The Rogue’s Guide to Shakespeare on Film #59: Othello (1951)

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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 3

59. Orson Welles’s Othello (1951)

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Orson Welles’s Othello opens with some weird music by Alberto Barbers and/or Angelo Francesco Lavagnino that splits the difference between a Modernist march and Gregorian chant during the funeral march of the Moor and Desdemona, with Iago brought along, caged in captivity, like some dolorous triumph. The tragic destinies are foretold rather than having any opening credits.

The film is in black and white, which may have turned off 1951 audiences. The restored version, however, makes the scenes look crisp, and so the black and white adds an antiquarian touch rather than just making the film look moldy. While I would have adored to see more of Venice, since the Venice scenes take place at night, perhaps black and white is just as well.

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I say this with hesitant irony, since Othello is a play in part about the uses made of the color of a man’s skin. White actors who portray the Moor these days forgo the unpleasant tradition of blackface. Ideally, since there are only two black parts in Shakespeare (Othello and Aaron in Titus Andronicus), the parts could be reserved for black actors, even in these times of color-blind casting.

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While I shrink from the practice of blackface, though, I don’t find it dreadfully offensive in the case of Welles. In black and white, it looks natural enough, and doesn’t impart direct associations with minstrelsy, although again I might have preferred to see Welles tackle Iago and grant the Moor’s part to a black actor. As weird as the casting of a white man in black make-up might seem to us now, the practice was considered totally normal in Welles’s time.

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And Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago brings to mind the importance of Iago’s lack of something, some lack of charisma despite being eloquent and shrewd in the ways of Machiavellian political intrigue. I don’t mean that MacLiammóir is a poor actor, for that is certainly not the case. But physically, MacLiammóir looks rather skinny and average, bland compared to Othello and Michael Cassio. Kenneth Branagh as Iago is too handsome for us to sense that his private griefs are that compelling. Branagh makes us believe that Iago’s lies feel like truth to him, as a compulsive liar begins to have difficulty recognizing the difference. Butit’s difficult to believe he didn’t get what he wanted in the first place. MacLiammóir’s Iago is harder to root for, but easier to empathize with. It makes the tragic destructions of Othello feel less wanton and more tragic.

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The sense of Othello’s testimony before the council regarding his courtship of Desdemona comes off poignantly in Welles’s mouth. Othello declares,

Rude am I in my speech,
And little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace:
For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak,
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle,
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnish’d tale deliver
Of my whole course of love; what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic,
For such proceeding I am charged withal,
I won his daughter.

Othello seems to be protesting the rudeness of his speech too much since his tale does not seem especially “unvarnish’d.” However, addressing these white Europeans with whom he serves, Othello seems to understand that his audience may hear his speech as rude, and is ingratiating them against their presumed racism. (I think of Trump supporters who feel like he has made the executive office “classy” again. Institutional racism means that there is a sliding scale for judgment.) This seems all the more enhanced from Welles’s amazing instrument of a voice. (Lawrence Fishburne’s Caribbean accent as Othello made the speech seem potentially rougher in tongue to Europeans, even though Fishburne’s instrument is excellent as well.)

For textual purists, the director was perhaps too rough with the cuts. Welles has added expository voiceovers to speed the play along, allowing the story to reach its conclusion within about ninety minutes.

Sizanne Cloutier makes for a taut Desdemona. She looks uncannily like a Disney princess in such Renaissance attire, and successfully conveys both a strong, clear will and a heartbreaking innocence.

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The fortress at Cypress, abutting its geometry against the ocean, looks stark, adding to this antiquarian flair.

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One of the later sequences occurs at a sauna. Iago convinced the lovesick dupe, Rodrigo, that he may win Desdemona after all if he will only kill Michael Cassio. Welles has a mandolin playing a gypsy-like tune, and added an essential ingredient to this scene: a poodle. I am not making this up. The scene is so uncanny as to be wholly believable.

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When Iago kills Rodrigo through the floorboards of the sauna, the effect is goofy, yet psychedelically terrifying. Indeed, as the film dispatches its climax, the effect is that of a classic horror film, in which nearly everyone left alive is a monster, imprisoned in the ancient jails of their psyches.

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The gazes of the dying and the damned.


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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

Episode 270: The Slam Summit!

Episode 270 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

In this week’s episode, I talk with Curtis X. Meyer and Caleb Zachary Matthews about the Slam Nationals that Team Orlando will be attending, the upsides and downsides of Slam Poetry, plus they perform their work!

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Caleb Zachary Matthews, Raquel Henry, John King, and Curtis Meyer.

