teenybuffalo (teenybuffalo) wrote,

I saw more penises tonight than I usually see in a single day

I saw Derek Jarman's The Tempest, and Prospero's Books (dir. Peter Greenaway) tonight. I disliked them both. I know a lot of people whose opinions I respect who are into these films, so I wanted to like them as well. However, it was not to be. They bored me stiff. It's hard to make The Tempest boring, but boy, did these films manage it. Just for the sake of the contrast, I'll talk about my dislikes a little.

So much downtime. So slow. So many people standing around doing things that aren't a part of the original play, don't support the story or build character, and come out of nowhere and go nowhere. The casts of thousands even look bored or disinterested most of the time. Every time I got a little invested in a scene, I then had to watch a lot more empty posturing before the film would permit me to advance to the next level. Each film had tons of beautiful imagery in its own style, but I didn't check in for imagery. I feel like each film poured a bucket of symbolism onto my head while I was waiting for storytelling to happen.

"Parts of it were excellent." I did like the two different Calibans. Thing One was Jack Birkett as Caliban in The Tempest. No wonder I liked him: Vincent Canby of the New York Times, in a long-ago vitriolic review, says he's like something out of Hammer Horror, and I see where he's coming from. Birkett is an Igor or an Uncle Fester: corpsey pale and wearing gravedigger clothes, but childlike, cringing, manically cheery despite all reasons to the contrary. There was a brilliant moment about two-thirds of the way through the film when we get a visual on Prospero's description of Sycorax and her "whelp." The witch is breast-feeding her son, who is the same gaunt and stubbly fifty-year-old actor we've been seeing all film -- he's naked and sucking on a woman's nipple, but it's still Jack Birkett, who looks to be older than the actress playing Sycorax. That moment is uncomfortable in itself, but the great thing is that it then makes you question your assumptions about everybody's physical appearances. Caliban only looks like an ugly middle-aged guy -- by all available evidence he could still be as young as Miranda. (And Sycorax has Ariel on a neck chain and keeps yanking him onto his knees. I don't know whether I was more disturbed by her toying with him or by the fact that her little fifty-year-old boy was watching her do it.)

And then there was Prospero's Books. Oh boy, was there. "This is not the film to see if you want to witness a performance of The Tempest," says Roger Ebert, who seems to have liked it more than I did. However, it is the film to see if you want to look at page after page of pretty calligraphy presented in an intrusive frame style, or admire Cirque du Soleil-level acrobats running naked around a building the size of Edinburgh Castle, peeing into in-ground pools. (The title quote is what I heard someone behind me say as I was coming down from the theater balcony.) John Gielgud voices all the characters. I don't know what I did expect to see and hear, but what I did see and hear made me impatient. (And occasionally incensed.Claribel and the King of Tunis aren't even characters in the play, and they are of zero importance to the narrative. If we had to see them at all, why did we have to see Claribel the rape victim and the King of Tunis the black rapist? Ugghhhhh what the fuck, that added nothing to anything. I almost got up and walked out of the theater at that point, but the price of my movie ticket made me want to stay and wring every last drop of interest out of the film.)

For the most part, I expected to like the dancers a lot more than I did. All the fairies and elves and spirits and whatnot aggressively strutting around the main characters didn't seem at all supernatural, just like a lot of unusually committed acro students. But the Ariels were great -- Ariel was played by several actors of various ages, from about six through adult. You could tell they were the same character because they wore the same costume: red loincloth and red beads, with curly blonde hair. The way they moved was one of the few things about the film that was permitted to actually get playful; you could see how they could fly, you could see how they weren't confined to a single form. At the end, Ariel bolting for freedom changed to younger and younger forms as he fled, until the last little Ariel flew up out of the top of the frame and was gone. Caliban here was an exceedingly beautiful ballet dancer (Michael Clark, I see by the internet), the most graceful person on display, despite being introduced by a series of frames showing books being defiled by piss, puke, and shit full of intestinal parasites; perhaps the point was that Caliban doesn't need language because he has his body. I have no idea what the point was, but he certainly didn't look human, so good for him.

(Oh! And I liked the friendly naked Esther Williams water nymphs rescuing the drowning sailors. They're an element that also is only referenced and not shown in the play, but showing them made sense and added to the mood. The water nymph performers were great at looking happy and acting their asses off while five feet deep in a tank.)

Mostly, though, Prospero's Books was so cluttered and mold-damaged that I wanted to shoo all the performers outdoors and burn the building down. There was one scene set in fake-outdoors sunny wheatfields that look like they're near the pyramids of Egypt, and I wanted the characters to take off running and never look back, I was so desperate for sunlight and visual liberty. Why the hell were both these Tempest adaptations so stuffy and shut-in and stale-smelling? The Tempest is the most outdoor play in the canon. And does no one remember that Ferdinand is a character and not a cardboard cutout, and that Miranda will be funny and assertive if you fucking LET HER instead of leaving her as a wet sock who sleeps most of the time and sleepwalks the rest, and that there are jokes in the play that are funny if you actually let them happen and don't bury them under an avalanche of Stylistic Choices? *huff*pant*gasp*hawk*spit*

I get that it wasn't supposed to be the play The Tempest by William Shakespeare, that it was the result of the director using Tempest as a jumping-off point for things he wanted to say and do. But then again, my only reason for checking in was Tempest, and I found most everything after the jumping-off point to be pointless or annoying or not my kink.

There is an expression among Gilbert & Sullivan fans: "pork pie." It means "joke that has zero to do with the source material." An example would be the way all productions of "The Pirates of Penzance" currently seem to rely on an extended gag about the Major-General forgetting rhyming lines, even though it makes no sense for the character, stops the action dead in its tracks, and takes attention away from the fact that the song is funny in its own right. The anecdote:

Actor: *works in a gag he made up*
W.S. Gilbert in directorial mode: Stop that.
Actor: But I'll get a big laugh by it.
W.S. Gilbert: So you would if you sat down on a pork pie.

I mean, I try to keep an open mind, and I shouldn't sit here and be judgmental and act like no adaptation can possibly be good enough for my beloved plays, but on the other hand I feel like I just sat through four hours of pork pie, so I apologize for acting rancid.

To counteract my negativity and offer a different outlook from someone who loves Prospero's Books: sovay, I hope it's OK if I reference this post from 2010. The comments are also good.
Tags: movies: prospero's books, movies: the tempest, plays: the tempest, shakespeare
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.