Archive for the criticism Category

VALE: John Clarke

Posted in criticism, literature, movies, stupidity, television, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by drayfish

This past week Australia lost one of its legends.  If you are not from Australia you may not know the name John Clarke, and if you don’t, I am sorry.  I am sorry that you never got to experience his brilliant work.  He was the country’s greatest satirist, delivering a virtuosic four decades of comic commentary on most every aspect of modern life (we might be lousy with Hollywood-ready actors, but quality satirists are fairly thin on the ground here; someone needs to place Shaun Micallef in some kind of cryogenic stasis for protection).  Clarke was also, I’m fairly certain, a genius, and by all accounts, an incredibly generous, warm, and kind human being.  There is little I can say to add to the richly deserved praise that has been offered to eulogise Clarke since his shock passing, but I have grown up admiring him, and thought I should say something anyway, for whatever little it is worth…

John Clarke umbrella

Words fail.

That’s a sentiment that people express when someone of great importance dies.  There seems to be no way to express, verbally, the loss.  Language is too small, too imprecise.  Ironically, it is precisely the right sentiment to embrace when hearing the tragic news of the loss of Australia and New Zealand’s greatest satirist, John Clarke.  Because Clarke’s greatest strength was his way of weekly exhibiting the way that words fail.

Clarke is perhaps best known, now, for his weekly satirical take on the news, but he was, in the true sense of the word, a polymath.  Over the course of his prolific career he wrote sketches, screenplays, stage plays, poems and novels; he was an actor; a director; a producer; a documentarian.  He worked in film, television, theatre, and radio; and he is warmly remembered by the innumerable comedians and creators with whom he collaborated, or inspired, or personally mentored and supported behind the scenes.  (Please be stunned by the breadth of his output here: http://mrjohnclarke.com/)  But throughout it all, uniting his disparate creative endeavours, was an abiding fascination with the fluidity of language – its use, and more frequent misuse – and the absurdities that resulted from this rift between truth and expression.

Born in New Zealand, he became famous in the 1970s for creating and performing the character Fred Dagg, a New Zealand farmer and social commentator with several sons named Trevor (the favourite son was Trevor).  Dagg was a sketch comedy character with a dry, unassuming delivery, but he allowed Clarke to indulge some deliriously nonsensical linguistic play.  In the voice of Dagg he could present a shambolic 21st birthday speech that was speckled with unintended insults, that intimated debaucherous anecdotes which cannot be told, cannot be told, that escalated into a recursion of well-meaning banalities (‘You’ll all here agree with me, more or less 100 percent, in going along with me, in joining with myself, in going along with Trev’s mother and I…’), and has poor old Mrs Ballis getting caught in the wool press.  Elsewhere he could recount how that story of Hamlet was just a rip off of a bit of trouble that happened up his way a few years ago to Herb Davison’s son, Trev.

When Clarke moved to Australia he was soon a principle writer and performer on The Gillies Report, a topical sketch program that employed the talents of its titular actor, Max Gilles, to impersonate sitting politicians.  A few years later, Clarke would continue this political satire in the form of brief sardonic dialogues that appeared weekly, in one form or another, for the majority of the next thirty years.  He and collaborator Brian Dawe would stage a mock interview that often involved Clarke playing the role of a real-world government official or public figure, someone embroiled in one of the week’s more pressing stories who was being asked to clarify their policy position, or explain the ‘official’ version of events.

John Clarke Clarke and Dawe

IMAGE: Clarke & Dawe

Unlike the parodic style that was the signature of The Gilles Report, in his Clarke & Dawe interviews Clarke did not try to offer a traditional impression of the people he portrayed – he was never made up to look like the person he was playing, hidden beneath stupid wigs and make-up – because it was never technically that specific public figure that was the target of his incisive wit (he did, however, have an acute ear for incorporating their turns of phrase into his dialogue).  Instead, what unfolded was a masterful account of the way in which the language of politics and media make a mockery of the pursuit of truth.  (The ABC have assembled a fairly good selection of their sketches – they miss a few great ones, but there is a nice cross-section of their work).

Just as he had no interest in affecting an impersonation of any one figure, he was similarly nonpartisan in his mockery over the years, skewering all sides of the political spectrum – because his real target was linguistic hypocrisy.  He explored the way that the logic of politicians could happily fold in on itself, how empty platitudes and a desperation to sanitise uncomfortable policy realities created a kind of pseudo speech, divorced from reason and clouded in self-delusion.  As one of his dialogues explains, an ‘Australian usage of the English language’ actually means the exploitation of language for political expediency:

Bryan (interviewer): What is it called when you say something you know to be false?

John (playing the role of Lars Torders): A policy.

Ironically, the result of Clarke’s linguistic play frequently presented some of the most incisive descriptions of the world’s most pressing issues.  From the ghoulish dehumanising of Australia’s asylum seeker policies, to his unsettlingly prescient critique of the modern media, either as an oversimplifying, reactionary ouroboros of Twitter clickbait (a point articulated in the immediate aftermath of the US election), or the distracted narrators of petty squabbles at the expense of legitimate analysis (such as in ‘It’s the Planet, Stupid’, a title with a crucial comma)  In the United States The Wall Street Journal once even cited a Clarke & Dawe video as the best summation of the European financial crisis.

Arguably Clarke’s most celebrated single work, The Games (1998-2000),  was a Logie and Australian Film Institute Award winning sitcom set behind the scenes of the preparations for the 2000 Sydney Olympic games.  (It was even popular enough to be allegedly ripped off by the BBC’s Twenty Twelve.)  The series, which ran for two seasons, was created and written by Clarke, in collaboration with Ross Stevenson.  It was the fictional account of a handful of bureaucrats, led by Clarke, Dawe, and Gina Riley, who were heading the organising committee of the games.  The series, brought to life with Clarke’s signature absurdist loops of dialogue, exposed the impossible position that such a committee was placed within.

John Clarke The Games
IMAGE: The Games

It was the ideal setting for his satire: an enterprise with superficially lofty ideals, mired in contradiction, spin, and compromise.  Because as Clarke revealed, beneath the grand symbolism of the Olympics as an athletic competition about human excellence, the truth was a nebulous confluence of differing agendas, one regimented by obsessive rules and protocols, propped up by advertisers dictating special treatment to push their wares, pestered by the needs of governments all over the world who were looking to bathe in the reflected glory while inoculating themselves from controversy, harassed by journalists incessantly sniffing around for stories of failure, and perpetually mere moments from disaster.

Consequentially, it was a series that allowed Clarke to explore his many avenues of satiric interest, wherever he cared to roam.  It simultaneously covered finance, government, marketing, media, myth making, and office politics (the mandated team-building episode in which John’s role-playing animal is an aphid is hysterical).  It catalogued the manipulation of budgets, the weathering of daily governmental point-scoring, and the placation of sporting bodies and sponsors.  It was able to ponder whether anyone really wants a ‘clean’ Olympic games, confront the dismaying inability of the then-sitting Australian Prime Minister’s unwillingness to apologise to the country’s Aboriginal people, and philosophise over whether a 100 metre running track really needs to be 100 metres.

Even with its tie to the minutia of the Sydney Olympic games, for anyone outside of Australia curious about Clarke’s comedy it remains perhaps the most accessible of his work.  It should be stated that it is also a series that does not get enough credit for its experimental style, which not only blurred the divide between fiction and reality – frequently employing real public figures and celebrities in its narrative – but also pioneered the now ubiquitous ‘mockumentary’ sitcom style of having a film crew act as the observers shaping the story.

Clarke’s contributions to cinema were diverse.  He was a scene-stealing presence in films such as Death in Brunswick (1990), playing a laconic gravedigger, and Never Say Die (1998), playing an uncharacteristically honest car salesman.  He was the voice of Wal in Footrot Flats: A Dog’s Tail (1986).  He wrote film adaptations for Shane Maloney’s modern suburban comic crime noirs Stiff (which he also directed) and The Brush Off, both of which were screened as television movies in 2004.

Despite being best remembered for his work in television and film, it is perhaps in his literary output that the extent of his genius is best glimpsed.  His book The Tournament (2002) (which I will admit to not yet finishing) transplants the Modernist movement into one long tennis tournament, refashioning the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers and artists into players, coaches, and commentators, playing out their intellectual disputes in a unifying sport metaphor.

He also wrote a collection of poetry, The Complete Book of Australian Verse (1989) (followed by an expanded reprinting, The Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse (1994)), which claimed to be a collection of all of the original Australian poets who had been ripped off by the English and American poets of the past.  Not only did Clarke expertly mimic the style and structure of the writers he was referencing – repurposing them into figures like Dylan Thompson, Sylvia Blath, W.H. Auding and Stewie Smith – he simultaneously parodied the themes of the original while speaking to quintessentially Australian experiences.

To use but one example: Kahil Gibran, author of the mystic philosophical prose/poem The Prophet becomes Kahlihliji Bran, whose ‘prophet’ is being sought out for horse-racing tips at a local bar, waxing lyrical in absurd contradictions (‘Paradox is that which is not paradoxical / Only the living know death.  Only the dead are living’) as he tries to weasel himself a free drink and escape before being called out for his nonsense.

For John Clarke, language was malleable and fragile.  Powerful, capable of descriptive elegance, but too frequently made to fail; too often twisted into dissembling vapidity.  And over the course of his career he exposed it all.  In the chicanery of political spin, in the cold dehumanising calculus of euphemism, in the nonsensical bellyflops of the media – like few others John Clarke could see through the facade of rhetoric, past the bluster and the fraud, to the cowardice and bewilderment and grasping beneath.  He dissected language surgically, and reassembled it as a ridiculous pantomime of itself, allowing even those of us blind to its tricks to be in on the joke.

And for several decades, on multiple platforms, across myriad subjects, John Clarke gifted his wit and insight and craft to the world, his skills only ever sharpening with time.

There is no satisfactory way to summarise a career and a life such as John Clarke’s.

Because words fail.

Even if he never did.

John Clarke

‘Alternative Stanzas’: Shakespeare on Trump

Posted in creative writing, criticism, stupidity, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on January 25, 2017 by drayfish

shakespeare-trump

This past weekend something amazing happened!

I was hunting through my garage and I stumbled across some original William Shakespeare manuscripts.  They were just sitting there, tucked underneath a box of old Robotech toys and a punctured inflatable pool.  Original, signed documents by William Shakespeare, the English language’s most extraordinary poet and dramatist.

I know, right?!

Obviously, had I made a statement like this in the past, I would have been attacked by the liberal media and the intelligentsia for having nothing to prove my claims.  “But don’t you live in Australia, nowhere near Stratford Upon Avon?” they would have asked.  “And wasn’t your garage only built in the 1970s, centuries after Shakespeare died?” they would tediously continue.  “And wasn’t this poem clearly typed out in a Microsoft Word program, when Shakespeare was probably more of an Apple guy?”  On and on.  Asking questions.  Demanding evidence.  Getting all up in my grill just because no such material has ever been discovered in four centuries of painstaking research and because of my track record of being a ridiculous, inveterate liar.

Well, shut it, eggheads!

We live in a bold, post-truth, fake news, “alternative facts” world now!

Truth is relative!  Objective, demonstrably provable facts are suspect!  War is peace!  Freedom is slavery!  Ignorance is strength!

I found a Shakespeare poem!

I said it.  Loudly.  And Angrily.  So it must be true.  Period.

Enjoy.

‘Alternative Facts’

When Don Trump swears that he is made of truths,

They do believe him, though they know he lies,

That he might think them some untutored youths,

Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.

Thus they excuse the tax returns he fled,

The “proof” of Birtherism, his grand “wall”,

(That Mexico shall pay for, so he said),

And “record crowds” flooding National Mall.

Divesting his stocks, Cuban embargos,

His “charity”, vote fraud, and Russian hacks,

Bankruptcies, draft dodge, failed casinos,

Dozens of women and “unfair” attacks.

They welcome these falsehoods and plate them gold

To buy the lie that “greatness” can be sold.

So anyway, this is clearly an astonishing find.  Not only do these precious artefacts blow open our entire understanding of modern literary history, but I can finally, definitively end the centuries old debate over the real identity of the great bard.  Shakespeare was not secretly Christopher Marlowe or the Earl of Oxford.

He was (as I think many of us always suspected) a witch.

With his powers of prophesy, familiarity with the concept of cyber theft, and lazy, poorly-scanning rhyme structures, he was, undoubtedly, a practitioner of the dark arts.

Also, he appears to have had a Kenyan birth certificate.

And as if all that wasn’t amazing enough: there are notes and drafts for extra stanzas!

See, sonnets, by tradition, are 14 lines long, but it appears that Shakespeare had so much material to draw from in his foreknowledge of Donald Trump’s outrageous, galling, hysterical lies (oops – I mean, “post-true alterna-facts”) that he had to cut several extra lines of verse. Here are just some of the additional stanzas that didn’t make it into the final edit:

Election was “rigged”, but his win’s no fluke,

Clinton need not be stopped with a weapon.

He knew nothing about a David Duke,

But saw Muslims cheering 9/11.

That disabled reporter was not mocked,

And nothing was crooked about Trump U,

He didn’t say Megan Kelly bled on Fox,

And always opposed the Iraq war too.

And “Check out sex tape” was not what he said;

It’s a Chinese hoax, not a warming crisis.

