Monday, November 27, 2017

It's Not Even Past #1 - Shakespeare in Love - Three Quarters

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 actors 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 clearly 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 high society 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 because servants are ministering downstairs to your needs. 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 the singular cultural place of which the English are most proud, the Globe Theatre, 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. . 

On the one hand, Stoppard is the most intellectually ambitious playwright... ever? He's very funny, but he doesn't care much in the way of character development or human motivations. Like in Bernard Shaw, the characters are really just mouthpieces for the exposition of his ideas, but the ideas are genuinely interesting. 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 London audience who grew up watching plays by Shaw and Wilde, 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 don't even think Stoppard is the greatest living playwright in England, for me that's Alan Ayckbourne - find a youtube production of The Norman Chronicles if you get a chance, but I doubt Stoppard will ever be completely forgotten, and 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 right-wingers to crow '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. Maybe it has a ridiculous glorification of love at its center so that it can surround the center with a very stark look at how the sausage gets made and the extreme dangers of keeping your illusions about how beauty is used, and from this mixture of trash romance and serious business, we get a real work of art that does Shakespeare some small level of justice.

Stoppard really is that good, but I have a hard time believing that anybody would think of him as a genius on the level of Shakespeare. Artistic genius, real artistic genius, the kind that can conjure literally any person, place, or thing, is very rare, it probably happens only a dozen times a century. How many of them created for the theater? Shakespeare, maybe Chekhov and Moliere, if you count musical lyricists then certainly Stephen Sondheim, if you count composers it's Mozart, maybe Janacek, and then I draw another blank. Certainly there are one-hit wonders who have moments of genius, but a theatrical creator who has a whole career of genius the way Shakespeare and Sondheim and Mozart did is clearly only once every two hundred years. Shakespeare is Shakespeare because he can give us every kind of person in every situation, rational and irrational, tragic and comic, sublime and vulgar. But in Tom Stoppard, god forbid there's any vulgarity.

So many great Hollywood movies are happy accidents of chemistry in which a limited talent finds another limited talent that completes them perfectly. Shakespeare in Love completes Tom Stoppard, it gives him the vulgarity he needs to create something that, if it isn't better than his plays about the debates of Czech intellectuals behind the iron curtain or 19th century drawing room conversations about physics, is at least more universal. I doubt many people have the mind or stomach to properly appreciate Arcadia or Coast of Utopia, but a story that deposits Shakespeare into the situations that mirror Romeo and Juliet, that is something everyone who loves Romeo and Juliet can love.

The problem with that is that in the last generation or so, there is no play by Shakespeare whose fortunes have changed quite the way Romeo and Juliet has. I cannot tell you how many people I've met, and one must say, almost all of them women, who have an extremely jaundiced view of the world's most famous play.

There are all sorts of things in Romeo and Juliet, or at least Romeo and Juliet as it's traditionally been interpreted, that do not seem to translate to this generation. Look up 'everything wrong with Romeo and Juliet' on google and it autocompletes. You'll get think piece after think piece, seemingly by every English major in the world. There are multiple think pieces about how Romeo's actually the villain, either a casual seducer or a creepy stalker. Of course the play has an antiquated notion of virginity's importance. And Friar Laurence seems to be a character who is the precise incarnation of everything considered offensive in our zeitgeist. A Catholic priest who marries underage couples, prescribes them potions that seem uncannily like date rape drugs, and a centrist who wants to bring the two irreconcilable parts of the state together in understanding.

All these R&J haters are not wrong, they're just not completely right either. A great work of art is great because there are thousands of meanings that take thousands of years to reveal themselves. Just take Friar Laurence's introduction in Act II scene ii and try to unpack the dual meanings here. Every sentiment is balanced by its opposite.
The grey-ey’d morn smiles on the frowning night,
Check’ring the Eastern clouds with streaks of light,
And fleckled darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels.
Now ere the sun advance his burning eye,
The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry,
I must up-fill this osier cage of ours
With baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers.
The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb;
What is her burying grave, that is her womb;
And from her womb children of divers kind
We sucking on her natural bosom find:
Many for many virtues excellent,
None but for some, and yet all different.
O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities;
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strain’d from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
And vice sometime by action dignified.
Within the infant rind of this weak flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power;
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part,
Being tasted, stays all senses with the heart.
Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.
'Two such opposed kings.' Night and morning, frowns and smiles, weeds and flowers, mothers and tombs, graves and wombs, fair use and abuse, virtue and vice, poison and medicine. Right after the balcony scene, the end of Romeo and Juliet is hinted at right there. Everything which centuries of audiences and readers find so moving about the Balcony scene is exactly what will eventually kill the star-cross'd lovers. Every great virtue is also a great vice. Implicit in every sweet thing is poison. Therefore, Romeo is both an epitome of love, and a seductive creep; Juliet's virginity is both a great prize and a senselessly valued thing that imprisons her; Friar Laurence is both a very wise man and a fool with evil ideas. No concept in the world can ever exist in a vacuum. Just like morality always evolves, meanings always evolve and often cycle. Because Shakespeare can conjure every kind of person in every kind of place, expressing every idea, he can also conjure the interrelation between all of them; so every great text always takes on new meanings, and outlives every intellectual system that means to interpret it with any kind of finitude. Critics have reminded us for two centuries that Shakespeare is Shakespeare because he always anticipates our changes in morality and is ready with a new way we can interpret his work; he's an infinite staircase we'll always be climbing.

