Tommy Ingram's Eclectic Variety Show

How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.

Category: Theatre

Review: Glengarry Glen Ross

David Mamet is an irritating blowhard in his non-fiction and, if you believe the things he says about himself, personally rather an asshole. But give the man his credit–he can put together a slick production. Glengarry Glen Ross is his brainchild, originally written for the stage, where it won the Pulitzer Prize. It was adapted into a movie in 1992 with an all-star cast–Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, and Jonathan Pryce. Read the rest of this entry »

More on Mamet

I’ve begun reading David Mamet’s book Writing In Restaurants (I have True and False, but haven’t started it yet), and I must say that I’m not impressed. His essays are a mixture of insightful high-minded thoughts, rhetorical sleight-of-hand, and downright stupid conclusions. In “Radio Drama”, Mamet begins by discussing writing for the radio and how it prepares you to write for the stage. But as soon as he mentions movies, it takes a weird turn:

Witness the rather fascistic trend in cinema in the last decade:

Q: How’d you like the movie?
A: Fantastic cinematography.

Yeah, but so what? Hitler had fantastic cinematography. The question we have ceased to ask is, “What was the fantastic or brilliant cinematography in aid of?”

Of course it’s important that the cinematography, and all other aspects of a movie, work toward the same goal. But an otherwise mediocre movie that’s skillfully put to film deserves at least that much credit. Good craftsmanship should always be celebrated. You don’t have to accept or reject the whole production as a package deal. Birth of a Nation is one of the most morally reprehensible movies ever made, but it is startlingly well put together for its time, and it’s the origin of numerous film production techniques. It deserves, and largely gets, credit for its cinematography even thought it was used for shameful ends.

We’re not twenty pages into the book, and Mamet has already brought up Hitler and fascists in the middle of a discussion that has nothing whatsoever to do with them. Even by Internet standards, that’s bad. This is the whole purpose of Godwin’s law–a writer who makes this comparison lightly is either a bad writer or a liar trying to put one over on you, and in either case it’s hardly worth reading further. I’m tempted to shut Writing In Restaurants and return both Mamet books to the library on general principle, but now I feel the same obligation to keep reading that I get in, say, Terry Goodkind or Laurell K. Hamilton.

Note also the undertone of “kids these days” running through it. This “fascistic” decline is a product of modern society, and things were better back in Mamet’s day. I’m not sympathetic to that kind of whining. Injudicious overproduction is not a new thing. Benedetto Marcello was complaining about it all the way back in 1720:

He [the opera director] may give in to the clamouring of his friends and hire some stage hands, conductors, dancers, tailors, and extras, but in this he should use the utmost economy so that he can spend all the more on singers, especially prima donnas, as well as on the bear, a tiger, flashes of lightning, thunderbolts, and earthquakes.

On the very next page, Mamet equates “concern for commercial viability” with censorship and thought police. He imagines the shady corporate overlords who run the theatre business (work with me here) draw up a list of things they don’t want the masses thinking about and refuse to fund any productions that touch on these topics. He has it backwards.

Most people don’t want to think about certain things. They don’t care about philosophy, the human condition, or the “national dream life”, and don’t want to see plays that deal with them. The shady corporate overlords are in the business of giving the audience what they want, and so deeply introspective plays, movies, music, and books are not the norm. That’s not to say there’s no place for them, but they’ve always been fewer and smaller.

This is just two pages of one essay. There’s plenty more, and I’m not even halfway through the book yet. David Mamet reads like a parody of the pretentious theatre type, sneering as if by reflex at anything that an actual human being might enjoy and reading bizarre political motives into the ordinary. There is much that is good in Writing In Restaurants, but there’s also a hell of a lot of bullshit and I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.

The Problem With Shakespeare Movies

I’ve seen most of the well-known Shakespeare adaptations–the Polanski Macbeth, the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet, Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado and, most recently, Hamlet. I’ve also seen some of the more infamous ones, like episode 1009 of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Common to almost all of them is a feeling that something’s subtly wrong. They feel like Shakespeare adaptations, and not in a good way.

They’re not quite recognizable as anything we would call a movie. They don’t act the way other films do. They’re not just taped plays either. They feel more like recorded stage productions trying desperately and failing to be movies. The conventions of the genre are an unappetizing mishmash of film conventions, stage conventions, and a misguided desire to be faithful to the original.

What’s wrong?

The platform.

Branagh’s Hamlet is a good case study. One of the problems common to all kinds of Shakespeare adaptations pops up in the first minute or so. The filmmakers change details, which is their prerogative, but then they leave in the original lines that no longer make any sense in light of the changes. For instance, in Hamlet, the play opens on “the platform”, presumably the walls of the castle. In the movie, the guards are clearly in a courtyard, but they still talk about it as if it’s “the platform”, which makes them look somewhat unobservant.

