THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Superman, Shakespeare and Cinema Part 2…

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The first part our chat regarding the Bard and Man of Steel can be read here. Shortly following this discussion, a Superman vs Batman film was announced as the sequel to Man of Steel. Given the nature of the timing we were unable to discuss that eventuation before editing this piece. Also, there’s little point in talking about a film that’s nought but a logo, so off we go…

cartoon by James Lincke

cartoon by James Lincke

I don’t want to sound like some fuddy-duddy Silver Age apologist but I’ve noticed a lot recently of people saying… yeah, Superman should kill, he should make the tough moral decisions we all have to make every day. I don’t know about you, but the last moral decision I made didn’t have anything to do with killing people. And I don’t think many of us ever have to make the decision whether or not to kill. In fact, the more you think about it, unless you’re in one of the Armed Forces, killing is illegal and immoral. Why would we want our superheroes to do that? There is a certain demand for it, but I just keep wondering why people insist that this is the sort of thing we’d all do if we were in Superman’s place and had to make the tough decision and we’d kill Zod. Would we? Very few of us have ever killed anything. What is this weird bloodlust in watching our superheroes kill the villains?

– Grant Morrison

B: I’m curious Anthony, where you think Man of Steel ranks in the pantheon of miscalculated comic book movies. Here’s a nerdy question: if you had to rank Man of Steel, Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, Daredevil, Elektra, Catwoman, Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (hey, we gotta keep tying this back to Shakespeare somehow), how would you rank them?

A: Ask a nerdy question Ben, get a nerdy answer (what about the 80s Captain America film?). I’d say superhero films can miscalculate in their representation of a character or just in their general execution. For instance, in the first category is Lundgren’s Punisher, which barely resembles the comic book character but it’s a fine shoot-em-up action film for its context. In the second category is Superman IV, a mostly decent attempt at representing the kind of ethical dilemma the character might face in 1988, but also a cheap and shoddy film. Superman III is a weird beast, silly plot and no real story, not to mention the Pryor comedy schtick that subverts the entire premise. I’d argue Batman Forever wasn’t a miscalculation at all. For its context, BF was a successful film where the heroes have clear character arcs that were true to the previous films and general mythos, (despite the ‘toyetic’ Schumacher nonsense creeping in). Batman and Robin… dude, where do we start on that? As for Daredevil, Elektra and Catwoman? I’ve not seen them (well, I’ve seen Daredevil, I just remember nothing about it but boredom).

Man of Steel lands in that first category I’d say. It’s a finely crafted film that, in part, misrepresents the character. As a result, it’s already made over half a billion bucks coz most I talk with don’t have a lingering affection for the character to really offend. For the average Joe, this was a good modern Superman film. In that sense, it becomes hard to label it as miscalculated when every member of the cast, FX shot, action beat, orchestral sting and set piece seem to be a fiercely calculated attempt at brand repositioning. Honestly, Man of Steel is a successful film and I enjoyed the aforementioned elements. In the end, it’s just not a great representation of the character. And I think that matters, box office grab not-with-standing. Where would you put it amongst the apples, the oranges and the lemons?

B: Well, I would naturally put Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher at the top of the pile, followed by Catwoman and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I kid of course, though Dolph Lundgren is pretty great. You’re right, there are good films that do their icons injustice, bad films that somehow do their icons justice, and films that are bad AND do their icons injustice. In the Man of Steel‘s case… an apple-orange-lemon juice?

Honestly, I’m like the easiest target for these films. I’ve seen most major comic book films theatrically, with a handful of exceptions. Since 2008 my early May birthday has coincided with the release of a new Marvel movie, and that’s generally how I’ve celebrated. Of those films I rattled off above, my favourite is probably Daredevil. It’s got a lot of charm despite its chintzier attributes, and it’s a comic book character I love – even more than Superman – and enjoy watching on screen even in a film of only moderate quality.

I think it says a lot that I can enjoy and forgive a bad Daredevil film more than a bad Superman film, despite personally preferring the Man without Fear over the Man of Steel. And I think that’s because Superman’s iconography is so huge and, dare I say it, important, that to pervert it rubs me the wrong way. Yes, Superman is important: the character’s been in print for 75 years now, and is a cornerstone of comic book culture, film culture, popular culture, and modern mythology. That carries a lot of weight. And for all its technical credentials and impressive individual elements, Man of Steel represents a massive wasted opportunity.