Do “Blacks” shoot 80 percent of “Whites” dead?

No wonder Obama started ISIS.

Ted Cruz’s father probably killed JFK;

He saw footage of cash coming off that plane;

We cannot trust proof from the CIA;

But don’t worry, the swamp will soon be drained.

This is yuuuuuuuuuuge.

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 06: The Spoiled Little Man-Child They Made King: Richard II, Donald Trump, and Regime Change

Posted in criticism, literature, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2017 by drayfish

richard-ii-hollow-crown-02

IMAGE: The Hollow Crown: Richard II (Neal Street Productions)

This was going to be a nice easy one.

Read Richard II; watch the BBC’s sumptuous Hollow Crown version of the play; make a bunch of snotty Justin Bieber references; sign off.

Bim.  Bam.  Boom.  No fuss, no muss.

Because if you’re bothering to keep track (although, why would you?), my ‘Year of ‘Speare’ has been a little slow going.  To say the least.  After twelve months, I’ve discussed, what?  Three?  Four plays?  I mean, at this point it’s not even 2016 anymore!  It’s the year after ‘Speare.  Ah, whatever.

So Richard II was meant to be a way to turn that around.  To put out something quick.

It’s a play that I love – one inexplicably undervalued in the Shakespeare canon; one that has some striking things to say about human nature – so I figured I could belt out a quick diatribe about what a hidden gem the play is, how it explores universal existential fears, and how it speaks directly to our modern preoccupations with fame.

Indeed, that’s where the Bieber stuff would have come in…

The point I was going to make was that from one perspective, at its core, Richard II is all about the perils of celebrity at a young age.  The titular character, Richard, is a young, calamitously un-liked king – one eventually so hated that effectively his entire country conspires to dethrone him.  But from a more sympathetic perspective, he is a victim of his rise to stardom.  Preceding the action of the play, he was appointed monarch at the age of ten after his grandfather, father, and brother all died, thinning what was otherwise a healthy line of succession.  Richard went from an indulged ten year old boy to God’s appointed ruler on Earth – literally told that he was anointed from on high by the sacred blood of monarchy.  And so, although originally appointed advisors to assist him, the young king grew up in privilege, pampered, praised, his every desire met, his word literally law.  He could do no wrong, because he was King – and kings, as his own experience repeatedly proved, are above and beyond the rules of the commoners they deign to rule.

And as Shakespeare’s play reveals, that has got to screw a person up.

bieber-in-crown

IMAGE: Justin Bieber

Like Bieber at the height of his arrogant self-entitlement (abandoning his pet monkey; musing that Anne Frank would have been a fan; peeing in a mop bucket; drunken drag-racing) or present day Shia LaBeouf (trying to explain away his plagiarisms and general dickishness by turning himself into a walking performance art parody), Richard goes on to enact the downward spiral of every child celebrity who flipped out in adolescence and burned away all the good will their fame once cultivated.  He doesn’t hold up a liquor store or go on a drug-fuelled bender down a freeway, but he does start unfairly taxing his dukes and stealing their property to fund his unpopular wars.  He has his political rivals secretly killed and presides over sham court proceedings.  He alienates himself from the people of his kingdom by spending all day snarking with his mean-girl entourage.*

Eventually his people, who have resoundingly had enough, rise up in protest, revolt, and eject him from his rule.  They install Bollingbroke, soon to be Henry IV, in his place, and the second half of the play becomes an introspective psychological exploration of a Richard who, now stripped of his fame, tries to grapple with the question of his own identity.  If he is no longer a king – the sole thing that has defined him his entire life – then what, or even even who, is he?

To me, this play’s examination of the descent from celebrity to pariah seems a more prescient examination of contemporary culture than it must have been in the entire history of its performance.  From the vantage point of the 21st century, when every actor, musician, politician, YouTube star, Chewbacca Mom, and vacuous-yet-inexplicably-omnipresent-nobodies (I’m looking at you Kardassian brood), are all forced, inevitably, to grapple with the impact their public persona has had upon their lives, when the adoration of the crowd abates, and the wan ineffability of fame threatens to expose the figure behind the facade, this play’s central themes seem ever more urgent.

And what Richard II says about this struggle is profoundly moving.

At first, for the majority of the narrative, Richard balks at his forced abdication, grappling with the loss of his old, exalted identity by desperately struggling to substitute a new, false one in its place.  For a time he tries, unsuccessfully, to bluff his challengers, attempting to still throw his now-undermined royal authority around.  When that doesn’t work he waxes lyrical about being a monk, living in seclusion, giving himself up to the quiet adoration of God.  Later he goes into long, pitiful laments about how forgotten and forlorn he has become, romanticising his dissolution into nothingness with a messianically sacrificial tone.  But all of these attempts at self-description are just feints, lies striving to reconstitute a new meaning for himself, a way to avoid dealing with the vacuous hollow beneath his empty facade.

Despite this, in the final moments before his untimely death, Richard does finally reach an epiphany.  Wrestling with his wayward sense of self, he finally comes to accept ownership of his actions and identity, reaching an almost Zen state of being:

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented.  Sometimes am I king.
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar;
And so I am.  Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king.
Then am I kinged again; and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing.  But whate’er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. (5.5.31-41)

Having been imprisoned, and left both figuratively and physically alone in his thoughts, Richard sees, finally, his own role in the shaping of his sense of self.  In the past he has been charmed by the delusions of his infallibility – of his people’s love, of his noblemen’s devotion, of God’s blessing – but once all that has been stripped from him, once he confronts the nothingness within himself, he sees it all an illusion permitted by his own ego.  Bolingbroke may have taken his crown, but whatever remains of Richard is his alone, prey only to his self-delusion.

Once he arrives at this revelation, Richard is free (albeit tragically briefly) to become his best self.  When assassins arrive to kill him, Richard implores the stableboy who has come to visit to flee and save himself, and he fights back valiantly, even killing one of his assailants, showing a valour at the moment of death that was obscured by his untested fame.

All this I would have said, and more besides (the Duke of York, the most interesting character in the play, the one whose shift of allegiance from Richard to Bolingbroke embodies the dramatic political upheaval unfolding, gives a phenomenal speech about the vacuousness of celebrity), but then the election happened, and Richard II, like seemingly everything else good this year, got ruined by a sentient sack of half-chewed Cheetos, Donald Trump.

donald-trump

IMAGE: Donald Trump

Suddenly a story about the dangers of an indulged, thin-skinned, egomaniacal, vainglorious leader with no impulse control and a staggering deficit of real-world knowledge seemed a little less abstract.  Suddenly Richard II was no longer just about the tragedy of a man disentangling himself from his own celebrity, it was about the dangerous destabilisation that one man’s catastrophic rule could have upon a country’s entire political order.

(Of course, it should be clarified that Trump is nothing if not a celebrity.  In many ways, it’s all he is.  It’s certainly the principle way in which he has improbably peddled the fiction of his ‘business savvy’.  After ricocheting from one farcically failed business enterprise to the next for several decades, becoming a joke in his home state of New York for his many calamitous blunders, Trump eventually landed the role of ‘cartoon billionaire’ on The Apprentice, a vanity project designed to mythologise him as the ultimate dealmaker, no matter how repeatedly reality revealed it a fraud.**  And from that Trump was soon FOX News’ favourite conspiratorial Magic 8 Ball, where, once shaken up with a phone call he would spew whatever nonsense Birther/the-Chinese-invented-global-warming drivel he could into the airwaves, Howard Stern’s desperate little friend, and a torrent of narcissistic complexes and unchecked id on Twitter.  Inexplicably, for his many supporters, this celebrity image was never fully punctured by the slew of revelations about Trump’s many obfuscations, frauds, and corruptions – even those, like his taped admission of sexually assaulting women, that spoke directly to his status as a pseudo-celebrity.)

Dishearteningly, there are numerous superficial analogies to draw between the two men, the Richard and the Donald.  Richard shares something of Trump’s petty greed and vindictiveness.  He gleefully wishes his uncle Gaunt dead so he can immediately start pilfering his wealth, just as Trump applauds himself for stiffing contractors and burying them under litigation for seeking what is legally owed, or in the exploitative vulgarity he showed by using his ‘charity’ as a slush fund to buy himself gifts or to pay his legal debts with other people’s donations.

There is the ugly entitlement that both men exhibit.  Richard, thinking himself appointed by God to rule, cannot fathom that he might need to treat others with respect.  He’s so convinced of his righteousness that he literally believes that he can bless his country by touching it with his hand.  Trump’s similar feeling of privilege is emblazoned on every phallic building, scam ‘university’, and shiny bauble to which he has affixed his name.  And to be crass, he has made it evident in video footage that he believes he’s entitled to stick his hand wherever he wants.

richard-ii

Both men are similarly infantilised, throwing tantrums when they do not get their way – Richard whimpering off to Flint Castle, Trump walling himself away from reality by constructing comforting fictions on Twitter.  Richard doesn’t think he needs to answer for unjustly having his uncle murdered because he thinks himself above the law; Trump is outraged that he should be accountable for his own words and actions, claiming the media is ‘mean’ to him when they report on the things that he himself does, that the people who protest him are ‘unfair’, and that Meryl Streep and the cast of Hamilton are big meanies.

Thankfully there are some differences that differentiate the two men.  As I have noted, Richard is at times capable of producing stirring lyricism, far from the ‘pussy-grabbing’, pugnacious, playground incoherency of Trump.  And again, by the end of his narrative journey, having felt defeat most acutely, Richard exhibits a level of self-assessment and introspection that Trump has repeatedly proved himself is psychologically incapable of achieving.

But more than their evident character flaws, parallels can also be drawn between the state of the two lands these men seek to govern.  Richard II is, after all, not only a personal tragedy (indeed, some readers may well argue whether or not it is even that), it is moreover the tragedy of a nation.  It catalogues the shift from England’s history of Kings appointed by holy decree, to a rule dictated by political concord.  England shifts from a land unified around a singular, unquestioned monarch, to a family feud that would play out over several generations and erupt, frequently, into full blown civil war.

richardii

Trump’s election worryingly signals an analogous shift in the identity of America and its traditional ideals.  A fundamental part of Trump’s appeal in the 2016 election was his defiance of – in many cases his complete contempt for – established democratic norms.  Trump, for better or worse (or catastrophically, nightmarishly, apocalyptically worse), represented the rejection of the established political order of the United States.  He was a protest vote, a way to shake up a system that was seen to be stagnating.  It’s why his promise to ‘drain the swamp’ rang so loudly (and why his cabinet picks post-election, effectively relocating the swamp into his White House, are so farcical).  It’s why, to many of his supporters, Trump’s reprehensible behaviour throughout the election was not seen as a detriment, but a curious boon.

On the campaign trail he repeatedly made wildly inflammatory, unsubstantiated (often proved abjectly false) statements about other races, religions, and groups, in defiance of established political decorum.  He called Mexicans rapists and murderers, circulated bogus statistics about ‘Black on White’ crime, and implicated all Muslims in the actions of terrorists by suggesting that ‘they’ weren’t doing enough to help stop terrorist acts.  His supporters, however, saw all of these insults – and many more besides – as a refreshing willingness to ‘speak his mind’ (even when his mind was wilfully inaccurate) and proof that he wasn’t ‘following a script’ (even when he read his remarks directly from teleprompters).

He threatened – on multiple occasions, from most every conceivable angle – the right of free speech; the first amendment of the constitution.  From vowing to look into ‘changing the libel laws’ (despite these laws not actually existing), to threatening to sue journalists for printing anything he doesn’t like, to openly harassing members of the press, he created a uniquely hostile relationship with the news media.  His supporters likewise clearly enjoyed this game of Trump biting the hand that fed him, as they raucously booed and hissed the media at his rallies like pantomime evil-doers, and joyfully resurrected the derogatory term Lügenpresse, a Nazi German word for ‘lying press’.

He refused to accept the peaceful transition of power when it looked like he was not going to win, following up on the tantrums he threw during the primaries whenever he lost by threatening one of the country’s most sacred democratic traditions, the peaceful transition of power, even claiming that voter fraud and mass conspiracies were rampant.  (Predictably, the second he won any question of a rigged election was swiftly abandoned – while still claiming on Twitter that millions of people had voted illegally.)  And again his supporters appeared to adore this too, as both they and the president elect got to work hypocritically admonishing anyone who wanted to examine the clear influence of Russian interference in the election.

He refused to release his taxes – cowardly and entirely erroneously claiming that the IRS wouldn’t allow him to release them – breaking with several decades of practice, and exhibiting what would become a pattern of refusing to be transparent with his voters, from his business dealings to the ‘blind trust’ of his children running his company, all while hypocritically attacking his opponent for that very thing.  (…In this instance his supporters apparently enjoyed being told to screw off, because I can see no other reason for them to celebrate this continuing pattern of being contemptibly patronised to.)