 

NOTES

  • Help send Sherdes Leona, Caleb Zachary Matthews, Faith Elizabeth, Curtis X. Meyer, & Kira Calvaresi to the Slam Nationals here.
  • On July 28th, I am hosting a reading by Jaimal Yogis at the Kerouac House.

All our Waves are Water


Episode 270 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

The Rogue’s Guide to Shakespeare on Film #58: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2014)

Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

58. Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2014)

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Dear readers,

I have reached the point where my experience as a reviewer is becoming a liability. It is the responsibility of every production of Shakespeare’s work to both make it new while simultaneously tapping into the essence of what makes Shakespearean drama work. The more films and plays I have seen, the more difficult I am to impress. How do you make it new, yet old, after people have been making it new for so long?

Not long ago, I review Julie Tamor’s Tempest, which was mostly lackluster if compared with Prospero’s Books or especially if compared with Taymor’s own Titus. Nonetheless, I have looked forward to seeing the film of Taymor’s stage adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, since the preview for it seemed darker and stranger than her Tempest despite the generally lighter source material. I longed to know if Taymor’s tepid Tempest was anomalous. Could she make Dream both new and old?

Yes, she could. Her Midsummer Night’s Dream is too delightful.

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The constraint of the stage seemed to help immensely. How does one convey the sense of metaphysical wonder of fairies in three-dimensional space? Taymor’s solution was to work vertically to convey the sense of worlds passing through worlds.

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A clownish-looking fellow who will turn out to be our Puck goes to bed in the middle of the stage. Branches lift that bed high above the stage, and construction workers, our rude mechanicals, attach ropes and chains to the corners of the bed, and chainsaw the bed from its rustic frame. The sheet is yanked diaphanously across the entire stage, making Puck disappear before the arrival of the Duke and the nattering of our love triangle.

While there are natural and pagan elements in this Dream, Taymor uses the fun of a stage production to avoid (mostly) the predictable color green. Es Devlin’s stage design and Constance Hoffman’s costume design is mostly a gothic palette emphasizing black, white, and gray that seems to make all of the aerial work seem all the more ethereal.  The grass-covered barcalounger is a nice touch. Even Titania’s fairy attendants are dressed like ghostly Victorian orphans.

There are no movie stars in this production, just actors doing mostly perfect work.

Midsummer Night's Dream, A Theatre for a New Audience @ Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Max Casella gives let’s an old-fashioned New York Italian accent do most of his work as Bottom before his transformation. He doesn’t overdo Bottom’s overacting, which is a relief.

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One of the great scenes we expect is of course Bottom as an ass, and in this case, leaning on Taymor’s earlier theatrical instincts to involve puppetry, Bottom’s jackass puss is rendered through a prosthetic head that tapers to an alarmingly human mouth.

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Tina Benko as Titiana and David Harewood as Oberon prove quite regal and compelling.

There is the usual inter-gender wrestling performed charmingly.

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Jake Horowitz was underwhelming as Lysander, but that is a minor part, and since he kind of looks like Russell Brand but isn’t Russell Brand, we must count ourselves lucky.

Puck, who isn’t a minor part, is daringly performed by Kathryn Hunter, who makes it look easy.

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Taymor’s minimalism and eclectic style work wonders on this film of her stage version. The cinematography somehow managed to convey a cinematic sense without getting in the way of the performance. This is a superior Dream!


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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

Episode 269: A Craft Discussion of Robert Paul Lamb’s Art Matters with Vanessa Blakeslee!

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Episode 269 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

Art Matters Read by Zoe

Zoë liked this work of scholarship. I basically had to borrow the book from her.

In this week’s episode, I talk with Vanessa Blakeslee about Robert Paul Lamb’s Art Matters: Hemingway, Craft, and the Creation of the Modern Short Story. Five years in, TDO finally devotes a show to Hemingway, and Bob’s discussion of Hemingway’s craft is profoundly illuminating to how effectively extraordinary Hemingway’s aesthetics were. I somehow manage not to tell the story how in my Purdue years, my roommates and I dubbed the more rustic of our two bathrooms as The Ernest Hemingway Memorial toilet, with a lot of great photos of Hem in it.

TEXTS DISCUSSED

art-mattersComplete Stories Hemingway

NOTES

Special thanks to Mistie Watkins for her encouragement with this episode.

On July 28th, I am hosting a reading by Jaimal Yogis at the Kerouac House.

All our Waves are Water


Episode 269 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

The Curator of Schlock #188: Rambo: First Blood, Part II

The Curator of Schlock #188 by Jeff Shuster

Rambo: First Blood Part II

Rambo: First Blood Part II (It’s worth repeating.)

 Oh, I hit pay dirt with this one. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. We don’t do namby-pamby movies here at the Museum of Schlock. What does namby-pamby mean? It’s an adjective used to describe someone as weak, feeble, and cowardly. John Rambo is the exact opposite of namby-pamby. He’s a one-man army. Enjoy the show.

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1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II from director George P. Cosmatos begins with John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) doing hard time in prison, smashing rocks and what not. Rambo’s former commander, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), offers him a deal. It seems the United states government needs a special operative to do some recon over in Vietnam, see if there’s any truth to the rumors of American POWs still being held captive over there. A presidential pardon might be in it for him. Rambo agrees to the deal, but I know he’s not doing it for any presidential pardon. He’s doing it for our guys over there.

Rambo ships out to Thailand where he meets up with Colonel Trautman and a government bureaucrat by the name of Marshall Murdock. Rambo is given strict orders to sneak in and just take pictures. Do not engage the enemy! Rambo meets up with Co-Bao (Julia Nickson), a special agent who can sneak him into Vietnam aboard a pirate ship. They have a heart to heart. She tells him war is all she’s ever known and that she wants to live in America. Rambo tells her that there was another kind of war waiting for him when he got back to America. Love is in the air, but they have a mission.

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They make there way to an abandoned Viet Cong camp, but the camp ain’t so abandoned. There are American POWs stuck in rat-infested cages, slowly dying from starvation and disease. Rambo finds one POW strung up in the sun. He frees him, figuring he’s better proof than those photos he was supposed to take. Rambo and company kill some Viet Cong, make their way over to the extraction point, but the chopper doesn’t rescue them. Murdock never expected Rambo to find any POWs over in Vietnam. At least if it was just photos, Murdock could destroy the evidence, but a live POW. Forget about it. That could cause a stink, start the war all over again. Murdock orders his men to leave Rambo and company behind to get captured.

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Rambo is placed in a leach-infested pool of pig excrement when, obviously, the Soviets show up to lend assistance to their Viet Cong buddies. It’s a regular Brotherhood of Evil over there, the enemies of America all gathered in one place.

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Lt. Col. Podovsky (Steven Berkoff) decides to torture Rambo for information by electrocuting him. Our hero escapes the camp with the help of Co-Bao. They share a quiet moment while on the run. She kisses Rambo, asks her to take her back to America with him. Rambo agrees, but a Viet Cong guns her down moments later. With nothing to lose, Rambo goes on a killing spree in an effort to rescue the POWs.

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The carnage that ensues is the stuff of legend, a testament 1980s excess and patriotism.


Jeffrey Shuster 3
Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124, and episode 131) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.

Shakespearing #46: Measure for Measure at Theatre for a New Audience

Shakespearing #46 by David Foley

Passion and Confusion: Measure for Measure at Theatre for a New Audience

Measure for Measure has the bones of a simple story. The Duke of Vienna leaves his city in charge of Angelo, a cold-hearted moralist who condemns a man to death for fornication. When Isabella, the man’s sister, comes to plead for his life, Angelo’s cold blood heats up and he offers mercy in exchange for her virtue. The Duke, however, has remained in the city disguised as a friar. He foils Angelo’s stratagems and leads everyone to a happy ending.

But Measure for Measure isn’t simple. It’s a mess, and a moral mess at that. In her Riverside introduction to the play, Ann Barton argues that its “moral confusion” is “surely deliberate,” though that may depend on what you mean by deliberate. When I wrote about it a couple of years ago, it seemed to me that, here and in his two previous plays, Shakespeare was “thrashing about” in a “moral wilderness.” Whether this is true, and if true, why (artistic crisis, the soul’s dark night, drunken incoherence), it’s a difficult play. More than difficult. Other Shakespeare plays are difficult, but it’s satisfying to wrestle with them. This one leaves you fretful and anxious.

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Whether it needs to leave you as fretful as the recent production at Theatre for a New Audience I don’t actually know. It’s a fun production, and the director, Simon Godwin, strives to make the play relevant. As the evening starts, you are ushered through the back passageways of Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, which have been transformed into Mistress Overdone’s brothel.

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Cast members loll around in bondage gear among displays of dildos and butt plugs. Leaving the brothel, you find yourself onstage. This is pleasing. It suggests the way we all step from the world of unseemly desire into the performance of a public self. And since the stage is an enormous conference table, it creates a sharp division between two worlds: the world of desire and the bureaucratic world that seeks to control it. It’s a smart image for a play about the dangers and difficulties of controlling desire.