Another nerdy question: where to from here? Do you want to see more of this incarnation of the character, do you think the films provides fertile soil for building a DC Universe on film, and if Warner Bros read this blog (yeah right) and gave you the keys to the kingdom, how would you move forward? And something something something Shakespeare?

 A: The keys to the kingdom hey? Yeah, we’ll get to that. First, I haven’t forgotten about Shakespeare (the last shred of connection between the original purpose of this blog and our current meanderings). Man of Steel’s references to Hamlet (angsty young hero and a ghost father, imagery of graveside chats and skulls) are not new to Superman. J. Michael Straczynski’s recent graphic novel Superman: Earth One, from which Man of Steel borrowed a lot, does a good job of applying the tragic dynamics of the Prince of Denmark to the Last Son of Krypton. It’s not a bad fit.

Of course it works, it’s Shakespeare. Hamlet is a great template for discussing loss and being and purpose and duty in any genre or medium. Man of Steel touches on these timeless themes, and even if people argue about the quality of the execution, it is a better film for it. As the nerd revolution turns the stuff of video games and comic books into mainstream blockbusters, filmmakers will need to be more conscious of traditional drama, at least as quality control. After all, in a culture where comic book characters are rebooted every decade, Shakespeare’s plays still persist after half a millennium.

If WB, particularly Dianne Nelson who manages the superhero brands, were to ask me ‘where to from here’? – and wisely, she does not consult the fanbase– first, I know nothing about anything really, but I’d respond as pragmatically as possible. For the purposes of repositioning Superman as a successful publishing brand and film franchise, Man of Steel worked just fine. If they want to make money from the character at the movies, just keep doing what they’re doing.

However, we’re not the only ones suggesting this film could have been so much more. It was needlessly dark and divisive. Remember, when Snyder shoots existing material he makes 300, but when he creates original content he makes Sucker Punch. Many now argue that Snyder can’t influence story again. Keep Goyer, but enlist some journeymen script doctors to get the character arcs and pacing tighter. WB actually hired Geoff Johns to consult on these DC films. Bring him to the table, he’s written some Superman stories (some of the best bits of Man of Steel came from his Secret Origins series).

Man of Steel made money, but if WB want to make The Dark Knight or Avengers levels of cash with this franchise, then they’ll need a stronger product offering more than action/spectacle. The film must unite the film-going public with broad appeal, not divide the fan base, frighten children and bore mums. At this point, what a Man of Steel sequel needs is more warmth, humour and a stronger connection between protagonist and audience. That means building real romance with Lois, making Smallville feel like home and the Daily Planet a smart and witty place (and dare I say it, Jimmy Olsen should be there. Just cast Rupert Grint). That means pulling back on the spectacle and action a wee bit to fit in a clear and sympathetic character arc for Superman.

Man of Steel was cool, but Superman is not just an action hero. Superman is a big character that represents big things, a campfire myth at which popular culture has often gathered. Superman is Jesus. Superman is America. Superman is every orphan and immigrant and every kid from a small town. He is the everyman who feels mundane on the outside but suspects they are capable of much more within. Superman is us. Make that film. Make a Superman film.

So yes, I want to see more. I like Snyder and Goyer and Zimmer. Cavill is just Superman incarnate. While it’d be nice to address the misrepresentation of the character, I don’t want a sequel trying to correct the previous film’s sins. Still, I believe they can make a strong sequel. It’s Superman. I’m hopeful. 😉

BTW, I can’t seem to care about any Justice League tie-ins. It just sounds goofy, but apparently someone wants this movie so whatever. I’d love a Superman/Batman film, though I’d struggle with a rebooted caped crusader so soon if Bale doesn’t want the fat paycheck. Dunno. What do you think?

B: Yeah, I’m indifferent to Justice League, both as a prospective cinematic property and as a comic book property in general. I like all those individual characters – Flash, Wonder Woman etc – but don’t particularly care for them as a group. And while I love what Marvel’s done with The Avengers on film, I can’t muster any enthusiasm for seeing Nolan’s Batman, Snyder’s Superman, Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern, or any variations in the same room.

