If you give a girl an assignment… by Elizabeth C. '13
...she's going to ask if she can blog about it.
When you let her blog about it, she’ll probably give you this:
As with all great blog posts, we begin this one with a screencap:
If you think you’ve just stumbled into the wrong part of the blogosphere, rest assured you’re in the right place. It is Elizabeth here. There are no silly videos of me singing off-tune today. There are no silly doodles that I drew during class today. Nay – today… we get down to BUSINESS. What you’re looking at is a screenshot from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo &dagger Juliet, the 1999 movie adaptation of the Shakespearean classic (or, as most people refer to it – “The-one-with-the-guns-instead-of-swords” or “The-one-with-Leonardo-DiCaprio-and-that-other-actress-whose-name-I-don’t-remember”). And what you’re reading is an assignment for 21L.004 (Reading Poetry). Taught by the wildly-entertaining Professor Stephen Tapscott, this class is a foray into poems that the 21L (Literature) department has deemed “important” (actually, we’re going to cover Eliot and Milton would have to agree that those fellas are pretty important, so I am subsequently quite stoked). Our class of 17 students has been studying Shakespeare for the past couple weeks – his sonnets and in particular, Romeo and Juliet – and it is that time of year where the obligatory paper has come a-knockin’. But… Prof. Tapscott told someone during class, “Instead of a paper, write a review of a performance and post it on your blog if you have one… I dare you!” Our class had just watched the Luhrmann adaptation and naturally, being the good Division I Varsity Blogger that I am (a title I wear with great pride, mind you) and being a person incapable of backing down from challenges, I sent Professor Tapscott this e-mail. And naturally, Professor Tapscott, being the total boss professor that he is, gave me the go-ahead. Why am I doing this? Because I think this is more fun than dragging my literary feet through a dry analysis and I figured you all would appreciate getting a glimpse into the humanities here. So here we are, about to embark on my
scathing review calm, rational, objective response (sorry guys, I promised him I’d be civil) of Luhrmann’s adaptation. Away we go!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the movie, Romeo &dagger Juliet was made in the 90’s by Baz Luhrmann (who also directed Moulin Rouge! and Australia) and is a modern-day translation of the Shakespearean classic. Luhrmann maintains the original dialogue but everything is set in a modern-day Verona Beach, California (are you cringing yet?), with the Capulets as cheese-tastic Latino gang-members and the Montagues as equally cheese-tastic surfer-dude/beach-bum gang-members. Mercutio is the only non-white/non-hispanic character in the movie, Friar Lawrence is an old, “herb”-growing California hippy, and the two families are rivaling business empires.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s cut to the chase. I’m going to save you all the trouble of deciphering literary jargon, nix the expository sophistication and lay it all out here: Luhrmann’s Romeo &dagger Juliet was entertaining and parts of it were salvageable, but mostly just in the way that Glee is entertaining and salvageable – that is, it relies on gimmicks and occasionally has something insightful to say, but essentially just leaves you thinking to yourself, “Wow, I probably could have done something productive with my life but instead of watching that visual spectacle.” By choosing commercial flashiness over literary integrity, he compromises the characters and thematic elements. Luhrmann takes a little too much artistic license for my liking, pulling the already-depressing story to bounds of borderline-comical tragedy. The moral of his story is that the world is awful, and I had a hard time taking something that took itself so seriously all that seriously.
Let’s begin with that initial screenshot of Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Those goobers are actually Sampson and Gregory, Romeo’s posse. The actual play opens up with a kerfuffle between some Montagues and Capulets, an event we discussed during class as something that wasn’t the most significant event in the play but had its merit in practicality – fights are fun to watch and grab an audience’s attention right from the beginning. The fight in the movie is instead played up as something of more significance and has a darkness about it that seems unfitting to the original play. It sets the mood for the rest of the movie, though, because this adaptation in general is dark, cynical and hopeless.
I think the only way to really understand the Luhrmann adaptation is to consider his audience. The movie’s a very commercial production – the sets, the cinematography, the colors – it all very much plays out like an 80’s MTV music video. It’s fun to watch, and I’m sure a suspicious number of teenagers had a newfound interest in Shakespeare after this movie came out. He’s trying to make Romeo and Juliet cool, he trying to say “Hey kids R+J can be hip and edgy and not some stuffy play you read in high school!” The problem with this sort of approach is that it over-simplifies several issues and plays up or blatantly creates new ones. For example, something we discussed in class was why Romeo is in love with another girl (Rosalind) at the beginning of the play. Does the beginning permit Romeo to change and develop as a character? The effect to which this is addressed in the movie is pretty simple from Romeo’s perspective: I love Rosalind. I am emo because she doesn’t love me back. Why does life suck so much? I love Rosa-oh wait, who’s that hot chick? I’ve never met this Juliet girl before but I’m in love with her based on what I’ve gathered from her physical appearance. No really, I’m legit in love with her. Rosalind? Who’s Rosalind? The theory that starting out as a dog gives Romeo room to grow up would work if Romeo did end up having any sort of character development whatsoever in the movie. But he doesn’t.
via romeoandjulietfan Being handsome gives you no right to brood, emo kid. Buck up already.
