Sunday, November 26, 2017

It's Not Even Past #1: Shakespeare in Love - beginning

Long before the era of Harvey Weinstein, I was completely ashamed of my love of Shakespeare in Love - which some people, usually too young to have ever seen it except on TV for ten minutes at a time, name the worst Best Picture of all time. Whether or not it is, and seriously, there are much worse, it is forever the epitome of the 'bought' Academy Award. Harvey Weinstein bought a dream team of Hollywood publicists not just to publicly advertise for Shakespeare in Love, but to go to Hollywood parties and talk about how great the movie is. The campaign cost at least 5 million dollars. This movie's purplest prose is often quoted by younger movie lovers to demonstrate it's stupidity. The one I'm about to read is one of the most embarrassing quotes ever allowed into a great movie, and there are probably another dozen of these howlers in Shakespeare in Love.:
Not the artful postures of love, but love that overthrows life. Unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart, and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture. Love as there has never been in a play. I will have love. Or I will end my days...
 The great musician Thomas Beecham once said that 'the arts in America are a racket run by unscrupulous men for unhealthy women. Let's be just a little uncharitable to a number of people here. This is, to be likely, a sentiment which a lot of middle class people from the Victorian era up to the Eisenhower era probably viewed as typical of Shakespeare - particularly women, as they had little option but to stay in their own homes and therefore obviously had more time to devote to the arts. Many middle class people still view the arts a kind of suppository for the high passion that they never got from their dull spouses who lost interest in them twenty years ago. And to be fair, there is a certain amount of that in Shakespeare, nobody in real life falls in love as quickly as characters in Shakespeare do except other actors. Nor is this kind of outsize passion unique in great art to Shakespeare. But in this movie, these sentiments are a very cynical tug at the heartstrings of old retirees of both genders who want to feel young again. 

We can't get around it, there is a very cynical side to Shakespeare in Love, that plays on old notions of love that recent generations of Americans discard. It's not, and has never been, a movie made for people my age, it's a movie made for people old enough who have a prettified view of the British, who grew up when there was still the remnants of the Old Europe aristocracy, and before the tabloid scandals of Chuck and Di. When they went to sleep at night, many of them dreamed of the world of David Niven, Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, Robert Donath - the ballroom or the cocktail lounge where Noel Coward or Ivor Novello is playing the piano, everybody is dressed immaculately and always had a perfectly placed bon mot, in which the humdrum realities of middle class America were all left behind. And most importantly, these people had vivid memories of seeing Laurence Olivier's movie version of Henry V in 1944. Olivier's Henry V was practically a British victory party, and the opening scenes recreated  cultural glory of which the English are most proud, the Globe Theater, which probably premiered all of the plays in the second half of Shakespeare's career - never mind that the Globe Theater had yet to be built for at least five years when Shakespeare wrote either Henry V or Romeo and Juliet... But for the first time since Henry V, a real view of the Elizabethan world from which this world of perfectly placed hair and vowels was made. 

One of the great things about Shakespeare in Love is how blatantly it shows this glamorous world of highfallutin' speech begins in a Warwickshire shithouse. To me, the archetypal line of dialogue from Shakespeare in Love is when Shakespeare says to his producer:
"My muse, as always, is Aphrodite."
To which the producer replies:
"Aphrodite Baggett, who does it behind the Dog and Crumpet?” 
In its way, Shakespeare in Love is as brutally honest about the corrupted ideals that go into making every piece of art we love. I'm sure I don't need to tell you again that everything about Shakespeare in Love now somewhat wreaks, and I'm sure I needn't tell you of whom, but the enjoyment of every dirty pun, every lofty phrase, and even the most genuine parts of the movie which show how commerce and compromise and disaster can wreck even Will Shakespeare, are partially spoiled by knowing Harvey Weinstein's corrupting hands were all over it. 

The original concept is by Marc Norman, a screenwriter whom from all other appearances is a hack. His other big credit is Cutthroat Island, one of the biggest cinematic bombs of the 90's. He's a California screenwriter who literally worked his way up from the mailroom, and since Shakespeare in Love, he hasn't had a single screen credit. Apparently, the idea wasn't even his, it was his son's, who called home one day in the late 80's from college with it. Maybe no one but a Hollywood hack would have the idea of taking one of the world's most famous works of art and showing how commerce completely polluted it, perhaps on some level he meant it as a justification for his career. But regardless, I'm sure that the half of the movie which feels like a prim housewife's view of both love and Shakespeare is his. The other half of it carries the kind of ironies that feels written by Shakespeare himself, and I think we can reasonably assume that this half was written by the co-writer, Tom Stoppard, perhaps the greatest living English playwright even then, and how much more so now? 

Let's take this a little further. Tom Stoppard is a rarity in the world of the British arts because he's such an establishment figure. Stoppard came over from Czechoslovakia as a child refugee from the Holocaust, and even now, his extreme upper-class English accent still has a weird Eastern European tinge. Stoppard is different from the average playwright in all sorts of ways. But the one that exists above all is that the theater has always been the refuge for the 'different', who don't fit in with conventional society, and almost all modern playwrights who have even a small political interest have been quite far to the left. Think of Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, Bertold Brecht, even Henrik Ibsen. 

Tom Stoppard on the other hand, is a bona-fide conservative. Not necessarily a reactionary, but certainly a conservative in the sense of a Margaret Thatcher supporter, and a clarion voice in the press for the dissident Eastern European writers whom fate allowed him to leave behind for a very plush life in England. patron saint for many Eastern European writers. 

On the one hand, Stoppard is the most intellectually ambitious playwright... ever? As many of you know, he began his career with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which is literally Hamlet from the point of view of its two least consequential characters. In later plays, he asks us to care about the repressed homosexuality of A.E. Housman, to sit for eight hours for a disquisition on the formation of the 19th century Russian intelligentsia, and sit through a play that's basically an exchange of ideas between James Joyce, Lenin, and the inventor of Dadaism. And yet, a certain kind of audience, an extremely sophisticated audience, usually in London, eats it up; something with real ideas in it is mana from heaven for people who are bored with the usual musicals, and claustrophobic family dramas, and sermons about capitalism. Stoppard doesn't translate well in America - even if some audiences can hope to get his plethora of references, the actors certainly don't... I doubt Stoppard will ever be completely  forgotten, but in our age when knowledge of cultural history is thought of as the least necessary thing on the planet, his stock will go down for a while. 

On the other hand, Stoppard has worked as a hired screenwriter, most famously on Shakespeare in Love, but also some very different kinds of political work than the usual - like Terry Gilliam's Brazil - a science fiction that takes place in a dystopia that seems much more like an exaggerated Soviet Union than the usual exaggerated United States, and also Spielberg's adaptation of Empire of the Sun, about an upper-class British boy becoming a POW in a Japanese internment camp - it's a movie almost dares left-wingers to think 'and you think we're bad...' And then you add to that the rumors - that Stoppard was a hired screenwriter who wrote drafts not just of movies everybody knew would be a hit like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but of movies everybody knew would be a flop, like Revenge of the Sith!

There is no living writer in the English language more highbrow than Tom Stoppard, and because of that, he's had no trouble slumming into the commercial world - knowing that his credentials against a 'selling out' accusation are unassailable. And what, ultimately, is Shakespeare in Love about? Much moreso than either love or love of art, it's about business. It's a stark look at how the sausage gets made and the extreme dangers of keeping your illusions about this world of beauty. 

No comments:

Post a Comment