Having said that, I’d kill for a retro comic book pulp team-up with Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, Billy Campbell’s The Rocketeer, Alec Baldwin’s The Shadow and Billy Zane’s The Phantom. But I digress…

I actually think a sequel to Man of Steel has been set up nicely in a couple of key ways. With Lois knowing that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same, that’s a very different dynamic from previous Superman films and neatly does away with one of their more contrived dramatic tropes. I think the devastation of Metropolis could be used as just cause and viable spin for Lex Luthor’s crusade against Superman, should they go in that direction (the LexCorp truck I spotted towards film’s end makes me think they will). I’d like to see Superman grapple with his decision to kill Zod at the end of Man of Steel, though at the same time I don’t want a brooding Superman ala the Dark Knight films. Not sure where the balance lies there…

But I’m not chomping at the bit for more; I’m open to it certainly, but not craving it. And while the film’s made sufficient mint to spawn a sequel, it hasn’t really become a cultural conversation piece in the same way as The Dark Knight, Iron Man or The Avengers. And given Superman is the precursor and gold standard to this whole damn cycle, that’s genuinely disappointing.

A: And that’s where we finish up. After 75 years of Superman, when pop culture is flooded with his imitators, the character still has the ability to inspire, disappoint and make loads of cash. Here’s to wishing the Man of Steel a happy birthday, and many happy sequels…

B: Finally, to tie things back to Shakespeare, the definitive take on Superman as Hamlet. You’re welcome…

 

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August 4, 2013 at 2:33 am

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Superman, Shakespeare and cinema: Part 1…

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This year saw not only the 75th anniversary of Superman’s first printed appearance in Action Comics 1, but the premiere of the character’s latest cinematic incarnation, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. As the film flew across the world, it drew condemnation and praise from audiences, fans and critics, as it dressed our beloved hero in large-scale urban destruction and time-honoured Shakespearean motifs. Given the fascination Ben and I share for comic books and the Bard, we thought we’d waste some time with a wending rant on all things Superman, Shakespeare and cinema. Let’s go…

mos-prisoner

A: So there are some Shakespearean elements present in Man of Steel. First off, there’s an obvious Hamlet vibe, Clark Kent moping about and being driven to action by the ghost of his father…

B: There’s also a pair of father figures he’s torn between, ala Hal in Henry IV. You could call Jor-El the Henry IV-ish father figure, regal and grooming his son for duty, and Jonathan Kent the Falstaff figure, built from an earthier timbre and holding his son back from fulfilling his potential.

It might be worth putting our cards on the table and explaining our allegiances going into Man of Steel. I like Superman. A lot. He’s not my favourite superhero or comic book character – that would be Batman, with a grumpy Incredible Hulk a close second – but he’s in the top tier. My favourite version of the character in any form would be the Christopher Reeve films of the 1970s and 80s, the first two of which are great, the latter two of which are horrendous but dignified by the sincere work of Reeve. I like Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns; I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of the Fleischer cartoons, the George Reeves series, Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville, but never watched any of them obsessively; and the comics I’ve read I’ve generally liked, especially stuff like A Superman for All Seasons and All-Star Superman. In the lead-up to Man of Steel, I was primed. Director Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is one of the best comic book adaptations committed to film, and producer Christopher Nolan was responsible for steering the Dark Knight films. While that series promised to be a definitive cinematic take on Batman and ultimately proved to be a more personal idiosyncratic beast, it was nonetheless a fascinating and compelling experiment. All in all, I was pumped for seeing these two auteurs tackle one of the great icons of popular culture.

A: Well, here’s my hand. I am Superman fan. My experiences are much like your own. I grew up with the magical Reeve films and have vague but fond memories of the 50s TV show. I can even remember Superman’s 50th birthday celebrations in 88 (I believe he got a TV special and a TIME cover story). As I got older, I was into the thrilling Fleischer cartoons and even the mediocre Superboy TV show. Superman appeared on TV again, most noteworthy was the pilot for Lois and Clark, Superman: The Animated Series and the first season of Smallville. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was a flawed but reverent sequel to the first Superman film, and packs a bit of nostalgic magic into its rather episodic plot.