Like Romeo’s emotions, everything in this movie is caricatured – the immorality and hypocrisy of the parents, the devastatingly melodramatic score of the movie – there’s a scene where Romeo and Juliet first meet which is really the highlight of how over-the-top this movie is. Paling around with Mercutio and the gang, Romeo takes ecstasy, utters the famous “Thy drugs are quick” line (Yes. Luhrmann actually abuses the line in this context instead of at the end of the play) and sneaks into a Capulet house party. Mercutio does a song and dance in drag and Des’ree sings a smooth jamz R&B number in the background. It’s all very bizarre, put together like an obligatory “Hey, someone’s on drugs – that gives us liberty to literally put ANYTHING WE WANT in this scene!” scene (think of the “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” scene in Across the Universe). And when Romeo and Juliet finally do meet and exchange flirtatious banter, there’s something about the way Clare Danes finishes her sentences with upward inflections that I found particularly grating. “Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much…? Which mannerly devotion shows in this…? For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch…? And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss…?” Stop it, girl! Not every sentence is a question! There’s a clip of it here.
Admittedly, there were some clever effects that Luhrmann incorporated into this scene. As Prof. Tapscott pointed out during class, the two first see each other through an aquarium and it’s ambiguous as to who they’re infatuated with; the camera angle is positioned so that it appears as though each character is gazing at the reflection of themselves. Does loves show us to ourselves? Or maybe, if you fall in love this quickly, can you really call it love? Is it narcissism? Are they in love with themselves? With the idea of love? It really was a shame that I couldn’t really appreciate the nuisances, though – I guess I was too busy recovering from the preceding visual diarrhea that had just assaulted my retinas. I also couldn’t get past the overt symbolism – Juliet wearing an angel costume and Romeo wearing a knight costume, compounded by him whisking her away from her mother by pulling her into and elevator with love carrying them upwards above the party as they share their first kiss. (If the Montague bozos hadn’t made you cringe, this should have.) It’s bad enough that Luhrmann thinks that all his audience wants is visual stimulation, but adding this cheap attempt at poignancy is a little patronizing – it’s almost as if he’s saying, “Here – go play with this My First Metaphor&trade in the sandbox now.” In general, the figurative nuances in this movie just rubbed me the wrong way. Luhrmann heavily uses religious iconography throughout the movie, especially around the wicked characters. The guns have Marian icons on them, there are crucifixes everywhere, everyone seems to hang out at the church and go to confession despite being impious in their everyday relations. The icing on the cake is when Romeo kills Tybalt – Tybalt falls in epic slo-mo under a huge statue of Jesus, a statue which happens to be under repair and covered in scaffolding. Now, I dislike self-righteous preachyness and am up for fighting the Man just like any other self-absorbed twentysomething, but that commentary against religious hypocrisy and the ridiculously overt irony seems to come out of left field. You could certainly make the case that it rests on legitimate Shakespearean grounds and that similar commentary is implied in the original play, but the execution of such a thesis was just plain gaudy in the movie.
via slayground Mmm, subtle. NOT.
In fact, all of the thematic elements in this movie are distilled to a point of simplification that makes a farce out of love and conflict. Where’s the authenticity in this movie? I’m not saying that everything has to be set in proper time and setting and I’m not against adding one’s own flavor to adaptations. I don’t necessarily mean literal authenticity – if you want to do Romeo and Juliet set in 2020 in space and execute it well, I can dig it – but I’m looking for authenticity of spirit without the compromise of the characters. And if you’re going to change the characters – improve them, don’t make them worse. The Juliet in this movie is so unabashedly juvenile. Coupled with the lack of character development (of all the characters, really) and her naïveté, it perpetuates the notion that love is physical, love is purely impulsive. The movie also perpetuates the notion that “pretty shiny things” are enough to amuse an audience, and that people don’t want to be intellectually challenged in the least bit during their movie-watching experience. Baz Luhrmann, have a little more respect for your audience. Come on, young adults of the world! Stand for higher-quality cinema! You deserve something better than Jersey Shore and Michael Bay movies! I will not be roped in by fantastic visual effects and pretty people! I will… ope, sorry. Looks like I got distracted by an Avatar re-run on TV (just kidding. This is my point, people!).
It was interesting getting to watch this movie with my class, as we’d been discussing the nature of adaptations during the past couple lectures. Discussions are something we have a lot of in 21L.004 – in fact, we pretty much sit in a circle for 1.5 hours twice a week and interpret texts. Sometimes Prof. Tapscott cold-calls on people, which is hilarious (unless you’re the one that he calls) because it results in things like “The Pennybaker Phenomenon” (Pennybaker’s a guy in our class who is writing his paper on Luhrmann’s use of glass symbolism in the movie) being coined. Getting to watch the movie gave us a chance to exercise our cognitive and interpretive skills to something outside of lecture, kind of how a problem set gives you the chance to apply the things you learn during lecture. No lie, with about 20 hours devoted to science and engineering classes a week, this class is like a sanctuary. And it’s through these entertaining discussions that we come across some probing questions like, How do the conditions of performance shape something as an art-form? If you’ve gotten this fair through this post, you know how I’d answer this question with regards to Romeo &dagger Juliet. So is the movie worth watching? It’s an entertaining 2 hours.
As for me, well – I’m watching Glee tonight.
[Addendum: I sent Prof. Tapscott the post a couple days ago, and he responded, “So oddly enough I agreed with your interpretation when I first saw the movie… and it surprises me that the film is old already, but it does seem to still capture a sense of a social period in love with media and brand names and violence. Here’s what I wonder: are we right to resist the glitz and stylized violence, or is the film making a critique of a society that grounds itself in these phenomena? By your reading the film works like those films of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ pretending to be anti-materialist but loving to photograph the old cart, the great clothes, Robert Redford’s craggy face…. I really don’t know what I think, whether the over-the-top nature of the visual spectacle constitutes a critique of a culture of spectacular violence and media saturation. You sure make a solid case that argues ‘no’– and the evidence of Luhrmann’s other films would seem to back you up.”
What do guys think? Any humanities fans out there want to add to the discussion?]