One change that’s made in just about every adaptation is the removal of Paris’s death from Romeo and Juliet. I disagree with this change; I think it takes away a very important character moment for Romeo, but both movie versions that I’ve seen take it out. The problem is, they leave in the prince’s line at the end about having lost “a brace of kinsmen”. In other words, two relatives of his have died. But since Paris’s death was removed, this is no longer true. This is the kind of glaring mistake that would get people fired from any other kind of movie.

Often, however, the problems come from things the filmmakers didn’t change but should have. It’s well known that Shakespeare’s plays were light on props and scenery. Scenes are set in dialogue. This is the reason Macduff’s son says, “he has kill’d me, mother”. From far away, it might not be clear that the shag-haired villain has, in fact, kill’d him. This is all well and good in the context of a massive, open-roofed, smelly Elizabethan theatre, but once you get into the realm of big budget films, having Hamlet say “it is very cold” when we can clearly see his breath in the air makes Kenneth Branagh and his character both seem rather dim.

The reason these changes aren’t made is clear. They want to stay true to the original and not cut anything out if they don’t have to. This is an admirable goal, but the fact is that transitioning from stage to screen requires more than just the addition of a camera. You’re moving from one set of conventions to another. The conventions of film simply do not allow characters to set the scene by telling the audience what the temperature is.

Another clash of cinema and stage is the soliloquies. Shakespeare’s writing is wordy and, when you paraphrase the archaic language, much of it is repetitive and banal. I like his writing, but I admit that it works a lot better on paper than in person. It works even worse in film. In an effort to make the speeches interesting, characters in Shakespeare movies run around the set, throw things, swing their arms around, and otherwise chew the scenery.

Even that doesn’t work because the speeches still go on too long. The scene in Hamlet where Branagh delivers a soliloquy while chasing the ghost through a forest would be laughable even if it didn’t overstay its welcome. Immediately after, the ghost performs a long, whispered speech and the filmmakers try in vain to spruce it up with different camera angles, including one extended shot of Brian Blessed’s teeth. This is not entertaining to watch. Branagh’s tired panting and Blessed’s hoarse whisper* make it difficult even to listen.

Gaze into the mouth of Brian!

The absolute worst technique in the insidious toolbox of Shakespeare adapters, however, will always be the voiceover. Some bright directors decide that since a soliloquy is supposed to show a character thinking, the speech should be presented in a voiceover while the character stands with a slack-jawed expression. It looks like the actors just forgot to move their mouths while speaking. Branagh and Roman Polanski are both guilty of this. It’s unbelievably jarring, simply because this is not how you do voiceovers.

It’s both easy and fun to criticize, but is there anything constructive to say? Well, yes, actually. Shakespeare’s plays could make very good movies. We just have to set a few ground rules. Read the rest of this entry »

5 Awful Works by Great Artists

No one can be at the top of their game all the time, including writers. For normal people like us, when we make mistakes, a customer gets a burnt burger, or maybe all their canned food ends up in one bag. But when a writer makes a mistake, they’re smugly mocked at Razzie ceremonies for years afterwards. Whether through inexperience, apathy, or strong drink, the best writers in all media have produced works of fiction that are painfully bad. Here are some of the worst. Read the rest of this entry »

Tropes are not bad: The Parable of the Sculptor

A sculptor laid out his tools in front of a blank block of marble. He closed his eyes and envisioned the finished product. He wanted to carve a bust of Pallas. Why not? They’re all the rage these days, and he could sculpt like no other, creating a truly unrivalled Athena. He set to work carving, and within a few hours he had a beautiful sculpture. He gave it to a museum to display, but they rejected the piece. The letter from the curator said that marble sculptures were tired and cliched. They were looking for pieces carved from new, exciting materials like thorium.

The sculptor, not one to be easily rebuffed, put on his best HAZMAT suit and started carving a new sculpture from thorium. The new sculpture was just like the old one, only with a silvery metallic colour, and the inconvenient habit of causing anyone who directly touched it to grow a third arm. The sculptor sent this one in, too, but received it back with another letter from the curator. This letter, written in very shaky handwriting, said that he liked the artistic statement the sculpture made, but it doesn’t demonstrate new horizons in the craft of sculpting. It uses the same old techniques that everyone’s been using for hundreds of years. The letter suggested that the sculptor try something innovative. Read the rest of this entry »

The Third Murderer

Hi there. New to the site? Why not have a look at my Half Life articles or “The Problem With Shakespeare Movies“?

I wasn’t aware of this when I did my analysis of Act 3 of Macbeth, but apparently there’s quite a bit of arguing going on about the identity of the Third Murderer. This is just a little baffling, because that’s quite possibly the least relevant detail in the whole play, but nonetheless I feel compelled to put in my two cents. Read the rest of this entry »