Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Shakespeare in Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society. Dir. Peter Weir. Perf. Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, and Ethan Hawke. 1989. DVD. Touchstone Home Entertainment, 1998.

And now let's get back to wonderful uses of Shakespeare in good films.

I know I surprised most of you when I revealed that I had never seen Good Will Hunting (for which, q.v.) until this summer.

I'm afraid I will shock you when I tell you that I had never seen Dead Poets Society until a few weeks ago.

"Were you not in training to be an English teacher in 1989?" you ask.

Well, yes, I was.

"Did you not know of the film's existence then?" you inquire.

No, I was well aware of the film and the basic elements of its plot.

"Why, then, did you not see the film?" you ask in stunned disbelief.

I'm not entirely sure, but I do remember wanting to wait until I had figured out my own teaching techniques before seeing the film. I didn't want to model my teaching on Robin Williams' interpretation of John Keating's teaching methods. This year, I started to feel relatively secure that I wouldn't be tempted to stand on desks during every lecture or have students recite Whitman while kicking soccer balls, so I broke down and watched the film.

I shouldn't have waited. You all already know this, but it's a great film with a tour de force performance by nearly everyone in it.

And the Shakespeare! Perhaps I would have seen it sooner if I had known about the Shakespeare! Here's a great scene where Williams convinces his students that Shakespeare doesn't have to be stodgy and staid, imitating what appears to be Sir John Gielgud (or the like), Marlon Brando, and John Wayne doing Shakespeare:

The culmination of the film (I'll still try to avoid spoilers for anyone who, like me, has yet to see it) involves a production of Midsummer Night's Dream. One of the boys at the school has discovered a passion for acting, has disobeyed his father's instructions, and has taken on the role of Puck. The clip below conflates the production, providing its beginning and end—with Puck's closing speech delivered to the father, who stands disapprovingly in the back of the auditorium:

The multi-layered delivery of the lines is fascinating. It caps the play, of course, and is delivered as a piece of false modesty to the audience—but it's also delivered as a request for absolution from the disobeyed father. 

That sort of careful integration of Shakespeare into a different plot is tricky—but absolutely awe-inspiring when it pays off, as it absolutely does here. 

Links: The Film at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the film from
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Monday, December 14, 2015

"O Horrible! Most Horrible!": Another Awful Shakespeare Derivative

Let the Devil Wear Black. Dir. Stacy Title. Perf. Jonathan Penner, Randall Batinkoff, Norman Reeds, and Mary-Louise Parker. 1999. DVD. Unapix, 2000.

Some time ago, I chanced upon a VHS tape of this film. I watched part of it, fast-forwarded though a fair bit of it, and abandoned it. But I remembered it when thinking about how bad badly-done Shakespeare derivatives can be.

This film is a derivative version of Hamlet set in modern Los Angeles. The cover says, "Something is rotten rotten rotten in the city of angles," and I suppose that doesn't count as false advertising—except it seems to apply to what happens in the plot when it more neatly fits the quality of the film.

I'm usually thrilled by derivative versions, finding that they point us back to the text in interesting ways. This film, even though it follows the plot of Hamlet more than most, doesn't work. It ends up being crude and amateurish, and it doesn't seem to have anything thoughtful to say about Shakespeare's play.

It took some time to find a clip that would capture the film well without being vulgar or indecent, but I managed to extract this one. For lack of a clearer analogy, this scene may be something of a version of the play-within-the-play. Jack (the Hamlet analogue) reveals to Carl (our Claudius figure) that he knows about the adrenaline pills (analogous to hebenon in the ear):

Steer clear of this film—there's just not much here. 

Links: The Film at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the film from
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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Terrible Attempt at Something Shakespearean in Strange Magic

Strange Magic. Dir. Gary Rydstrom. Perf. Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, and Kristin Chenoweth. 2015. DVD. Industrial Light & Magic, 2015.

I should have listened to Shakespeare Geek.  "Always listen to Shakespeare Geek " I tell myself—and then I get excited about something that interests me and fail to listen to Shakespeare Geek.

I recently watched Strange Magic, which I had been assured was a film with some connection to Midsummer Night's Dream.  Fascinated, I plopped myself down and watched . . . one of the lamest and laziest excuses for an animated film ever. And I would have endured it happily (or at least in a less-irritated fashion)—I really would—had there been any genuine connection, however tenuous, to Shakespeare.

I also would have endured it with a much better grace if the musical covers had been even in the slightest degree worth listening to.

This disastrous and horrific film is set among the fairies and goblins of the forest—and there's a love potion involved. That almost is a connection to Midsummer Night's Dream, but this love potion doesn't really do anything Shakespeare's, and these fairies aren't anything like his fairies.

Let me give you a quick demonstration. In the clip below, the daughter of the king is confronted with a newly-repentant former fiancé whom she caught in the arms of another women on her wedding day. He tries, in a corny, smarmy way, to convince her to give him a second chance (for utterly unexplained reasons, he thinks that marrying her will give him his own army, which he wants because . . . Industrial Light and Magic?), and she responds with a hearty get-out-of-my-life song:

The whole film is like that. It makes no sense. The animation hits that weird space between realism and animation that makes everyone's skin crawl. And the covers make us all want to run listen to the originals to get these dreadful versions out of our heads.

And it has no Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Geek said, "Skip this one. I can't really find anything worth recommending."  One of these days, I'll actually listen to his sound advice.  The film was not at all strange, and it was far, far from magical. And it was even further from Industrial Light and Magical.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the film from
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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Martha Speaketh Shakespeare!