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Then the play starts, and we see the Duke writhing about on stage shooting up, the first of a series of images whose relevance is both provocative and hard to pin down. Angelo appears. He looks like Nixon, wears a Trumpian red tie, and speaks with the hidebound certainty of a CEO or Republican senator. Escalus, now Escala, appears in a red power suit and a helmet of auburn hair. They’ve got a microphone on their desk, which they resort to from time to time, giving their lines the heft of public pronouncements.

None of this is necessarily bad. You can have some fun teasing out the contemporary associations for what they produce. But they don’t help to make sense of a play which, to be fair, is difficult to make sense of. The Duke’s behavior is particularly hard to parse, though I’m not sure it helps to imagine he’s tweaking.

The most powerful moment in the production is also, I think, the most misguided. When Angelo makes his offer to Isabella, he pulls her violently towards him, groping her breast. It’s a moment of visceral contemporary relevance: a woman’s body physically violated by a powerful man.

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But the offense to Isabella is not to her body; it’s to her sense of justice (“justice, justice, justice, justice!” as she cries in the last scene) and moral purity. Angelo and Isabella are matched in this sense, proponents of a purity the play dismantles. Theirs may be the play’s central relationship, and if Isabella becomes merely Angelo’s prey, it loses its unifying force.

One of the oddities of the play is that sparks fly more convincingly between Isabella and Angelo than between her and the guy she ends up with. Before going to the show, I’d assumed that sexy Jonathan Cake, who plays the Duke, would be playing Angelo. It might be better if he had, just as Thomas Jay Ryan (Angelo) might have better captured the Duke’s gentle and disturbing ambiguity. Both do great work in the parts as conceived; it’s the way the parts are conceived that makes the play harder to track.

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If there’s a lesson here, it’s that contemporary resonance is all well and good, but with Shakespeare character runs the show. As contradictory as she is, there’s a reason actresses love to play Isabella. She’s a woman possessed of a moral passion. (Is it an accident that Henry James called another character possessed of a moral passion Isabel?) Tap into that moral passion and, though you might not make sense of the play, you can ride the rhythm that drives it: moral certainties crashing against the unaccountable world.

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Shakespeare’s comedies test the moral world. We re-learn the rules by breaking them and, in so doing, reaffirm them. If the ending of Measure for Measure leaves us anxious, it’s because here the moral world fails the test and nobody seems to notice. They go on behaving as if it hasn’t. Central to our understanding of this is the Duke, whom Barton cannily sees as a playwright failing at his task. He’s not strung out on drugs. He’s high on the belief that he can make sense of a world that exceeds all his efforts to do so. This is its own kind of moral passion. And confusion. Whether the play’s moral confusion is deliberate or not, it leaves us with the image of a man unaware that the sense he’s made of the world makes no sense.


Measure for Measure at Theatre for a New Audience plays until July 16th.


 

David Foley

David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the GreeksParadiseNance O’NeilThe Murders at ArgosA Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.

Buzzed Books # 53: Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History

Buzzed Books # 53 by Amy Watkins

Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History

Near the end of my MFA, a new writer friend asked the topic of my critical thesis. I launched into a long and not particularly coherent description of the 20 or so ideas–all inextricably related in my mind–that had almost coalesced into a workable subject after four months and 30-odd pages of writing. The other writer laughed and said, “You must be a poet.” All good art is about more than one thing, but we poets seem especially inclined to the mental leaps that link ideas, cross disciplines, and complicate our elevator pitches.

Camille T. Dungy is best known as a poet and editor of the anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. We often say that poets bring a poetic eye or ear to their prose, but I would argue that Dungy brings a poetic mind to her collection of essays. Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (Norton, 2017) includes some beautiful, lyrical moments, but it is most poetic in the way it interweaves experience, history, family stories, scientific research, and naturalist lore.

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On the surface, the book is about Dungy traveling to speaking engagements around the country with her baby daughter, but that subject quickly becomes more complicated as Dungy brings her full poetic intellect to bear on each situation. A conversation about movies, a hike through unfamiliar terrain, a layover at a small airport with a restless baby, a walk through her own neighborhood prove equally promising starting points for reflections on race, American history, conservation, and academic life, as well as more personal concerns. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that Dungy’s essays remind us that all these subjects are simultaneously scholarly and personal.

In “Bounds,” a multi-part essay near the middle of the book, Dungy tells a story about her daughter learning to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” With scientific attention to detail, Dungy observes how the toddler develops her new skill in stages–humming the tune then singing nonsense words then losing the tune temporarily as she acquires each word of the lyrics then, finally, combining language and melody. An essay that meticulously charts the development of the writer’s child could easily become sentimental, boring, or both, but Dungy brings all her intellect, knowledge, and curiosity to the subject. She weaves in research on neurological development and linguistics, memories of her own childhood, and lyrical musings on the nature and purpose of language to create an essay at once intimate and intellectual.

