Friday, January 7, 2011

Discussing "The Tempest"

Welcome to the latest installment of the occasional collaboration between Tim Brayton, of the invaluable film blog Antagony and Ecstasy (no, I'm not exactly sure what the title means either) and myself, on the subject of film/theatre crossovers. Today's subject is Julie Taymor's film version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, with Helen Mirren, cast across gender lines as Prospera. The film has died a quick death at the box office--by its second week of release in Chicago, it was playing once a day at one movie theatre in the entire Chicagoland area, and now it seems to have disappeared entirely.

We'll explore in a little while whether it deserves this fate, but first, let's discuss the source material, William Shakespeare's play, for a bit. Tim, want to start us off there?

Tim: I know we don't agree, as I'm sure you'll point out, but I rather like the play. It's undoubtedly lesser Shakespeare, but I'd still rank it among the 24 or so of his 38 plays that I think are more excellent than not.

It's largely un-dramatic: a exiled duke/magician assembles all of the people who've wronged him on an island, toys with them, and then reveals himself and takes his title back. And that's part of what I like about it. It's a play largely about the joy of creating things for the sake of it. Four centuries of criticism have made it a cliche that the main character, Prospero, "is" William Shakespeare, but I think that's such a durable idea only because it fits so obviously well: The Tempest is about a man who controls the fates of everyone around him entirely, "writing" the events that happen to them (recall that this was one of the few Shakespearean plays with no known source for its story).

With Hamlet, King Lear, the Henriad, and so many other plays behind him, I like to suppose that the Shakespeare of 1610 didn't feel like he had anything left to prove with drama, and so set himself to a single piece of pure fancy. It's about magic and spectacle, and it is magical and spectacular, and that's it - a Jacobean precursor to a Michael Bay film, perhaps. But much more appealing than that.

Zev: I'll go on the record as saying that The Tempest is one of my least favorites of Shakespeare's plays. (I've never read Timon of Athens or The Two Gentlemen of Verona, so the bottom of my personal ranking is Cymbeline.) Even if it's not among Shakespeare's very worst, it certainly seems to command a critical respect and frequency of production way out of proportion to its quality. The Tempest may be better than something like Titus Andronicus, but as trashy as Titus is, at least it keeps the audience riveted. (Incidentally, Titus was Taymor's first film, and is one of the best filmed Shakespeares ever.) It's all too easy for an audience's attention to drift away from The Tempest.

I think our differing opinions on the play come down to something fundamental in our perspectives: narrative and storytelling are of much more importance to me than they are to you. And The Tempest's narrative is, frankly, a mess. Compare Twelfth Night, where the loss of a single scene would cause the whole plot to collapse, with the flabby storytelling on display in The Tempest, where whole swathes of the play could be cut without any effect.

The play also suffers from insipid lovers, unfunny clowns, and unthreatening villains. There are really only three characters of significant interest: Prospero, the sorcerer, Ariel, his androgynous sprite of a servant, and Caliban, the "savage" who was born on the island and is now kept by Prospero as another servant.

This isn't to say the play is a total loss. The language is among Shakespeare's most beautiful, there's an opportunity for some wondrous staging, and strong acting can make even the weaker material work. (And if Prospero is played by a beloved actor near the end of his career, as is often the case, little else matters.) It's certainly possible for The Tempest to be good. But has Taymor managed this?

Tim: Certainly, The Tempest has little enough concrete drama to it that it seems to attract all sorts of weird and experimental readings: without even glancing at its many stage versions in the last few decades, I can immediately point to the '50s sci-fi picture Forbidden Planet and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books as two versions that do things very different from any "standard" version of the play. It was for this reason that I was especially excited for Taymor's vision: as you've mentioned, Titus was a masterpiece, largely because she took a fairly stupid piece of nastiness, and made it into one of the most fascinating commentaries on the impulse towards fascism that I think I've ever seen.