Shakespeare in Love, on the other hand, is beginning to look like its vulgarities are beginning to pull it into history's dustbin. I still think it's a great movie, but if Harvey Weinstein hasn't killed its reputation forever, then converting it into a play just might. As of this year, Shakespeare in Love has now been rewritten as a play, and fair Baltimore, where we lay our scene, is but one of fifteen American cities that host regional productions of it just this year.

Don't let anybody tell you that good theater is impossible outside of capital cities. It's certainly less possible, but regional theater can be great, and bad theater is certainly possible in New York and London, it's just a lot more expensive.

In any event, this risible show cost 20 bucks, and while it wasn't the worst spectacle I'd ever seen, it was among the more depressing. It combines the worst of Shakespeare productions - the hammy fast-paced physical shtik that shows directors think Shakespeare incapable of standing on his own and the wooden uncomprehending acting; with the worst of regional touring productions - the money-strewn overproduction with money put into lighting and scenery effects rather than hiring the best actors. When you put a movie on stage, you are expecting people to come so they can relive what they loved about the movie, which then means that the stage show can never take on a free life of its own outside of what the movie already did better than the stage show ever could.

If you go on wikepdia, it would seem that there are a hundred-ninety-five produced musicals based on films. Not just the famous ones like The Producers and Spamalot, but everything from Frozen to School of Rock to Reefer Madness to Debbie Does Dallas has been made into a musical in recent years. As you can see, a lot of the adapted movies are very recent, but some of them are revived classics, though I don't know if you could even call Reefer Madness a classic. I'm sure some of these musicals are very good, a lot of talented people put a lot of skill going into these adaptation, and of course, most of them come from very good source material - that's the other half of why this concept became so successful so quickly. But what's undeniable is that every film made into a musical supplants money that could be given to an original concept. Since a lot of these productions are meant to be enfranchised to many cities, a lot more thought and money put into the production design than is ever put into the script, and certainly a lot more than is ever put into the acting.

Hollywood movies are in serious trouble. If it's not a superhero movie, it rarely ever grosses serious money, and even a lot of the superhero movies bomb. It would seem that Hollywood, whose original concepts are growing dryer every year, is finding a way to recreate their old glories by making them into musicals, and more and more, Hollywood seems to be killing the originality of theater too. This year was the arrival of Shakespeare in Love, next year will mark the arrival of Network, and the new screen adaptation of that great movie will probably tour in the same fifteen American cities, and sell just as many tickets to older Americans, nostalgic for an era when all they had to be mad as hell about was the upcoming Carter Presidency.

The decline of Hollywood is a much bigger problem than either Harvey Weinstein or Hollywood's potential takeover of theater. As of 2015, Hollywood is still an enormously important segment of the American economy. That's about 4.3% of the United States's Gross Domestic Product. 4.7 million people are employed in the arts, and the arts contribute about six-hundred-ninety-eight billion dollars to the US economy - we in the arts do more for the American economy than construction, tourism, transportation, travel, and agriculture. Hollywood, with all its movies, advertising, TV, distribution, video services, and production, is probably responsible for somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of all the arts in America. And most importantly, thanks to Hollywood, the arts is one of the only industries in America that exports much more than it imports - is there any other industry in America that has a twenty-five billion dollar trade surplus? Millions depend on Hollywood for their work, and if Hollywood declines, millions can get laid off, and there's neither movies or theater in America that can afford to pay them much of anything for their services.

If theater is completely taken over by movies, it will be the ultimate insult. Having to compete as it does with movies, theater has always been one of the most maligned artforms in America. You can count the number of plays most Americans have heard of on your hands: Death of a Salesman, Streetcar Named Desire, Our Town, at this point maybe Angels in America, and then what? New plays in America have always been on the verge of extinction, confined to avant-garde industrial parks converted into no-budget blackbox theaters that are barely up to code. Surroundings like that can't help but influence the products they house, and so long as there's mass culture in America, there will always be an avant-garde of people who go shows less out of enjoyment than as a religious ritual or a statement of defiance; each of these scenes have a hundred people - each of whom are unique in exactly the same way and preach the necessity of their particular quirkiness to the already converted in manners that nobody gest but the others who speak the exact same avant-garde jargon they do. And as theater becomes more and more just an attendant arm of Hollywood, where beloved movies are reproduced onstage with absolute predictability, these avant garde theater troupes will seem more and more like the only unpredictable thing theater can give us, and people will take theater that much less seriously than they already do - because the only original thing left might be a place where any of the most simple minded stream of consciousness or protest theater can be considered original. If everything is unpredictable, that's its own predictability, and the mind can only process it with boredom.

Like these these endlessly reproduced movies, some of them, against all odds, can be very good, but you have to swim so far upstream to make something of durable quality that making a truly great production of a great play, which is already next to impossible, becomes an achievement of the impossible - it's all the more miraculous when it happens, because it happens so unbelievably rarely.

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