Besides enhancing individual essays, this richness of ideas in a book about and by a new mother directly contradicts the obnoxious notion that parents–mothers in particular–become so narrowly focused on their children that they lose their intellectual curiosity or drive. As Dungy puts it in “Bounds”:

When I seem to be focused on a narrative about my daughter’s childhood, I might shift to a memory of an event that happened years before I was born because we live through multiple domains of relation at once….once a domain of relation is available, there is no guarantee that it will ever fully cease to influence us.

This complexity is what makes Guidebook so engaging. It’s also a main point of the collection. The domains of race, history, and nature are available to Dungy, even as she explores the new “domain” of motherhood. Hers is a poetic intelligence at work at masterful prose.


amy-watkins

Amy Watkins (Episodes 124161164192, and 209) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. She is the author of Milk & Water (Yellow Flag Press, 2014) and the art editor for Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine.

Episode #268: Kathleen Rooney!

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Episode 268 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

Kathleen Rooney

On this week’s show, I talk to the poet and novelist Kathleen Rooney about the flaneur as geographic narrator of imaginative space, the aesthetic pleasures of walking, writing about New York City, the value of elderly characters, the dramatic provocations of history, and the structure of the novel of memory.

TEXTS DISCUSSED

Lillian Boxfish Takes a WalkMrs Dalloway
Let the Great World Spin
Ulysses

NOTES

All our Waves are Water


Episode 268 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

The Curator of Schlock #187: First Blood

The Curator of Schlock #187 by Jeff Shuster

First Blood

They’re not hunting him. He’s hunting them!

Sorry if I freaked out a bit last week. Maybe it’s my delicate sensibilities, but a movie where a ten-year-old boy gets shot and killed because of the decision of some old guys in a board room meeting really ground my gears. My introduction to poliziottesco left me confused and bewildered, questioning the morality of this cruel world, where cops and criminals are no better than each other and the innocent are made to suffer. But then I then celebrated Independence Day, remembered what it is to be an American, where the distinctions between right and wrong are as clear as crystal. I know who the good guys are. I know who the bad guys are. It’s time for another Patriot’s Month, and to celebrate, we’re going through the Rambo series!

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Tonight’s entry is 1982’s First Blood from director Ted Kotcheff and starring Sylvester Stallone. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I am largely unfamiliar with the Rambo series. It must have been an HBO exclusive back in the day. So who will Rambo fight in this debut? The Viet Cong? The Soviets? Nope. He’s up against one jerk of small town sheriff and his band of sadistic deputies. The sheriff’s name is Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) and he doesn’t like the looks of this drifter that’s passing through his neck of the woods.

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Teasle tells this drifter that he needs a shave and a haircut. The drifter wants to get a bite to eat in the town. Teasle drives him to the city limits, tells the drifter he doesn’t want his kind in his town. As Sherriff Teasle drives away, the drifter starts walking back into town. Teasle arrests him for vagrancy. One of his men snatches the dog tags from around the drifter’s neck. The drifter’s name is John Rambo. 

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The deputies begin their abuse on John Rambo. The nastiest is Art Galt (Jack Starrett) who beats Rambo with a baton before turning a hose on him to get him nice and clean. Deputy Galt wants to give Rambo a shave. The razor triggers a Vietnam flashback, making Rambo snap. He breaks a out of the police station, steals a motorcycle and is on the lamb. Teasle follows in close pursuit, but overturns his car as he follows Rambo into the mountains. Things escalate from there. Dobermans are unleashed. Deputy Galt tries shooting Rambo with a sniper rifle from a helicopter only to fall out and die after Rambo throws a rock at the helicopter pilot. Galt was Teasle’s best friend so the sheriff now wants Rambo dead. 

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Things keep escalating. The Washington State Police are brought in. The National Guard is brought in. It turns out Rambo is a Green Beret with an expertise guerilla warfare. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Woah.

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At some point Rambo blows up half the town. I think a Dairy Queen catches on fire. Rambo cries to his commanding officer about how his best friend in Nam blew up and got his guts all over him. Oh, and Rambo can’t hold down a job at a car wash. I think he gets arrested at the end. This movie is one of the great ones. Plus, the score is Jerry Goldsmith. You can’t go wrong with First Blood


Jeffrey Shuster 3Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124, and episode 131) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.