First and foremost, the character is a comic book hero. For the uninitiated, I’d recommend the books of Elliot S! Maggin, the Man of Steel mini-series, The Death of Superman, Superman: Peace on Earth, Superman for all Seasons and All Star Superman. In all these instances, the character is a thrilling action adventure hero while representing a unique humanist ethic… you know what, I already did that spiel on my site. Either way, I dig the Man of Steel and no matter how old I get I am still that kid forever leaping off the couch wearing a towel for a cape. Sufficed to say, I was cautiously optimistic about Zack Snyder’s cinematic reboot.

And you’re right about Snyder. He filmed Moore’s “unfilmable” Watchmen and acquitted himself rather well. Same when he shot Miller’s 300 against a green-screen and he’s still praised for his Dawn of the Dead remake. When he’s adapting existing material, he’s adept at turning panels of sequential art into celluloid. Many have noted, however, that when he must create original content as a storyteller, we end up with Sucker Punch and that owl movie.

Consider also Man of Steel’s production team. Producer Chris Nolan is a master of tense blockbuster realism, even if his films about men driven by loss and vengeance are rather incongruous for a character like Superman. Likewise, writer David S. Goyer has more runs on the board than any when it comes to penning superhero flicks. Given this team up, Man of Steel could have been an astounding piece of pop culture myth. More on that later.

Now, to finish my initial Bard-related observations. There are some motifs in Man of Steel, other than the Hamlet-esque relationship between Superman and his ghost-dad, that we could call Shakespearean. For instance, Krypton is the kingdom that falls due to the pride of age, in part reminiscent of King Lear or the Henriad. Also, the motif of the tragic general doomed by his flaws and duty (Coriolanus, Othello) surfaces in the figure of Zod.

Man of Steel also toys with the notion of free will, where baddie Zod and other Kryptonians are genetically predisposed to certain motivations and roles within society. As a protagonist, Superman has no genetic predisposition and must face choices regarding his place in the world, even to which world he holds his allegiance. Regardless of the film’s success in executing these ideas, it does posit the broad idea that free will creates heroes and predestination makes villains.

Shakespeare of course, dealt with the dogma of Calvinist predestination, the idea that some are chosen for glory and some for damnation. In fact, many of his richer patrons would have thought that we each hold a station in society by the will of the divine. We can be sure that Shakespeare was not a Calvinist as the Puritan cause is mocked frequently in his plays, particularly Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure. In a more pagan sense, Shakespeare is also aware of the powers of ‘fate’ and that plays a big part in the tragic downfall of Macbeth.

Given these vague connections, I still wouldn’t suggest Man of Steel is particularly Shakespearean, rather it invokes the broad strokes of traditional tragedy, much like The Dark Knight trilogy or Skyfall (previously discussed here). Today, many blockbusters often borrow the largess of traditional drama to add weight to the popcorn and Man of Steel is no different.

B: And therein lies one of its chief problems. Batman lends himself to tragic pathos, given his dark origin and brooding disposition. So does James Bond: the Bond films tend to mirror the popular aesthetics of their time, so it’s fitting that Skyfall cribs from the Nolan Batman films (the death of Bond’s parents that left him orphaned; a calculating villain who’s a distorted mirror version of the hero and lets himself get caught to deal his deadliest blows; even the burning of a childhood mansion). But Superman’s an alien in blue lycra with a red cape who punches and lifts big things. That’s not to say there can’t be darker takes on Superman (just as there are lighter takes on Batman and Bond: see the Adam West and Roger Moore eras respectively). But to reinvent Superman in the Dark Knight’s image is the first of a number of major miscalculations.