And since the first thing we all learned about Taymor's Tempest was the casting of Helen Mirren as Prospero - I'm sorry, Prospera - it seemed like something pretty great was in the offing. After all, one of the few things explicit about the play is its patriarchalism: Prospero is the very model of an Alpha Male, commanding Ariel, Caliban, and Miranda all about, and his treatment of the castaways has all the feeling, to me anyway, of a dick-measuring contest. So I was pretty darn excited to see what a female director (though not an appreciably feminist one) would do with a gender flip, still one of the boldest things you can do with Shakespeare.

It turns out, she doesn't do much. The biggest effect of the change seems to be that Mirren gets to play a part with a pretty awesome monologue that she wouldn't otherwise get to recite. But there's not a single thing that would have materially changed about this film if Prospera had been a guy, just like always.

And that, in essence, seems to be the big, monolithic fact about Taymor's adaptation: it doesn't really do anything. It’s flashy and full of crazy spectacle and huge over-elaborate costumes that make look Mirren like a raven constructed out of obsidian shards, and it’s all bent towards absolutely no coherent end whatsoever. Unless you've thought of something I missed?

Zev: I'd have to agree on that. No overarching principle or metaphor is apparent, and the many choices feel arbitrary. One could argue that it's a good thing that the cross-gender casting barely registers, but think of the missed opportunities! Mirrenís capable of extraordinary work, and an actress with her fierce intelligence could have explored the power and contradictions in the character to thrilling effect. But she doesn't do anything particularly exciting here. She has the strongest command of the verse of the cast, but by the end, I was left feeling "Yeah, that was pretty good." And for a Helen Mirren performance, that counts as a major disappointment. (I'll leave the question of her relative attractiveness to you, as you're the one with the raging crush on her.)

But the character who suffers most from Taymor's approach is Caliban. The character is immensely problematic: he was born on the island, but Prospera stole it from him when she was exiled there. She and her daughter, Miranda, kept him and raised him in their home, educating him, until he tried to rape Miranda. By the time the play starts, heís exiled to a hut outside of their home, and is used only for menial tasks--carrying logs, and the like. Obviously, the character of a "savage," who attempts to rape the virginal young woman who taught him language and is now constantly insulted and kept as a slave, is immensely troubling to modern audiences. It's hard not to read the whole character as a full-throated endorsement of colonialism and slavery, and contemporary interpretations need to take care to make the character palatable and non-racist.

Remarkably, Taymor seems completely unaware of this minefield. The film's representation of Caliban is...well, let's just call it remarkably insensitive. Djimon Honsou, who plays Caliban, is the only non-white actor on screen, aside from the Boatswain, who gets maybe a minute onscreen, which makes him the "other" from the start. His physical representation is even more disturbing--he has patches of skin that are bleached white, is covered with mud and scars, and wears only a raggedy loincloth. Often when he appears, the soundtrack helpfully adds in "tribal" drums and didgeridoos. Add in the way the camera caresses his partly-exposed buttocks for a little dash of sexual exoticism, and it makes for a profoundly troubling representation.

Were you bothered by this as well? And what other choices would you say worked or didn't?

Tim: Oh, man, don't make me think about Caliban. There are only two possibilities: one is that Taymor is an utter idiot, and the other is that she hates black people, and she's too clever to be an utter idiot.

"What other choices would you say worked or didn't?" Choices? What choices? All I saw were a lot of ideas pitched at the screen with no thought for what effect they had (of which Caliban is merely the most odious), the very opposite of a creative "choice". It's like the director had a bet that she couldn't make a complete movie out of changing tones with every single new scene.

