked by Lex Luthor into behaving like a narrow-minded goon.  Superman is a self-loathing blank slate.  Mythic, complex characters are stripped of all their poetry and grace as Snyder’s inane, nihilistic, masturbatory slurry takes everything good, or original, or unique about these characters, and turns it into the same shallow, washed-out slow motion show reel he has been making for the past dozen years.

Batman-v-Superman-filming-Superman-rescues-Lois-Lane

IMAGE: Why does no one appreciate my super city-destroying powers?

And it was around here, in this cascade of bad will, that I had the darkest, most horrific realisation that has ever flittered through my mind.  Truly, I am about to utter words that have rocked me to my core.  Watching Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman, I thought to myself:

I wish this had been directed by Michael Bay.

That’s right.  Michael goddamn Bay.

You have no idea the amount of loathing I had for myself at that moment – but it was true.  Watching the man who had shown such contempt for Superman in Man of Steel get his hands on Batman too – seeing Snyder turn another character defined by their compassion and moral fortitude into facile grimdark slurry – it broke me.  As did knowing that he was about to get his fingerprints on Wonder Woman too.  Having the ‘motivational’ speech of the film, Pa Kent’s ghost/dream/whatever speech to Clark on the top of a mountain for no reason, be yet another reminder that trying to be good, and trying to help others only ever ends in disaster – I just snapped.

I thought to myself, has there ever been a more asinine and adolescent vision of heroism in the history of film?  In the history of narrative?  Why, I wondered, is Zack Snyder telling these stories if heroism for him is just a gigantic pain, where the hero hates himself, the people hate him, and nothing is motivational or aspirational; it’s all just a ridiculous power-fantasy where the guy in the cape just spends his time moping because everyone doesn’t love him unconditionally enough?  I was watching my favourite characters, and the whole DC universe around them, mutate before my eyes into a dreary, cynical mess in which heroism is not just actively discouraged, it must be constantly reiterated as futile; an enactment of Ayn Rand’s objectivism in colourful spandex, superficial and selfish and vile.

It was a bleak world view so puerile and oppressive that I started to realise: literally the only thing this film has going for it is spectacle.  I realised that Warner Bros. have allowed Snyder to sacrifice the heart of their franchise for empty pyrotechnics.  They wanted to do Transformers business: ragingly success films largely devoid of character and plot, that function purely to move from one expensive spectacle to the next.

And if that is what they want, I realised, they should just get Michael Bay.  I realised – feeling a swell of revulsion as I said it – that I would easily rather have Bay direct a Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman film than Zack Snyder.  I would actually prefer his signature cheesy, brutal, obtuse filmmaking style over all this unearned nihilistic posturing.

Because then, at least, you get your spectacle.  Whatever else you might think of Bay – and I don’t think much – the man can film explosions.  But more than that, his weird fetishism for Americana – his obsession with soldiers portrayed as gods on earth, with hot apple pies and American flags waving – would, albeit clumsily, actually speak to some of the themes of these characters.

Bay, in spite of himself perhaps, would present a Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman that were symbols of hope.  It might be a very childish vision of hope – and of truth and justice – but you would certainly get your ‘American way’.  It might look, in cinematic terms, like a child’s crayon drawing, but it would at least capture the thumbnail sketch of these heroes with some neat looking flames thrown in for good measure.  (On second thoughts, you might want to get someone other than Bay to direct Wonder Woman or things could get disturbingly pervy. )

Snyder, despite being equally juvenile in his output, is the complete opposite of Bay’s spirit.  In his efforts to set up a ‘cool’ alternate universe, in which truth and hope are ignored, while never actually deconstructing or examining those ideas, what he actually reveals is that he and his universe are devoid of vision.  You cannot even enjoy the pretty pictures then, because they become representative of nothing.

So thanks for that Warner Bros.  You made a film so bad that I would actually welcome Michael Bay getting his grubby, baby-oil slathered fingers on my favourite iconic characters.

I need a shower.

Wonder-Woman-1200x1149

IMAGE: The best thing in the movie; barely in the movie

But this brought me to my final realisation.  It’s now the end of the film; the characters have waved at a CGI monster on a green screen for twenty minutes, and I have watched Superman arbitrarily die  …and  felt nothing.  I, who at twelve years old fanatically bought every comic leading up to the death of Superman.  I, who stood in place (it only felt right to stand as I read that issue), stunned as I opened that final fold-out page and saw him slump back dead into the dirt.  I, who ridiculously bought into the hype that he really was gone, and felt genuinely haunted by what I had just read.  I watched that story enacted on the cinema screen, and felt nothing at all.

And if that moment had so little effect on me, I can only imagine how miniscule the impact must have been for average viewers who had no such adoration for the character.  It got me thinking.  About the second week skydive in ticket sales for this film (which puts it in the category of Green Lantern and Wolverine: Origins)****, about the critical backlash (it remains pinned at 28% on Rotten Tomatoes), about the horrid word of mouth.  I wondered if it was this emptiness of spirit, symbolised by this hollow ending, that audiences have been rejecting?  The lack of genuine ideological conflict in the clash between these two characters – so contrived that it can be resolved by a piece of comic book trivia?  Martha indeed.  Because once you’ve seen the only thing that Snyder can offer – the spectacle – there is nothing to return to.  No aspiration.  No joy.  No subtext.

Snyder has traded on eighty years of good will and audience investment in these characters.  He has taken figures that have built mythologies and made them unrecognisable, emptying their narratives of meaning.  And now that  Warner Bros. and DC have tried to build a world upon a foundation of nihilism and cynicism, without replacing the elements of  that universe that they let be desecrated, all that is left is a universe devoid of substance.  Nothing for an audience to return to, to mull over or take inspiration from.  And if heroes don’t have morals, or ideals, or identifiable struggles, if they are all just CGI splash and grating sonics, they fade instantly.  Their films die near immediately at the box office.  They themselves dissolve near immediately in the mind.  Once the spectacle is consumed, it instantaneously fades.

And that made me, amidst all of this despair and mess, cautiously hopeful.  Because this film’s relative failure – initially buoyed by the hopes of an audience that were dashed upon seeing the final product – is a harbinger of the failure that awaits the DC cinematic universe if they follow the patented Snyder brand of dreary, superficial mediocrity.  And since Warner Bros. cannot afford to risk a repeat of this scenario – audiences are less likely to fall for this trick again – that doesn’t look so likely as it had before.