Sadly, the combination of Snyder and Nolan that I originally thought was a winning team proved wrong for the material. As individual filmmakers, they’re terrific. But united on this particular property, it’s a poisonous combination. Snyder’s got an aptitude for stylish devastation and violence. Nolan’s all about serious, realistic takes on his superheroes. As a consequence, in the final third of the film we’re shown what would happen to Earth if super-powered beings ever let rip… at great, tedious length. So much time is spent depicting buildings being destroyed either due to alien terra-forming or superhero fisticuffs, with an invisible death toll presumably adding up to hundreds of thousands. Basically, 9/11 happens thirty times over in Metropolis. The message is clear: this is what would happen if superheroes really existed. But is that the message audiences want from a Superman film: that Superman’s presence, not to put too fine a point on it, would completely fuck up planet Earth? While that message is suited to the darker tone of the Dark Knight films, given that the cause & effect of vigilantism is a central theme in the modern Batman mythos, it does not really belong here.

What’s more, all this destruction and devastation becomes deadly boring and numbing. There’s little sense of fun or charm in Man of Steel. While again this stems from Nolan’s mandate on realism and Snyder’s over-emphasis on spectacle, I also have to lay some blame at the doorstep of Goyer. There’s no denying he’s one hell of a plotter, but his dialogue’s mechanical and there’s a flatness to a lot of the more performance-based scenes that the actors, despite their best efforts (and some are really, really good) can’t quite overcome…

A: I agree there. The Nolan/Goyer team deal in superhero realism where Snyder crafts action violence. Together, it looks like a job for Superman, though they posit the Man of Steel as the cause of the chaos as well as the cure. It misses the mark for the character. Plus, you could hardly describe any of those storytellers as optimistic in tone.

Mario Puzo did describe Superman as a “Greek tragedy”, but that never obscured the wit or charm in Donner’s first film. I can’t help but feel that Superman requires that more traditional touch, more of a Spielberg or Zemeckis approach. I’d have suggested Abrams had he not previously been attached to direct one of the aborted attempts at this film (and written a truly odd script for it). Hell, if the script was strong and polished and the studio had a real tight leash, Michael Bay might have come closer to the right tone for a Superman film. I know that sounds odd, but you should feel good at the end of a Superman film, not numb from all the 3D 9/11 imagery. At least Bay would have shot it with some colour and fun.

It’s tough, because Nolan, Goyer and Snyder are all accomplished and skilled creators whose work I have enjoyed. As a writer, I particularly hold Goyer in high esteem for his ability to make geeky characters work for broad audiences. But we’re not the only ones suggesting something’s gone awry here. When it comes to the technical elements of the character dramatisation, Film Crit Hulk truly autopsied Man of Steel already. If we’re gonna lay the blame at anyone’s feet first and foremost, then we need to talk about Snyder, coz we’re gonna have to talk about the suicide-by-cop moment. As a fan, I was disappointed, even momentarily angered, by that decision. Did you care as much?

B: I did, though I think that is a question of decision rather than direction. Objectively speaking, I think Man of Steel is a well-directed film. While the set pieces do become numbing, I can’t deny Snyder’s knack for striking imagery. The stuff on Krypton early in the film is a particularly funky and nerdy (in the best sense) vision of Superman’s birth planet that we’ve never really encountered before, like Doctor Who’s Gallifrey imagined by Edgar Rice Burroughs. And smaller moments work well too, like the scene where Jor-El recites the history of Krypton to his son and background imagery illustrates the story. Details and touches like this which other filmmakers might have skipped over or skimped on attest to Snyder’s directorial and visual acumen.

And like I said above, some of the performers are really great. Henry Cavill makes a good impression as the titular character, as does Amy Adams, a great actress who’s often a little bland, as Lois Lane. I think Russell Crowe is entering the ‘Fat Brando’ stage of his career playing larger than life characters and making big choices (see also his work in The Man with the Iron Fists and Les Miserables, as well as the upcoming Noah) so he’s well suited to the role of Jor-El. And I love Kevin Costner in pretty much everything and he invests the role of Jonathan Kent with appropriate Americana.

All these elements, taken individually, are fine. But again, it’s the bigger creative decisions which glue them together (or don’t, to be more precise) that really hamper the film. It’s not just an issue of tone, but basic character choices. The treatment of Jonathan Kent is a great example of that. As Film Crit Hulk noted, the filmmakers gave Kent a tangled mess of motivations and confusing messages to impart (don’t save people or be a hero now, because you need to save people and be a hero later) which undermines the gravity of Costner’s work in those scenes. There’s no better actor equipped to have played that part, and it’s disappointing that his performance is hobbled by that clumsy writing and a rather miscalculated death scene.