He vowed to lock up his political opponent, the signature threat of a petty dictator; he suggested that ‘second amendment people’ should assassinate his rival should she win; he insulted and attacked a Gold Star family; argued that a ‘Mexican’ judge was not able to properly adjudicate the fraud trial against Trump University; talked with relish about unleashing America’s nuclear arsenal; mocked a disabled reporter; refused to hold a press conference in almost a year while literally fleeing from the White House press gallery; spent his time, both at his rallies and through the cowardice of social media, offending, belittling, and attacking those less powerful than he, all while quoting war criminals he admired and rehashing sad old grudges to make himself feel big.  Despite their craven, cynical cozying up to him after his victory, for much of his campaign he was reviled by much of his own party, and his only endorsements of any status was from the goddamn KKK.  To his voters, Trump presents the end of the system they know, but for all of Trump’s rhetoric about making America ‘great’ again, what he actually presents is not a return to some mythologised past, but the fundamental remaking of all of America’s founding principles.

Just like in Richard II, in which the elevation of a young, unprepared boy to the station of King eventually leads to the undermining of the hereditary tradition that had defined the English monarchy right back to William the Conqueror, Trump’s ascendency to President of the United States can be seen as the dramatic end of an era.  Just as Richard’s reign saw England’s (relatively) peaceful transfer of power through birthright and familial lineage fall into question, Trump’s impending rule, more in the styling of a petty dictatorship or the ramblings of a Twitter troll, represents the end of the ideals of the American Republic as it has traditionally been understood.

A nation built on immigration, religious freedom, and unfettered speech, is now to be governed by a man who campaigned, aggressively, against all of those things.  The notion of American exceptionalism that led the United States to becoming a beacon of moral authority in global politics has been abandoned for an inward-looking, paranoid, ‘America first’ nationalism.

richard-ii-hollow-crown

IMAGE: The Hollow Crown: Richard II (Neal Street Productions)

Richard II is about the moment of awakening from a beautiful dream.  The glorified England of the past is already just a remembrance, but the fantasy clings, even as it is dissolved from within.  The BBC’s Hollow Crown production, in all its lavish spectacle, captures this beautiful decay elegantly.  Part Byzantine painting, part Game of Thrones, it rockets along with all the prerequisite scheming and beheadings necessary to satiate those looking for action, while allowing breathing room for the psychological renegotiations and losses playing out on the character level.  It even manages to make the somewhat ridiculous scene in the final act of York and his wife each pleading their respective cases for their conspirator son to Henry IV (an interaction traditionally played for a kind of ghoulish laugh, and a counterpoint to Richard’s earlier phony courtroom scene) operate as a loaded enactment of York’s loyalty to a sworn promise, even in the face of personal sacrifice.

Likewise, it handily juggles the artifice in Shakespeare’s text.  Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s most lyrical plays – one of the few written entirely in verse – and it consequentially has some splendid, but highly rigid, rhyming beats elevating its most pointed moments.  In the hands of lesser actors, these shifts into poesy could have sounded stilted, even ridiculous, but the entire ensemble shines.  Some, like the mercurial Ben Whishaw, as a Richard seeking desperately to still array himself in the plumage of a kingship he has already lost, and David Suchet as the pragmatic, but mournful York, and the ever-reliable Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt, give captivating performances that stun the viewer to silence.  I defy anyone to watch Stewart’s rendition of the ‘This sceptred isle’ monologue and not be moved – his brazen challenge, foretelling the ruin of his nation, peering through the camera lens, beyond time, to the audience of the future who can confirm his prophesy.  It is a speech that echoes through the following several plays Shakespeare wrote recounting the War of the Roses, and Stewart, with his signature gravitas, gives it the enormity it warrants:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden – demi-paradise –
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son;
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death! (2.1.31-68)

In the face of Richard’s misrule, Gaunt foresees an age of greed and ruin.  Over the course of one rollicking, thunderous, building sentence, all prologue to its final declamatory insult, Gaunt paints the image of a proud land already lost in a fantasy of itself.  For the moment England still believes itself blessed by God’s grace, but Gaunt can see through the facade into the ghastly, self-defeating hypocrisy already eating away at its heart.  Shakespeare didn’t write those lines with Donald Trump in mind; neither did Stewart speak them so; but it now remains impossible to hear them without thinking of his ‘yuuuuuuge’ victory.

If I have one complaint about The Hollow Crown’s production (and I really don’t), it is that it sets the bar so high that the following six films in the series (Henry VI parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI parts 1 and 2, and Richard III) never quite measure up to it, as truly exceptional as each of them are.  But this too is only fitting for a play that is fundamentally concerned with the passing of an ideal age that proves ultimately impossible to reclaim.

It is such a powerful moment that now, as the free world looks to the future with a leader who is an apologist for (and likely beholden to) Russian Oligarchs, who is a vociferous advocate for torture and human rights violations, who holds paying taxes and avoiding conflicts of interest with open contempt, who skips intelligence briefings and subscribes to insane conspiracy theories, and who lies openly and brazenly on a daily basis, one wonders if the United States needs its own Sceptred Isle speech.

But perhaps it already has one…

In Back to the Future 2 Marty McFly glimpsed a world run by a deranged, narcissistic, sexually abusive gangster-wannabe  with a tower fetish and comically fake hair.  Bob Gale, writer of the film, intentionally fashioned Biff Tannen as an analogy for Trump (the one major difference appears to be that Biff was actually successful at running casinos), and his nightmare scenario for the dark timeline Biff creates with his sports almanac is a world of gilded trash in which the greed, corruption and pettiness Trump embodies are given license.

biff-from-back-to-the-future

IMAGE: Back to the Future 2 (Universal Pictures)

Of course, much as I love it, Back to the Future lacks much of the sombre, tremulous beauty of Shakespeare’s original text – no ‘That America hath made a shameful conquest of itself’ here.  But for a year like 2016, telling democracy that it should ‘Make like a tree and get out of here’ seems sadly appropriate.

Thankfully, the words of the Duke of York, tragic in the context of Richard II, offer some hope in the wake of Trump’s degradation of the American electoral process.  As I alluded to earlier, when York laments the passing of Richard’s rule, he likens him to a celebrity who has passed out of favour with his audience:

As in a theatre the eyes of men,
After a well graced actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious:
Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes
Did scowl on gentle Richard.  No man cried ‘God save him!’
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home (5.2.23-29)

Even for all of Richard’s failings, the image is sombre and heartbreaking.  That which was once so highly regarded is treated with disdain; not merely forgotten, but immediately condemned.

However, when Trump inevitably implodes these words will seem like a blessed relief.  Because when Trump – a figure more celebrity than man, more bluster than substance – can no longer hide from his supporters that he has walked back every one of his campaign promises, that he has no answers for the fears he exploited, and that his vision extends nowhere beyond himself, the fickle nature of even his most loyal audience will similarly turn against him.  And even though Trump, as the soon-to-be oldest man to be sworn in as President, is no child celebrity, he will get to feel the same sting that has marked Justin Bieber and Shia LaBeouf.

It’s not much.

It’s barely anything.

But as Richard himself says, sometimes we must all be content with nothingness.

richard-ii-seizethecrown

IMAGE: The Hollow Crown: Richard II (Neal Street Productions)

*   *   *

* It should be acknowledged that, like all of his history plays, Shakespeare takes innumerable liberties with his characterisation of the titular historical figure, so when I speak of Richard II, I am solely referencing Shakespeare’s representation of him.

** Building off the legend of his ghost-written autobiography The Art of the Deal – a book that the writer himself now loudly admonishes as a pernicious work of fraud. (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/25/donald-trumps-ghostwriter-tells-all)

*   *   *

Texts Mentioned:

Book: Richard II by William Shakespeare (ed. by Stanley Wells, Penguin, 1997)

Production: The Hollow Crown: Richard II, directed by Rupert Goold, screenplay by Rupert Goold, Ben Power, and William Shakespeare (Neal Street Productions, 2012)

Back to the Future 2, directed by Robert Zemeckis, screenplay by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (Universal Pictures, 1989)

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 05: ‘I DID Come Here To Make Friends’; As You Like It and ‘Reality’

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2016 by drayfish

as-you-like-it

IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

Set your expectations to ‘shocked’.  Prepare to be astounded.  Because I am about to utter (no doubt for the very first time on the internet) the most original, brave, singular thought ever articulated:

I hate reality television.

I know, right?  I’m so raw.  So real.  I just tell it like it is, y’all.  Truth bomb.  Finger snap.

Man, I should get my own show.

I guess I should clarify.  I don’t mean to slag off the whole genre …or, since I guess it’s too big to be called a genre, the ‘form’?  The ‘structure’?  The ‘plague’?  Lots of people love it – for innumerable reasons – and as a device it can take myriad shapes.  Honey Boo Boo can hardly be placed in the same discussion as Making a Murderer; and the soapy freak show of the Real Housewives franchise is worlds away from whatever the hell Naked and Afraid is attempting to be (although when are we going to see Real Housewives: Sesame Street? ‘Elmo so mad Elmo almost run her down in Elmo’s Ferrari…’).

What bothers me is the overt artifice with which these shows are fuelled.  The attempts to ape reality that are patently constructed.  The artificial people having artificial conversations – be they the Bratz dolls of The Hills or the Deliverance cosplayers of Duck Dynasty.  The concocting of zany, pre-arranged schemes.  The leaning in to stilted, predetermined confrontations.  The meet-ups in restaurants, or the drop-ins at someone’s start-up business to share wooden dialogue riddled with one-liners and rote exposition.  ‘Surprise’ telephone calls where both sides of the conversation are somehow filmed.  The spouting of rehearsed ‘spontaneous’ observations and manufactured realisations.  All those constant, ceaseless reminders that everything depicted is a fabricated mise en scene; that even before the highly selective editing process has begun, a narrative is already being orchestrated that renders any sense of authenticity moot.

Indeed, this whole pretence has reached such a saturation point that it’s now no longer a secret these shows have writers.  They might be called ‘showrunners’, and sure, they don’t type out dialogue to be repeated verbatim, but they do run story treatments, come up with loose plotlines, concoct scenarios, give shape and order to the action – and yes, offer one or two snappy lines of banter.

And this fakery doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.  Many people (my wife, for one) happily watch a platter of reality programming comfortably aware that it has, at the very least, been massaged by its editing, or wholesale invented for the cameras.  Personally, I find it tedious because it turns the viewing experience into a meta-game.  Rather than watching the show, you’re watching through the thin, shiny veil that covers the behind the scenes production meetings that designed the show.  Any sense of ‘reality’ disassembles into a meat-puppet theatre, one so commonly understood that there are now scripted television shows like UnREAL based around this premise.

A year or two back, I was compelled (it felt like at gunpoint, but I do have a tendency toward the hyperbolic) to watch what was then a new reality program titled It’s All Relative.  The show was centred around the family life of Leah Remini, onetime star of King of Queens and Scientology escapee.*  And I have to confess, by the standard set in a post-Kardashian universe, it was comparatively inoffensive.  Indeed, almost quaint.

Let me be clear: I still hated it.  I still squirmed and sighed and begged for freedom – but that’s a personal taste issue.  I’m sure for many others it was charming.

But what struck me at the time as one of the show’s virtues was its subjects’ unfamiliarity with the language of reality television.  To their credit, the family being scrutinised – Remini’s immediate family and mother – were uncommonly awkward with the fabrication of the filming process.  They were so conscious of the oddity of a film crew in their house that they would actually talk directly to the producers and sound techs as though they were new neighbours who had stopped by for a chat, commenting down the camera lens not only about what was being filmed, but the decision to film it.  In a world where Kardashians keep multiplying through social media photosynthesis, it was comforting to still see people try to grapple with the invasion of a guy with a boom mike having his elbow in their fridge.

TLC

IMAGE: It’s All Relative (TLC)

In one scene, when a mock funeral for Remini’s mother had soured into a peculiarly melancholy affair (despite the zany music cues punctuating the soundtrack) Remini actually turned to camera, wiping tears from her eyes to ask, ‘Is this what you want, TLC?  Is this what you want to see?’  She was joking.  Ish.  There was a laugh tangled in the crying, and the absurdity of the whole situation was never lost, but by referencing the artifice of the scenario, she punctured the constraints and manipulation under which the program operated.  Clearly her mother didn’t just decide spontaneously to force her family to hold a living memorial for her; they didn’t all set a date and put on catering and get dressed in funeral clothes and all write eulogies on a whim.  It was crafted.  A display initiated for – and with – the film crew capturing it.  Perhaps this humanising awkwardness went away with time, but I appreciated the meagre glimpse of authenticity it offered behind the facade.

The real issue I have with these programs arises however when their calculated artifice bleeds into reality.  When asking an audience to playact dishonesty into ‘truth’ means we suddenly have to pretend that the Taylor Swift / Kanye West ‘feud’ is anything other than a cynical, mutually beneficial publicity stunt to be exploited for maximum exposure.  Or, after several seasons of The Apprentice, people get duped into believing the pernicious, fatuous fraud that Donald Trump was ever a ‘successful, self-made businessman’, instead of a thin-skinned, paranoid, self-mythologising, narcissistic, pathological liar who once inherited an empire from his father and spent the next few decades flushing it away on an unbroken spiral of hysterically asinine failed business ventures and multiple bankruptcies (at least six).  That a man with such a reverse-Midas touch that he spectacularly tanked everything he came in contact with, from an airline, to a travel agency, to a scam university, to a mortgage company (at the time of the country’s subprime mortgage crisis, no less), steaks, magazines, bottled water, vodkas and vitamins – a man who lost billions of dollars running his own casinos – that he was a successful business entrepreneur.

That guy.

