Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

#1: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

It’s a forbidden secret that Shakespeare was a playwright. At least that’s the impression one can get from an American education, in which students are forced to read the plays without necessarily watching the plays. It would be like honoring the Cohen brothers by reading O Brother Where Art Thou while never ever watching it.

I am obsessed with Shakespeare on film.

While getting out to the theater to see Shakespeare well-performed is sublime, film is another capable medium for his work—much better, to my thinking, than the bare words on the page, even as amazing as those words are.

globe

Shakespeare worked with a rather bare stage in the O of the Globe Theatre and its predecessor in his writing career. In Henry V, he apologized for the inability to transform the scenery at will. Perhaps he would have liked film very much.

Having said that, Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet is bullshit.

Romeo Plus Juliet

Where do I start? The most obvious flaw is the acting in this rock video version of Shakespeare. The callow adolescents never manage to dignify Shakespeare’s words, not only in their sounds, but what they signify. Especially awful is Claire Danes, who for half the film grins goofily as if saying, “Look, I’m so doing Shakespeare.” Or maybe Leonardo DiCaprio was too dreamy.

Claire Danes R+J

Only Vondie Curtis-Hall as Captain Prince and Pete Postlethwaite as Father Laurence seem to comprehend what they are doing.

Compounding these generally trite performances is the overstated music, special effects, and cinematography. The urban world beats that the actors must compete with for our hearing is a constant liability. The metaphorical weather patterns make those of The Matrix seem subtle. The fast-motion segments, severe editing, and ear-shattering foley noise make following the words an impossibility.

These concerns are, of course, not random, but rest at the foundation of Baz Luhrmann’s very flawed aesthetic, for he believes that American popular culture ennobles us as much as any classic work can. Our television news is our prologue and epilogue. Nobles dress like pimps and frat boys on spring break. Verona is rendered trendy as Verona Beach. Our pop music is liturgy, our teenybopper songs of angst, opera.

I doubt whether this aesthetic can be made compelling, but I can say that in Luhrmann’s hands it is not. When James Joyce compared the twentieth century to the classical and Elizabethan worlds, the result was tragicomic. Luhrmann has little sense of humor, and what he does possess comes off with the sophistication of, say, Benny Hill.

As an editor, cinematographer, and even costumer, Luhrmann is immensely talented; as an artist who presumably has something to say, however, he reveals himself a lowly hack, ultimately the very quintessence of idiotic vulgarity, swirling about in kaleidoscopic worship of his own absurdly inflated sense of cleverness. One must understand Shakespeare to transform Shakespeare. The words, and how they are uttered, matter.

Fuck you, Baz Luhrmann.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.

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