Though I guess she, or somebody, did "choose" to put Ben Whishaw's Ariel (the second-best performance in the movie, by my lights) in those terrible fake boobs. She chose to introduce Prospera with a series of jump cuts to her screaming face, like she was the villain in a slasher movie. She chose to have Russell Brand and Alfred Molina humiliate themselves as the most foppish clowns in any Shakespeare adaptation. She chose to wildly miscast Chris Cooper and David Strathairn as the Duke of Milan and King of Naples. She probably didn't choose the dodgy-ass CGI that keeps cropping up, especially in the ghost hounds sequence; but it shouldn't have come to having that CGI absolutely ruin Prospera's big monologue, one of everybody's favorite bits in the whole thing.

If I were going to defend Taymor's vision - and oh how I wish I could! She has never before failed me - it might be along these lines: since the play was originally just one big spectacle as the Globe audience might have appreciated spectacle, all she's doing is stripping the play down from any kind of "reading", and just giving us the 2010 equivalent of spectacle: lots of effects, lots of famous people, big swooping camera. But that's doing too much work for her, and ignores the fact that so much of it doesn't work: most of the acting, most of the swooping, the execrable Elliot Goldenthal score. But I tire myself; what were your least favorite bits?

Zev: I'm entirely in agreement on that awful score, the completely inappropriate introduction of Prospera, the disturbing fake boobs, and everything else you mentioned. To that, I would only add the bizarre costumes (apparently Milan is the kingdom of zippers, as every Milanese character has several dozen per garment) and Reeve Carney's performance as Ferdinand. He seems to be going for a dreamy, laid-back romanticism, which is not necessarily a bad choice for a character who has virtually no personality beyond how smitten he is. But his line delivery is a disaster. Not only does he mangle the verse, he can't even manage the words very well. Rather than dreamy romance, his slurred deliveries indicate a state somewhere between stoned and developmentally disabled. It's hands-down the worst performance in the film--and nobody is exactly doing their best work on screen, though I agree that Mirren and Whishaw give the most interesting performances. One wonders what Taymor saw in him: she also cast him in the title role of the Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway, which makes that already notorious project look even more dire.

I think we've pretty much gotten the point across, though we could inventory the film's failings for paragraphs more if we chose. But here's my closing thought, related to what you said above: even if the film is meant to be nothing but spectacle, it doesn't succeed. The problem isn't just that the special effects are generally blah and the CGI looks bush-league, or that they frequently detract from the play's best elements. It's that the film's entire visual aesthetic is...uninspired. Taymor's first three films, whatever their flaws, were stuffed with images and moments that made you drop your jaw in wonder. But I can only remember one such moment in The Tempest: a shot, early in the film, of four of Prospera's victims walking out of the water, unscathed by their wreck. It reminds you of what the movie could have been, if Taymor had had a better handle on the material and her actors. It's all the more frustrating that she's ended up with a film that's alternately misconceived and dull.

Any final thoughts on your end?

Tim: Final thoughts? I suppose "Julie Taymor owes me $12" would just be mean.

When all is said and done, the worst thing about The Tempest is that I don't even hate it. I just felt really let down and deflated by how boring it was, and disappointed by pretty much everything on screen. Disappointed that Taymor was making the first Tempest of the CGI age, and only dreamt up the most superficial fantasies. Disappointed that the once in a lifetime chance for Helen Mirren to play one of the great boys' roles was wasted, unless some unlikely brave director decides to give us Henry IV with Lady Jane Falstaff, or Queen Lear. Disappointed that it felt so rushed and disjointed, like a college paper you write over breakfast the day it's due. Like the play or not, you have to agree that The Tempest deserves better than this.

And dammit, Julie Taymor owes me $12.


Jessica Cluess said...

Oh man, it hurts so good. One quick thing, though. I'm a wee bit tired of hearing how a female director who doesn't go out of her way to incorporate big parts for women in her movies isn't 'feminist.' Of her four big films, Frida was a woman's biopic, Across the Universe had several prominent women characters, and now Prospera's a woman. So actually, Taymor's got many ladies.

Which shouldn't even matter, really. Women should be as free as men to tell any damn story they please, whether it's got women in it or not. Now in this case, she told a piss poor story, but still...y'know. Man, boobs on Ariel. Whyyyyyy???

