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MIT blogger Elizabeth C. '13

If you give a girl an assignment… by Elizabeth Choe '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:

via -screencaps

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.

via romeoandjulietfan

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?]

13 responses to “If you give a girl an assignment…”

  1. Amy says:

    Personally I picked up a good bit of the whole “look at the excess of the upper class” thing in the movie’s Vegas-style visuals, but I guess the determining factor is whether the director intended that message to come through or was just trying to sell a movie.

    But then again, that opens up the “do the intentions of the artist affect the work’s artistic merit?” can of worms smile

  2. Anon '15 says:

    I watched this film a few years ago with my literature class after reading the play and to be quite honost, I was horrified by it. As far as adaptations go, this one was very poorly done. The characters were grossly distorted in that every one of them were an over-dramatized version of the characters in the play. And considering the fact that the play versions of both Romeo and Juliet were over dramatic and tended to conduct themselves as hormonal teens, the movie’s distortions of these characters was slightly disturbing to say the least.
    Also, I was not a fan of using the original lines in a setting where they clearly did not belong. The dialog just seamed so far removed from the setting and the reality of the situations in the film that, many times, I found myself being too irritated to find the visual effects.

    Thank you for choosing to share your review on the blog. I found that I agreed with nearly everything you said. You definitely delivered on the scathing review. smile

  3. tl;dr for most of it, unfortunately
    but I must say, the email is so full of WIN.

    On a totally irrelevant note: Whoa, you can resize the comment box! Totally didn’t see this feature before.

  4. Definitely an old movie since Leo looks so young…

    It might be interesting to compare and contrast with another version of R&J – Gainax Studio’s Romeo X Juliet. I read the original Shakespeare but have not watched either adaptation…

  5. Jem '15 says:

    This was such an interesting blog post to look at. I remember in middle school watching this version of the play as well as an older version made around the 1970s. Both have their merits and both have their downfalls. To play devil’s advocate, I think Luhrman hit the nail on the end in terms of interpreting the story within the context of 90s teenage landscape. Of course, some things are lost in his visual pursuit of ecstasy but he still preserves a resurrection of the text in the visual. There seems to be a rambunctious feel to leonardo’s portrayal of Romeo as well as Claire Danes’ Juliet. To pinpoint a film where Luhrman truly loses substance to the visual, I’d point to Australia. I saw the film as parody, especially the first scene. The scene is supposed to be a lewd and funny scene, one with a lot of comedic bite and I think Luhrman achieves that. But there are other parts that fall short, and I agree on a lack of emotional progression in the modern day version.

    A good Shakespeare film translated to moodier day is the Hamlet with Ethan Hawke (the Hamlet with Mel Gibson sucked my soul away). Ok gonna stop sounding like a literary nerd lol :p

  6. @Sadia: I was trying to be ironic, but that failed. I actually dislike Glee…

    @Vivek: I know. I was one of you guys once (back in the day)!

    @Amy: Good point, and yeah “Vegas” is a great way to describe the visual aspects of the film.

    @Anon ’15: I thought the mis-use of original lines was just really strange. Mostly the ecstasy part.

    @Horse: HOLY SMOKES I DIDN’T KNOW THAT! Whoaaaaaa

    @PseudoIntellectualHack: Huh. I don’t watch anime, but that looks interesting…

    @Jem: You know, I’m actually a fan of the ’68 Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet (the one you saw in middle school. I saw it in middle school, too! My teacher didn’t realize there was nudity before she screened it. Note: When you tell a bunch of 7th graders “close your eyes don’t look!” they will all look. And giggle. And say “hahahaha I see his butt!”). I haven’t seen the Ethan Hawke Hamlet, though I’ve been meaning to. I actually enjoyed the Mel Gibson version, but hey, anything compared to the Kenneth Branagh atrocity seems pretty good…

  7. Well I’m not interested in literature/poetry as much as I should be (considering that I’m a senior raspberry), but I loved the 1999 version of Romeo and Juliet. I watched it, laughed, and thought it was a good modern interpretation of the most repeated love story. It was an entertaining two hours, much better than the new Justin Beiber movie (I will never watch that). You’re right; there is way too much symbolism and caricatures. Then again, people are attracted to bright, shiny, over-exaggerated things.