To end on a happier note: it’s for this exact reason that so many viewers have become fixated on Gal Gadot’s smile.  Wonder Woman’s flash of excitement is the one thing that shines bright amidst this turgid, dreary mess of a film.  Because that smile implies joy.  It implies hope.  Amidst all this droning CGI carnage, that one movement the lips implies a depth of character – or at least just another layer to a character – that is lacking everywhere else on the screen.

And what that suggests to me is that Warner Bros., if they have the clarity to see the audience reaction for what it is – unbridled excitement for the film, and complete disinterest in what Snyder and Goyer presented – it could signal a fundamental redirection for this universe.

And the signals are there that this could already be happening.  The upcoming Suicide Squad has now gone back for reshoots to bump up its character interaction, something sorely missing from Snyder’s film in which Superman and Wonder Woman do not even speak; the director of Aquaman, James Wan, has already distanced himself from Snyder’s oppressive, joyless tone.

But as the film finally sputtered to an end after several tedious fake-outs, I realised that even if none of these dreams come to fruition, even if in two years Zack Snyder is still turning Justice League into a seven hour joyless, glowering dirge, at least I still have The Flash and Supergirl to watch – shows that aren’t embarrassed by joy and inspiration.  Shows that actually like their own characters, and respect their audience, and that are comfortable enough in their skin not to need to pose and posture and misquote philosophies they don’t understand just to sound cool.

And with that I fired up the Supergirl/Flash crossover episode again, and happily lost myself in a world where superheroes still have something worthwhile to say about life.

flash and supergirl

IMAGE:  So much better than anything in this film it’s embarrassing

* If you want to hear my opinion of the glowering, dour sociopath that was Snyder’s Man of Steel, read here.

** To be clear, it was only after reading the credits that I realised murdered photographer was Olsen, but the meaninglessness and callousness of that death, so early in the picture, had been weighing on me the whole time, proof that Snyder had happily refused to learn anything about the criticism Man of Steel had received for its cavalier brutality.

*** Presumably Snyder’s feelings were hurt when people criticised the gleeful collateral damage of Man of Steel, but he could only be bothered paying the most glib lip service to that complaint.

**** As I type this during its third weekend after release, the film was beaten outright by critically panned Melissa McCarthy comedy The Boss.

Commercial Break: Toys For The Kids

Posted in criticism, movies, stupidity with tags , , , , , on April 1, 2016 by drayfish

WARNING: SPOILERS for Batman v Superman: Damn of Justice  …also, a good deal of angry snark.

batman superman toys

HEY KIDS!

New from Warner Bros merchandise!  Re-molded from unsold Green Lantern stock – it’s the toy range to accompany the hot new film:

Gotham Gun Man V Inscrutable Alien Narcissist: Dawn of Jaundice

Relive all the Sturm und Drang fun of your favourite two asinine Jesus metaphors as they glare at each other and commit literally countless acts of murder!

CHOOSE YOUR MOPEY SOCIOPATH!

Play as your favourite dour, overpowered lunatic!  Massacre your enemies!  Savage bystanders!  Pretend that nightshift workers and late night traffic don’t exist as you embark upon a senseless, easily-avoided rampage of savagery!

batman maxresdefault

IMAGE: Gunman talking to himself, totally not embarrassed…

PLAY AS THE GOTHAM GUNMAN!

Become the thing you despise as you slip into hypocritical spiral of serial killing!  Commit countless gun-related homicides while playing as a man haunted by the death of his parents at the barrel of a gun!  Includes branding iron accessory!  Practice mutilating your cowering victims so that they can be murdered later in prison!

Play the world’s greatest detective as a thug dudebro too stupid to know that he is being played for a fool by everyone that he meets!

Gunman Mobile comes with machinegun attachment and spatters of brain-matter on the bumper!

superman

IMAGE: The ‘S’ stands for slaughter

OR PLAY AS INSCRUTIBLE ALIEN NARCISSIST!

Play the world’s most iconic inspirational hero recast as a petulant, omnipotent cry baby!

Get sidelined from your own sequel!  Be responsible for an event a thousand times worse than 9/11!  Turn a terrorist you could easily disarm into a wet paste!  Continue your creepy obsession with your girlfriend and your mother at the expense of every other living creature on Earth!  Stand idle with a constipated expression as an entire building filled with innocent people blows up around you!  Generally be a dick to everyone!  Die for arbitrary reasons!  Scowl disdainfully at humanity as you leer over them like a demigod!

Pretend that your director doesn’t actively despise everything you represent!

lois lane

IMAGE: Wasted in this film

PLAY AS LOIS LANE!

Be marginalised by a script that reduces you to a helpless damsel, a naked trophy in a bathtub, or an exposition dispenser!

…Actually kids, don’t do that.  Because we didn’t bother to make any Lois Lane dolls.  After all, we only made Wonder Woman a toy in a cross promotion with Barbie.

We don’t know what the hell we’re doing.

lex luthor toy

IMAGE: Remember this scene?  No?!

PLAY AS LEX LUTHOR!

Whip yourself into a jittery, scene-chewing frenzy as a  trust-fund, douche bag knock off of Heath Ledger’s Joker!  Misunderstand poorly-applied Wikipedia quotes!

Comes with accessory jar of human pee!

AND DON’T FORGET TO BUY BOTH ‘MARTHA’ DOLLS

Otherwise one of your heroes will brutally murder the other one!

…no, really.

Angry-Batman-vs-Angry-Superman

IMAGE: The faces of the ‘heroes’ that now haunt your nightmares

THESE TOYS ARE EDUCATIONAL!

Learn about Ayn Rand’s bogus philosophy of glorified narcissism!  Help director Zack Snyder live out his adolescent Atlas Shrugged power fantasies as you turn heroes that have always been defined by their compassion and devotion to humanity into brutal, nihilistic, myopic assholes, whining about how no one appreciates how exceptional they are.

Like a real hero!

batman-v-superman-image-gallery

IMAGE: Kiss!  Kiss!  Kiss!

YOU BE THE FILMMAKER!

Use flashbacks and flash forwards and visions!  Imbed a dream within a dream within a time travel  premonition because you saw Inception once!  Allow yourself to become a cynical shill  for your parent company as you lazily cram several film’s worth of foreshadowing, and a blatant trailer reel for your upcoming products, into an already farcically incoherent plot!

Smash your toys together for an interminable hour, letting the migraine inducing cacophony of grinding plastic distract you from the realisation that the entire narrative could literally be resolved with a simple conversation!

Shoot Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen in the f**king head!  While you are feeling nauseous, be comforted by the thought that Zack Snyder thinks this is funny!

Try to convince yourself that Zack Snyder is not a joyless psychopath!

wonder woman barbie main

AND HEY, REMEMBER WONDER WOMAN?

Relive the only moment of light in this oppressive nightmare!  You know, that moment where Wonder Woman kind of half-smiles?  Try to hold on to that fleeting sensation of joy as this vapid nihilistic hate screed of a film turns everything you adore about these characters and the DC universe into a turgid, spiteful, wilfully stupid brown muck!

On sale wherever dreams go to die.

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Snark

Posted in criticism, movies, stupidity with tags , , , , , on March 27, 2016 by drayfish

batman-v-superman-reviews

IMAGE: Batman V Superman: The Plaintiff, Defendant, and Lady with Sword

I just wish there was somewhere I could watch a film where Superman was a depressed, psychotic narcissist with a messiah complex, Batman was a stupid, easily duped, gun-totting murderer, and Wonder Woman (arguably the best character in comic book history) was sidelined into a bit-part by all the asinine adolescent male angst in the plot.

Also, if there was a giant CGI turd monster that everyone could punch for an hour, that would be great.

But Hollywood never listens to fans like me.

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 02: Fair is foul, and foul is fair… unless it’s Macbeth (2006)

Posted in criticism, literature, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2016 by drayfish

macbeth-2006

IMAGE: Macbeth (2006)

I won’t bother trying to build suspense (the film itself certainly doesn’t): Macbeth (2006) is not good.

Almost everything that I was surprised to find myself praising about Romeo + Juliet (1996) is on display here again – the affected filmmaking techniques; the gutting of the original script; the breaking of mimetic reality – but unlike in Luhrmann’s inventive reappropriation, here it is done with such cynicism and laziness that the film tips over into derivative slop, unable to even invest in its own wrongheadedness and become a so-bad-it’s-good hate watch.

It’s just bad. It’s not good Shakespeare – besides spitting out a Cliff Notes version of his dialogue, it bears little thematic connection to the original play. It wastes good actors – well, most of them. And it misses the point of its own narrative utterly.

The list of own-goal blunders in this adaptation are almost too numerous to list, but before I take a stab at it (sorry), let me get the most obvious one off my chest:

Macbeth is meant to fall.

It’s at the heart of the tragedy. It’s the whole point of the tragedy. It’s arguably what tragedy means. A character starts in one place, and ends in another. Broken. Defeated. Corrupted. He falls.

Even if we don’t admire Macbeth in the beginning of Shakespeare’s play – he certainly has enough flaws straight out of the gates that reveal he’s not the most immediately lovable guy – we are still compelled to see that he is a highly regarded man. He is a proud and loyal soldier, respected by his fellow military and trusted absolutely by his king – a monarch, ‘Gracious’ Duncan, that we are told is not only adored by his people, but blessed by nature itself.

Shakespeare shows us all this so that we can feel acutely how far he has been reduced when we later see him splashed in his king’s blood, scheming his best friend’s murder, lying to the court, barking at ghosts, beating up his servants, patronising his unhinged wife, and screaming mad prophesies into the air as he slaughters his brothers in arms. We see how good he was so we can measure it against how bad he has willingly become. It’s not a difficult premise. Again, it’s basically screenwriting 101.

And yet…

In this version of Macbeth, the man we meet in the first minute of the movie is a drug-dealing, psychotic thug working for a murderous crime lord.

That’s where he starts.

So that ‘fall’ is going to be negotiable at best. Indeed, the narrative’s whole moral baseline is so completely out of skew that it undermines the remainder of the film.

You are meant to feel the horror of Macbeth killing his king: a righteous, generous, trusting father figure is slaughtered in his bed by a man he considered his host and his friend. But here it’s just one psycho killing another. ‘Dear me!’ we are meant to gasp. ‘That shady drug dealer who has already slaughtered multiple people and laughed beside their corpses is thinking of killing the degenerate mob boss who’s been groping his wife all night? How frightfully upsetting.’

So when he stumbles off to murder Duncan, you almost wonder whether it’s not meant to be a good thing. I mean, if Macbeth is still ‘good’ (by the presumed not exhibited logic of the film) then wouldn’t him getting rid of a bad guy potentially be a tick in the plus column? Why, he might really turn this organisation around! Maybe build a community outreach program or something.

Except no. He remains a baseline bloodthirsty maniac and the film’s moral compass barely twitches. Macbeth will still claim to have ‘murdered sleep’ in this version, but it becomes almost comical; it seems more like he was planning on using those bed sheets later and knows nothing is going to get those stains out.

Macbeth2006poster

IMAGE: Underworld 4: Rise of the Copyright Litigation

It’s clear from the beginning what the film is trying to do. This is an Australian film, and if you believe that funding bodies of Australian films, what audiences wanted at the time was gangland crime stories. And lots of them. There seemed to be a slew of films produced that were either concerned with, or set on the periphery of the seedy, criminal underworld of metropolitan Australia.

Macbeth director Geoffrey Wright had made his name on a film called Romper Stomper (1992), the story of a gang of white supremacists. Eric Bana’s Chopper (2000) was a semi-biographical film about a gangland killer. Heath Ledger’s Two Hands (1999) was a comedy thriller about a kid in debt to a mob boss. And that’s before you even get to movies about all the impossibly beautiful heroin addicts apparently littering the country, like Candy (2006) and Little Fish (2005). Only two years after Macbeth’s release there would be a television series called Underbelly (2008-2013), an anthology miniseries that glamorised real-world Australian gangland crimes (think: a matey Sopranos with far clunkier writing and even more gratuitous nudity). ‘Inspired by real events’ and running for several years of diminishing returns it catalogued the murky dealings of drug dealers, killers, and the special police forces tasked with investigating them.

So you can understand the impulse of the filmmakers. You can almost feel hear the first production meeting:

‘Let’s make Macbeth feel contemporary and fresh. Let’s not just do another am-dram Reservoir Dogs version, or a cops in 1920s Chicago – let’s go to today’s headlines. What’s in the news?’

‘Well, there’s still plenty of talk about how the Victorian police force is corrupt…’

‘Police, eh? I like it. Gangland murders.’

‘That’s not what I –’

‘Yeah yeah yeah. Macbeth as a drug dealer. A Tony Soprano type. Clipping guys in the head. Going all Scarface on everyone’s ass. Prostitutes and guns and motorbikes and a dude having an orgy with three girls in Catholic school outfits.’

