Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Bloomin' Shakespeare, part 2

Man, did I hate Romeo and Juliet. We had to read it in high school, along with the perennial Julius Caesar. At least JC had brutal gang stabbings, political intrigue and ghosts. And true, R&J had swordfights. But they were swordfights by boys our age in tights. Believe me, in small town West Tennessee in the Seventies, no one openly admitted identifying with boys in tights. Plus Romeo, the twit, kills himself over a girlfriend. With our limited dating pool, neither we nor the girls in town could imagine getting that upset over someone. After all, we'd all known each other since before toilet training.

Flash forward about two decades. As a movie, I really dug Baz Luhrman's 1996 take on R&J. Not only was the setting brilliant, but the actors' intensity gave rise to the most surprising epiphany of all: about twenty minutes before the end, I found myself in suspense. That's right: I doubted the outcome of the single most famous love story in all creation. Happily, Baz didn't let me down, and even came up with a moment of eye contact between the two lovers that rammed the tragedy home in a vivid new way.

But the play itself...still hated it. Until, that is, I read Harold Bloom's treatise on it, and especially Juliet. In his take, greatly paraphrased here, Juliet is a simple young girl until she falls--totally, completely, and at first sight--for Romeo. When that happens, this shallow creature is transformed into a master of language and self-knowledge. Romeo, sincere schlub that he is, can barely keep up. It's a classical version of a Judd Apatow relationship, really, with the good-natured doofus landing the out-of-his-league hottie. Only in this case, doofusness and hotitude are determined verbally, not visually.

That's a broad generalization, I'll grant you, and scholars could probably rip it apart in moments. But I prefer to see it that way, and I wish someone would mount that production so I could see it that way. And I have Harold "My Way or the Highway" Bloom, master of all things Shakespearean, to thank for it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Bloomin' Shakespeare, part 1

In the process of cleaning out my study for its current use as the boys' playroom (already the scene of an epic Nerf-sword battle between the Squirrel Boy and me), I came across Harold Bloom's ginormous Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. As only someone absolutely certain of himself could do, Bloom gives you the correct (i.e., his) interpretation of every single Shakespeare play, with specially large sections on Hamlet, King Lear and Henry IV (a.k.a. The Adventures of Falstaff). And in his case, the ego of such an undertaking seems backed up by some serious insights. Don't you hate it when that happens?

The ones that stuck with me the most enhanced my appreciation of both my favorite Shakespeare play (Antony and Cleopatra) and the one that always set my teeth on edge (Romeo and Juliet). I'll talk about A&C first.

Specifically, Bloom points out that Cleopatra is, in the vast emotional range she displays (tragic lover, mercurial friend, queen, spoiled brat, mature woman), the feminine equivalent of Hamlet and thus Shakespeare's greatest female role, the more so for being, in his opinion, virtually unplayable. I'm not sure if he means that no actress is capable of it, or that simply because it's a female role there can be no actress capable of it. Certainly it's never attained the universal status of the Denmarkian Dynamo; perhaps it's because we don't allow actresses the same prestige as actors? I mean, even people who've never seen it know Olivier was "the best Hamlet ever." But who recalls Kim Stanley, whose recent biography was called Female Brando in recognition of her enormous talent? Katherine Cornell played Cleopatra in what was probably the only successful American run of the play, back in the late 1940s; I can hear the voices now saying, "Katherine who?"

The late Charlton Heston often chastised fellow movie actors like Robert De Niro for not attempting the great roles on stage. He himself constantly returned to the "man-killer" stage parts like Macbeth throughout his career, a process he called "waltzing with the Old Gentleman." Are there no actresses who see the gold in a part like Cleo? I mean, in a world where Ethan Hawke can make a passable Hamlet, surely someone like Charlize Theron should make a run at Cleopatra.

There are several film and video versions of the play, including one directed by and starring Mr. Heston as Mark Antony. My favorite, though surely not the best, is this one for its absurdist casting. While Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave make a perfectly adequate Antony and Cleopatra, it's in the supporting cast that the head-scratching begins. Star Trek alumni Nichelle Nichols as Charmain and Walter Koenig as Pompey? General Hospital heartthrob Anthony Geary as Caesar? It has to be seen.

Next post, how Bloom helped make me able to stomach Romeo and Juliet.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

One more visit to Treasure Island

I just finished reading a heavily-abridged version of Treasure Island to the Squirrel Boy; it was a little above his head, but we did a chapter a night, with a lot of, "Remember, this is the guy who...." Anyway, going through the story again made me think about a couple of common misconceptions about the book, usually based on the simplified film versions.

1. It's a kid's book. Not so. It's written from an adult perspective, looking back on a childhood experience. That adult viewpoint informs every aspect of the story, especially the dichotomy between the child's understanding of interpersonal relationships among men (the only female character in the novel is Jim's mother) and the later, wiser adult's. In fact, that's the main thing Jim learns: who to trust, and how far to trust them. Jim also faces real violence from adults who would quite happily kill him; nothing child-friendly in that.

2. Long John Silver is a lovable rogue. Not hardly. Silver is a true hard-core pirate, and while he does bond with Jim, he also wouldn't hesitate to murder the boy if it suited his purposes. Jim's relationship with Silver is the heart of the story, but Jim learns fast, and he never makes the mistake of fully trusting the one-legged pirate. Wallace Beery and Robert Newton never really captured the edge of danger that Silver has in the book; the only film version that does stars the late Charlton Heston as Silver and a young Christian Bale as Jim; alas, it's never been released to DVD.

I hope to read my son the full text version in the next couple of years, when his attention span is a bit stronger. He gets a great story, and I get to do pirate voices; are there better perks in the world?

Monday, June 16, 2008

First post

Never had a blog before. Never thought anything I'd have to say would be that interesting. Still not sure it will be. But it's the wave everybody else is already riding, so I'm belatedly climbing on the surfboard. I'm the guy with his beach sandals over his black socks.

I'll post mainly about writing (mine and other people's), movies and occasionally TV. Probably won't say much about politics, religion, or the weather; you have to come visit to hear about those things. I won't post for the sake of posting, or when I feel I have nothing to say. No promises that what I do have to say will always be fascinating.

This blog's title is a reference to the Bruce Springsteen song "Lucky Town," off the album of the same name. It's where I feel I've finally ended up, even though I secretly don't deserve it. Those responsible know who they are, and know how much I treasure them.

And so here I am, from down in Lucky Town. Thanks for stopping by.