"Thou Callest Me a Dog." By Peter K. Hirsch. Perf. J. T. Turner, Christina Crivici, and Tabitha St. Germain. Dir. Todd Demong.   Martha Speaks. Season 6, episode 7. PBS. 16 June 2014.

I've enjoyed the "Martha Speaks" books by Susan Meddaugh ever since LeVar Burton told me about the first one—Martha Speaks—on Reading Rainbow.

But it's relatively new news to me that PBS has a Martha Speaks show for children.

And for Shakespeare aficionados! In a recent show, Martha accidentally eats a copy of Hamlet (the actor had left a sandwich on it), and she starts speaking in Convenstional Shakespeare-Style Olde Englyssishe (CSSOE)—viz., a great prevalence of thee, thou, thy, doth, and -est endings of both nouns and verbs.

But she also quotes from the plays (notably Hamlet), and ends up being cast as Hamlet in a production. And the production is clever enough to use a title from Merchant of Venice and a few other interesting inside jokes (e.g., the solipsistic actor's name is "Armin Burbage").

I offer a few samples below, but you can watch the entire episode on-line.  Just click here, and then click on the "Thou Callest Me a Dog" episode.

In this first clip, Martha's language malady is diagnosed:

The second clip shows her being offered the lead role in Hamlet.

The most famous six words in Shakespeare make up the entirety of the third clip:

Links: The Show at IMDB. The Episode on-line.

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(not the one from which this episode comes)
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Monday, August 31, 2015

Shakespeare in Good Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Perf. Robin Williams, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck. 1997. DVD. Lionsgate, 2011.

We all know that there's lots of Shakespeare in Boston.

[Insert obligatory reference / link to Shakespeare Geek here.]

And one of the best movies featuring Boston accents in Good Will Hunting.

But did you notice the Shakespeare-with-a-Boston-accent in Good Will Hunting?

About a third of the way though the film, the Robin Williams character talks to the Matt Damon character and argues that all the book learning in the world won't make up for experience:
I ask you about war, you'd probably throw Shakespeare at me, right? "Once more into the breach, dear friends." But you've never been near one. You've never held your best friend's head in your lap, and watched him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I ask you about love, you'd probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable—known someone that could level you with her eyes.
It's a fabulous scene, and I include it below. N.B.: The language in the clip is, like the film, rated R.

There's something quite marvelous about that. And I think I'm ready to acknowledge that Shakespeare doesn't equate to experience. But I do think Shakespeare helps us to understand the experiences that we have had and imaginatively to experience those we haven't. Yes, the Chorus of Henry V asks us to piece out the play's imperfections with our thoughts and to "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth" (Pro.26-27), but Shakespeare's genius lies it making it very easy for us to see the horses that aren't there—to know something of the experience of war—to find an articulation of the love we know we have.

Just like Good Will Hunting enables us to know something of the experience of losing a spouse to cancer or what it's like to be an orphan growing up in Boston.

Any Dickens fans out there ready to defend Oliver Twist on similar grounds? 

Links: The Film at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the film from
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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Book Note: The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Romeo and Juliet

Lendler, Ian. The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Romeo and Juliet. Illus. Zack Giallongo. Colors Alisa Harris. New York: First Second, 2015.

This is the second time we journey to the zoo in Stratford-on-Avon after closing time to see what the animals are up to (for the first visit, q.v.).

Previously, the animals put on Macbeth; this time, they turn their paws to Romeo and Juliet.

I enjoyed this book, but not as much as I enjoyed Macbeth. In the Macbeth, the violence was present but diffused by the notion the king (the lion) was eating his enemies, which is generally-accepted behavior for lions. The violence is also circumvented by another means, but I don't want to provide a spoiler on that score!

In the zoo's production of Romeo and Juliet, both the violence and the romance are diffused—and the means for doing so aren't quite as interesting or as effective. The petting zoo animals are the Montagues and the wild animals of the surrounding wood are the Capulets. The plot follows more-or-less accordingly, though Romeo and Juliet aren't romantically in love and [Small Spoiler Alert] they don't die at the end.

Still, the book is a good one, at which a gander is well worth taking. Here's a sample to whet your appetite:

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Note: Much Ado About Murder

Hawke, Simon. Much Ado About Murder. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2002.

I would not normally post a review of a book that I haven't finished, but classes start tomorrow, and I know that I won't have time to give this book the attention it deserves until Christmas break at the earliest.

And I wouldn't review it if I wasn't certain of the claims I'll be making about it. Having read the other three books in the "Shakespeare and Smythe" series and having read fifty pages or so of this book, I can confidently say that it's at least as enjoyable and worthwhile as the others were—and those others were very enjoyable and quite worthwhile.

Though all the books follow the same characters and have many of the same locations, they have considerable variety within those constraints. This is the only one that's felt a bit contrived in its set-up, but I can suspend that element of critique and just sit back and enjoy the narrative.

The novel, like the others, puts Shakespeare's words into others' mouths, leaving the words there for him to pick up and turn into solid dramatic gold later. I'm providing a good example of that in the images below (click on them to enlarge them). You'll see how the author plays with the opening exchange between Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing in this scene:

Hawke has done some good work in integrating Shakespeare's lines with his own sense of plot and character, even going so far as to give some of Beatrice's lines to the Benedick analogue.

All in all, it's a good summer read . . . even if I may have to wait until next summer to complete it!

Click below to purchase the book from
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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest