Yeah, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.
And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.
“I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe McDonald
I’ll put it right out there to stem any confusion. I’m anti-war. I’ve had a little coincidental convergence of anti-war stuff going on this week. I’ve been reading Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop — a satire about the media creating news about a promising little war in Africa in the 1930s. Then, my dad, a WWII vet, mentioned watching a touching documentary on PBS on Memorial Day. This is Where We Take Our Stand is the story of Iraq Veterans Against the War. It was available on YouTube briefly this week and I was able to watch it. Amazing stories of patriotic young people who want to tell their truths about the wrongness of the Iraq war. Oh, and then this morning, I saw today is the 40th anniversary of the famous napalm girl photo. Sigh. And so my thoughts turn to Country Joe and the Fish at Woodstock. Whoopee! We’re all gonna die. Really, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, where ever. What’s the point?
So, the Fates converged on my pessimistic mood by putting Ralph Fiennes’ film Coriolanus out on DVD this week and there I found it in my mailbox yesterday fresh from Netflix. Ahh. Well, here’s the thing. When the film came out earlier this year, I knew I’d see it eventually. Shakespeare didn’t shy away from tackling difficult topics, so I knew in the course of this blog project that I would have to eventually face the ugly stuff along with the fairies and ass-heads. War. Let’s put a face on it. Coriolanus.
So, I broke my basic movie-watching rules (I avoid blood and gore, violence, Mafia movies, and war movies, in general) and I watched Coriolanus. I’m glad I did.
I am not familiar with the play, have not read it, have not seen it staged, and honestly, I think I would not like it if I’d read it first without seeing this film. Thanks to HarperCollins for sending me a copy of Coriolanus: The Shooting Script… I got a lot of insight about the film and the play by reading the commentary from Fiennes and screenplay writer John Logan.
First, the film makes this play completely contemporary and accessible. The film was shot in Serbia, but it could be any modern city. From “The Shooting Script”:
It might be Mexico City. Or Chechnya. Or El Salvador. Or Detroit. Or Baghdad. Or London.
This Rome is a modern place. It is our world right now: immediately recognizable to us…. It is a volatile, dangerous world.
The story involves Coriolanus, a Roman, and his fight against the neighboring Volsces, headed by Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler). The film portrays them as modern guerrillas. Again, from “The Shooting Script”:
The Volsces are an insurgent force challenging the monolithic might of Rome: rebels that suggest to us Latin American revolutionaries or Hamas fighters or Chechnian separatists.
The war story is the backdrop in this film for Shakespeare’s amazing characters. I think of Mad Men, where none are likable, but their personalities and stories are irresistible in their awfulness. I feel like I understand the deep pride and inner pain that drive Fiennes’ Coriolanus, the killing machine, to such destruction of others, and finally himself.
Coriolanus is a tragic, bedeviled man, uncomfortable in his own damaged and flawed skin. Fiennes explains in “The Shooting Script”:
Coriolanus comes into the opening of the story and basically tells the people to go fuck themselves. I think we in the audience decide we don’t like this guy based on that simple fact. But then the audience experiences him as a soldier, an extremely brave, almost crazy kind of soldier. They come to see that he has a kind of integrity, which is manipulated and destroyed by the world around him, and by his own arrogance and pride. Coriolanus wants recognition and doesn’t want it at the same time. He is very riven. I think he’s happiest in the battlefield; that’s where he is at one with himself.
I have to say that reading that gave me a much deeper understanding of what Coriolanus was about… his motivations and his ambivalence. It’s very true.
This man, so brave and proud, so sure of himself and his decision to make Rome pay for their treatment of him… he’s really a mommy’s boy and a pleaser. As writer John Logan says in “The Shooting Script”:
What is Shakespeare’s genius in Coriolanus? To me it is this: in a play about so many things, and so deeply and murkily about them, the climax is a boy weeping into his mother’s arms. It’s dead simple. It’s not a political or military climax, it’s not a grand speech or battle; it’s not about the ostensible “issues” of the play. It’s a boy and his mom.
I love watching Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Volumnia, the mother who creates the ultimate soldier and then asks for his mercy. Her profound complexity — a mix of pride and ambition and fear and mother’s love — it’s amazing and frightening. Redgrave, though she doubted her ability to play the part, is perfect for it.
In “The Shooting Script,” Fiennes also explains his choice of Jessica Chastain for the innocent, sweet, and nearly silent wife Virgilia (what a breakout year for Chastain… with her performances in Tree of Life, Take Shelter, and The Help). It’s a quiet part, but she serves as witness to the chaos in Coriolanus’ mind.
In the end, I got a lot out of this difficult film, enriched by The Shooting Script. I had never heard of The Shooting Script series, and will definitely keep it in mind when I want to learn more about a film.
I think I’ve had enough war for the week. Now I’ll return to my regularly-scheduled programming.
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