I think my point is this: we need to stop beating the 'moar feminist' drum whenever a film isn't about Merchant Ivory ladies getting their periods, because at this point I'M getting annoyed with so-called 'feminists' who bitch about EVERYTHING, and I AM a feminist. I...I like coffee. Sorry Zev, I'm a MANIAC today. But my point still stands. Let women tell their stories and don't worry about whether they're 'feminist' or not. Just take the story as it comes.

I'm also curious as to why you didn't write a speech titled 'why Alfred Molina, Jesus why?' That, that is a question.

Mr. K said...

I agree with most of your comments, re: The Tempest. I remember seeing a silent film version of it from the early 1900s on TCM's SILENT SHAKESPEARE episode that pretty much jettisoned the text and enjoyed the magic (cutting loose with the most dream-like old timey SFX), and I felt no loss.

I can't imagine saying that about many other Shakespeare plays.

And yes, Tempest is one of the few plays that I think reward weird adaptations. Bohemian Theatre Ensemble in Chicago did a version where Prospero is actually a mental patient, fantasizing the whole thing and casting his "tormentors" and caretakers in all the roles. Really makes sense of Prospero's most alpha-male manipulations.

Tim said...

As the author of the "feminist" quip, I should probably clarify: I'm not saying it's good or bad, just that she's not terribly dogmatic. Not just about gender, but about anything; Taymor's all about the style, a bit less so about the meaning, and I love her for it.

But still & all, the gender-swapping I've seen in Shakespeare is usually done in the service of a very particular political argument, of which there is absolutely none here.

Rosie said...

I haven't seen this one...but just from one conversation with Zev, I think I got the same empty, deflated effect that actually seeing it would have given me.

Helen Mirren is an absolute treasure. I've never seen her perform poorly, ever. (And I've got a sort of weird girl crush on her myself...She's stunning.) I am going to have to avoid anything that would taint my opinion of her. I know, living like an ostrich doesn't expand a person's life or experience, but I think I have the right to make this decision.

As for Julie Taymor...My eye rolling disgust for her began when I saw 'Across the Universe'. Another example of terrible casting, a plot that wasn't there, and a bizarre take on what 'gender queer' means in film. Finding out about this flop and the absolute disaster of Spiderman just adds fuel to the fire of my dislike for Taymor.

Jessica, I agree and disagree with you at the same time. I hate the idea that a 'feminist' flick needs to fit into such a specific category. However, having spent my college daze studying under a brilliant feminist film theorist, I can point out why one could complain about the way Taymor makes films. The biggest thing is that the spectacle she creates follows all of the traditionally masculine Hollywood standards. She uses the eye of the camera for what could be considered voyeurism, and doesn't actually provide female actors with truly interesting parts or decent direction that gives them power to take back the 'look'. Granted, I agree with your comment that directors who just happen to be women shouldn't have to defend their womanhood/femininity/feminism just because they don't always beat you over the head with it and because not every story is so distinctly 'feminist', whatever the hell that really means.

A great film that balances the spectacle and the 'look' with a true mind for gender queer casting and directing, as well as a brilliantly 'feminist' take on character is Sally Potter's adaptation of "Orlando". I realize I'm sort of on a tangent at this point but I always have to share that flick whenever lady directors and disastrous films with cross casting are mentioned.

noochinator said...

Just watched this -- thought 8 of the 11 leads were good or great, four not so much. Mirren, Brand, Conti, Cumming, Hounsou, Molina, Straithairn, and Whishaw all held my interest or better. Scenes with some of the others had me pushing the DVD remote's skip chapter button. It's interesting, and to me unsurprising, that the best performances were by Brits, the worst by Yanks. I would have bet that the music was by Michael Nyman, it sounded so much like the latter's score for 'Prospero's Books'. Special effects and CGI were enchanting enough. With Shakespeare, casting is all, and this movie was 2/3 of the way there.