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11 Ways To Get Through The Day
When Despair Gets An Upper Hand

The philosopher conjures misty castles, calls
Them solid rock. The libertine drinks the ready
Wine, relies upon his cock. Scientists cook up
Molecules, declare all meaning dead. Priests
Wave their holy books, offer daily bread. The
Salesman assures just what you need is here
Inside this bag. Surgeons say the magic cure is
Fix the flesh that sags. School nurses wage long
Campaigns to rid the class of lice. Commentators
Rage and rail, indulge in secret vice. Money girls
Check their phones, tweet It’s only pain that pays.
Children say, Come on, Dad. Let’s go outside and
Play
. Artists say our Beauties are the holes that fit
No keys, peek into the locked-up rooms of endless
Mysteries!

Henry V may be the most cinematic of all Shakespeare’s plays. It stars a young underdog hero who wins the battle and gets the girl. It is a spectacular piece of theater, with nearly a dozen stand-out scenes, some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, and battles just begging to be filmed. Henry V has drama, action, comedy, romance, heartbreak, and a rich vein of ambiguity – all of which give actors and directors wide scope to shape their own versions of the play. Here’s how three of them did it, in order of personal preference.

Kenneth Branagh (1989)

henry v branaghBranagh’s Henry V is not only the best film version of the play by far – it is one of the finest film versions of any of Shakespeare play – because it flawlessly executes Branagh’s vision of the hard consequences of war.

Every element of the film reinforces this theme. Branagh’s screenplay presents many of the play’s darker elements: the English traitors, the hanging of Bardolph, the deaths in battle. The mood and production design are somber throughout: Branagh splashes mud all over Olivier’s bright Technicolor Henry V. Branagh assembles a remarkable cast of A list actors for all the major roles, who all bring their characters to specific human life. Branagh fully exploits the dramatic possibilities of each scene. And he delivers the knock-out punch with a four-minute tracking shot of King Harry carrying the body of a young boy killed by the French across the battlefield and through a tableau of almost every character in the play, living, wounded, or dead, while the non nobius is sung.

If you require nitpicking, there are traces of Branagh the insufferable ham within his very fine performance of Henry V. And Branagh doesn’t quite convince us Harry and his princes go only reluctantly to war. They prosecute their campaign against the French with too much vigor to make us believe that.

Laurence Olivier (1944)

henry v olivierLaurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V was a remarkable achievement, and greeted with great acclaim, when it first appeared during World War II. (The film was intended to raise the morale of wartime Britain.) The problems are that so much of Olivier’s version is out of step with modern taste, and so many of the scenes fail to make effective use of film as a medium, that contemporary viewers will see it as a half-success at best.

This Henry V still makes an impact, however. Olivier is excellent as an unambiguously heroic Henry V playing his role as public leader of the English army to perfection, most especially during the St. Crispin’s Day speech. He is very good showing us the private King Henry the night before Agincourt and the appealing young conqueror who wins the heart of his young French queen. Olivier’s charging knights and mounted sword fights still impress in an era of massive digital special effects. And the diction, presence, and physicality that made Olivier a star on the English stage are all on rich display.

Unfortunately, the phrase “stage star” sums up the difficulties with this Henry V. Much of the acting, including Olivier in many scenes, is the “presentational” style well suited to clearly communicating every word and gesture to the last row of a large theater but which on film comes across as loud, stiff, flat, and dull. Olivier’s clowns are worse. They play their lines for the broadest and most obvious comedy and the clowns include not just Falstaff’s retainers, but also most of the French nobility as well as the English clergy seeking to divert King Henry’s attention from their wealth by provoking a war with France. (The “Salic law” scene is hysterical, though.) All the comedy and the many actors playing “types” rather than individual men and women make this Henry V only rarely moving.

Finally, Olivier’s production design is a fascinating mess. He uses three distinct styles. Most of the scenes in England are played in a reproduction of the Globe Theater, with the actors and audience interacting with each other, and the acting suited to that situation. The sets of the interior scenes in France resemble famous illustrations from Les Tres Riches Heures and the acting is again stage style. Exterior scenes in France, all around the battle, are filmed outside or on realistic sets, and the acting humanizes the characters by taking advantage of the power of the movies to make the smallest gesture big. All this further reduces the emotional impact of the play. But it does prove the old axiom that an interesting failure is superior to a dull success.

Tom Hiddleston (2012)

shakespeare henry v hiddlestonTom Hiddleston is reasonably good as King Henry in the 2012 BBC production of Henry V (which is part of the “Hollow Crown” series), and many of the actors and scenes are persuasive. Overall, however, director Thea Sharrock has made a cock of her version of the play.

Sharrock doesn’t seem to have quite decided what she wants her Henry V to say or who she wants her King Henry to be. The film starts on promising notes. Sharrock opens with Henry V’s funeral (which The Chorus describes in the closing lines of the play) suggesting we are going to get an “all is vanity” approach. She reinforces this idea by giving us a King Henry who goes to war out of a sense of obligation to his own and his country’s honor.

