Saturday, April 30, 2005

Henry V d. Kenneth Branagh, 1989

Branagh's Henry V is a Henry V of the proletariat, decrying the decadence and excessiveness of England's upper class. Counterpoint to Olivier's adaptation, Branagh leaves the humor out and emphasizes the darker aspects of Shakespeare's play, highlighting the horrible cost of war.

The trio of Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym is shown to be - rather than a troupe of bawdy jesters, as in Olivier's film - morally decrepit thieves, forsaken by their once Prince Hal, now King Harry. Their relation to Harry is fleshed out through a series of flashbacks, showing the onetime friendship shared by them. The idea that comes of this is personal gain at the expense of friendship and the wellbeing of others. Prince Hal was the savior for these three and their cohort, John Falstaff; his ascension to the throne meant freedom from poverty and the law for this band of waywards. But Hal forgets them. In a flashback, he tells Falstaff, "I know you not, old man." He lets Bardolph hang for stealing. Worst of all, Hal's reason for entering war with France, and putting thousands of men in harm's way, is the procurance of wealth and land; a procurance that, even though pursued with "right and conscience," is built on tenuous reason. When Pistol says, "To England will I steal, and there I'll steal," the implication is that, even though the war is won, he is still left with nothing. When war is won, the nobility benefits, when war is lost, the commoner dies.

This theme is muddled slightly by the virtuoso speechifying of Branagh, as King Harry. His Crispian speech in particular, rallying the spirits of the men, causes one to forget entirely that Harry's war with France is based on the clergy creating a diversion to steer his attention away from a bill of law. The question arises: is Branagh portraying the king in this manner to further differentiate between the ruling and working class, or is he saying that the king is justified regardless of the consequences? (A third option posits that Branagh is oblivious to Shakespeare's themes, but I find that hard to believe considering his expert understanding of pretty much every other aspect of the play.) The answer is ambiguous, but it seems that Branagh emphasizes Harry's character to show the obliviousness of the nobility to the realities of war. In the final scene, Harry tells Katherine, "Nice customs curtsy to great kings [...] we are the makers of manners." In essence, Harry is saying that the nobility is above the law; they make the law, ergo they can bend the law to their will. Earlier, in what first appears to be a throwaway scene, Katherine and her attendant, Alice, speak (in French) about the translation to English of body part names. Hand, fingers, nails, arm, elbow, et cetera – they go on until they reach "foot" and "gown," wherein the English translations sound similar to the French words for "fuck" and "cunt." The point of the scene is not humor - the point is the pettiness of the ruling class, and their obliviousness to the realities of war. Katherine is not expected to go fight in the war, but her social stature demands, at least, knowledge of, and interest in the current political climate rather than coy exchanges of vulgarity. Her negligence stands for that of the entire nobility - even though they send the men to war, they do not understand the gravity of that action.

Formally, Branagh's staging is fantastic: the battle at Agincourt becomes a ballet of blood, mud, and men; the campfire scene is bathed in dark oscuro tones, and throughout Branagh nods a slight homage to his antecessor, Olivier. Derek Jacobi, as the Chorus, falters a bit, lending a Marty Stouffer's Wild America ambiance to the otherwise note-perfect atmosphere.

Branagh chose to deemphasize the frivolity of Henry V and accentuate the tragedy. Contrasting Olivier's Henry V, Branagh's adaptation shows how rich the source material is. Both works are true to the spirit of the play. I prefer Branagh's, finding the thematic territory deeper and of greater worth. It succeeds on so many levels - as entertainment, social commentary , and political doctrine - that it must be considered both a great film and adaptation.

Henry V d. Laurence Olivier, 1944

Essentially Shakespeare-as-propaganda, Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Henry V surmounts this utilitarian aspect and is shown to be, in addition to a patriotic spirit-rally, a very good film. Made in 1944, Olivier's production of Henry V was set against the backdrop of WWII. Olivier himself wanted to adapt first Richard III (which he would go on to direct in 1955), but his production company insisted that Henry V was more suited to those bellicose times than Richard III, which presented war - yes - but war of treachery and perfidy, unfit to sway public opinion toward the political cause. The problem was twofold: Olivier & Co. needed to bend the words of Shakespeare to their needs (the original play is less for than against war) and secondly, if the film was to serve its purpose - that is, provide public support for the war - the public must have reason to see and understand the film. Before Henry V, Shakespeare was box-office poison. The filmic adaptations prior - A Midsummer Night's Dream with James Cagney, Romeo and Juliet with John Barrymore, and As You Like It with (but not directed by) Olivier himself - had lost money at the box-office, due mainly to the public's difficulty in understanding the language. To combat both of these problems, Olivier cut nearly 1500 lines from Henry V, including any that might show the King, or the kingdom, in an unfavorable light. The result is a far different beast from Shakespeare's Henry V, but - in spite of the cuts and mutation of theme - not a failure in adaptation.