If we have to swallow a lie that big, reality television should be a lot more fucking entertaining than it is.

In any case, all of this is just a protracted preamble to me saying that I was surprised, upon returning to As You Like It, at how many of the tropes of reality television Shakespeare employed, four centuries before it was even a genre

…Or a form

…Or a whatever the hell.

Because As You Like It is stuffed full of reality show fodder.  It has backstabbing, and betrayal, and reconciliations.  Its central conceit – aristocrats thrown into the wild – is pure Survivor.  The whole thing ends on a ‘surprise’ wedding ceremony, where shocking secrets are revealed in public.  Most every character is playing some sort of role to deceive, hide, or outwit their fellow outcasts, and above and uniting all of this, there is a general embrace of performative hamming it up and communal playacting.

In one delightfully convoluted moment, Rosalind – a woman masquerading as a man – is trying to disentangle herself from a pair of would-be lovers, Phebe and Silvius.  Silvius loves Phebe, despite her treating him like garbage, and Phebe has fallen for the disguised Rosalind, who likewise treats her with contempt.  And to a reality show cynic like myself, Rosalind’s  summary of their circumstance, ‘He’s fallen in love with your foulness, and she’ll fall in love with my anger’ (III.5.68), could serve as the tag line for every season of The Bachelor and its ilk.

(You can look also to Much Ado About Nothing for more evidence of how much Shakespeare loves a good reality show plot.  There’s its twisted fake funeral, the family squabbling, the vicious slut-shaming rumours, the zany schemes, and the will-they-won’t-they bickering couple whose romance everyone seems perversely invested in…)

Ultimately, As You Like It is soaked in the kind of pretence that drives me insane about reality television.  But here, that willing embrace of falsehood becomes profoundly transformative, because ironically, it actually succeeds in rendering something true.

The plot (such as it is) may not sound like a playful comic romp.  There are multiple familial betrayals and murderous plots; homes are ripped apart; loyalties sundered; choking declarations of unbridled hatred are made; most every sympathetic character is ejected into the wilderness to die – but the result is a celebration of farce and wilful play.

Primarily, the narrative concerns a gaggle of aristocrats who are banished from their homes into a nearby wood.  Some embrace their imposed liberty, unfettered from the concerns of the civil world; others, by necessity, affect disguises to protect themselves from harm.  But rather than descending into despair and savagery, playing out an Elizabethan Lord of the Flies, the characters meet this new, dangerous wilderness in the forests of Arden by giving license to their imagination.  They literally start playing around.  Enacting silly wooing games and writing poetry and dressing up to pretend.  It can all seem, at first glance, a bit unhinged, but Shakespeare keeps the tortured, tragic thread that motivated this excursion throughout, just to remind the audience that we’ve not simply wandered off into some giddy fantastical dream.

There is the heroine, Rosalind, who, while wearing the disguise of a country boy, meets up with Orlando, a man for whom she had romantic feelings back in the city and who now appears to have similar feelings for her.  While remaining in disguise, she convinces Orlando to let her ‘cure’ him of his love for Rosalind, by pretending to be her, and acting like a crazy woman.  So Rosalind finds herself playing a man, playing a woman, playing crazy.

And not a television production crew in sight.

Given this theme of contrasting civilisation and wilderness, it is perhaps no surprise to say that As You Like It is concerned on every level with the question of nature versus nurture.  What is it that defines us as people?  Are we born bad – the fact one brother is a villain and the other a sweet tempered benefactor, merely a quirk of biology? – or do we rather learn our dispositions, becoming shaped by our experience?  Do we merely affect an appearance of goodness to mask our intrinsic immorality?

For a while, in order to tease these questions out, the play seems to have it most every way.  Two of the play’s brothers, Orlando and Oliver, appear to be diametric opposites, and yet both are the products of the same loving family, so Oliver’s cruelty, spite, and willingness to have his brother murdered, seems inborn; similarly, the two competing Dukes, the rightful Duke Senior and his usurping brother Frederick, who banished him with threat of death, were presumably raised together.  But before the play lets us settle on this idea of an innate evil, both villains, Frederick and Oliver, prove themselves to be redeemable.  Both, having left civilisation, are able to cultivate an inner peace that leads them to renounce their former behaviour and seek to genuinely better themselves in future.  And either way, whether this is some elemental better human nature, or the promise of a newly acquired philosophy, the play opens up to the eternal, hopeful potentiality for change.

 rosalind_-_robert_walker_macbeth

IMAGE: Rosalind by Robert Walker Macbeth (1888)

Despite this occasional, necessary cloud, it remains an exquisitely bright, celebratory play.  Those filled with spite and jealous rage are able to be healed by the unburdened welcome of the wilderness.  Brothers are able to forgive, to reconnect, to wish each other peace and goodwill.  Lovers can embrace foolery to find within it deeper truth.  Rosalind and Orlando get to shake out their playactings of love in disguise before they undertake the real thing, and the shepherd Silvius and his love Phebe (one hopes) get some perspective on their unhealthy emotional co-dependency, and actually agree to love someone who is capable of loving them back.

Shakespeare isn’t just detaching his characters from the recognisable world to make some lazy Garden of Eden reference (although that is overtly mixed into the imagery).  This is not about sneering at the fall of man and idolising the ‘freedom’ granted by naïveté.  After all, even though the two converted villains of the play vow to live more rustic, pure lives, most of the other characters gladly reclaim their lives in society.  Instead, I think Shakespeare wants is to remember just how stifling adulthood, social pressure, the acquisition of wealth and esteem can be.  It’s a daily fight for survival, as Orlando’s was at the beginning of the play, too swiftly propagated on competition and scheming, trying to outwit and outplay opponents you can see, and more tragically, those that you come to imagine.  Even those you should consider family or friend.

By ejecting these characters into the wild, those societal shackles are abandoned.  Life is no longer a competition, but an invitation to take solace in others, to support and encourage and give.  Shakespeare writes the ultimate reverse-Survivor fan fiction.  The gong is being rung for the eviction ceremony (is that how the show works?), but no one wants to partake.

And so, freed from the need to be grown-ups about everything, the characters embrace their youthful sides. Write mooney love poems; dress up and pretend; play-act getting married; chase each other around; fall asleep in the sunlight; sing songs.  There is giddiness and gambolling, and fun (even in spite of there being lions roaming the land eating people, apparently.)  All the crap, all the politicking and scheming and backstabbing, all those social institutions everyone believed were so integral back in the invisible prison of civilisation, are dissolved.  Instead, they carry that which is crucial and unquantifiable with them: love, fellowship, and kindness.

It’s a hokeyness that Shakespeare himself acknowledges he is indulging.  For much of the play’s run time it conducts a tongue-in-cheek interrogation of both its own structure (calling out its conventional failings) and its poetry (the hyperbole and disingenuousness verse relies upon for effect).**  Orlando – despite loving Rosalind intensely, writes objectively bad poetry, scattering his meagre verse throughout the forest to the derision of all.  Touchstone, wooing Audrey, says that all poetry is a fraud, ‘for the truest poetry is the most feigning’ (III.3.17-18).

Meanwhile, the plot seems to get forgotten in the salve of all this pretending.  The real peril that the characters are in meanders away; major shifts in the narrative occur unseen, off-stage.  When an as-yet unmentioned third brother of Oliver and Orlando rushes in at the end to exposition-dump that the danger of the usurping Duke Frederick has passed, it seems to be as unexpected an return to the narrative for the characters as it is for the audience.

And in Rosalind’s fourth-wall dismantling epilogue (which declares itself subversive for being delivered by a woman – or since women weren’t allowed to perform on stage in Shakespeare’s time, technically a man pretending to be a woman  pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man…) – she cannot even be bothered to defend Shakespeare’s shapelessness narrative.  Rosalind teasingly denigrates the play’s writing, saying she cannot ‘insinuate you in the behalf of a good play’ (V.4.202-3); instead, she uses her charm, with which the play is overflowing, to invite the audience to take from the production what they will – as they like it.  They too are under no obligations.

Because this is not a play about story.  Just like in reality television, the premise is merely the thinnest frame upon which to hang the real drama; the game less significant than the games the players played on one another.  Fraud – and particularly poetic fraud – is here shown to lead to truth and growth, even in spite of itself.  Here, unlike in the carnivorous scheming of reality television, giving license to falsehood brings out the best in us.  Placed into artificial worlds we divorce ourselves from our engrained misbehaviours.  Counter-intuitively, by pretending to be what we aren’t, we can reconnect with what we should be.

Rosalind fakes being a boy to lead the man she loves through his delusions of adoration to the clarity of self-awareness.  Duke Senior, by playing at being a wild man, gets in touch with an unsullied vision of humanity where he can ‘feel not the penalty of Adam’ (II.1.5).  Even the melancholic Jaques gets to be tickled by the verbal play of a fool, stepping, if only momentarily, out of his self-imposed funk.

Fittingly, it is therefore when the play indulges its most artificial moment that it presents its most elegant portrait of humanity.  In the midst of what is in truth a bit of tedious stage business – literally Shakespeare needs to kill a few minutes so that Orlando can run off to retrieve his starving manservant Adam – the play stalls to have Jaques rhapsodise poetically about the lifespan of the average human being.  Jaques, an insatiable depressive (a weathered The Cure t-shirt away from being the prototypical emo), has spent his time moping around the forest, in his words, sucking melancholy from melody and railing against the world, and here, to fill time, Shakespeare grants him one of the most genuinely moving descriptions of the inevitability of death, decay and mortal frailty, the seven stages of man:

                                  All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His Acts being seven ages.  At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
Then, the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school; and then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow; then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth; and then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances,
And so he plays his part; the sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound; last Scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (II.7.140-67)

Seven ages of man; our inevitable, unavoidable, solemn march toward the grave’s oblivion, sans eyes, sans ears, sans everything.  It will come, he says.  But that’s for another day, the play suggests.  And knowing what awaits need not deaden the beauty of youth and it virtue, but rather make it sweeter.  If we are to be creatures always ensnared by larger constructs like society and temporality, then at least we can be aware of them, and free ourselves from their burden.  Even if only in our minds.

MCDASYO EC006

IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

On its surface, director Kenneth Branagh’s sumptuous version of As You Like It (2006) appears to bear little relationship to this falsified ‘reality’ television show conceit that I’ve been blathering on about.  The production is set in a stylised pre-twentieth century Japan, with a group of English aristocrats.  But this notion of play-acting a superficial facade is nonetheless central to the themes being explored, becoming uncomfortably problematic as the film proceeds.

In many ways it is a lovely production: lavish visuals; a score that is evocative and sublime; acting that is solid to exceptional across the ensemble.  There’s a little less Rosalind (as played by Bryce Dallas Howard) than I would like as good portions of her dialogue appear to be excised, but national treasure Brian Blessed gets to portray both Dukes as twins, running the gamut of Senior’s benign saintliness to Frederick’s volcanic, paranoid psychosis, and Romola Garai, as Celia, is delightful, as always.  The brothers Orlando and Oliver (David Oyelowo and Adrian Lester respectively) are both fantastic – Lester in particular gives emotional depth and complexity to Oliver, a character that is often little more than a moustache twirler until his last minute conversion. And hearing Kevin Kline as Jacques deliver the seven ages of man speech never gets old.

And Shakespeare can work wonderfully in Japan.  Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) is a reimagining of Macbeth, taking a Jacobean English play about an 11th century Scottish King and translating it seamlessly – marvellously – into feudal Japan, elevating all the perversions of honour and madness of the original text.  But here there doesn’t seem to be a deeper thematic reason for transplanting the action of the story to a British trading outpost in Japan outside of aesthetic quirkiness.

A title card informs the audience that these are colonial traders who have set up a ‘treaty port’ during the nebulous late 19th century period of British-Japanese political relations.  Taken just at face value, Branagh appears to have simply replicated the original play’s romantic rejection of society and its embrace of the rejuvenating lustre of the natural world in the forests of Japan rather than a mythic British wilderness (although ironically he still films it in England).  And that’s nice in theory – the stuffy Brits are going to learn about real life by being exposed to another culture – but that doesn’t really manifest in the play.  In its place, a lot of complex, thorny issues of cultural appropriation are evoked that threaten to become outright controversial.

To begin with, all the of the principle characters are played by western actors – including many of those in the supposedly Japanese peasantry that have multiple lines.  Even Charles the wrester (here a sumo wrestler, natch) has a western manager who speaks for him.  Secondly, although Branagh attempts to utilise the trappings of Japanese culture to allow his western characters to access a truth within themselves (an impulse coming from a complimentary, if misguided, place) in practice, aside from a pretty estate, some fine clothes, a zen garden, and a token, unspeaking monk, there is little indication that Japan has impacted these characters much at all.  His principle characters remain western imperialist intruders into a culture that they are in the process of coopting as their own.

If I sound like I’m really down on the film – I’m not.  It’s still lovely.  It’s just a shame, because it feels like there is something of more substance to say in the work that is never fully articulated.  That in this enchanting Shakespearean fantasy cultures can be respected and genuinely shared beyond the limitations of genealogy.  In practice though, at best the Japanese aesthetic is a pretty but ultimately pointless coat of paint, at worst it risks playing as more of a celebration of imperialist assimilation and the coopting of a culture.