But then she doesn’t follow through. Instead, much of this Henry V has the look and feel of Branagh’s. Sharrock underplays many of the scenes, most notably the St. Crispin’s Day speech, losing the drama without gaining new insight. And Sharrock muffs the Harfleur scene, where she has Hiddleston threatened the French citizens with genocide from within the walls of their own town if they don’t surrender . Didn’t anyone notice that the English army had already captured Harfleur?

This isn’t the only time Hiddleston’s King Henry shows irrational anger and a taste for violence. He also shows it when he orders the execution of the French prisoners at Agincourt. Then at other times, Hiddleston’s King seems deeply and sincerely pious. Then at other other times, we see flashes of the old charming rake Prince Harry from the Henry IV plays. The total effect of this is not a character who is complex and mercurial. The effect is that Hiddleston’s Henry V comes across as incoherent: a person who can be radically different from scene to scene, sometimes from moment to moment.

Big fans of Shakespeare, and of Tom Hiddleston, will not be unhappy with this version of Henry V. But for those who want to watch just one movie, Branagh’s is the version to choose.

What Are You Selling Again, Reverend?

Jesus roamed the holy land in a Range Rover, and
I spread the word of God faster the faster I move,
Too. So this is a machine necessary to my ministry.
I favor flawless black – with the perfect high shine
Of the coffins in which we all make our final trip.
Memento mori. In my Father’s house, there are
Many rooms and I have built my additions also, as
The church budget permits. We need the space to
Hold wide the arms of Christ’s welcome, to host in
Generous fellowship and with full table those who
Come in love and seeking more. Clasp my hand and
I will give you assurance of the Lord’s many blessings,
As well as tangible proof of how His enterprise prospers.
For all our salvations shall come with tasteful bling, and
Boundless grace with a pinkie ring.

Selma MovieFor a movie as universally praised – and as well deserving of that praise – as Selma, the film is getting curiously little positive attention lately.

Despite examining the life of arguably the most important American of the 20th century (Martin Luther King Jr.) and one of the major events in that century (Civil Rights), the discussion of U.S. history Selma has provoked is dominated by questions of the film’s representation of Lyndon B. Johnson, the president during the Selma marches.

And despite being better written, acted, and directed than the vast majority of films Hollywood produces, including the “issue” films through which the industry loves to celebrate itself, Selma was largely snubbed by the Oscars.

The question is Why? Having considered carefully, I’ve come up with the answer. Because director Ava DuVernay didn’t make the white guy the hero.

Now this sounds like the kind of provocation on which bloggers depend, but it happens to be my true opinion. And highly defensible. Here’s why.

Selma the Movie Versus History

The first thing to know about any work of art that dramatizes historical people and events is that when the needs of the dramatist conflict with the truth of the historian, the truth of the historian always loses.

This is the nature of storytelling, and we would all be better off if more storytellers would acknowledge this fact up front and more historians would stop bitching about storytellers failing to do their jobs for them, and instead embrace the opportunity to talk about history that movies like Selma offer.

The right questions we should ask film-makers like Ms. DuVernay are What did you change? and Why did you change it?

These are the questions DuVernay answered in a January 5 Rolling Stone interview. She reduced Johnson’s role in Selma because she was “interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma” and because she wanted to portray Lyndon Johnson as a “reluctant hero”.

That is what she achieved. Watching the movie, and reviewing the historical arguments swirling around it, the worst you could say about DuVernay’s LBJ in regards to the Voting Rights Act is that he saw it as somewhat less of a priority than the historical LBJ. But both Johnsons worked with Dr. King, both Johnsons cared about the bill, and both worked to get it passed.

You wouldn’t know this from the reaction of Joseph Califano, a top Johnson aid from 1965 to 1969, who acts as if DuVernay did a full-on Shakespearean Richard III hatchet job on Johnson; who claims Selma was all Johnson’s idea and implies LBJ cared more passionately about voting rights than the people of the Civil Rights movement; and whose self-righteous appeal to the “facts” of history don’t quite fit the facts he quotes (see the New Yorker article).

Califano and other critics are on much more solid ground when they complain that the movie portrays Johnson as behind the FBI secretly taping Dr. King’s extra-marital affairs. If they want to ding DuVernay for that, have at her. While I think the spying is important to include in Selma, the way DuVernay included it in the film is clunky and her defense of the inclusion, clunkier.

But in all the outrage over the horrendous slander against Lyndon Johnson people like Califano express, it would be nice if they paused to also express some outrage at the government spying on one of its own citizens to stop him from claiming rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Or perhaps even a little outrage over the fact that men in the pay of government routinely beat the living sh*t out of people – beat these people with impunity and without consequence – as they tried to claim the same rights. If the truth about LBJ in 1965 is worth getting upset over, shouldn’t the truth about everyone else in 1965 still matter too?