What Olivier does is stay true to the spirit of Shakespeare. The earlier filmic adaptations suffered from a stodgy, prim-ridden demeanor, sucked dry of their playfulness, which - at least in the cases of A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It - is imperative to their success. Moreover, the films were made in such a way that they were facsimiles of the stage, with the camera in fixed position and the actors carefully blocked, ignoring entirely the fluid strengths of the medium. Antithetic to those earlier films, Olivier accentuated the impish nature of Henry V and adapted the play into a film that could not possibly have been performed on the stage. Embracing Shakespeare's creativity, Olivier's film begins as a play within a film. The setting is the Globe Playhouse in the late 16th Century, where The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift (sic) is to be performed. The camera casually weaves its way through the crowd and into the backstage. The Chorus (Leslie Banks) takes the stage and the play begins. The first few scenes are arresting, taking place on the stage, with the crowd applauding and the actors taking their bows when applauded. The scenes - really, the entirety of Act I - are rowdy and over-the-top; the actors play to the cheap seats and the cheap seats revel in the humor. Then the artifacts of the stage begin to melt away; first the backstage, then the audience, and finally the soundstage itself opens wide to reveal the green fields of Agincourt. The play within a film becomes a film within a play within a film, much in the same creative vein as Shakespeare writing a play within a play. It is as if Olivier is commenting, via formalism, on the evolution of Shakespeare from the stage to the screen. This invention, a way of making the play one's own while paying homage to the old tradition, is Olivier riffing on the nature of Shakespeare.

Indeed, Olivier's distortion of theme is similar to this invention as well. What at first appears to be a bastardization of Shakespeare is - in my opinion - truer to the spirit of Shakespeare than a strict adaptation. Shakespeare fitted old stories to his use, such as turning As You Like It - an established novel - into an allegory of the reversal of The Fall. His plots, although compelling, are not where his genius lies. Laurence Olivier did much the same with Henry V. He took an old play about the corruptive nature of power, stripped away its former themes, and made a film to stand as a patriotic banner in support of its country's goals. When King Harry gives his monologue regarding ceremony - the thesis statement of the original play - it is both internalized (through voice-over) and marginalized - a great man noticing how fortunate he is to be great rather than noticing how destructive his "greatness" has become. Rather than the campfire scene displaying King Harry's unwarranted bravado, and the public's increasing displeasure and lack of confidence in him, Olivier uses it as a stumping block - a platform from which to stir public support. The scene is still the lynchpin of the work, but a lynchpin of an entirely different order. While Olivier's distortion of theme does not allow for the same depth as Shakespeare's original theme, it is still admirable because, as with the original play, the surface is only a tray upon which to shuttle the ideas.

Olivier clearly understood Shakespeare and the power of his plays. Without him, Shakespearean plays might still be seen as "box-office poison." Even though Olivier stumbled in some aspects - overdoing it with the jocularity of the play, in particular - Henry V is a very good Shakespearean adaptation, and an even better film. Moreover, it is a testament to the mutability and continuing relevance of Shakespeare in the 20th Century and beyond.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Presciently re: The Affairs of My Life

Sorry if things are slow around here in the coming weeks - finals season, et cetera. Being that one of my final projects - the big one, really - is centered entirely around film (Shakespeare inspired film, namely), it might not get too slow. What it will get is scholastic, I imagine, seeing that anything I write and post here will probably be written foremost for my W.S. class. If you can find it in your heart, accept this ersatz criticism for the real thing. It might help to throw in a few expletives, along with a couple typos. This should lend whatever's posted a nice air that smacks of the usual C. &c. journalistic credibility.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Fever Pitch d. Peter & Bobby Farrelly, 2005