But it is beautiful, and well acted, and by the time Orlando has been attacked by some stock footage of a tiger, I am already in the thrall of Rosalind’s layers of playful fraud.  Because here too, reality is joyfully bent to a happier end – you just have to be willing to ignore the bad, socially disheartening stuff for a moment, and indulge your imagination…

as-you-like-it-2

IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

* * *

* It’s All Relative appears to have run for two seasons before ending in 2015.

** He even uses verse sparingly, with the majority of the interactions between the two lovers, Rosalind and Orlando, rendered in prose.

* * *

Texts Mentioned:

Book: As You Like It by William Shakespeare (ed. by H.J. Oliver, Penguin, 2005)

Production: As You Like It, directed and screenplay by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

Throne of Blood, directed by Akira Kurosawa, screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni (Toho Studios, 1957)

In the Shadow of the Shadow of the Bat: Why Batgirl Rocks

Posted in criticism with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2016 by drayfish

[Given the recent uproar over the depiction of Batman and Batgirl in the latest animated DC movie adaptation of The Killing Joke, I thought this piece was worth republishing.  A version of this column originally appeared on PopMatters two years ago – hence the dated references.  Remember when we only suspected but didn’t yet know that Batman v Superman: Drawn and Quartered was a sloppy, nihilistic hate screed?  Ah, the innocence of ignorance.]

batgirl-new-costume-pic

The question of who, ultimately, is the ‘best’ superhero has haunted the minds of nerds for generations.

…Well, at least two generations.  Three maybe?  Four?

It’s why we squee in delight watching Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, seeing our heroes smack each other around a little ­before they all team up and order bowling league uniforms.  It’s why Superman and the Flash keep racing each other around the world just for funsies.  It’s why there are still some people inexplicably excited about Zack Snyder’s upcoming cinematic atrocity, Superman v Batman: Drab and Senseless, because at the very least it promises the sight of Supes and the Bat slugging it out – or, more accurately, the opportunity to see Snyder slavishly recreate Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comic panels without troubling to use any imagination or storytelling craft for himself.

(Speaking of Batman v Superman, if I can just take a brief tangent for a moment: no doubt others have already made this observation, but ‘v’ is actually used to indicate a legal battle, not a physical one.  So unless Bruce Wayne is fronting the money for a class-action reckless endangerment suit against Superman for all that carnage he caused in the last film, the title seems to be yet another sign of how little thought Snyder and his writer Goyer are again putting in their next script.)

In many ways it’s a timeless argument – an ongoing rhetorical debate that delights in colliding our greatest pop cultural loves.  Immediately preceding comic books every gothic monstrosity from Dracula to Mr Hyde to the Mummy was battling it out for popularity in cinemas and fiction (eventually also appearing in crossover films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944); the spirit of which continue to this day with the Alien Vs. Predator franchise).  In fact, I don’t doubt that there were at least two nerds way back in ancient Greece standing about bickering over who would win in a knock out street brawl between Poseidon or Apollo.  (Poseidon.  He’d play dirty.)

But no matter how much fun it is to bandy around  comparisons and swim in hypotheticals, for a lot of people – myself very much included – the question of which superhero wins the day already has a definitive answer.  It’s one of those ‘Who’s the best, not counting…’ kind of inquiries.

Because it’s Batman, right?

That’s certainly the answer I’ve had locked and loaded since I was a child –  before I knew any of the intricacies of the Marvel and DC universes.  Before I could parse the individual influences of figures like Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, and Steve Ditko upon their medium.  Before Christopher Nolan and The Avengers films had rescued the superhero  genre from its sad, cheesy stagnation.  Even before the glorious Bruce Timm Batman Animated Series and its Superman and Justice League sequels.  Before all of that, my mind was already firmly made up.

It’s Batman, y’all.

‘Yeah, but, yeah, but – Green Lantern’s ring can create anything he imagines…’ my invented-purely-for-the-purposes-of-this-example dearest childhood friend would argue.

‘Nope.  It’s Batman,’ I would reply.  ‘Cause he doesn’t need dumb space magic to fight crime, and he’s not allergic to the colour yellow.’

(…Seriously.  He can imagine into being a fully-functioning space ship to travel across the stars, but if someone comes at him with a handful of paint swatches labelled ‘Daffodil’ and ‘Buttercup’ and he crumbles?)

‘Well, what about Superman?  He’s got laser eyes and can fly and stuff…’

‘Nup.  Cause Batman can swing through the city with grappling hooks, and he doesn’t have any lame McGuffin weaknesses.  …Except, you know, for all the crippling psychological despair.’

‘Wolverine’s got claws and fast healing…’

‘Batman’s got a utility belt and a stuffed dinosaur.’

‘What about Spawn?’

‘You’re not even trying anymore, are you?

It should be said that I have heard a stunningly persuasive argument made for Wonder Woman – but still, for me, that same trump card always applied: Batman is ‘best’ precisely because he doesn’t have the powers that the other heroes are gifted with.  He punches well above his weight, a mere mortal amongst gods – not only meeting their gaze, but more often than not staring them down.  The most human of all super-humans, he exemplifies the virtue of using wit and passion and dogged stubbornness to turn his weaknesses into strengths; to do what he knows is right, even if it’s never easy.

And that all seemed very persuasive for the longest time.  Indeed, for a rabid Batman fan like myself, it offered a wonderfully smug sense of superiority.  All other heroes just seemed lazy by comparison.

What’s that Spider Man?  You want to complain about how the Daily Bugle doesn’t love you enough?  Well why don’t you go cry about your super strength and spidey senses to your supermodel girlfriend.  And how about you, Thor?  Yeah, it must be tough being a magical, immortal, impervious Nordic prince.  Who can fly.  With those pecs.  And you – shiny guy.  What’s your deal?  …Silver Surfer, you sayWhat, you just surf around everywhere?  Through space?  In the indentured service of a psychotic, galaxy-eating god?  …Well, sucks to be you.  At least you got a surfboard anyway.

And put some pants on.

But you know what?  For all my years of confident self-satisfaction, hand-waving away all debate, the truth I’ve now come to realise is: I was wrong.

It’s not Batman – although I was in the right ballpark.  Instead it’s that other hero in the winged-marsupial get up.  The one too often swallowed by the big guy’s brooding, omnipresent shadow.

It’s Batgirl.

I realised because of the zipper.

batgirl-new-version

IMAGE: Batgirl new costume (MTV News)

See, the past few weeks Batgirl has gotten some press due to her new creative team’s decision to update her costume along with some tweaks to the narrative.  For the most part, it appears that the response to the new look has been positive; and personally, although I will always favour the Bruce Timm animated series redesign, I really like the new look too.

Thankfully Batgirl has never been a character over-sexualised in her depiction – no Power Girl cleavage-heavy swimsuits or fishnet anythings – and happily that tradition continues.  The new uniform looks sleek and functional.  Made up of a leather jacket, detachable cape, Doc Martens combo, it has character, it’s not just some new splash of purples and yellows on a cookie-cutter skin-tight spandex, or that weird goth-gimp mute batgirl they went with a few years ago (who, yes, I know, wasn’t Barbara Gordon).

It’s nice to see her outfit reflect more of her personality.  Young, adaptable, stylish and practical.  It’s colourful but not garish; chic but not some instantly-dated stab at being ‘hip’ (just go back and look at the original Superboy ’90s redesigns to see just how archaic trying to manufacture ‘cool’ can be).  The whole ensemble is a piece of functional fashion that she chose to put on to do her job.  And significantly, the Bat-insignia is not some grim shield emblazoning her chest.

It’s got a zip up the middle of it.

And that’s what got me thinking…

It made me realise: perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve overlooked her for so long.  After all, viewed superficially, Batgirl can seem more of an addendum than a protagonist in her own right: she was an addition to an already established franchise; she didn’t invent the whole ‘bat’ motif, she just cribbed it off the other guy.  That bat isn’t a symbol of her operatically memorable origin story.  She just wears it.  She wasn’t even Batman’s first assistant.  To those unfamiliar with the lore it might even seem like she’s meant to be lumped in with all the other ‘bat’-prefixed material – like Bat-Mite and Bat-Hound and the Bat-Cycle – as though she were not only subservient to Bruce Wayne’s tortured tale, but merely an accessory in service of it.  She’s branded with his story, she doesn’t forge one of her own.

This tendency to  disregard Batgirl’s autonomy has always dogged the character, stretching right back to her first ever incarnation.  Some critics, such as Bill Boichel in ‘Batman: Commodity as Myth’ (The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media, eds. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, London: Routledge, 1991, p.13) even argue that the initial version of ‘Bat-Girl’ (Betty Kane, who was the niece of ‘Bat-Woman’ Kathy Kane) was only ever introduced to serve as a lazy heterosexual love interest.  Supposedly, she and her aunt were to be romantic pairings for Batman and Robin, blatant attempts to assuage the Comic Code Authority’s paranoid fears over a ‘homosexual’ agenda in the heart of the mythos.  Sure, she went on colourful romps with the caped crusaders, fighting crooks and aliens and hypnotism and magical genies, but she was ultimately just in it for the chance to win over Robin’s heart – even though he had already pledged his heart to Lady Justice herself (swoon!)

As Will Brooker points out in his exceptional analysis, Batman Unmasked: Analysing A Cultural Icon (London, Continuum, 2000, pp.101-70), the truth of Bat-Girl’s introduction and her contribution to the text is far more multifaceted than this, but these marginalisations – whether real or imagined – have continued to occur throughout the character’s history.  She’s considered decorative: a heterosexual disguise; an ingredient for a love triangle; a bone thrown to female readers.  Indeed, sometimes it feels like people only bother noticing Batgirl when she’s got a snazzy new outfit, or the gossip media is making pissy comments about how ‘fat’ Alicia Silverstone looks in her rubber suit.

Indeed, such dismissals are why I have a problematical relationship with one of the most universally acclaimed Batman graphic novels of all time: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (DC Comics, 1988).

batman-and-joker-laughing

IMAGE: From The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bollard

Wait – was that the sound of angry mob torches being lit?  Hold on.  Hear me out.

I’m not saying that The Killing Joke is a bad story.  It’s rightfully considered one of the great Batman tales: a brief, harrowing glimpse into the perpetual conflict of Batman and the Joker, and the carnage that their entwined obsession leaves in their wake.  For those who haven’t read it, it’s well worth seeking out.  If for no other reason than that it introduces greater depth and complexity to the Joker, a character that had frequently been depicted as little more than a colourful buffoon.  It has indelibly impacted every presentation of the clown prince since, even being directly cited as an inspiration for both Tim Burton and Heath Ledger in their iconic characterisations in cinema.

Briefly, the story concerns the Joker making one final, sociopathic statement about how frail the human psyche can be.  He decides to show Batman how ‘one bad day’ can unhinge a previously moral, upstanding person, hoping to fracture the divide between hero and lunatic.  To do this he decides to destroy Commissioner Gordon – Batman’s ally and the most upstanding man in Gotham – by surprising him in his house and brutally, savagely assaulting his daughter – going on to create a gruesome exhibition of her torture and pain.

And at this point you can probably predict what my issue with the story is.  In order to tell a story such as this there had to be a real casualty – someone to symbolise that the Joker had finally gone too far.  The Joker had to step over the line from killing random strangers (figures we, as readers, we can feel horrified about, but ultimately forget)  to permanently, violently impacting one of the principle characters.  In service of the plot, Moore selects Batgirl, now Barbara Gordon, to become that sacrificial lamb, turning her into another frustratingly familiar example of the ‘woman in a refrigerator’ trope since her suffering is used to cause Commissioner Gordon – and by extension Batman – the most acute possible pain.  She gives them a reason to fight harder, to brood deeper, to feel even more.

Sure, in subsequent stories Barbara transformed into Oracle, rescuing herself from victimhood by proving to be all the more extraordinary – continuing to fight crime in spite of her disability – but for the span of Moore’s narrative, in service of the specific tale he was telling, she was reduced to the role of victim: shot, stripped naked, photographed (and as some have inferred, perhaps even raped).  She’s not even shown being Batgirl.  Her only actions throughout narrative (aside from squirming in agony) are to serve her father a cup of tea and nag him about getting his clothes dirty.  In fact, to make the act even more arbitrary, the Joker doesn’t target Barbara because she’s Batgirl – he knows her only as Gordon’s daughter.  So in a twisted irony she is punished not because of her crime fighting alter ego, but a quirk of fate in her parentage.

It reduces her, even if momentarily, to just another Bruce Wayne loved one to be savaged and tortured, to twist the knife of guilt into Batman’s gut just a little further.  And that’s a shame, because this kind of chance brutality is a story trope that can, and has, been utilised well in the past – in the Batman universe, no less.

In the Batman Animated Series episode ‘Over the Edge’, written by Paul Dini, Batgirl is killed by Scarecrow while on patrol, thrown from a building to land with a sickening crunch onto the roof of Jim Gordon’s car.  But she’s not just arbitrarily slaughtered to make everyone feel bad – it’s shown to be the natural, unfortunate result of this weird, self-destructive campaign that the entire Bat Family are all on.  It sends Bruce and Jim Gordon into a death spiral of mutual annihilation, with Gordon blaming Bruce for his daughter’s death, and Bruce, wracked with guilt, refusing to let his crusade end.  Both men are shown finally broken, both having betrayed the moral fortitude that they maintained for so long in the wake of abject despair.

batgirl-bruce-timm

IMAGE: Batgirl sketch by Bruce Timm

Mercifully, the entire thing is revealed to be a Scarecrow-induced paranoid hallucination – ironically one dreamed by Barbara herself, thus, ultimately making it her story – but the message that the episode explores, and the unspoken bond it reinforces between Barbara, her father, and Bruce, is quite touching, and handled with an elegant subtly that Moore’s more vicious tale, for all its philosophical gesticulating, lacks.

