Friday Film Festival 003: Shakespeare Noir

Over the past ten years, I've become the kind of person who will say, with a weary, condescending sigh, that he doesn't really like movies. I say this for two reasons: first, as a sort of low-level guerilla warfare against the wholesale dominance of our cultural discourse by film. If I have to read one more person justifying their interest in a song/band/genre by talking about how Martin fucking Scorcese used it over the end credits of whatever, I'm going to . . . uh, roll my eyes and grumble to myself like I've been doing much of my adult life. If people are allowed to walk around saying that they don't really listen to music, or they don't really read books, or that they don't watch sports or follow politics, then surely I'm allowed to place a premium on my own interests at the expense of whatever "cultural conversation" others think I might be missing out on.

But the second reason I say it is because it's quicker than saying that I actually do like movies a lot, I just don't like movies in the way that most people like movies, or the kinds of movies that most people like, since people tend to think you're judging them when you say that. (It's why I've stopped saying I don't watch TV even though it's still factually accurate; I watch a handful of shows on my computer a while after they air, via means of varying legality. When I can find the time.) But bringing myself to acknowledge the fact that, yes, I actually do like movies after I've spent so much time saying otherwise, has been something of a journey for me.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this Friday (ha) Film Festival project owes most of its existence to the Battleship Pretension podcast, which I've been listening to for almost two years mostly because Tyler and David hang out in the L.A. comedy scene, and they had some of my favorite comedians on, and I liked what I heard and kept listening. Hearing two smart, unpretentious guys talk about movies in a smart, unpretentious way, week after week, has encouraged me to think that, hey, maybe I can like movies without surrendering to All That Shit I Don't Care For. And since my tastes are largely unrepresented in the film-geek discourse, maybe I might even have something to contribute.

Anyway, BP's most recent episode was Shakespeare In Film. (Or rather, films of Shakespeare plays; I was afraid they would get into stuff like Shakespeare In Love, but they didn't even mention it.) Not having had a Festival lined up for this week, I thought that sounded interesting; and I happened to have the materials for one lying around.

These are all black-and-white film adaptations of Shakespeare plays; they aren't necessarily the most revered versions of any of the plays, and they certainly aren't the most popular. But I, as both a fan of Shakespeare (just the standard English major's appreciation, I haven't gone full geek on his work, though I was unreasonably annoyed whenever Tyler or David, whose combined knowledge of movies vastly dwarfs mine, got something wrong about the plays) and someone who is gradually discovering within himself a keen interest in black-and-white cinematography, have really been looking forward to watching these movies for the past week.

1. Hamlet

(UK) Laurence Olivier · 1948

Hamlet is the Shakespeare play I've studied the most extensively and has a solid lock on being my favorite of the tragedies: its place as the usual junior-year-of-high-school Shakespeare play caught me at exactly the right age for the title character's self-important navel-gazing, Ophelia's wasted life and love, and the earthy humanism of the minor characters to seem like the most important things ever committed to paper. Even today it's difficult for me to think of it in any other terms but Monolithic Classic of Western Art; like Beethoven or the Sistine Chapel or Homer, it's just there, having shaped the rest of the world around it like a boulder in the path of a growing tree.

And aside from a teenage infatuation with Helena Bonham Carter as Mel Gibson's Ophelia, I've been snobbily unimpressed with any of the screen adaptations I've seen — perhaps especially Kenneth Branagh's four-hour slog through the written play, in which turns by Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams were only interesting in being utterly out of place. (I'd have preferred a Hamlet pitched at the level they were playing it; but then I've only ever enjoyed Branagh as Benedick.) And it occurs to me now that black-and-white was the missing element; somehow, even though I wasn't aware of the Olivier version in high school, its moody, stark contrasts were what I was picturing in my head the whole time.