A little known fact about me: I've spent the majority of my life steeped in The Game. No, not Fincher's 1997 film. For the pups born after 1990, not basketball - college or otherwise. And for anyone in Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, or anywhere else in the world, not football either. Given the context, it should be pretty obvious what I'm talkin' 'bout - Baseball, America's pastime. I pitched and played 3rd base; when I wasn't on the field I watched my boys of the green and gold, the Oakland Athletics. Things were pretty peachy for me in the early years, '88 - '92. Canseco, McGwire, Stewart, Welch, Lansford, Parker, Henderson (Rickey and Dave), Eckersley - those were times both green and gold, for sure. Three World Series appearances, one title, and four postseason appearances overall. The problem is that, unless your team wears pinstripes and resides in New York, October isn't always such a pretty time. The A's would not taste the postseason after 1992 until 2000. But the hurt does not stop there: 2000 - 2003 the A's bring the Division Series to Game 5 and lose each and every time. Four years in a row, with the best pitching staff (The Big Three; Hudson, Mulder, Zito) in The Game and a decent lineup to boot, the A's toy with their fans, blue-balling them for (what seems like) the sheer fun of it. Meanwhile: during this time I am enjoying my greatest personal success. In 1996, as a 12 yr. Old, I throw a no-hitter, finish the season 9-1 with a 1.95 ERA, and make the All-Star team, which goes on to finish 26th in the U.S., two games shy of the Little League World Series. My general success continues, but I become embittered by the politics lurking behind the game (politics that are undeniably present, even at the age of 15 playing Babe Ruth League ball), and give up my cleats at the age of 16. My love for the A's continues strong though, and I've been known to enter multi-week bouts of near-depression following a post-season Athletics implosion. Sure enough, the A's are going to continue to "keep things interesting" for me and my ulcers. During the off-season, they traded away Jermaine Dye (Ok...), Tim Hudson (...wait, are you...), and Mark Mulder (...shitting me?!). That’s 2/3 of The Big Three - the reliable 2/3 - and quite possibly the most clutch hitter on the team. All this in mind, all of this taken into consideration, and my spectator well-being very carefully weighed w/r/t the '05 season: I was more than ready to see Fever Pitch.

Compared to the ailments of being a Red Sox fan from 1918 - 2004, my Oakland Athletics fanboy woes come off as silly, unreasonable, and worthy only of a passing sneer. And in comparison to the dedication shown by Fever Pitch's Ben (Jimmy Fallon), mine is a day tripping, Sunday driver sort of fancy. Ben is a werewolf of sorts - normal, subdued and calm during the off-season (Nov. - Mar.), but a Monster of Green proportions during Spring, Summer, and early Fall. His fandom overwhelms every other aspect of his life, spilling into his job (teaching high school math - what a lame 9 to 5, eh?) and his personal life (which seems to be occupied almost exclusively by folks who share Ben's unwavering zeal.) Fortunately for Ben, he meets Lindsey (Drew Barrymore) in late-October, after the Red Sox have, once again, blown their shot at a World Series. They - naturally for the rom-com genre - fall into some sort of love, filled with inside jokes, quirky asides, and (what by all evidence appears to be) really great sex. And then April rolls around. At this point the film should become a tiny snowball, quickly avalanching into disaster via insipid cliches and vapid, unfunny gags given more lives than a half-successful Hindu priest, care of the rote, paint-by-numbers nature of the romantic comedy. And yet, somehow, it doesn't. The sudden, horrible, abrupt, imagination-lacking breakup scene that occurs at the second act's end of every rom-com is given new life via a gradual genuine situation, one in which just about anyone could see themselves in (n.b. obviously with the specifics tailored to fit the individual.) And the unavoidable third act reunion is more than a bore to watch this go-round, due mainly to the fact that both parties are putting something of actual worth on the line.

Throughout Fever Pitch it becomes clear that both Fallon and Barrymore realize (thank the stars) that they are not acting in a traditional re-tread of the rom-com. Fallon keeps the hamming to a minimum, while Barrymore plays a real woman, devoid of both the damsel-in-distress affectations and the soft center/hard shell auto-acting. The script is at least partly responsible for this, but kudos should be given to the actors (and directors) for not doing what would have been so easy to do.

It's hard to say anything negative about Fever Pitch; the film is so utterly likable - a deep well of pure goodness - that any negative is counter-balanced by a dozen or so positives and effectively erased from memory. There's something about another guy (Andrew Wilson; Luke & Owen's brother) popping up, but the device is so marginal that it hardly matters. The single most positive thing I can say about the film is this: it made me desire (at least a little bit) a place amongst the increasing fan base of the Red Sox. Which, coming from a die-hard fan of a team that was trounced over and over by the Sox during last year's regular season, is indicative of a pretty impressive bit of filmmaking.

