And It’s One, Two, Three… What Are We Fighting For?

June 1, 2012 at 6:07 pm (Coriolanus, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , , , , )

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.

Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, and Harry Fenn in Coriolanus. Photo by Larry D. Horricks

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.

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Shakespeare – A Man for All Seasons

January 24, 2012 at 1:54 am (Asides) (, , , , )

Today’s guest post comes from Ed at No Sweat Shakespeare, a very nice resource for anyone studying the Bard. Ed discusses Shakespeare’s relevance in today’s world.

One of the most significant things about Shakespeare’s plays, taking the long view over four hundred years, is that every generation since they were written has been able to see itself in the texts as though looking in a mirror. Productions have therefore reflected the issues of each age, and in the last hundred years, every decade. It isn’t only that human nature doesn’t change, but also that the major human themes, informed by human nature, don’t either.

Death, love, politics, war, for example, are things that are always with us and always will be. These are the great preoccupations of Shakespeare and he explores them so thoroughly that he seems to have covered every possible angle – those relevant to his time, to a hundred, two hundred, and three hundred years after his death, to our time and, without doubt, to future times. For example, it is only in the last three or four generations that there have been anti-war attitudes in Western society. It’s possible that in the future they may become the established position. Even Shakespeare’s most war-action plays, such as Henry V, explore anti-war sentiments and it is likely that producers in the twenty-second century will use various theatrical methods of bringing those explorations to the fore when they present a play.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the plays’ performance profile has been raised by the invention of the moving picture. And now, in our time, because of the competition from other media and all kinds of films, those making films of Shakespeare’s plays make them with an eye to that competition. And so we have Shakespeare films that don’t only have a contemporary look to them with their settings and costumes but they also examine current global events and use the Shakespeare text to offer new insights into them. That makes Shakespeare ultra universal.

Let us take Romeo and Juliet as an example. Something that has always plagued human societies, and still does, is divisions because of class, caste, religion, race, and so on. The play is set in a place where there is a division. It’s not a serious division: it’s an ancient feud which no-one knows the origin of. It doesn’t make sense because the feuding families are very much alike, but the fact that there is that division has unpleasant consequences when the two young people, one from each family, happen to fall in love. We see, though, when a producer or film director sets the play in a divided contemporary society, such as the Shiite and Sunni society of Iraq, the Protestant and Catholic society of Northern Ireland or the black and white society of South Africa, what that kind of senseless reaction to two people falling in love really means to us in our time.

Setting a production in one of those places is a very simple device. There are more complex devices, which can make the play relevant to us, often used in films. Creative cutting, voice-overs, close-ups, flash-backs and other filmic techniques can emphasise contemporary concerns and make the text seem as though it has just been written. Because it isn’t practical to screen a four hour film, the Shakespeare text has to be edited, which gives the director the opportunity to make the dialogue more ‘popular’ without actually changing any of Shakespeare’s words and phrases.

Ralph Fiennes’s new film, Coriolanus has been much praised. In looking at the reviews, the common theme is how contemporary it is. A war hero, brilliant in his line of occupation turns politician, where he fails dismally. The people, who once loved him, now riot in their effort to remove him. Could this not be Colonel Gaddafi? Alternatively the successful and popular British Finance Minister, Chancellor Gordon Brown, for example, failed badly when he became Prime Minister, and lost an election. The film is full of such parallels. There is a great deal more to that film and, of course, there is always the original Shakespeare idea – the domestic life and personal tragedy of the hero, Coriolanus. There is always the personal element in Shakespeare, always fully explored. Romeo and Juliet may be an in-depth study of a divided society but it is also a fully realised depiction of young people in love and of the problems they encounter in their effort to act out their love. In Shakespeare there is always both the general and the personal level, each throwing light on the other.

But even if we watch a performance of a Shakespeare play on stage, such as at the Globe Theatre, with Elizabethan staging and costume, with the full text, any performance will have resonance with modern sensibilities. And in many ways it will be more satisfying than any film. A stage performance is a three dimensional thing. It is immediate and personal, with the audience in the same space as the actors, at the same time. It has a direct communication with the audience, which influences the actors as they perform and brings them and the audience even closer together. A stage is a very flexible device. It can be a small room with two characters conspiring closely together or it can be a battlefield.  In Antony and Cleopatra virtually the whole known world is depicted, with the scenes moving rapidly around it – close personal scenes and huge naval battles, court scenes and banquets. Films are two dimensional: the actors do one performance then go home and forever after we see the same thing every time we watch the film, distanced from the whole production. Eventually a film will become dated. That cannot happen to a stage performance.

Photo by Ian Kath

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