A: Yeah, that bit of visual exposition in the ‘fortress’ is a highlight, as is the opening on Krypton and even those touches of Malick in the Smallville scenes. Let’s not forget his deft hand with uber-powered showdowns. No one can doubt Snyder’s ability to craft an image or an action beat, and his direction there is fine, but it’s his decisions as a storyteller that left so many scratching their heads. That’s why I connect him with the now infamous Superman-kills-Zod decision. That precious little moment was originally Snyder’s idea. A recent interview with Empire revealed that Nolan and Goyer were suitably confused at the notion when Snyder suggested it. Clearly, anyone with a functional knowledge of the character understands that Superman does not kill his enemies, not just as a moral code, but as an expression of his heightened compassion. It’s what makes him different from the countless anti-heroes in pop culture who gun down baddies for breakfast. Superman is meant to be better than that.

I’m just about done fan-hating on that decision, but I will add this: many have said of that scene that Superman had no choice but to kill Zod, but more precisely, the writer and director offered him none. So what else was Superman supposed to do? Well, Superman could have blocked Zod’s heat vision, injuring himself rather than killing. Maybe he could have used a burst of strength or flight to move Zod to the side. Hell, if you have enough grip to twist a man’s neck you can certainly turn him 180 so he’s unable to immolate innocent bystanders. First off, Superman could have spent at least a few breaths trying to appeal to Zod’s genetic predisposition and offered to work alongside him in rebuilding Krypton elsewhere. There’s a crapload of things Superman could have done rather than kill. Just ask a comic writer. And I say that not as some expert comic author, but as a dude who’s read a bazillion Superman comics over the years. Man of Steel’s ending was unimaginative, sad, yet dramatically inert.

Finally, we see how silly this games gets, here I am trying to mend the plot of a popcorn superhero film. I would, however, argue that this highlights the issue: Superman can do whatever he wishes. He’s freaking Superman! For what purpose do we create the impossible and good man if not to do impossibly good things? That’s the point of an aspirational mythic character. To be better than us.

B: I did not know that moment derived entirely from Snyder, so I stand educated. Still, it says something about that particular combination of talent and the particular tone they were going for that such a choice was not only feasible but perversely organic to the storytelling.

To be continued next week, in Part 2…

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July 28, 2013 at 6:10 am

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Hamlet vs Faustus issues 4 to 6

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HVF issue 5

Here are three more issues of Hamlet vs Faustus to chew on and spit out like a rancid cigar. Actually, unlike the first three, I think these ones are really good. I think I hit a stride with the fourth one, kept that momentum with the fifth one, and the sixth one’s a little bloated and indulgent but has some nice stuff in it. Take a gander below…

Hamlet vs Faustus issue 4

Hamlet vs Faustus issue 5

Hamlet vs Faustus issue 6

Ben

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May 6, 2013 at 9:58 am

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Hamlet vs Faustus issues 1 to 3

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HVF

 

 

 

It’s been a while between posts, as Anthony and I have been rather busy with something something excuse excuse violin violin blah blah. Also, I’ve been cheating on Slings and Arrows with my old blog Brazzavillians, now revived after a year or so out of action.

To help tide over our readership (which is to say, each other) until new content is produced, I thought I’d exploit this outlet to post issues of my old comic Hamlet vs Faustus (mentioned several times in the past on this site) online. It’s Shakespeare, so it’s relevant right? Right?

What it isn’t, however, is good. Or at least these first few issues aren’t. I was trying too hard to be Alan Moore, when really I have the comic book writing skills of Roger Moore (not to mention the suave gentleman spy aura of Alan Moore). Plus the scanning isn’t particularly good, especially on the covers to the first couple of issues. Still, take a gander if you’re interested. Anthony seemed to enjoy them. I’ll post more issues in the near future, and in the meantime, here are the first three…

Hamlet vs Faustus issue 1

Hamlet vs Faustus issue 2

Hamlet vs Faustus issue 3

Ben

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April 29, 2013 at 10:22 am

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Overview of Tragedy, Part 2

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Merry Christmas one and all.