Selma the Movie, What Sells Tickets, and The Great Oscar Snub

The answer is clearly “no” or the experience of the men and women of the Civil Rights movement would be part of the conversation too. To understand the reason why it’s not, the best place to go is Hollywood.

Hollywood is even more attuned to what people want than governments, because while governments can make you give them money whether you like it or not, Hollywood has to convince you to open your wallet through pure selling.

Mostly what Hollywood sells are fantasies of sex, money, love, power, and freedom from social restraint. Occasionally, they sell stories about inspiration, uplift, and redemption. And occasionally within this subset of inspiration, the stories are about real people and real events.

But there are rules that must be followed. Some of these rules are that such movies should be simplistic, over-obvious, and end in triumph. An iron-clad rule is that they must make the audience (that is “white people”) comfortable by assuring them they are right-thinking, right-acting human beings firmly on the right side of history.

Call this the Dances with Wolves model or if you like, the “white savior” model, which is what DuVernay told Rolling Stone she wanted to avoid making Selma. And boy she sure did.

Her Selma gets the formula half right. The movie clearly identifies the “bad” white people like Alabama Governor George Wallace and Selma Sheriff Jim Clark who we can all congratulate ourselves for despising. But Selma then fails to give us (again “us” means “white people”) the counter-balance of the unambiguous white hero whose actions are absolutely essential to achieving the ending’s triumph and with whom we (“white people” still) can identify.

DuVernay takes away LBJ as simple hero and then does more. She mixes into her Lyndon Johnson qualities that fall between those of the obvious hero and those of the obvious villain – those inaccuracies previously discussed. She has King say all those who do nothing while innocent people are killed share complicity in those killings. And she closes the movie with Common and John Legend singing a song (“Glory”) that explicitly connects Selma to Ferguson, which when you compare the news footage of the two events look, ah, kinda similar.

The result? A whole lot of white people going frickin’ bat sh*t because Selma suggests that maybe they aren’t quite as right-thinking and right-acting as they’d like to believe.

This seems to me to be the heart of the matter. The objections to the historical inaccuracies in Selma look strangely out of proportion to the inaccuracies themselves until we see them as damaging the image of LBJ as “white savior” and so damaging the self-esteem of people like Califano who want to identify with him as such. What else would explain Califano over-playing Johnson’s importance to voting rights, after bitterly complaining Selma under-plays it, except that Califano is reflexively defending his self image?

This also explains the strange pattern of Oscar snubs the academy has bestowed on Selma. No person associated with Selma was nominated. Many of these nominations went to other less accomplished, though perfectly serviceable “serious” films like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Only Selma the movie itself and the closing song were nominated. In other words, things.

Things the academy can claim as their own, celebrate, and congratulate themselves as right-thinking, right-acting people for celebrating.

That is what they sell, after all.

Acts of the Apostles

I know you’re a preacher from your black coat,
The lady said and I smiled and told her Almost.
To what strange lands might we fly if I spread
My black wings, from what strange texts might
I speak if I took the pulpit? Would I please her
Dancing my exuberant heresies on the Rock of
Ages? Perhaps. Her face said she might take
My mysteries for faith, my wonders for reasons,
My beauties for redemption. She might grant me
A God who is all whirlwind and no ash heap, who
Suffered so He could say We are the same now.

Or would she ask me What about love dear? and
Smile at my blank look. Love is simple as a child.
You shuffle Her to one side with your words and
Your rules and your thinking. Then I would sweep
Off my preacher’s coat and settle it on the majesty
Of her stooped shoulders.

The Lament of Milton’s Satan

Oh where are the noble sins? How can
We tempt to betrayal when all interest
Is self interest? To blasphemy when the
Only curse is canceling cable television?
To blood when the grubby bills of trade
Are sticky with gore? How the dignity of
My defiant hell sold cheap? How comes
The glorious army that threw eternity at
Hazard in their rebellion reduced now to
Game-show hosts and sales-dinner MCs?
How I forced to trade my smoking black
Armor for fire-engine Lyrca? To stand in
Red-hot yoga pants and watch Mammon
Revel on my throne?

The Bigger & Better Inferno 2.0
— in Stores for the Holidays!

In the new ninth circle, the devils make
Us clap wildly for money. They parade
The rich and we celebrate, they drive
Italian racing cars and we thrill at the
Thrum, and when joy turns to despair,
The demons make us clap more. Our
Widest smiles turn rictus and they fill
Our mouths with shiny white teeth ’til
We choke, stitch us into fey fashions
Until we smother, slam baubled rings
On our broken fingers, then smoothly
Praise our elegance and good taste
Before they whip us to the mall and
Scourge our skins until we buy again.

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