‘Wait. What?! What was that last one?’

‘I love it. Write it up. Get me the least expressive human in this country – he can be our lead – and populate the rest of the cast with great talent that get nothing to do but glower and have their dialogue drowned out with rock music. Orgies! I love it.’

‘But there are no girls in Catholic school outfits in Shakespeare’s –’

‘Didn’t you say there were bitches?’

‘I said witches.’

‘Witches. Bitches. Whatever. Just get it done. I want Goodfellas in singlets. Oh, and that Lady Macbeth washing her hands speech is a bit dull. See if you can get her to do it in the nude.’

And so we get this. Lots of shaky-cam and slow motion. Head-shot executions and machine guns and squibs. Long brooding pans of corpses littering the streets and tables spilling over with Jack Daniels bottles and lines of cocaine. An equally pretentious and predictable tonal misfire that wastes great actors (all except Avatar’s least three dimensional performer, Sam Worthington) and a promising premise for an antiheroic action film, resulting in an exploitative, self-satisfied snore.

And yet it could have all been so easy to fix. Had the filmmakers looked to the front page of any metropolitan newspaper in the country in the past few decades they could have seen a better set up for this premise staring them in the face. The Victorian police force (the very state in which this version of the film is set) have, in the past, become infamous for some major corruption scandals. Had they just run with this conceit – had Macbeth been a cop, an upstanding, celebrated member of the police force who becomes tempted by the power and prestige of becoming the commissioner, say – the story could have kept its seedy gangland vibe, and yet legitimately shown his descent from heroism to morally bankrupt carnage.

Even if they were married to the whole criminal in a criminal enterprise thing, there are ways to play that too. We could have watched an ethical man become incrementally compromised, like Walter White in Breaking Bad. We could be charmed by a morally repellent man, like Kevin Spacey and his inscrutable accent in House of Cards. Instead we get Sam Worthington (who, despite being terrible in this performance, to be fair, isn’t offered anything to work with), in a film that seems designed to hollow all the complexity and depth of the original text into hackneyed spectacle.

Macbeth 2006 witches

IMAGE: Totes Witches

Because I wasn’t kidding before about those witches. For no reason I can fathom , aside from the obvious cheap titillation, the three witches (who in some productions are played as being disinterested in Macbeth’s plight, such as in Roman Polanski’s film, or in others actively intent on destroying him, like in Orson Welles’ version) here are presented as three hot extras from The Craft who decide that what they really want from Macbeth is a laughably gratuitous orgy scene in a cheap knock-off of the Playboy mansion. Lost in a swirl of candles and veils and theatrical O-faces the second prophesy scene unravels like it was directed by a pubescent boy with two handfuls of undressed Barbie dolls.

It doesn’t even work as symbolic of his corruption; again, he’s already a murderous, drug-dealing senior player in a metropolitan criminal enterprise. He was already grinding on them during the scene where they imparted their first prophesy. By the time this orgy lazily meanders onto the screen, the idea that he might sleep around – let alone cheat on the wife that was calling him a dickless coward (‘screw your courage to the sticking place’, I.7.60), and encouraging him to massacre his boss – is not exactly a shocker.

And this complete lack of character psychology is true across the board, which, considering Macbeth is deservedly labelled Shakespeare’s most psychological play (an argument could be made for Hamlet, but I think Macbeth’s anti-heroic self-immolation clinches it) is a catastrophic misstep.

Macbeth is a play all about the unknown motivations that lie beneath the superficial masks its characters present to the world around them.* It’s why Lady Macbeth has to keep schooling her husband on how to play-act innocence (‘Your face, my thane, is as a book where men / May read strange matters’ (I.5.60-1); ‘look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t’ (I.5.63-4)). It’s why, beneath his hypocritical mask of grace and cordiality, Macbeth’s image of himself is finally eaten away, until all that is left is the performance, emptied of all meaning:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. (V.5.17-23)

But in this adaptation, just as there is no height from which these characters can fall, there likewise appears to be no subconscious from which they can be tormented.

And this superficiality is most detrimental in the depiction of the film’s two leads, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

To dig into my first example of this, you have to know that there has been a long academic squabble about whether or not Lady Macbeth had a child.  The dispute stems primarily from a moment in the play in which she is attempting to goad Macbeth into following through on the murder of Duncan:

                         I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would while it was smiling in my face
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (I.7.54-9)

It is a powerful, horrifying image, one used to jolt both husband and audience to attention. You made me a promise, she says. I would never break a promise to you, no matter how vile the act – even if it was to kill my own child – a child she implies did actually exist (‘I have given suck’). It is a collision of absolute dependence and complete betrayal, rhetorically realigning their morality to a personal bond, to which all else is sacrificed; Macbeth’s breaking of his word to her is more egregious a betrayal than infanticide.

It works. Macbeth goes off and does the deed, grumbling that she should only ever produce male children because all her femininity has clearly dried up. And since he spends the rest of play fretting that he has no heirs to inherit his throne, a whole history of critics have inferred that this means Lady Macbeth must actually have once had a child, who is now dead.** The speculation therefore runs that the couple is perhaps displacing their grief at losing a child into building a new future through murderous insurrection. A lost life gives birth to a new kingdom of death.

What some of these literal readings of Lady Macbeth’s words often do not address is that the whole speech is a performance. She has been hyperbolically perverting Macbeth’s image of himself as a man to make her point (‘Be so much more the man’ / ‘Then you were a man’), and when that doesn’t work, she likewise twists the image of herself as a woman to draw out the apparent disparity in their convictions. The ‘baby’ might well be metaphorical – a bit of knowing overstatement to make a point about their respective genders, and his relative weakness.

And indeed, Lady Macbeth’s word is later revealed to be suspect, the play going on to show that she is not the ghoulish immoral creature she declares herself to be. Despite inviting darkness into herself, claiming that she would willingly commit any villainous act, she chickens out of killing Duncan herself because he looks too much like her father; instantly begins to worry when it becomes clear her husband is off slaughtering people on his own; and is so horrified by her role in the murder that she becomes impossibly lost in a suicidal spiral of grief, nightly rising in her sleep to try and wash the blood from her hands. Just as Macbeth spends the play lying to himself about still being a good man, even after all his evil acts, she was lying to herself about being evil, while unable to entirely silence the remnants of her humanity.