But that’s just personal opinion (and perhaps it’s not fair to compare the two anyway – they are, after all, different narratives, in different mediums, for two different audiences).  I can completely understand why Moore’s tale is such a beloved and respected work; but it’s a bugbear that gnaws at me whenever I return to it.  Batgirl is stripped of agency, made subservient to Bruce’s story.  And I don’t like seeing that, because, as I’ve come to realise, in truth, she transcends him.  She always has.

After all, Batgirl fills the full Batman checklist, but she does far more besides.  The vigilante crime fighting?  Check.  The detective skills?  Check.  The acumen to juggle an impossible double life?  (Without just slapping a pair of cheap glasses on her face and calling it a day – I’m looking at you, Clark Kent.)  Check.  She’s tenacious.  Brave.  She’s a brawler, a gymnast, a thinker.  And she does it all without Bruce Wayne’s Scrooge McDuck pile o’ money, his indentured slave Alfred, or the Martian Manhunter on speed dial.  There’s more than a little bit if that old truism about Ginger Rogers in Batgirl: like Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire, she does everything Batman does – only backwards, and in high heels.

More significantly though: Bruce needs trauma to be Batman.  Even Moore’s story is just piling further pathos onto the narrative’s gloomy foundation.  Having lost his parents to random injustice Bruce needs sorrow and guilt and despair to focus him.  Fighting crime is the only way that he can channel his self-loathing and guilt.  He uses it as a crutch.  Same with Dick Grayson.  Both seething orphans, their devotion to justice is a way to manifest their personal demons as an obstacle they can punch.

Bruce is compelled to become Batman as a form of self-preservation.  Just as Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face, or Oswald Cobblepot becomes the Penguin – because they are all traumatised souls who have to lose themselves in an alternate persona lest they go loose themselves utterly to madness.  Bruce’s false face is a hero, but his is still a disassociation motivated by fear.

In contrast, Barbara Gordon didn’t need her parents to die to spur her into action.  She didn’t need to be personally effected or disenfranchised to feel compelled to serve her fellow citizens.  She doesn’t have to stare into an abyss of despair and horror each night to feel a duty to act.

Maybe that lack of specific motivation is the product of narrative laziness on behalf of her creators.  Maybe her original inclusion was merely a heterosexual romantic distraction.  Maybe there was some patronisingly antiquated design about how a woman couldn’t be burdened with a dark origin story, that she needed to be fun and perky and fresh.  I don’t honestly know.  But whatever the reason she was created, the result is a character far more worthy of regard.

And that’s what brings me back to that new outfit, and that playful new zip-up bat logo…

Because, sure, it would be nice if she didn’t have to wear someone else’s symbol (even Robin got a private visit to the graphic designer for his upper-case R). But that in itself is indicative of how remarkable her character is.  She chose that image.  It wasn’t inflicted upon her by some personal terror or driving tragedy.

She takes that bat insignia – a symbol of one man’s mad, blind crusade – and redeems it, drags it out of the shadows and into the light.  For Bruce, the bat is a dark alcove to hide within, to redirect fear upon those who would inflict fear upon others; Barbara, meanwhile, is leaping around in yellow.  She takes a crusade born from, and mired within, fear, imbuing it with courage and selfless generosity.

Batgirl did something far more remarkable and far more heroic than being ‘chosen’: she chose for herself.  She saw people suffering.  She saw greed and cruelty and injustice.  She saw some weirdo in a cape trying to do something about it, then did the most extraordinary thing of all.  She decided she could help.

She’s Batman – only better.  She does it with style.

batgirl-new-version-2

IMAGE: Batgirl new costume (MTV News)

Things Strange: The Nostalgic Dungeon Master of Stranger Things

Posted in criticism, movies, television, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2016 by drayfish

strangerthings_promotionalstill-0-0

IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

SPOILERS: Dear Human Beings of The World,

Before you read this, watch ‘Stranger Things’. Watch it immediately.

Do not let anyone (like me) spoil anything about the story. Do not let anyone (like me) say cute lines from it that you will then be waiting to hear uttered by some character in some scene or other. Don’t read supplementary articles (like this very one) talking up its themes or hidden references or whatever. Avoid the AV Club. Don’t even ask anyone if it’s good (it is).

Just watch.

Go in fresh and unspoiled and have an experience.

I’ll see you on the other side.

*     *     *

The zeitgeist is funny.  It can speed along so swiftly.  What one moment was a cult delight, shared like a conspiratorial whisper, the next becomes a full blown sensation, awash with critical recommendations and twitter trending and unchecked, enthusiastic praise.  But then, as predictable as it is petulant, comes the counterattack.  And this has become particularly virulent in the age of the internet.  Once one of these kinds of entertainment convergences appears it gathers speed so fast that it seems but a moment before a saturation point is reached, and people suddenly feel compelled to deride what was once considered great.  They clamour to tear it apart in nit-picking autopsies that attempt to explain away the initial magic that others (not them, certainly) felt, and drag its makers low for their hubris, as if the whole experience was just a con job on us poor, rube viewers.

It’s strange.  It’s a strange thing.

It’s Stranger Things.

Because in the mere two months since it was released into the wild with almost no fanfare (July 15th), Stranger Things has already lived out this absurd pop culture mayfly life cycle.  From surprise critical darling, to over-rated hack job.  And, what this lightning-in-a-bottle series shows – arguably more acutely than any other – is that these kinds of analytical roller coasters can reveal more about audiences than they ever do about the text under scruitiny.  Because Stranger Things didn’t start strong and fade away like LOST.  It didn’t get snarled up in its out increasingly dim-witted mythology like X-Files.  The entire thing was released and disseminated in one day.  It went from bewilderment, to behemoth, to backlash, without changing a single frame.  It was the voices in the audience surrounding it that changed.

For my part, I loved it.

And for once – for perhaps the first time in living history – I was in on the ground floor.  I happened to be in the United States when Stranger Things was released (fittingly, I was actually in Indiana), and happily got to enjoy an unbiased experience of the show.  Before the memes and spoilers and think pieces started rolling out.  Before people began quoting things in their facebook feeds, ‘Where’s Barb?’ became a catch-cry, and fan theories mapped out the shared universe theory with Parks and Recreation.

It popped up on the Netflix feed as a peculiar looking genre throwback.  Some forgotten film from the eighties I might have watched at a drive-in theatre that had been randomly exhumed from the streaming library’s algorithm.  I read the description, only half taking it in, and pressed play.  Five minutes later I knew I was going to follow that show wherever it led.

It was sumptuous and lean and wry.  It’s characters layered and fully fleshed.  It was psychologically horrifying, poised and menacing without resorting to empty jump scares or gratuitous gore.  And it deftly collided at least three separate genres into one, juggling its point of view so as to never sacrifice one for the sake of the others.

On one level it was a boy’s own adventure romp, part ET part Famous Five, in which the investigation of their friend’s disappearance leads a handful of friends to meet a young girl with impossible powers.  It was a tale about being on the precipice of young adulthood; riding bikes through the neighbourhood; growing out of the innocence of childhood; tasting the burgeoning freedom of a relative autonomy, only to discover that adults can dangerous liars with malicious agendas.  On the level of the teenager characters, it was a monster flick.  Part Nightmare on Elm Street, part IT, it was about confronting the terrors of adolescence, like peer pressure, marginalisation, sexual shaming, and being treated like a figurative (and literal) piece of meat.  For the adults, it was a conspiracy tale about fighting against the inexorability of loss and despair; where children die, and relationships erode, and you have to struggle to retain your sense of self against the dispassionate forces of mortality and corporate conspiracy.

And for eight episodes these three plotlines hummed along until colliding in a communal effort to reclaim the young boy who had been sacrificed to the conventions of genre in the season’s opener, setting all of these narratives in motion.

I thought it was splendid.  Drawing upon a rich history of familiar influences, but presenting something audacious and unique.

Little did I realise that I was wrong.  And the show was bad.  And that my nostalgia had been exploited.  Thankfully I had critics like Film Crit Hulk, who are sick and tired of the adulation that this show has received over the past few weeks, to set me straight.

Because didn’t you know it was riddled with nonsensical creative decisions?  Like, didn’t you realise it was silly of the show to linger on the moment where the towns people think they have discovered the missing boy’s body and grieve his death?  Well, it was.  Film Crit Hulk made sure to point out that the show was dumb for doing that because, as viewers, we already suspect that he might not actually have died.  …Even though what was actually being depicting was the characters feeling this despair, rather than some gauche effort to spoon feed a viewer response through the screen.  Also, at this point in the narrative, in truth, we really don’t know what is going on with the boy – he might well be a dead, disembodied spirit.  But never mind all that.  Because didn’t you also know that a young woman seeing something mysterious, then crawling into it instead of scurrying away in fright is totally unrealistic?  …Even though her progression from meek, objectified beauty, to fearless pursuer of truth is central to her character arc.  Because never mind that either.  And surely it doesn’t make sense for a young boy risk endangering himself because his friend’s life is being threatened.  …Even though his character has been repeatedly established to have an overly-empathetic nature, even to his own detriment.  Nope.  Never mind that too.  Despite all of these things arguably making sense, be assured that none of them make sense.  Because reasons.  Because shows have to behave in the predetermined ways that Film Crit Hulk has decided.

So bad show is bad.

(And yes, that’s Film Crit Hulk.  The same guy who furiously defended the lazy, racist nihilism of the Mass Effect ending because he had head-cannoned over its garbled script with a pseudo-philosophy about the cyclical nature of existence.  Who disliked The Dark Knight Rises because he was convinced a distraught Christopher Nolan, still mourning the death of Heath Ledger, had been dragged against his will through the writing and filming process.  Suddenly now an audience projecting anything into its experience of a text – nostalgia; an awareness of hackneyed narrative conventions – is a sign of the text’s weakness, and the audience’s poor, sad foolishness for buying into all this malarkey.)

The show trades in nostalgia, he complains.  It asks you to accept the characters’ logic about alternate dimensions and psychic links without always holding your hand through the justification of such leaps.  It invites you to run with some plot points and ignore others.  On occasion it leans into spectacle as narrative shorthand.  And somehow all of this is outrageous – as if it has never happened in cinema before.  …Except for all of the countless times it happens in the many films and books to which the series lovingly pays homage.

And that, to me, is exactly the point of Stranger Things, and why such criticism rings so hollow.

stranger-things-themonsterepisode

IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

Despite what I’m saying, I don’t mean to attack Film Crit Hulk specifically.  His is by no means the only negative review.  His scathing reaction against the validity of the show in particular just strikes me as representative of the critical double standards to which the series is now being subjected.  Because while Film Crit Hulk has many skills as a critic (at this point I would strenuously argue that the all-caps affectation is decidedly not one of them), his strength has never seemingly been in separating out his personal bias from the interpretation of a text.  Nor, I should add, should it be.

Criticism is an act of intimate engagement with a work of art, an interplay between audience and text.  Just like every viewer sitting down to watch a summer blockbuster, or curling up on the couch with a favourite Austen novel, or firing up a beloved videogame in which the controller already hums with anticipation, one’s own predilections and preoccupations are an unavoidable factor in the experience.  It is that very intimacy that many creators can utilise in their craft.  It’s certainly such a familiarity that the Duffer Brothers – creators, writers and directors of Stranger Things – employ to simultaneously welcome and unsettle their audience.

Because despite what its detractors claim, the eighties aesthetic and storytelling Stranger Things repurposes do not merely operate as window dressing.  It doesn’t use its period setting as a crutch to avoid dealing with the cell phones and internet coverage, nor as a cloying wistful wallpaper to cover holes in its plot.  It’s an earnest throwback to an earlier time, both stylistically and narratively, and this period specificity proves to be key to its purpose.  It’s a bower bird, meticulously fashioning a nest from the scraps of the past, operating as a near perfect union of theme and text.

To begin with, there’s a lovely superficially irony in the way that Stranger Things – a show that you can view alone on a streaming service that enables you to avoid speaking to anyone outside of your house – evokes the bygone experience of going to a video store and scrounging through the aisles for some under-loved cinematic curio.  It calls to mind that communal experience of personally sharing physical media, of pressing a VHS copy of Ridley Scott’s Alien or John Carpenter’s The Thing (taped off television and labelled with black marker), into your friends hand and making them promise, just promise, to watch it.  Just so someone you know can go on that journey with you.

