The Compleat Ingmar #1: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Last year – while I was in Sweden during the week when Ingmar Bergman would have had his 100th birthday, fittingly – Criterion revealed its plans to release Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, a collection of 39 of the director’s films, later that year. (It is telling that when you ask Google how many films Bergman actually made, the answer is “At least 36”. If Google doesn’t know a more exact answer than that, how should we?) As a self-confessed Criterion addict, I knew that there’d be no better way to get close to completing my Bergman collection than that, even though I already had some of the films on DVD and others on Blu-Ray. Still, getting all the remaining ones individually would be more expensive than getting the collection, not to mention more cumbersome. So, to cut things short: Reader, I ordered it.

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It’s about cats. Singing and dancing cats. You’ll love it.

Years ago, I went to see the stage version of The Lion King in London. As the lights went down and people stopped talking, knowing that the show was about to begin, a kid one or two rows in front of me piped up. “I don’t like lions!” Well, tough, kid, you’re going to get lions, whether you like them or not.

Most people like lions, if they keep their distance and don’t attempt to eat you or your loved ones. What many people don’t like? Musicals. Some people don’t like action films, others aren’t really into horror movies, but I don’t think there’s a single genre that as many people claim not to like as musicals. To be honest, though: until a few years ago, I would have said the same, though I may have qualified it a bit more – I don’t like the Platonic ideal (i.e. the pretentiously formulated stereotype) of a musical that people may think of when the genre comes up. At the same time, some of the films I liked best growing up were musicals, such as Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar. I’ve even rewatched some musicals that didn’t click for me when I was growing up, like West Side Story, and I’ve come to greatly enjoy them. Similarly, “Once More With Feeling” is one of my favourite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Killer, and I’d defend its artistic merits as much as I would those of my favourite less jazz-handy episodes.

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The Prisoners’ Dilemma

I like the idea of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s 2012 film Cesare Deve Morire (Caesar Must Die) a lot: a group of inmates at a high-security prison in Rome, all former drug criminals, mafiosos and murderers, portray themselves rehearsing for a production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The boundaries between reality and fiction are dissolved, as everything is a performance of some sort to one audience or another.

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Heavy heads and hollow crowns

When I was at Uni studying (and later teaching) English Literature, the BBC Shakespeares were spoken of in hushed tones as the most boring thing this side of a Romanian stop-motion remake of Solaris dubbed by a narcoleptic with a speech impediment. Want to make your students hate Shakespeare as much as the average UK pupil does on leaving school? Have them watch the BBC Shakespeares! In spite of actors that have proven to know their way around a iambic pentameter or two, these television versions of Shakespeare’s complete dramatic works made from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s were complete duds, dramatically speaking, at least according to English Department legend.

Fast forward to 2012, the year that Brits try to put the ‘Great’ back into ‘Great Britain’ with the help of Sir Simon Rattle, Rowan Atkinson and a skydiving Queen Elizabeth. Two years before the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and produced by Sam Mendes (the erstwhile Mr. Kate Winslet and director of the upcoming Bond flick Skyfall), the BBC got together an impressive set of actors, including Ben Whishaw, Julie Walters, Patrick Stewart, Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston and a guy last seen having sexual intercourse with a pig, for big budget TV versions of the four history plays Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2: Henry Harder and Henry V: The Sequeling. And while I can’t speak for the horrors of the earlier BBC Shakespeares, these four TV versions definitely don’t have to hang their heads in shame – as teachers the world over will be ecstatic to hear, since they can fill two to three school lessons with the watching of one of these.

The Hollow Crown, as the quartet was named after what may be the most famous (and rightly so) monologue in Richard II, was fairly entertaining to watch, though very much improved when the subtitles kicked in – being able to read Shakespeare’s lines while listening to the actors definitely helps my comprehension. Not perfect, and some of the character choices were weird: does Richard II make more sense by being turned into the most queenly king since Marlowe’s Edward II, with Whishaw in the title role channelling both Gloria Swanson and Katherine Hepburn? Also, having seen Michael Gambon as a very funny, charming and ultimately poignant Falstaff, I found Simon Russell Beale’s take on the character too low-key to make his relationship with Prince Hal all that credible and his eventual fate as moving as it ought to be.

My main two bones of contention with Mendes’ BBC Shakespeare have to do with the language, though:

1) Too many of the actors try to make the iambic pentameter sound like regular, realistic TV dialogues – and that just don’t fly. Ignore that Shakespeare’s language is stylised and you end up with clumsy, overly earnest delivery that actually comes across as less realistic rather than more. Accept the language for what it is, play the metre, and don’t keep making short pauses to indicate, “I’m thinking about what words to use here!” and the language comes alive. Actors are often told to fresh-mint the language, to speak it as the words came to them that very minute – and that’s true… to an extent. Fresh-minting Shakespeare’s words doesn’t require an actor to stop, start, hesitate, wait a beat, continue, pause some more. Tom Hiddleston, whose acting I otherwise enjoyed a lot, tended to be particularly guilty of this.

