Archive for February, 2016

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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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

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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?

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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.

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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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