More significantly, however, there is the way in which the series actively subverts expectation by playfully reconstituting the familiar.  Because oddly, what many of the critics of the show miss (or perhaps haughtily dismiss) is the most abiding narrative analogy that Stranger Things repeatedly invokes in its storytelling.  The entire show communicates itself through the lens of a game of Dungeons & Dragons.  The first scene of the series presents four boys sitting around a card table playing a session of the game; the final scenes of the concluding episode returns to those same boys, now reunited, completing their campaign.  In between, the parallel universe into which people are being sucked is spoken of in the language of the D&D shadow realm; the monster vomited up from the darkness is named after a creature from their fantasy journey, the Demogorgon; Will’s actions (‘He cast protection’), and the remaining boy’s friendships, are all rationalised though the rules of teamwork that govern the game; and the creators of the show even poke fun at their own unresolved story beats in the final scenes when the boys all chastise Dungeon Master Mike for leaving strands of his plot unexplained (‘What about the lost knight?’ / ‘And the proud princess?’ / ‘And those weird flowers in the cave?’) despite having ten hours to wrap up his campaign (two hours longer than the show itself).

Dungeons & Dragons is about taking familiar conventions and characters and situations – treasures, wizards, monsters, mysteries, magic powers, quests, etc. – and fluctuating them in unique ways, creating new situations in which to inhabit, and by doing so, exposing aspects of those disparate elements that you never perceived before, or that were never previously present.  By inviting the audience into a remade fiction, riffing on the familiar, the whole campaign becomes something new.  Done well, it creates an experience, in the process of upending these conventions, more than the sum of its parts.

And that it precisely what Stranger Things, by touching the conventions of the old but remaking them new, presents.  The series itself operates as a Dungeons & Dragons game.  The hysterical, possibly unhinged single mother of conventional genre narratives, here becomes an unflappable badass; the lazy county sheriff is revealed to be a dogged investigator willing to embrace surreality; the hackneyed douchebag boyfriend trope rebels against his cowardly, dickish nature; the iconic outcast boys on their Goonies bent are now hunted by killers, see necks snapped and brains crushed in front of their eyes, and learn that every moment of their lives, perpetually and for the rest of their days, exists on the precipice of a world of pitiless darkness that can swallow them whole in an instant.  So, fun!

And in perhaps the best rebellion of type, the attractive young bookworm brushes up against her sexual awakening, but isn’t punished and killed for it; rather she goes all monster-hunter, and tells her parents, the cops, her boyfriend, and even the cute-but-sullen outcast to whom she is warming to all go screw off when they try to demean her or dictate her life.  And even in her final scene, when narrative convention would suggest that she should have hooked up with the weirdo with the heart of gold, she zigs again to remain with the conventionally ‘bad’ boyfriend Steve, who has traded the Kevin Back in Footloose ensemble for a goofy Christmas sweater.

All these things – these rote, familiar things – are appropriated and made strange.  And in so doing the show crafts something wholly individual out of the chrysalis of the past, turning the comfort of nostalgia against itself.  In a way, the ‘upside down’ is the wellspring of genre that the Duffer Brothers have touched, and from which this show, misshapen inexplicable creature that it is, emerges.  Stranger Things subsequently defies convention and allows characters traditionally marginalised in popular culture to assert themselves beyond the stereotypes of ‘crazy single mother’ and ‘un-virginal slasher film bait’.  It reveals the past to be a dangerous place, shows youth to be more dangerous and psychologically devastating than it appears in Spielberg’s nostalgic Amblin glow.  It doesn’t mean that you cannot enjoy the show if you have not been steeped in texts it evokes, but it does mean that if you have, it can potentially speak on multiple levels at once.

But above and beyond all that, on every level, the series is about letting your freak flag fly.  About not apologising for what you love, as hokey or rough at the edges as it might be.  It is a show that encourages you to identify with the self-possessed teen who no longer hesitates from asserting herself – in either the world or the narrative.  With the mother who loves her kid enough to not give a good goddamn if the rest of the town thinks she’s nuts.  The detective who doesn’t back down when he decides to give a crap.  The lonely weirdo, more afraid and more powerful than people know, who just wants to find a place in the world.  With the outcast boys young enough in spirit to still believe in the magic of collaborative imagination.

Consequentially, the fact that there are critics who look at Stranger Things and declare its period setting meaningless surprises me; but the thought that anyone could point at its invocation of overplayed tropes and not see the way in which they were being necessarily subverted, rewriting these tired conventions, astounds.  But that’s just the thing: not everything is meant for everyone.  That’s the beauty and the penalty of subjectivity.  Critics like Film Crit Hulk clearly do not see what I see in the show.  And that’s fine.  Dungeons & Dragons is not a game the whole world can experience at one.  Each round is uniquely tailored by its Dungeon Master to a specific audience.  And as the audience, you have to know the rules and be prepared to test them.

Most of all, however, you have to be willing to play.

stranger-things-poster-netflix1

IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 04: ‘Making Troy Great Again!’; Troilus and Cressida and Rhetoric.

Posted in criticism, literature, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on July 17, 2016 by drayfish

Troilus and Cressida 01

IMAGE: Troilus and Cressida (BBC, 1981)

It is an understatement to say that Troilus and Cressida is a hard play to love.  More accurately, it seems near impossible to find anyone who says they love it.  Perhaps more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays Troilus and Cressida is little discussed, infrequently performed, and when spoken of in criticism, usually prefaced with some backhanded commentary (like this) about how baffling a ‘problem play’ such has this has always proved to be.*  In his discussion of the play, Jack Vaughn repeatedly refers to elements of the plot and its characters as ‘botched’, ‘pointless’, ‘unsatisfactory’ and ‘confusing’ (at its very best he calls it ‘stageworthy’).  Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, calls it ‘the most difficult and elitist of all [Shakespeare’s] works’ (p.327).

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I had no idea what to expect from Troilus and Cressida before approaching it for this discussion.  I’d not previously read it, nor seen it.  I knew almost nothing of its plot, its characters, nor its reputation.  Somewhere along the way I’d gathered that it involved a love story, though I ‘d never read Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, upon which Shakespeare based his narrative.  I knew it involved the Trojan War (with which I’m more familiar) but did not know in what capacity, or from which angle he approached it.  So I went in fresh – arguably perfectly primed for the experience – and what I read, and then later saw, was legitimately haunting.  And it would take months, and the daily dispatches of the American presidential race, for me to figure out exactly why.

But more on that later…

In Shakespeare’s canon Troilus and Cressida is a bizarre outlier – and it seems to revel in this disorientation.  Described by some (including the First Folio of 1623) as a tragedy, by others a comedy (in the searing satirical vein rather than the playful or romantic), and still others as a semi-historical riff on Greek myth (the Quarto of 1609 calls it a history), Troilus and Cressida is altogether everything and nothing at once.  It sets up multiple narratives, only to then thwart or undermine every one.  It promises a love story (in its title, no less) that turns into less than a cheap one night stand and a torrent of bitter insults; concerns the most legendary war in human history, and yet reduces it to a gaggle of smug bros flexing at, shouting over, or ambushing one another like cowards.

It’s a play that I have come to learn has a bit of a curious history.  It seems to have never been presented at Shakespeare’s The Globe during his lifetime – although that could suggest many things.  Perhaps Shakespeare was not finished writing it to a producible standard (unlikely); perhaps its subject matter was potentially too inflammatory to be seen (given everything that happens in act 5 this might be possible); or it was performed there and the evidence is just lost.  The first recorded production of the original play (an altered version by John Dryden played during the Restoration) was in the early 20th century, a time that seems fitting for the pessimism and contempt for war that infuse the work.

Ostensibly it is the story of two Trojans, Troilus and Cressida, whose burgeoning romance is cut short by the politicking of their city’s war with the Greeks – but this is all an overt misdirection.  Really the plot concerns the war itself, and the character of the people engaged in it.  The other source that Shakespeare clearly drew upon for inspiration, besides Chaucer, was Homer’s Iliad – and that poem, which proves to be a war book to condemn the futility of war, Shakespeare’s play is similarly critical, offering a scathing social satire.

The play’s myriad subversions of expectation begin from its opening second.  As a prologue, Shakespeare has a narrator enter dressed in a suit of armour to give a brief account of the Trojan War.  There’s the vow to ransack Trojan King Priam’s city; the romance between Paris and Helen; ‘the quarrel’; the disposition of the warriors; the layout of the camps; the doorways of Troy itself.  He talks of the location and security of the two armies, the fortitude spurring them all on to impending hazard, but he also draws attention to his own curious costuming, and the play itself.

He has seemingly come to perform the thankless task of delivering exposition, informing the audience that the story is starting midway through the mythic events of the Trojan conflict, but more than that, he has wandered out on stage, dressed for war, to declare that war is not the principle thing on the menu.  In actuality, his whole speech is a stage-setting distinctly obsessed with defences and deflection – both literal and figurative:

                                ‘And hither am I come,

A prologue armed, but not in confidence

Of author’s pen or actor’s voice, but suited

In like condition of our argument…’ (‘Prologue’, 22-5)

Alongside describing the defences of each army, he is warning the viewer to be on guard too; he even admits that he doesn’t know if the play is any good, nor the acting that great.  He warns the viewer to take nothing in this caustically ironic myth at face value.

Which brings attention to the next great quirk of this introduction: there’s no mention, at all, of the play’s titular characters.  Unlike the introduction of Romeo & Juliet, which sets up the plight of the play’s lovers in a context of conflict and ruin – that of the corrupted ‘fair’ Verona – here the lover’s romance is not even name-checked.  The table is set for war – and perhaps love – but it is all placed deliberatively in a state of potentiality:

‘Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are:

Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war.’ (‘Prologue’ 30-1)

War may or may not break out; love may or may not happen; the play may or may not be any good – that will all be up to us to discern.  No wonder the Prologue so overtly alerts the viewer to the artifice of the production – the costumes, the writer, the performers – because the play itself is about to unfold, not as a battlefield, not even as a love story, but as an act of bewilderment.

It is about courtship amongst carnage; except that it’s not.  About mythic warfare; except it deflates that too.  In its title and its prologue, it intrigues us with the promise of wooing, and the tragic majesty of war, but will leave both unfulfilled, instead satirically exposing how empty the longing for both of these things is in a world of empty posturing.

For a story set in a war that famously ends with the sly infiltration of a walled city – the Trojan Horse – these negotiations of guarding and deceit are potent indeed.  As the play proceeds it takes up the images of protection and shielding that pepper the introduction, but in doing so reveals the whole psychology of the war, and these two peoples, Trojans and Achaeans, to be twisted into paranoid defensiveness.

Troilus and Cressida

IMAGE: Troilus and Cressida by J. Coghlan (early 19th century)

The lovers, at first, both proclaim a need to hide their true feelings.  Troilus claims that he has to hide his affection for Cressida (‘buried this sigh in a wrinkle of a smile’ (1.1.38); his ‘sorrow … is crouched in seeming gladness’ (1.1.39));  Cressida has to outpace her uncle’s wit when he tactlessly tries to set her up with Troilus, a man she’s not yet actually met.  Being a woman in this world means remaining constantly at alert against attack.  Cressida lies, she says,

‘Upon my back, to defend my belly; upon my wit, to
defend my wiles; upon my secrecy, to defend mine
honesty; my mask, to defend my beauty; and you, to
defend all these: and at all these wards I lie, at a
thousand watches.’ (1.2.252-6)

Almost immediately after this she reveals that she does in fact like Troilus a great deal, she simply feels she has to hide it from him (and everyone else) lest he lose interest in her for being too easy to win over (and her fears of his fickle affections will indeed be proved true).

Cressida observes:

‘Men prize the thing ungained more than it is’ (1.2.275)

And the play proves her right.  Every longed for object – Cressida; Troy; Helen – is elevated to a state of impossible glory in the minds of those who claim to desire it.  But the result of this affected detachment is, ironically, the devaluing of that which is pursued.  In the case of the women being pursued, this belittling apparently occurs even in their own minds.  Love becomes a boast; a lover a trophy to wave in the enemy’s face.

Diomedes, the Greek sent to exchange Cressida for Antenor (a Trojan prisoner being returned) sees through the artifice of all this ‘nobility’ and is willing to describe it as a bitter squabble over a ‘prize’ that is already devalued by the conflict.  Helen, he says, is now either dishonoured or a whore, with the innumerable men who have died in her name only sullying her worth further (4.1.55-75).

‘She hath not given so many good words breath

As for her Greeks and Trojans suffered death’ (4.1.74-5)

And yet Paris, so enamoured with his ego-delighting prize, dismisses Diomedes’ words as envy, only continuing the pointless cycle of love’s debasement into pride.

The play is overstuffed with characters proudly displaying how little they know themselves.  Ajax claims he doesn’t even know what pride is (2.3.146), and yet he is locked in a petty pissing contest with Achilles; Agamemnon condemns pride (2.3.150) despite his own arrogance being the cause of the rift between he and Achilles; Paris claims to be doing the honourable thing in not offering up Helen, despite it clearly being selfishness; and Troilus argues the moral virtue of keeping the stolen queen Helen – all of which is proved, later, to be a projection of his own fickle lust for Cressida.  He calls Helen:

‘a theme of honour and renown,

A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds,

Whose present courage may beat down our foes,

And fame in time to come canonise us’ (2.2.198-201)

And yet – as Hector suggests – Troilus is really just hopped up on his own hormonal longing for Cressida, and will abandon all these noble words of honour, and the supposed ‘glory’ of defending a stolen prize with blood, when Troilus’ own moment comes his fellow Trojans decide to trade Cressida away to the Greeks and he doesn’t fight for her.  Not even with more pretty words.