And its art direction is simply ravishing; Olivier's Hamlet, dark-clothed with pale face and hair, stands out like a Harlequin in the chorus of grays that make up the set. This Elsinore, with its vast empty spaces and exposed, crumbling architecture, has its own proto-Gothic character: neither Hamlet's nor Ophelia's descent into madness seems particularly suprising here. (Jean Simmons as Ophelia is surprisingly effective even though she's beggared by the older cast members who between them had a couple centuries' worth of experience playing Shakespeare.) The kind of savage interiority with which Olivier approaches the title role is reflected in the deep-focus camera work, with plunging, twisting shots that keep us off-balance; the entire set, beautifully constructed though it is, might as well be a metaphor for the multi-chambered ruins of Hamlet's own collapsing psyche.

Olivier plays Hamlet with a raw physicality that not even Mel Gibson the action hero attempted; the seeming disconnect between his troubled, digressive interior dialogue (I'm not sure what I think about the choice to render much of the great soliloquies in voiceover) and the constant energy of his body is resolved in the final act, when camera trickery and interior monologues are dispensed with, and mind and body finally unite in the gorgeously-staged duel with Laertes. Apparently Olivier was largely inspired by Freud's reading of the play (the scenes with Gertrude make this obvious); but the existentialist reading, in which action however doomed is preferable to inaction, is the one that springs clearest to my eyes.

I wouldn't call it a perfect movie; the editing in particular leaves something to be desired, and any Hamlet that leaves out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is fatally incomplete. But it's a fantastic first step on this quick little trip.

2. Othello
(USA) Orson Welles · 1952

Othello happens to be one of the handful of Shakespeare plays I haven't previously read or seen any performance of, though like any moderately well-informed participant in Western culture I know the story. So watching this for the first time was as much nailing down the specifics of plot and character outside the Othello-Desdemona-Iago trinity as it was determining how the movie worked as an adaptation. I found the dialogue a little tough to follow at times, but I'm not sure how much that can be attributed to my unfamiliarity with much of the original text as opposed to the odd editing choices that were forced upon the filmmakers.

The story of the difficult and scattershot filming of Othello has been much rehashed elsewhere; all I can say is that it shows. The editing is sometimes amateurish to the point of delinquency, as in shots where people plainly speak but no dialogue is heard, monologues delivered with the back to the camera, and frequent disunity of tone between vocals and image — of course all this can be justified as contributing to an atmosphere of deliberate destabilization, Othello's world breaking down around him even as his trust in Desdemona breaks down, but I can't help believing a larger budget, reserved studio space, and no breaks in shooting would have left these apparent avant-gardisms on the floor.

All that said, there is some bravura filmmaking in there (and even when the filmmaking, in terms of sequential motion, isn't so hot, the individual images are always superbly composed), as of course one would expect from Welles. The dialogue-free pre-titles sequence is spectacular, setting a mood and casting a spell which the rest of the movie never quite lives up to, a severer and more intense mini-film than anything armed with mere words could be. Welles may not have been an auteur in the sense that there was a through-line or clear connecting themes to his movies, but in the sense of having a total mastery of his cinematic tools, he was undoubtedly one of the greatest.

Which leads us to his performance; a good one, if fatally compromised by the dual decisions to cast him as Othello and then to put him in blackface for it. I recognize that it's historically been an uncontroversial choice, that actors were blacking up for Othello long before American minstrelsy gave blackface the particular shame and disgust it carries today, but it's not like great black actors didn't exist in the late 40s and early 50s, or that Welles didn't know about them. (He produced an all-black Macbeth in 1936, and Paul Robeson had performed the role to great acclaim in England in 1931 and America in 1943.) But of course film financing was not theater financing, and the willingness of audiences in America or Europe to countenance the image of a powerful, sexually desirable black man killing a white woman — even in the name of High Culture — was limited. The result is a compromised movie, and I can't watch Welles in the role without thinking of him as "Othello," in quotes, and mentally substituting an actual black man.