And this baby marvellously exhibits the myriad ways in which her character can be played and interpreted: it may or may not be the reason she is so willing to embrace deceit and murder; it may or may not be at the heart of her motivations to spur he husband into action; it may or may not be entirely rhetorical. It’s a subtle piece of alluded back story, one that the performers and audience are free to engage with or ignore as they wish. It may be a clue to her behaviour, but it equally may be nothing.

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IMAGE: Lady Macbeth from Macbeth (2006)

In this production all that subtlety is gone. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are visiting their child’s grave in the first scene. His empty bedroom remains preserved in their home. And just in case you still didn’t get it, in the moment before Lady Macbeth prays to the dark forces of the world to ‘unsex’ her and fill her ‘from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty’ (I.5.40-1), she stares off at the theatrically foreboding silhouette of a child’s swing, empty and creaking in the night. Rather than deepening the inner life of this character and her husband, it plays more as cheap manipulation, a way to compel the audience to empathise with people the film has not bothered to give any other identifying features.

Another example of these characters’ superficiality is the way the film, distracted with its gangland theatrics, forgets to show its titular character’s mounting isolation.

One of the essential steps on Macbeth’s journey toward tyranny is the way in which he begins to distance himself from the people around him. As the story progresses, his support structure – the people through whom he used to see himself reflected – are slowly pushed away. At first, having heard the prophesy, he isolates himself from his King and fellow soldiers; then he distances himself from Banquo, who heard the very same prophesies he did; then his wife, with whom he planned and executed the murders; and finally even himself, as his entire sense of being deteriorates into an irresolvable, debased facsimile. By play’s end he is the hollow shell of what he once was – a lonely, self-loathing paranoiac, lashing out at everyone like a wounded animal.

But in the yet further mystifying choices this adaptation makes, Macbeth never sheds these support structures, because it’s not clear he ever had them to begin with. Banquo misses hearing the prophesy; when Macbeth is visited by the witches his friend is puking in the toilet (because rock and roll, man) and hears nothing, so the knowledge has no chance to tear their brotherhood apart. Macbeth’s relationship with Duncan never seems to rise beyond a grudging subservience, so his murder seems inconsequential. His fellow ‘soldiers’ are treacherous criminals, so not trusting them seems only natural. And most bafflingly, Macbeth and his wife are already irreparably estranged at the beginning of the film, leaving nowhere for that relationship to go.

By the time Macbeth is swaggering around dressed like Bono and wearing a kilt because is-that-meant-to-be-funny-who-gives-a-damn-anymore the film has so utterly lost any semblance of a point that the tedious, jerky slow motion shootout, silently set to orchestration, becomes its own cruelty, artificially prolonging a fall from grace story that was over literally before the opening credits rolled.

…Oh yeah. And Fleance comes back and kills the innocent nursemaid for no reason. Because ‘cycles of violence beget violence’, or some other equally asinine, thematically half-baked crap.

Shakespeare’s original play offers an almost unassailable treasure trove of gripping psychological drama. It’s what has made this one of his most enduring, captivating plays. Thrilling versions have been made over the years. Unique, inventive, wild, inspired versions. With samurais and stately kings and politicians and mud-spattered warriors. But rather than dig into Shakespeare’s original material, this version tries to get a buzz from his second-hand smoke, gutting the dialogue but not bothering to replace it with anything visually compelling or symbolically interesting.

Even now, only hours after seeing it again, the whole experience is already dissolving in my memory like smoke. Only two images remain: the first is when ‘Birnan Wood’ comes to Dunsinane. In this version it is a logging truck smashing through a barricade, sparking with gunfire – which proves to be the extent of the adaptation’s inventiveness. The second is the signature ‘dagger’ Macbeth sees, that leads him toward Duncan’s room to commit the murder. Here, the ‘dagger’ is the shadow of a garden pot plant (which I realise sounds a lot more interesting than it is). As presented, the moment is rather more bizarre than one suspects it was intended, with Worthington’s Macbeth lovingly stroking a play of light and shade on a wall, selling away his soul at the behest of a lawn decoration.

And that seems to be a fitting summation of the adaptation itself. It is a film that wants so bad to mean something, it just has no idea what exactly. It becomes a gesture toward a shadow, the substance of the thing it is evoking completely misunderstood in the misguided attempt to chase its simulacra. Both man and film chase after a meaningless image and each destroy themselves:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (V.5.24-8)

macbeth_004

IMAGE: Psst. You’re meant to be playing an emotionless Terminator in the other film

***

Texts mentioned:

Macbeth (2006), screenplay by Victoria Hill and Geoffrey Wright, directed by Geoffrey Wright, adapted from William Shakespeare. (Film Victoria, Mushroom Pictures, 2006)

Macbeth by William Shakespeare, ed by Stanley Wells and George Hunter (Penguin, 2005)

***

* As an aside, in a way it is even why the play’s ‘hero’, Macduff, is such a baffling guy. Despite knowing that Macbeth is evil, and almost certainly out to kill him, Macduff mystifyingly leaves his wife and child unguarded at home while he flees to England, only later, when he later hears the news of their predictable slaughtered, is surprised. He is so focussed on virtue and saving Scotland that he becomes personally inhuman – an accusation his own wife levels at him when she hears the insane news of his abandonment.

** There is also speculation that Lady Macbeth may have been married to someone before Macbeth, and that she gave birth to that man’s child – but again, this is all wild speculation unsupported by the play’s text, arguably best left only to function as subtext.

VALE GameTrailers: Goodnight and Good Game.

Posted in Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2016 by drayfish

GameTrailers logo

Last week the videogame media community was shocked by the surprise closure of GameTrailers.com.

And I do mean ‘surprise’.

Defy Media, owners of GameTrailers, ran the closure like an execution. The entire GameTrailers staff turned up to work, were unceremoniously told they were fired, and were to be out of the building all within the space of a handful of hours. There was no grace period, no warning. (One of their employees, Daniel Bloodworth, was on his honeymoon.) It was a shady, needlessly brutal final blow, seemingly the final ‘Screw You’ from Defy, who, having clearly never known what they wanted to do with the brand after purchasing it from Viacom two years previous, had systematically bled the site of funds, carved down their staff, and splintered their viewership.