    P.S. I never watched Glee and probably never will unless I become really bored after APs. I don’t know; something about it doesn’t quite appeal to me. *shrugs and blasts Metallica* Out of curiosity, why do you like Glee? XD

  8. Vivek says:

    First off, I’d like to draw your attention to the term ‘a bunch of nerdy high school kids’, extracted from your mail to the Prof. Real class act, Elizabeth. wink

    As for the actual merits/demerits of the movie adaptation, I’m afraid I can’t add anything constructive to the discussion on that front. I read through your post and was able to gather your interpretation of the message the movie sought to send. And I also read the Prof’s response to this as well. Although I’d prefer not to base my opinion on yours, just a couple of things I’d like to point out.

    I’ve worked on Shakespeare in high school. In fact, was part of a talk show parody where 3 of his characters i.e. Puck, Viola and Macbeth interrogate Shakespeare on a TV talk show. With blatant misuse of key lines from several plays and a general parody of lots of stuff, we were able to portray several of society’s immediate problems. On face value, the script we put together seemed like a pure laugh riot, but if you sat back and watched, you’d see glimmers of present-day issues such as the persecution of homosexuals.

    Another example is a movie called Fight Club. The first time you see that movie, you’re left reeling. Because there seems to be little positivity emanating from the plot. At the same time, if you pay close attention, maybe watch it again, you see the real message the movie sends out.

    I’m not implying that the R+J interpretation you saw is necessarily full of double entendres, but I’m suggesting you keep your eyes open. For example, I could see you observed the aquarium scene. I work on videos too, in my free time. And I can tell you that that’s a pretty well-used, but nevertheless, effective camera angle. Maybe I’ll see the movie some time and judge the thing for myself.

    On the other hand, adapted screenplays can’t usually live up to the expectations that people have of visual media. I know that you’ll argue that the original spirit of then characters can be preserved without compromising commercial viability. But to be honest, not many mainstream movies manage to pull that off. That’s why independent movie festivals such as Sundance are often full of beautiful productions that may never see commercial success. That’s because the average layman won’t bother to go into the nitty-gritties of original-play-vis-a-vis-screenplay accuracy.

    These are my 2 cents, and no, I’m not a ‘humanities’ person in the true sense of the word. =)

  9. Anonymous says:

    (and……vivek gets ignored….bwwaahhaaa)
    dude, MIT is supposed to be a really ‘cool’ university and so, please, plzzzzzzzzzzzzz do this huge favor to me by not writing essays wrapped in formalised crap! let MIT be wwhat it is.

  10. Vivek says:

    I don’t have a problem with being ignored.

    MIT is indeed very cool, you’ve got that right.

    I don’t write essays. I wrote those last year. wink These are my observations and ‘constructive’ comments. Feel free to add yours.

    I’m not trying to change MIT.

  11. nina says:

    I second anonymous,”constructive guy” is pushing the limits.

  12. Vivek says:

    @Elizabeth @Horse – Umm. You guys might be using Google Chrome, which has always allowed users to resize text boxes such as this one (not single line text fields like ‘Name’). Nifty, is all I can say. smile

  13. manasi says:

    I actually like Luhrmann’s film the best! (We had to watch a lot of different versions for school.) Everything you say is true; I just think that the exaggeration and gaudiness actually makes the movie completely authentic. In the play, the characters themselves are caricatured: they’re young teenagers, impulsive and immature, who are completely taken in by their physical infatuation. You’re right in pointing out that the movie is caricatured and full of attention-getting tricks, but what is a Shakespeare play if not a “commercial production?” Shakespeare didn’t write for intellectuals, he wrote for a largely uneducated population who loved a cheap laugh! But even though his character development is sketchy and his plots are contrived, he managed to make his point clear and even throw in a little social criticism. Shakespeare had a million good qualities but SUBTLETY was not one of them. I think Luhrmann’s adaptation follows in those footsteps pretty well.

    Anyway, I love your blog, Elizabeth, and I think it’s awesome that you got to do this instead of a paper!