I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: Stop and go

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest instalment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

Sometimes we like to mix and match our forms of culture, so in this week’s Six Damn Fine Degrees Julie talked about the works of William Shakespeare adapted to the screen. There’s so much great cinematic Shakespeare to choose from, so here’s a trailer for a film about staging Shakespeare instead: Kenneth Branagh’s In the Bleak Midwinter (or A Midwinter’s Tale, as the Americans know it, if they actually knew the film).

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #98: Adaptive Shakespeare

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

“My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain.” ~ Richard III, Act V, Scene III

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The Rear-View Mirror: T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
       Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
       That is not it, at all.”
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Dazzled by the mob: The Godfather Part II

In cinematic terms, I sometimes wish I’d already been around during the 1970s. It’s the big films of that decade that I most regret seeing at the cinema. Thank god for good repertory cinemas, though: thanks to my favourite rep cinema, I’ve been able to see the likes of Apocalypse Now on the big screen – and the theatrical experience definitely makes a difference in terms of how potent these classics are.

Last week, as part of a series on migrants (which includes such different fare as Jan Troell’s The Emigrants and The New Land and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9), I was finally able to see Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II on the big screen. The film is gorgeous to look at, with Gordon Willis’ Rembrandtesque cinematography an absolute triumph, and it’s a joy to see Pacino and De Niro in peak form, their acting specific and nuanced and entirely unlike the personas we’ve seen them embrace all too often since. The way I watch the film has changed in other ways as well, though, and these have nothing to do with the big-screen format. That difference is due to me having watched the entirety of The Sopranos in he meantime.

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The Compleat Ingmar #9: A Lesson in Love (1954)

A Lesson in Love doesn’t exactly start very well, at least from a contemporary perspective: after an arch voiceover telling us to prepare ourselves for a comedy for grownups, we first meet a comely but angry young woman, Susanne (played by Yvonne Lombard), listing the failings of her older lover, the gynaecologist David Erneman (Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand). The lines are sharp, even witty, but it still seems that we’re watching what is essentially a male fantasy: obviously the young, attractive patients of a middle-aged, jaded gynaecologist would fall over themselves to undress for him in private as well as in his practice. It’s not that Bergman spares his protagonist, but whatever criticism is leveled at David, in the end it doesn’t matter. Young women seem magically attracted to him, and even as Susanne berates him for his cynicism, she still can’t help begging him to continue being her lover.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Shane (1953)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

How many movie tropes are there that are common knowledge, yet if you were to ask what films actually use them you would draw a blank?

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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.