For those who might be unaware, GameTrailers was a site that had been active for over thirteen years. It pioneered the early capture, discussion and critique of videogames on the web before sites like YouTube and Twitch oversaturated the market, and for over a decade it remained at the forefront of its medium. Its writers offered thorough and thoughtful (if, in the early days, a little overly-mechanical) reviews. It’s on-air talent, particularly in its last few years, consistently set an industry standard for their professionalism and content (a herculean achievement after numerous job losses had dwindled the staff to a small team of accomplished multitaskers), and it continually fostered new programming around the games medium.

In the early years it offered video podcasts that exhibited welcome variety, if not always high quality. This is just personal preferences, but for every Invisible Walls, hosted by Shane Satterfield but fleshed out with a charming, rotating guest panel from the staff, there was an inconsistent Annoyed Gamer helmed by Marcus Beer, or a redundant Pach Attach (why anyone would consider Michael Pachter’s opinion relevant to anything is mystifying).

But this willingness to give a platform to a diversity of voices payed dividends. Soon passionate, intelligent content creators were being invited to explore games from their unique perspectives. Michael Damiani was able to create programs like Pop Fiction that explored the quirks and myths in game design. Michael Huber’s unassailable enthusiasm for the medium radiated out from Huber Hype. Kyle Bosman, whose The Final Bosman was all wit and welcome, offered quirky commentary on games and the games media, revelling in absurdity and always defending the right to treasure games that no one else cares about. There was the lighthearted, thoughtful weekly podcast, GT Time, that dissected news of the day and topics of contention. There was the more surreal Mandatory Update (which started as an overt Weekend Update knockoff manned by Elyse Willems and Ian Hinck and morphed into a lovably shambolic chat show. There were retrospectives and countdowns and live streams, and always, throughout it all, a genuine sense of camaraderie and joy.

GameTrailers was a place in which games were not simply spruiked and slammed in an endless Sisyphean loop. Particularly the site of the past few years, under the guidance of editor-in-chief Brandon Jones and Daniel Bloodworth (although it is fair to also commend previous editors like Ryan Stevens* and Brad Winters for setting this course), never treated videogames as chum to stir a feeding frenzy of spoilers and snark.

Games were art objects worthy of discussion and debate – and not in a dry dialectic mode of pretentious waffle. Games were always something to be shared; to be experienced together or reminisced about after the fact. GameTrailers cultivated the welcoming, enthusiastic tenor of friends enjoying their play experiences together. That sense of community that countless bro-ho-hoing podcasts strive vainly to manufacture and that feeling of shared experience that has made a streamer like Pewdiepie a millionaire were baked organically into the site.

Seemingly without effort it evoked all those sensations that have become the sensory memory of gaming: those times as a kid when you would stay up all night with your siblings to beat M. Bison on Street Fighter II; when you poured over screenshots of upcoming titles in preview magazines, trying to riddle out their possibilities; when the Konami code was whispered like a sacred text; when you realised you could grieve for the loss of characters that were merely lines of computer code stirred to life with a controller input. GameTrailers knew, and celebrated the fact, that games were experimental, experiential spaces; singular and shared; ridiculous and marvellous at once.

GameTrailers farewell stream

IMAGE: The Farewell GameTrailers Live Stream

And so, on the day they ended, GameTrailers went out as they had lived, with one last impromptu Twitch live stream – a play through of Grand Theft Auto 3, the first game digitally captured by the site way back in 2002. And even here, with every reason to rage and moan, the combined staff showed their signature class and spent the hour laughing. They took comfort in each others’ company, nitpicked beloved films, remembered old friends, and thanked their audience, again and again, for the honour of sharing those years with them.

Rather than gnash their teeth, they reasserted the joy of community. They thanked everyone, from the bottoms of their hearts, for playing along.

In the past week many have waxed lyrical about the whys of GameTrailers‘ closing. Jim Sterling has called it the inevitable consequence of YouTube’s ubiquity and the inability of a corporate business model to adapt to a broadcasting service optimised for lone content producers. Those more predisposed to conspiracy theories have speculated that Defy wanted to funnel their viewership toward some of their other gaming venues like Smosh Games and The Escapist.

For my part, I just wanted to briefly pay respect to a community that right to the end was a source of heartening entertainment. I admired GameTrailers, and the philosophy it embraced. And given that the soul-deadening, hatemongering nightmare of ‘Gamergate’ seems to keep churning out its exclusionist, paranoid judgemental dictation of who is, and who is not allowed to be a ‘gamer’, it seems especially sad to farewell GameTrailers, a place in which everyone was welcome. Where games brought people together rather than splintered them apart. Where the questions of sexism in games, or the strip-mining of nostalgia, or the interplay of aesthetics and narrative and game play, could all be debated freely, amongst friend who respected one another’s opinions, without the whole thing descending into invective and name-calling. Where games were not solely product to be consumed, but could be appreciated as tests of skill and strategy, or journeys into narrative, or art objects and curios.

The closure of GameTrailers is worth lamenting not solely because a lot of good, talented people lost their jobs and were treated poorly in the process. It’s painful because of what the site represented, and what the videogame community can always use. A variety of unique opinions were valued at GameTrailers; individual voices were allowed to be heard. And in a games media being strangled between corporate interference and a desire to pander to consumers who merely want to hear their own opinions mirrored back at them, that was something spectacularly rare, and deserving of respect.

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IMAGE: The GameTrailers Crew

* Speaking of which, Ryan Stevens’ podcast Game is a Four Letter Word is a fantastic listen, and well worth seeking out.

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 01: Romeo Plus-Sign Juliet Plus-Sign Baz

Posted in literature, movies with tags , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2016 by drayfish

romeo-plus-juliet

IMAGE: Romeo + Juliet (1996), directed by Baz Luhrmann

On the front of my Penguin edition of Romeo and Juliet there’s a quote from Baz Luhrmann, taken from an interview with the director of Romeo + Juliet (1996) conducted in 1996, that reads:

‘Romeo was your first “rebel without a cause”.’

Which is true. You know, as long as you don’t count the fact that he rebels against his family’s entrenched blood feud. And the casual cynicism of a society that has stopped believing in romantic attachment. And his friend’s misogynistic peer pressure. And his parents. And his faith. And the Bro Code.

But aside from all of those things that he vehemently rebels against on deeply held ideological grounds – yeah, he doesn’t have a cause. Sure.

To be fair though, I sort of get what he’s going for. After all, Romeo is a bit of a loner. A free spirit. Following his own desires. Willing to defy his society. It seems to position him as the origin for a whole character archetype. He’s the ‘rebel‘. He’s James Dean. Han Solo. Fonzie. Maverick from Top Gun. He must have inspired all of them! His ego was writing cheques that his body couldn’t cash! In a way I even understand the impulse of the publishers to slap it on the cover:

‘Hey, that Romeo + Juliet film sure was popular. People love things that aren’t stuffy and old. And ‘rebellion’? Who doesn’t like that? Conformists? Who cares? They’ll buy whatever we tell them to.’

But to me, the play gives a distinctly different, and far more interesting spin on the character. Because contrary to this stereotype, Romeo has many causes. That’s precisely his problem.

Even before he meets Juliet – before he realises that all his hollow romantic simpering can have substance – he has a cause. He’s not just rebelling against ‘whatever you’ve got’ – he believes in stuff. Oftentimes his ideology is undercooked, but it’s real. He believes in capital ‘L’ Love – even if it is just a flimsy, cartoon version of it at first, symbolised by the unseen, swiftly-forgotten Rosaline.

He believes in peace – he sees the meaningless, entrenched blood feud of his friends and family (literally without meaning: no root cause for this conflict is ever revealed) and he rebels against that, later even willing to die in the cause of love when Tybalt threatens him. He sees a world that glorifies hollow displays of masculinity and would rather spend his time moping alone or unburdening himself to a friar (because yeah, the ‘rebel’ is best friends with a friar. Hardcore). For the entire play Romeo’s one defining trait is that despite being annoyingly emo about it, he believes, no matter how unpopular those causes might be.

Probably what Luhrmann meant was that like James Dean’s Jim, Romeo is a character that has rejected the bankrupt ideology of his facile parents. He is a character whose personal convictions allow him to see through the empty redundancy of the status quo, when a cycle of vengeance between two warring families has degenerated into a soul-numbing normality. But again: that’s a cause. Rebelling against a cycle of unceasing violence perpetuated by irrational hatred? That sounds pretty cause-y to me.

So when you unpack this quote, what you end up with is a superficially persuasive sentiment that is substantively all but nonsensical. …Which, now that I get to it, is pretty much my problem with all of Luhrmann’s work.

Because for me, Baz Luhrmann’s films (and this can serve as a pull quote review for every one of his movies) can be encapsulated in two words:

Not. Subtle.

His grand meditation on doomed love, Moulin Rouge, had all the gravitas of a drunken snog at an ill-lit karaoke night, including obnoxious strobe lights firing into your retinas. His Gatsby was gaudy pretention, mawkishly trying to stuff an unjustified tragic love story into what is supposed to be a tale of artifice and pretence. And Australia mimicked only the worst elements of the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood cinema, becoming a bloated, overwrought, and racially condescending grind. To me, every one of his films play as maudlin, schizophrenic pastiches, consistently trading coherency for operatic hysteria.

…So why do I like his Romeo + Juliet so much?

romeo-juliet-romeo-and-juliet-151733_460_326

IMAGE: Moulin Rouge – I mean, The Great Gatsby – I mean, Romeo + Juliet (2006)

Because all that stuff is on display here. All his hammy, melodramatic excesses make an appearance. The ‘comedic’ mugging for the camera (in the hyperkinetic introductory fight scene at the petrol station Jamie Kennedy seems to think he’s playing a cowardly basset hound in a Looney Tunes short). The frenetic smash cut edits. The overwrought, saccharine score. The fast motion. Crazy costuming. The signature Luhrmann set decoration of kitsch, neon-soaked bric-a-brac, like someone hosting a rave party in their grandmother’s attic. The irrational amounts of candles. And of course, it’s here that he discovered the tragic love story archetype he has been mining with diminishing returns in every film since.

But here it all works. Here Luhrmann’s signature style is married perfectly with his subject matter, the quirks and failings that mar his other films this time actually elevating the themes of the original text.

Now, one might be tempted to say that Shakespeare’s tight plotting and characterisation make it near impossible to screw up, but as anyone who has ever sat through a bad production of Shakespeare can attest, it can be done. And Luhrmann’s version certainly has its detractors. Luhrmann makes cuts – controversially drastic cuts, in fact – to the text. It’s estimated that only about forty perfect of the original text survives the adaptation. Arguably essential moments are expunged – such as Romeo’s fight with and murder of Paris, and the ambiguous ending of the parents ‘settling’ their feud. He rearranges scenes; he swaps out lines. He uses the bard’s text as a temp track that he can sample from and remix.* But personally, I think the spirit of the play survives, with much of the cut material resurfacing in the visual imagery.

Romeo and Juliet is, after all, a tale that is meant to be felt. It’s a play about the first burnings of lustful desire. Young love. Stupid, irrational adoration. When it feels like the whole world will burn up if you cannot be together. When it feels like time itself has carved out a little space for you to live inside. It’s about loss. Inconsolable, incomprehensible loss. When it feels like the weight of all human happiness rests on something as inconsequential as a delayed letter. For every teenager who has ever stared a hole in their phone waiting for a text reply from that someone they long for. For all the young lovers who have known the electricity of sneaking around behind their parents’ disapproving backs. For everyone who has been alone in their sorrow, feeling the universe cave into a tomb when their heart was broken. Shakespeare literalises all of it. He not only taps into these fears, he gives them substance and weight.

And for all of his other cinematic bellyflops, here Luhrmann’s operatic hysterics soar. We get locked in the perspective of these overheated teenagers. We feel all their giddy excess and thunderous disappointments as though – like them – feeling all these emotions for the first time.

Their parents become a blur of inconsequential nonsense in the background, blasting in and out of the young lovers’ lives in order to spout contradictory inanities and bark irrational orders. They are loud and hypocritical – just as they should be. The nurse is a loveable doof, all banalities and base cravings. The Montague and Capulet boys are braying thugs, and the friar, in yet another striking performance by Pete Postlethwaite, is all bluster and false hope, condemning Romeo as a horny teen one minute and agreeing to marry him off to a girl he barely knows the next.

Luhrmann’s aesthetics are equally on point. His sand-blasted, decayed urban sprawl nicely captures the stately desiccation of a city wracked by generations of gang violence. It becomes a space in which symbols of divine beauty and grace are emptied of meaning to become gauche decoration; where the image of the Mother Mary engraved on the handle of a gun perfectly encapsulates the play’s central theme of love and war: love perverted by war; war perpetuated by love. You feel the weariness that Shakespeare loaded into his narrative, that these families have been playing out this same tired grudge for so long that it no longer even functions as back story. It is no wonder Luhrmann makes one of the signature locations in the film – the place that Mercutio is killed; where the narrative tilts irreversibly from comedy to tragedy – the crumbling shell of a stage, rotting on the beach.