Ultimately, this is a play to make you hate men.  Simpering, cowardly, narcissistic Paris; braying, egomaniacal, thuggish Achilles; hypocritical, inconsistent Troilus; conniving, manipulative Ulysses; sleazy Pandarus; Ajax the blowhard idiot; Agamemnon the smug; Menelaus the belligerent and petty; even prideful Hector.  Mankind, in all its forms, is cast in the most unflattering light.  As Ulysses says, speaking of Achilles but proving a fitting summation of most every male character in the play:

         ‘possessed he is with greatness,

And speaks not to himself but with pride,

That quarrels as self-breath’ (2.3.164-6)

Each is so distracted with ‘imagined worth’ that they become lost in a fruitless battle with themselves.

Meanwhile women – when they are not being disingenuously exulted – are derided, discarded or damned.  Those not placed upon dehumanising pedestals are subjected to other insult.  When Aeneas arrives (Act 1, Sc 2) to announce Hector’s challenge to fight any Trojan brave enough to fight him, the challenge comes loaded with the insult that no Greek has a lover as fine as Hector’s wife, nor one worth defending as he does.  Greek women aren’t worthy loving, he says.

Cassandra, who appears to see through all this idiocy into the madness of it all, goes ignored; Andromache is shushed and dismissed; Helen is squabbled over and objectified, both a jewel and an albatross around the Trojan necks, with no worth but to be lusted after, even by those who hate her; and Cressida, after being pimped out by her uncle, is traded like cattle into her enemies’ hands, is then condemned, both by her wavering, spineless ‘lover’, and seemingly the play itself.  When she even entertains being wooed by one of her captors she is called unfaithful, false, stained, a whore, a depravity that debases all of womanhood (and that’s Troilus saying most of that – the guy who handed her over to his enemies without hesitation, having just slept with her – so, charmer) (5.2.127-31).

Troilus and Cressida 02

IMAGE: Troilus and Cressida (BBC, 1981)

Women are expected to maintain some impossible, saintly image in this play, to always defend the ‘virtues’ and ‘beauties’ and fantasies that men project upon them, while those same men go to every effort to tear down those defences, to undermine or ignore them.  They are set with an impossible, irrational, doomed task, and then are condemned when they inevitably cannot satisfy these contradictory demands.

In this sense, it may well be Shakespeare’s most modern, if unrelentingly bleak, plays.  In the wake of Gamergate, the uproar over a female Ghostbusters, and an unceasing industry of patronisingly sexist articles like the drooling interview with Margot Robbie in Vanity Fair, this searing indictment of entrenched patriarchy and systemised, celebrated misogyny retains all of its bite.

Amidst this ugliness, Shakespeare does not even offer the audience a sympathetic character with which we can identify.  The closest, perhaps, are two characters who actively repel the audience.  The first, Pandarus, is the play’s most peculiar character.  Distractible, a little thick, so focused on trying to woo Cressida in Troilus’ name that he is blind to most everything else – even Cressida’s seeming indifference.  And yet, if there is an audience equivalent in this play, a window into its fiction, it is he.  When the whole narrative has seemingly abandoned Troilus and Cressida’s story in order to fiddle about in the Grecian camp, watching arrogant men poke one another’s pride, he is the only one left asking what is going on with the love story that gives the play its name.  In a suffocating war, he still raves effusively for love.  Like the audience, he seems to be the only one who came to see a love story; and so, by the end of this play’s action, he is left sick and mad, destroyed both body and soul in the face of so much hate and carnage and waste.

The second potential point of view character for the audience is Thersites, a guy so cynical and fed up with everyone around him that when faced with death his bid to live is: ‘I am a rascal; a scurvy, railing knave; a very filthy rogue’ (5.4.27).  Essentially, I’m not worth killing because I’m a scumbag who doesn’t care about any of this war crap.  And while that is a bold self-critique of the play and its themes, it makes it a difficult work (as the play’s prologue warned) to love.

It is probably this wilful discomforting of the audience that has led to this being one of Shakespeare’s least filmed plays.  There are no major motion pictures based on his script, and the one production I found to view (there is another 2015 short film version that I’ve not been able to track down) comes from the BBCs television film series in which they were obligated to produce every one of this works.

Troilus and Cressida (1981) is worth watching, though, as it makes some curious choices in its staging, casting, and acting that only adds to the undermining of expectation that begins from the first moment the actors step on stage.  The result is a series of stylistic choices that annoyed me at first, but that are clearly designed to create a jarring effect which ultimately won me over, even if my unease with the original work still remains.

Firstly, it has to be said that the mythic soldiers of Greece and Troy are rather a bit older than one might expect, and (to put it politely) considerably less battle-ready than the text itself would suggest.  Across the board the acting is solid (if leaning a little too far into stagey pronouncement at times), but the performers’ age and appearance make all the talk of warfare and bloodshed and hand-to-hand combat comical.  When war councils are called it looks more like a gaggle of AARP members passive-aggressively bickering over how to split the cheque at the early bird buffet.  When Achilles turns up, the most brutal, merciless, unstoppable warrior of all time looks like a retired plumber.  And although according to legend the character of Aeneas will go on after the events of Shakespeare’s play to gather the refugees of Troy, travel perilous seas, have a doomed romance with Dido, descend into Hades, invade Italy, and found the great nation of Rome, here he looks like Santa Claus in a duffle coat.  After he delivers a message he looks like he needs a good lie down.

There’s no fury, no passion, no sense of urgency in any of them.

Clearly this was a deliberate choice rather than merely the natural result of a 1980s BBC casting call.  Troilus and Cressida are played by comparatively younger performers, so it draws a bold visual distinction between the titular lovers and everyone around them: youth versus weary age; idealism versus cankerous cynicism; affection versus  self-adoration.  However, the consequence is a play that undermines its central characters from the very start – opening them up to the satire that courses throughout every aspect of the play.

Unfortunately, for me, this creates a stumbling block in the production.  Rather than sharing Troilus’ misconception that his fellow warriors are men of nobility and honour, only to later be disabused of this misconception, we begin already mystified by his misplaced regard.  For Troilus, his disenchantment with war and love and valour is four acts away; for the audience it occurs as soon as Aeneas shuffles onto stage and sighs in Act 1 Sc 1, robbing the play of its methodical unpacking of ‘heroic mythology’ by making the subtext immediately text.

Again, this is no doubt part of the desired effect, but by keeping the conflict so abstracted from the glib posturing of these heroes, by making them so comically unfit for war in the first place, to me, the play gives away the thematic twist all too early, meaning that the audience is never able to invest in the mythos being dissolved.  We begin contemptuous of Troilus’ delusions long before his – and his society’s – hypocrisies are revealed.

Troilus and Cressida

IMAGE: Troilus and Cressida (BBC, 1981)

The set design and costuming are similarly a curious mix of anachronisms.  There is more than a bit of Doctor Who to the production – not surprising for a BBC television production with a limited budget – with only two sets, a great hall in Troy and a Greek encampment, getting filmed from multiple angles to give an illusion of expansiveness.  For its part, Troy has a Giorgio de Chirico vibe, filled with staircases that go nowhere, empty corridors into nothing, bare arches and plinths, with the whole environment having no sense of yet being under siege.  The Greek camps are seething mud and campfires, cramped tents spilling over with throw pillows and prostitutes.  There’s a marked contrast between the two spaces, but no real sense of how they relate to each other.  The fighting between Trojan and Greek is sparse, filmed in awkward close up, or in the case of Ajax and Hector, as an afterthought slap-fight in the background.  The only real sense that the Greeks are in any way inconveniencing or encroaching upon the Trojans comes in the final scenes when the dead and dying start piling up.  Only then does the stark, museum lighting give way to a shadowy gloom.

Just personal preference, but I’m less in love with the costuming – this production chooses to ditch the ancient Mediterranean for more of a renaissance fair vibe – because the chipping away of the classical pseudo-historical myth of the Trojan War  seems to me to be the point of the play.  However, the alternate-reality perpetual-war evoked by this grab-bag of outfits and set design works well enough.

For a couple of months now, both before and after I saw this BBC version, I’ve been trying to diagnose what it is about Troilus and Cressida that so unnerves me.  Yes, it is a dark satire.  It sells itself on themes of love and heroism, only to actively denigrate those concepts; to prostitute them out, in the language of Pandarus, until, like him, they are diseased and vile.  And for that, I admire the work, and the statement about humanity it makes, as callous and spiteful as that message proves to be.  But there’s something more, something I find genuinely disturbing.  And then, this past weekend, I read an article by George Saunders in The New Yorker called ‘Who Are All These Trump Supporters’ and it all clicked into place.

Saunders’ article is about the rise of Donald Trump throughout this presidential campaign, and the temperament of his most ardent followers.  It explores both the grassroots supporters and the protesters that frequent Trump’s rallies: those that turn up to cheer, that parrot the talking points, that jostle and attack and whip themselves into a fury on both sides of America’s needlessly bifurcated political spectrum.  As you can imagine, it is a dispiriting read.  But what it reveals most is that there is an impulse – in the vile, intolerant rhetoric that Trump uses to enflame his followers’ sense of disenfranchisement; in those supporters’ willingness to overlook or excuse the repugnant behaviour of their presidential hopeful; and in the protestors’ willingness to descend into the same bigotry and rancour they claim to oppose – to willingly devalue the very principles one is hoping to celebrate, if it means claiming victory over your opposition.

As Saunders displays, Trump and his supporters want to protect free speech – unless someone else is saying something they don’t like.  They want to make their country great again – by ignoring its founding principles of freedom and papering over the realities of its history.  Protestors against Trump want to stop the racist slurs and invective – unless they are the ones using it.   And everyone, everywhere, on both sides, is intent on propping up whatever their position is by making fraudulent assertions, claiming to be the most patriotic, and mistaking bullying aggression for strength.  It’s Troilus and Cressida – only it is stripped of all the mythology and just lying bare and ugly for all to see.

As human beings we live in a perpetual state of opposition.  We identify ‘Others’ and try to distinguish ourselves through the contradictions in our world views.  Us and them.  Male and female.  Democrat and Republican.  Trojan and Greek.  But what we miss, in this blind, defensive posturing, this willingness to boil everything down to a false bipolarity of thought, is the similarities in our behaviours that bind us (even if sometimes only at the most base, lizard-brain, elemental level) to one another.

The consequence is that we now live in a time where public discourse itself seems to have devolved into a despairing farce.  A time when news organisations blatantly perpetuate their own narratives  and create their own ‘facts’.  A time in which one of the two nominees running for control of the most powerful country on Earth – a candidate whose popularity resoundingly trounced his rivals – is a man that routinely demonises immigrants and Muslims and ‘elites’.  Who insults women, mocks the disabled, and scoffs at prisoners of war.  Who celebrates himself after national tragedies, advocates for war crimes, and looks to Mussolini and multiple white supremacists for inspirational quotes.  A man so insecure and desperate to prove his machismo that he has to stop a presidential debate to assure that world that he has a wonderful penis.

Trump pledge

IMAGE: Donald Trump at the University of Central Florida, March 2016

I said earlier that Troilus and Cressida might well be Shakespeare’s most modern play.  Not only for its gender politics, but for the scathing catalogue it offers of a world of self-destructive misogyny, xenophobia, and feckless bluster, one that celebrates arrogance and  ignorance and brutality in a cruel, empty campaign of fraudulent self-gratification.  Sure, these have all been features of contemporary society for generations now – Shakespeare clearly saw some of it in the turn of the 17th century – but in the wake of the Trump Presidential campaign, now it seems downright prophetic.

Troilus and Cressida promises much – the great romance of Romeo & Juliet, the heroic battle of Henry V, the interrogation of human interiority of As You Like It, even the tragedy of Hamlet – and yet it thwarts these at every opportunity.  It shows the emptiness of its ‘tragic’ heroes, reveals characters driven by blind obsessions and pride, reveals war to be an ugly, deceitful, squalid business, and exposes it’s ‘lovers’ as inconstant frauds.  It is a play that dares you to hate it (again: that prologue), and yet in its constant frustration of expectation it becomes a fascinating, if disturbing, portrait of humanity’s natural inclination toward self-deception and fear.

troilus-and-pandarus2

IMAGE: Pandarus, Troilus and Cressida (BBC, 1981)

This play ends with a madman ranting about how diseased he and his world have become.  Trump, the world-view he espouses, and the slurry of bloodthirsty bipartisan hate speech that he has gathered around himself, seem equally as contemptible.

Just not as honest.

donald-trump

IMAGE: Donald Trump

***

* The term ‘Problem Play’ was coined by F.S. Boas in 1896, and is used in reference to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well – all plays that are too dark and filled with disturbing subject matter to be easily classified as comedies, and yet too playful in tone to be outright tragedies.  Of course, the term ‘Problem Play’ is itself plenty problematic.  Other titles are frequently added or subtracted from that list, including Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale, and the term itself remains contentious, with many critics not recognising its validity at all.

***

 Texts mentioned:

Book: Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare (ed. by Kenneth Muir, Oxford World’s Classics, 1982)

Production: The Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare: Troilus & Cressida (directed by Jonathan Miller, BBC television movie, 1981)

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom (Berkley Publishing Group, 1998)

‘Troilus and Cressida’ by Jack A. Vaughn, from Shakespeare’s Comedies (Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1980)

%d bloggers like this: