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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

67. Lloyd Kaufman’s Tromeo and Juliet (1996)

Last week, the bourgeoisie wet dream that is Carlo Carlei’s Romeo and Juliet so dismayed me that I decided the time had come to try Tromeo and Juliet. From time to time, I review films that may seem tangential to Shakespearean theatre, such as Strange Brew and Gnomeo and Juliet and Edward II. I anticipated that this Lloyd Kaufman film would be one of those at best. I admit I don’t know much of Kaufman’s oeuvre beyond The Toxic Avenger. His studio, Troma, is a factory for latter day exploitation cinema. Perhaps it’s the fact that James Gunn, of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, co-wrote the script, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Tromeo and Juliet is one of the best Shakespeare films of all time.

I am not joking.

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Tromeo and Juliet was released the same year as Romeo + Juliet.

Of course, little of Shakespeare’s language appears in Tromeo, and when it does, it is usually given voice in the form of the prologue, performed by Lemmy of Motörhead!

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But the screenplay also nimbly borrows lines from other Shakespeare plays.

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There is in this film the exploitation-movie compulsion towards graphic sex and gore, as well as astoundingly low lowbrow humor that may superficially seem contrary to the spirit of the great bard. If you want a painfully sanitized aesthetic, might I recommend Carlo Carlei’s Romeo and Juliet?

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Perhaps viewers not from America might think this Will to Outrage strained. Tromeo and Juliet is a decidedly American take on Shakespeare’s tragedy. The two feuding households are dueling pornographic filmmakers. The hymn “Shall We Gather at the River” repeats constantly throughout the film, and the need to repress awareness of our own desires, and our need to wield tyrannical control our children’s desires, is one of the themes of this film. Sometimes this comes off as goofy camp, but sometimes this comes off as a surrealistic nightmare of Puritanical America. The spiritual life at the center of Romeo and Juliet’s culture, and the patriarchal fury of the play, are consistent with these themes.

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One peculiar example is a scene that juxtaposes two sexual acts. Juliet (Jane Jenson) confides her ambivalent sexual feelings about men to her nurse (Debbie Rochon), with whom she is sexually intimate. Meanwhile, Romeo (Will Kennan) is pining for his Rosie (Rosaline) while seated alone at his computer.

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He considers which Shakespeare Sex Interactive CD-Rom to watch. (It’s 1996.) Instead of The Merchant of Penis, he opts for As You Lick It, and when prompted to choose what sort of experience he wants, he chooses true love. In Shakespeare’s text, Juliet is infantilized by the nurse, with whom she is too close, something she will realize when the nurse advises her to betray Romeo. And in Shakespeare’s text, Romeo’s sense of romantic and sexual identity is as ethereal as the pornography of love. Gunn and Kaufman and the actors have all committed to these choices, so they don’t feel arbitrary, though they do feel delightfully uncomfortable.

In deconstructing Shakespeare, Gunn and Kaufman get Shakespeare in a way that Carlei and Baz Lurhmann cannot.

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William Beckwith plays Cappy Capulet, Juliet’s father, and his performance is revelatory for its strangeness, for its absorption of cognitive dissonance and conviction in his own corrupt transcendence that reminds me of contemporary presidential politics.

Tromeo and Juliet is wickedly funny, and engages with Shakespearean texts in a profound way. The last shot of the movie is of Shakespeare laughing at the camera. Provided Shakespeare got some royalties for this adaptation, I think he would indeed be laughing at this wonderful cinematic experience.


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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.

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