He likewise nicely captures Romeo’s early, insufferable pretentiousness. In the film, Romeo is introduced sitting alone on the beach, smoking, filling a journal with adolescent poetry. I’m not entirely convinced that Luhrmann realises that Romeo’s verses here are meant to be corny (much as Ewan McGreggor’s character in Moulin Rouge thinks that ‘love’ means spouting greeting card clichés to a tune, his Romeo emotes all of this drivel as though it is the pure mana of unfettered truth), but even this works perfectly with the themes of the play. Of course Romeo would pose himself on the beach on a crumbling arch, smoking artfully, watching the sun burn over the horizon, all affectation and theatricality. The guy who keeps yammering on about ‘love’s transgression’, and love as ‘a smoke made of the fume of sighs …. a sea nourished with lover’s tears’ would do exactly that. It’s intended to be pure drivel. Shakespeare is presenting the early, mooning Romeo as an angsty twit, spewing hollow Petrarchan verse. And just as Benvolio waves him away in the play, here in the film he it gets poured into a notebook thankfully no one will have to read.

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IMAGE: If you look close, you may see a subtle crucifix, Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Luhrmann actually manages to use clichés in order to upend their familiar banality. By placing Romeo and Juliet into costumes when they first meet – Romeo the knight in plastic armour; Juliet the pure white angel – we are primed to read them into roles that are almost immediately transcended. Romeo is hardly the chivalric warrior; and Juliet is a profoundly more complex, human rationality and desire than a pair of tiny strap-on wings would imply.

But most important of all, when he made Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann had not yet forgotten how to use stillness. He was willing to de-clutter the screen and allow for moments of meaningful quiet.

Indeed, stillness comes to be a recurring motif throughout the central romance. When we first see Juliet she is in the bath, plunged face first into the sensory tranquillity of an underwater shot. She is at peace in this isolation, the chaos of the family that longs to dress her up and parade her around momentarily reduced to a distant murmur. When she and Romeo first see each other it is a flirtatious stare through a glass fish tank, all darting eyes and teasing smiles, and played, blissfully, without chatter. They awake from their one night together as a wedded couple into one silence; and later, when they meet each other again in Juliet’s tomb, on the last bed they will share together, Luhrmann lets a ghastlier quiet creep in, giving each creak and click of that lonely space sound like a cannon.

Because as Luhrmann’s version shows: the genius of Shakespeare’s original work is its deconstruction of language itself. For a play written by the greatest poet, speech is ironically devoid of meaning in this play. This, famously, is the play in which Juliet questions whether a rose would smell as sweet if it were called by another name:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes,
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself. (II.2.43-9)

Names, she says, are arbitrary, only given meaning in their application, and she invites Romeo to join her in a namelessness free from prejudice and expectation.

And this is consistently Juliet’s role. As a thirteen year old woman growing up in a patriarchal nightmare, she – unlike everyone else around her – can see through the empty rhetoric of her society, calling its accepted ‘truths’ into question. She balks at the vulgarity of being married off like property to a man she does not know; she tries (unsuccessfully) to reason with her parents when they accuse her of ‘disobeying’ them; and she undercuts Paris’ over-familiarity with her. She even chastises Romeo when he starts praising her with empty compliments and hollow professions of love. When he tries to slather her with more of the wet poetry he was wasting on Rosaline, she stops him:

ROMEO: Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit tree tops –

JULIET: O swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest thy love prove likewise variable. (II.2.107-11)

She cuts through all of his crap – his proclamations of love to the stars and the moon – and re-educates him in a truer affection. One that goes unspoken – professed in action, not declaration. An eternal, unspoken, unspeakable love.

It’s why Luhrmann’s willingness to slow his film down, suspending his lovers in a transitory quietude, works so well. His Juliet (the sublime Claire Danes, long before she was trapped in the sloppy, inflammatory fever dream of Homeland) embodies this philosophical serenity, re-educating the overeager Romeo (an energetic Leonardo DiCaprio, long before he was sexually assaulted by a bear), and the solace they find in each other contrasts powerfully with the frenetic hostility everywhere else in the film.

Which brings me, finally, to what I think is Luhrmann’s greatest achievement: his balcony scene. Again, we see him playing with cliché, using his audience’s familiarity with the scene to transform it into something more. We see Romeo creeping up the walls, earnestly setting up his most famous metaphor:

‘But Soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon…’ (II.1.44-6)

He is so busy working himself into a poetic state – Juliet is light; Juliet is the dawn of a new day; she’s a life-giving spring – and we are so trained to see this moment as the swelling prologue to Romeo and Juliet’s reunion, that when it is instead the nurse’s head that emerges from the curtains, blowing all that romanticised projection apart, both Romeo and the audience are invited to shake off their presumptions and approach this story fresh.

Here, Juliet is not elevated up on some pedestal, she’s just taken the elevator to the ground; and Romeo is not some dashing beau, he’s tangled himself up in the Christmas lights. We are able to witness their flirtation not as the catalogue of two lovers fated to meet and die to satisfy an ancient blood feud, but as the communion of two alienated souls who speak to each other in a way that their families literally do not yet have the language to comprehend.

They’re not rebels without causes – no matter what Luhrmann was aiming for with that quote. But it is true to say that what they believe in cannot be quantified, or categorised, or contained. It eclipses language and expectations, carving itself out a space beyond the rote familiarity of names and oaths and honour, all of which, both play and movie reveal, have already been debased through meaningless repetition.

Romeo plus Juliet

IMAGE: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

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Next time, Australia’s Macbeth (2006). Spoiler alert: It’s terrible. But ‘I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more / Returning were as tedious as going o’er’.

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* And it’s hardly as great a crime as David Garrick mangled version of the play (only one in a list of altered versions by other writers), in which Rosaline never existed, all the bawdy humour and sexual references are stripped out, and clumsy, newly written melodramatic dialogue is crammed into the text in its place. In Garrick’s version Juliet awakens just in time to chat with Romeo while he chokes to death on her lap. …But gee, thanks for saving us from all the smut talk, Garrick.)

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Texts Mentioned:

Romeo + Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrmann, screenplay by Craig Pearce and Baz Luhrmann, adapted from William Shakespeare (20th Century Fox, 1996)

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and T.J.B. Spencer (Penguin, 2005)

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