Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead d. Tom Stoppard, 1990

Clearly Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, both the film and the play (also by Stoppard), is a work of brilliance. The rub is, I'm not quite sure why. It is based on a work of genius, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and particularly focused on the characters of Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern - excuse me, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz. Moreover, R&G.a.D. deals with an initial conceit that is clearly capable of brilliance - Newtonian mechanics within the framework of a renowned classic - but capability and execution are two things separate entirely. Stoppard's execution, however, is spot-on.

Much like Shakespeare used the opening scene of Hamlet as a microcosm for the play, Stoppard inserts, for lack of a better term, "science projects" into the film to allude to the film's purpose. Experiments in gravity, actions with equal & opposite reactions, mass & density in a vacuum, and probability litter the film. The fact that these experiments rarely succeed is perhaps a sign that the characters in the film understand the Newtonian principles that surround them as little as I - a decent stand-in for the average human, I guess - do. The macrocosm that these microcosms point to is Rosencrantz & Guildenstern as Newtonian particles, bouncing around in their world controlled by something other than them. Or, as Guildenstern says to Rosencrantz, "We're going in circles."

Accompanying these experiments are pieces of paper, sheets of the script from Hamlet, which begin to appear when R&G meet the theatrical troupe on both their ways to Elsinore. These sheets of paper have several purposes:

1. They are a constant reminder to the viewing audience that - in case they somehow forgot amidst the Danish castle and Shakespearean dialogue – R&G are, indeed, characters within a play.

2. They are a device to remind the audience that Stoppard is using Hamlet for his own experiment, just as Rosencrantz uses the script-shreds to construct his own scientific experiments.

3. When they (the sheets of paper) first appear is when Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are first alluded to in the play; that is, when they meet the troupe. Which leads us to...

4. The sheets are a reminder that R&G are finite characters - they exist within the play only and are limited to the dramatic action of the play.

This last enumeration is most interesting. At one point Guildenstern (or is it Rosencrantz, they're never quite sure of their identities and neither am I) says to Rosencrantz, in response to Rosencrantz's reasoning that, if they jump off the ship they will ruin the plans of the king, thus negating their fixed position in a story, "[That will work] unless they counted on it." Rosencrantz replies, "I shall remain on board, that'll put a spoke in their wheel." The point is that, because R&G are fixed characters in a fixed story, any action they take is an action already anticipated. Now: any play, film, book, et cetera worth its salt must also stand, in some way, as a microcosm for humanity itself. So: Stoppard is saying that humanity is a fixed enterprise with a beginning, an end, and some stuff in between. Any action we endeavor If I understand it right - and I'm not quite sure I do - this is the stuff of Newtonian mechanics entirely.

A confession: I lied in my opening. I do understand why Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is a brilliant work. Shakespeare's works are not brilliant merely because they deal with challenging ideas writ in beautiful prose/poetry. No, they are brilliant because they maintain this eloquence while remaining accessible and entertaining. Many books have been written on Newtonian mechanics, but not many of those books will make one laugh and feel as if her two hours were passing by as if one. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is a treatise on Newtonian mechanics and its frightening application to humanity, but in the form of a near cloying pill. Whether you choose to see it as two bumbling fools attempting to figure out what the hell is going on, or two particles swimming around in circles while figuring out the science of the world, the film is enjoyable and rich, entirely worth one's time.


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