2) Shakespeare tends to have his stage directions hidden in plain sight – that is, he puts them in the lines. “Why look’st thou so fearfully and pale?” reminds the actor it’s addressed at that he should look scared, for instance, in case he’d forgotten. (And yes, that line is made up, but the plays are full of similar – though undoubtedly less clumsy – lines.) The lines in effect are prompts, both for the actors and for the audience – if something cannot be shown fully, speak it so the audience can imagine it. It’s one of the elements that, if done well, engages the audience more fully, asking them in effect to become part of the mis en scene: they’re props masters as well as stage designers, filling in the blanks with their imagination as prompted by the actors. The four Hollow Crown parts, as is so much TV, are done in a realistic style, showing what is shown, from armies (although, admittedly, the armies don’t have the CGIed numbers of the Battle of Helm’s Deep) to castles to ships on the ocean – yet the plays aren’t stripped of such lines, so we end up both seeing the armies, castles and ships while being told about them, rendering too many of Shakespeare’s lines redundant. To my mind, the productions should either have dared to veer from their somewhat restricting realism at times or they should have dared to cut the language to a much larger extent. As it is, it’s difficult not to come away from these films thinking, rather unfairly, “Gosh, that Shakespeare guy must’ve been paid by the word! You could’ve left out half that stuff!” This is especially apparent when it comes to the Chorus in Henry V, who quite literally tells the audience repeatedly, “We can’t show all of this, so I’m describing it for you to imagine!” while the images on the screen showed you exactly those things. They tried to make it work with some sleight of hand involving one of the peripheral characters, but the trick only served to highlight the redundancy of it all. Want to do a realistic made-for-TV Shakespeare? Accept that you’ve stripped a third of the lines of their purpose and cut them.

In spite of these two things, which probably bug me more because otherwise the productions were smart and well crafted, The Hollow Crown was fascinating for the impressive cast, but it mostly felt like proof of concept. If they look critically at what worked and what didn’t – which I hope they will – and learn from these things, whatever follows this historical quartet might end up quite glorious.

Shame I’ve already used “A Death in the Family”…

Anyway, it’s really two deaths I’ll be writing about. And the whole notion of family… well, let’s put it this way. It’s complicated.

I’m currently rewatching The Sopranos and I just finished season 3 (“… In which an old friend’s son is shot in the back of the head and Meadow interrupts a sentimental song with thrown chunks of bread and a rendition of a Britney Spears classic”). While the series dealt in ambiguities from the very beginning, season 3 is perhaps the first one where the audience’s complicity is brought to the fore. We root for Tony Soprano, paterfamilias to two families, but for all his charm and for all our sympathy for him (when he’s not being an asshole to the people around him) he is evil – if he is defined by who he is and what he does, he’s evil. Less so than the outright psychos in his entourage (I’m mainly looking at you, Paulie and Ralphie) and more self-aware, but he enables them and depends on them and their actions for his own success.

Up to the end of season 3, we’ve never seen him quite this manipulative and hypocritical, and now it’s seeping into his children more and more. Knowing quite well on one level that her idiot ex was killed because of the system her father upholds, she now defends it – to the face of idiot ex’s sister and with a degree of self-righteousness that is nauseating.

He's behind you!

The problem I have with rewatching The Sopranos, though, is that differently from, say, Deadwood, Six Feet Under or (most of all) The Wire the episodes and seasons are pretty much exchangeable. There’s very little character development – which may be the point, but if you could watch the episodes in pretty much any order and the only thing you can determine by whether it’s season 1, 3 or 6 is how old the kids are and whether Pussy Bompensiero is around? In my books that diminishes the lasting appeal and success of the series.

Talking of deaths in series: since Switzerland is a couple of months behind the States with respect to TV, we only got to see the House season 4 finale now… and what a downer that one was. Even though season 4 was the shortest season of the series ever, most of the episodes after House had chosen his new team felt like retreads (or, in fact, re-re-retreads), but the two finale episodes, “House’s Head” and “Wilson’s Heart”, were among the best and definitely the emotionally strongest episodes. I remember pretty much hating Robert Sean Leonard in Much Ado About Nothing, but together with Hugh Laurie he carries the series even in its most generic episodes. Give him material such as this and he absolutely shines. (And I don’t know what it is, but give me a well-acted man crying his eyes out in a series and I get a big lump in my throad…)

I still don’t think that Kate Beckinsale is talented or particularly beautiful, though, so there.

Give me Emma and Kenneth any time. Please.

League of Extraordinary Literary Self-Indulgence, part III

Alan Moore’s latest, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier (formerly Dark Dossier) has been in the making for a while. It was delayed a number of times, but there was enough information to get any self-respecting Alan Moore fan salivating. Here’s what the Hairy One himself said about the project: it’s

not my best comic ever, not the best comic ever, but the best thing ever. Better than the Roman civilisation, penicillin, […] the human nervous system. Better than creation. Better than the big bang. It’s quite good.

(Gotta love the understatement in that quote…)

Black Dossier

Now, as I wrote before, what I liked most about the previous League books was that beyond the cleverness and the erudition, Moore told a good tale and he gave us fascinating, ambivalent characters. Those qualities are much less prominent in Black Dossier, which is perhaps less a new League adventure than a companion piece to the other books. (This is probably also the reason why the book isn’t Volume 3 – that one is coming out this or next year, in three installments.) Much of the book is rather an exercise in literary pastiche: there are a number of texts telling of earlier incarnations of the League: for instance the first two scenes of Faerie’s Fortunes Founded, purporting to be a lost history play by Shakespeare  and a prequel to The Tempest, describing the creation of the very first League; the quite hilarious “What Ho, Gods of the Abyss!”, a memoir conflating the Wooster & Jeeves stories by P.G. Wodehouse and the Cthulhu mythos (with the League saving the day); or The Crazy Wild Forever by Sal Paradyse, in the style of Kerouac’s On the Road. There’s also a cutaway drawing of the Nautilus, an illustrated erotic history of a previous League written by none other than Fanny Hill, and Sexjane, a “Tijuana Bible” insert published by Pornsec, the pornography division of Big Brother’s government.

All of this is very witty and very well executed, but without a strong story to connect the pieces, it feels unsatisfying, at least to me. Moore is good at pastiche, but he’s shown this before; and frankly, sometimes reading Black Dossier felt more like hard work. Faerie’s Fortunes Founded especially isn’t one of Shakespeare’s more gripping pieces, and I managed perhaps three or four lines of the Kerouac parody before giving up. Again, if I’d given a damn about the story connecting these pieces (or if I had known not to expect much story at all), I might have enjoyed these pieces more – but it felt at times like Moore added the story without caring that much about it.

Faerie’s Fortunes Founded

What grated more than that, though, was Moore’s tendency to preach towards the end. In many ways, the last section of Black Dossier (a magnificently executed 3D sequence – tinted glasses are included in the book) is a retread of the last volume of Promethea. Moore’s credo seems to have become something like this: Language equals magic or godhood, because via language we create, out of thin air, things, beings and whole worlds that didn’t exist before. Fiction and imagination, via signs (such as language and images – hence the comic genre being Moore’s chosen form of expression in the League and Promethea), signify freedom from narrow material reality and from those who purport to define what is real. Via language and fiction we ourselves become Creators, challenging those who define reality for us as a means of exercising power.

All of this is nice and good, and I agree with it to some extent. (I think Moore himself is aware of the limitations of this sort of ‘magic’,  where the magic we wield with words can still be vanquished, at least in the present, by the ‘magic’ of those in power, such as force, laws and norms.) What I don’t like is being preached to – especially if I basically agree in many ways with the one doing the preaching. Moore’s writing and his works may be technical tours de force, but increasingly my reaction goes along the following lines: “Yes, I know. And yes, you’re very clever. Can we get on with it now?”

Perhaps it’s also that I think storytelling is a more convincingly, more successfully form of “magic” if it doesn’t preach. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a case in point: in the second and third book of the trilogy, the story takes a backseat to Pullman’s soapbox proselytising for atheism. I agree with so much of his criticism of organised religion, and he shows time and again that he is a good writer – but even the best writers are brought down by polemics, above all if they’re the writers’ own polemics.

Volume III

For the third volume of the League’s adventures, I do hope that Moore lays off the heavy-handed preaching for a while. I don’t want to read a third version of Promethea‘s apocalyptic finale. I don’t need to be more convinced of Moore’s beliefs and ideologies. I want him to show that he can still tell a good, clever story with fascinating characters and depth that needn’t be signaled in big flashing letters.

Or otherwise I’ll send Mister Hyde to break his writing pen. (Ouch!)

P.S.: I’ll be travelling for work during the next two weeks, so I can’t guarantee regular updates. I’ll see what I can do, though.

P.P.S.: Miami Vice has now garnered me more than twice as many hits as the next highest search term. What is it with all those people Googling  “miami vice”? Pastel has a lot to answer for…