It's a compromised movie regardless; immensely rewarding in spots, certainly, and I'd sooner watch it again than see Olivier's version — also in blackface, and (shudder) in color — though Laurence Fishburne looks tempting. (Oh, ninteen-nineties. Is there any adaptation you didn't attempt?) But first of all, I really need to read the play.

3. A Midsummer Night's Dream
(USA) Max Reinhardt & William Dieterle · 1935

After these intense, nearly experimental Shakespeares, let's cleanse the palate with a bubbly studio-system production. Olivia de Havilland as Hermia? Dick Powell as Lysander? Jimmy Cagney as Bottom? Mickey Rooney as Puck? Joe E. Brown having any business there at all? Sounds terrible, and it mostly is. But I have a weakness for studio adaptations of classic literature from the thirties and forties (like the truly godawful Greer Garson Pride & Prejudice), and find the professionalism of a certain type of character actor when entirely misapplied to a role incredibly entertaining.

It's a good thing that A Midsummer Night's Dream is impossible to take seriously, because it's sure as hell impossible to take this movie even as intentional comedy. It's camp through and through, and all the better for it. Half the cast doesn't even attempt an English accent, the other half plays it as broad as if the movie were silent, and the art design and costuming is so outlandish as to cross the border into silly. In one magnificently ludicrous moment early on, Dick Powell pretends to adjust a tie his fake-Elizabethan's-fake-Athenian costume doesn't have, then sings a snatch of the "Wedding March" from Mendelssohn score to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

That snatch of Mendelssohn is important: Reinhardt (adapting his stage production) and Dieterle (stretching his muscles for fantasy) use the score so much that the movie is practically a musical, the most familiar and easy-to-get form of cinematic fantasy in the thirties. And where it's not a musical, it's a pantomime, with as obnoxiously a twee, hyperactive crew of fairies as anyone who's suffered through "classic" children's entertainment of the period has heard. Rooney's Puck in particular is so manic as to be the stuff of legend, nearly as unwatchable as his infamous turn in Breakfast At Tiffany's though for wholly different reasons. If I were Oberon, I'd smack him good for every inane giggle and stupid shriek. But despite all that, there's a generous spirit to the fairy sequences, an lavish sense of spectacle, an giddy orgy of design and special effects that predicts The Wizard Of Oz or even in spots Lord Of The Rings.

But if Rooney is the worst thing about the movie, Cagney as Bottom is surely the best: even when his expressive features are obscured by one of the worst donkey masks I've ever seen (never try to make it animatronic; you just look stupid sixty years later), his dancer's posture and nimble hands do more than anyone else in the frame with all their faculties. Though Dick Powell does pull the most astonishing faces, as though he were making fun of the entire thing; in fact the four-way fight between Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena is a minor masterpiece of over-the-top camp, even squashing as much of the play as possible into the smallest space by having all four deliver lines at the same time. Still, the rude mechanicals are the most straightforwardly funny thing in the film, the thirties' broad style of comedy being a far better match to the similarly broad antics of the Shakespearean clowns than the Victorian sentiment of Titania or the Powell's Broadway swagger.

The copy I have is a disgustingly low-quality VHS rip, so I'm not bothering to pull a clip from it, but I can make out just enough of the picture through the grainy distortion that I'd love to see a crisp DVD transfer -- while the performances may be amusingly out of sync with modern tastes, the glittery, wholly artificial sets and costuming are still something of a gold standard for black-and-white fantasy, a triumph of visual and cinematic ideas over theatrical and actorly execution. The play is one of my favorite Shakespeare comedies, and if this film owes more to early-twentieth-century conventions of pantomime and film comedy than to anything Shakespeare wrote, it's nevertheless hugely enjoyable on its own merits.

You do have to have the stomach for it, though.

Obviously, this brief list in no way exhausts the black-and-white canon of Shakespeare; there are at least ten others I could have chosen, not including Chimes At Midnight or Throne Of Blood. But these are the three I wanted to see the most just now; and so to bed.

1 comment:

Tyler Smith said...

Great article. Glad we could inspire you.

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