(And, yes, I do realize the irony of the title of this website being Cinema. Et Cetera., and this being the first 2005 film I have seen in the theater this year. Laugh it up. At least I get paid to do this. Wait, what's that? I don't get paid? Oh bother.)

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Un Flic d. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972

Like all of Melville's films (or at least the films I have seen), Un Flic is nearly impeccable in form. Melville's world exudes cool - from the dapper outfits worn by the cast and the impossibly effete dialogue spoken by them, to the blue light that bathes everything in a composed azure. His heist sequences (two in Un Flic) are thorough in every detail. So much so that one gets the impression that, had Melville chosen larceny as his profession, he would have been equally adroit at his metier. Form aside, the spine of a Melville film is character. His characters, both the pursuing and pursued, are rounded - fully formed and developed individuals who have clear motives, rational or not, for their actions. In this aspect, Un Flic falters slightly.

Un Flic was Jean-Pierre Melville's final film. He made it directly following Le Cercle Rouge, the paradigm exercise in style and substance within the heist genre. Whereas Le Cercle Rouge features the single greatest heist sequence in film history (better than Rififi's, dammit) without sacrificing character depth or plot, Un Flic seems mired in its centerpiece heist. The robbery itself consists of a pretty ingenious set-up: a train traveling to Bordeaux is unwittingly carrying a man, Suitcase Matthew. In his suitcases, Matthew is carrying a great deal of cocaine. The goal of the four heistmen is to board the train via helicopter (!), break into Matthew's personal suite (slide-locked and dead-bolted, mind you), apprehend the coke, and escape from the train without any of the passengers or personnel aware that the robbers were ever on board. The idea is perfect - if you are stealing something already illegal (cocaine), the victim of the robbery cannot inform the cops that anything was ever stolen. The most inventive bit is when Melville shows Simon (Richard Crenna, leader of the gang) using an ACME sized magnet on the outside of Matthew's door in order to jimmy the slide-lock open. Melville is too thorough though. Of course, he contends, we have to use some type of establishing shot to show the heli in proximity of the train. For some reason or another (probably financial), rather than using a real helicopter and a real train, Melville resorts to a model train and helicopter, complete with miniature, plastic beige-colored people, stand-ins for the actors proper. This is a minor quip, but one uncharacteristic of Melville and his usually unimpeachable technique. Moreover, where Le Cercle Rouge's heist has a purpose for every character involved, this heist seems to be a lark - outside of "to get more money", no reasoning (excepting for one character) is presented. The result is a very stylish centerpiece merely for the sake of style.

My major quip with the film, as I hinted at before, is Melville's unusually arbitrary character development. The story hints at a possibility of several different avenues:

1) The professional divide between two men. Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon) is the police inspector and Simon is his nightclub-owning friend who, unbeknownst to Coleman, is also a dabbler in larceny. This story also hints at some type of relationship between Coleman and Simon's girlfriend, Cathy (Catherine Deneuve.)

2) The "One Last Score." Paul Crauchet plays Morand, a sixty-year-old former banker, down on his luck and deemed useless by society because of his age. If he can just make this one heist work, he will be set for life, never needing to worry about supporting himself or his spouse.

3) The rote mechanistic nature of professional life. Throughout the film, Coleman (the only true working stiff in the main cast) is characterized by his routine. One slightly humorous (and also slightly despondent) motif involves him answering a phone and carrying out the same conversation over and over and over. The most intriguing bit has his face match-cut with the face of dead woman, essentially saying Simon, because of his job, is a walking corpse.

All three of these ideas are fantastic. Each one could make, and has made, a very good film. Perhaps Melville was spot-on and I am missing some unifying element, but I feel as if he tackled too much. Each idea is dabbled with, but not taken to its logical endgame. For instance, we see Simon and Coleman interact only a few times; enough to establish them as acquaintances, but not nearly enough to implicate their relationship as anything dear or important.

In spite of its faults, Un Flic is a satisfying film. Even the major fault - its lack of cogence - is forgivable on account of the overwhelming panache shown everywhere else in the film. For many directors, Un Flic would be a masterwork, for Melville it is merely another good film added to his infallible body of work.