As a gift, here is the long-threatened follow up to the original overview of Shakespearean tragedy. While many may have observed our posts drifting further and further from traditional Shakespearean content over time, I am determined to keep to topic this time around. Let’s get started…

First, tragedy began thousands of years ago, with songs about goats. You see, the first dramatic tragedies were derived from the religious rites of Dionysus in ancient Greece. Consequently, they were known as ‘goat songs’, and involved lots of booze and chanting and probably resembled something like Catholic mass meets an AC/DC concert (that actually sounds pretty sweet).

These rites evolved into a spectacle separate from religion, incorporating legend and myth. In the 5th century BC, Aristotle began to theorise the function of drama. He suggested that dramatic tragedy had an identifiable structure, built from a beginning, a middle and then an end (known as the protasis, epitasis and the catastrophe). The three-act structure was born.

This dramatic structure should, Aristotle argued, consist of a unity of elements, incorporating one event, one location and one time. As centuries passed, the Greek tragedy continue to evolve and in 18 BC, the poet Horace argued for a five-act structure (later thoroughly theorized by Gustav Freytag in the 19th century).

Time passed, Rome rose, Christ was born, stuff happened and many, many stories were told over the centuries. During the Renaissance, the British theatre scene was bustling with bright young authors such as Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlow, the sharp-tongued Robert Greene and, of course, our humble Bard, all putting their pen to the traditional genre.

In the first decade of the 17th century, William Shakespeare wrote most of the tragedies that have come to define our modern understanding of the genre. From such works as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Othello, we have come to recognise the archetypal noble man with a fatal flaw. This character, harbouring one defect that rises to grasp at power just as a weed reaches for the sun, is now part of our cultural understanding.

Outside of the famed tragedies, Shakespeare wrote other lesser-known tales, and in Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, the elements of tragedy are present, though not in the typical forms. While Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists fit the classic Greek model, his work does not actually observe the Aristotelian unities, with multiple events stretching over many times and places

The Bard also tends to give his protagonists a stronger sense of free will, exhibiting complexity and ambivalence, without the sovereign, destined fate of Greek tragedy. So in keeping with the tradition of these overviews, let’s ask Dr. Ben some questions about how Shakespeare altered, and influenced, the genre of tragedy?

A: So Ben, do the lesser-known tragedies offer anything of interest that the big plays do not? Where do they fit in the oeuvre?

B: From a literary perspective, there’s a good reason that Hamlet, Othello, King Lear et al tower over the lesser known tragedies: they’re superior plays. But from a dramatic perspective, I think the lesser known ones can seem a lot fresher since they haven’t been so thoroughly processed and digested in the collective cultural consciousness. And they’re the sorts of plays that, while never going to sell out the stalls, offer interesting possibilities for those who stage them: see, for example, stage productions of Titus Andronicus from Peter Brook and Julie Taymor, or Ralph Fiennes’s recent film of Coriolanus.

A: In the instances of Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, how might we view the significance of Shakespeare’s departure from the Aristotelian unities? Was it revolutionary at the time, or simply the trend? What implications does this have for the stories themselves?

B: Shakespeare wasn’t especially interested in the Aristotelian unities, which is why a lot of critics and commentators of a more formalist disposition bagged him subsequently, but I think the works speak for themselves. The Tempest is probably the most successful play in conforming to the Aristotelian unities, and that’s dramatically fitting given both its place in the canon and the theme of resolution and restoration that runs throughout it.

A: Coriolanus himself is a rather stoic tragic hero, and earlier you suggested his primary sin is pride, refusing to work with the plebs. While hardly Oedipus, he also has an interesting relationship with his mother. Compared to Timon, is Coriolanus a more traditional tragic protagonist in a more traditional play?

B: Yes he most certainly is.

A: … of course… I probably should have asked a more specific question. Greek tragedy often depicted the workings of fate, but Shakespeare tends to give his tragic heroes more independent and nuanced psyches. Would you agree with that assertion, and if so, how do you see that evidenced particularly in Coriolanus and Timon?

B: Yes I would. It’s evidenced in their actions, which are plainly stupid to readers but are grounded and contextualized in personal idiosyncrasy.

A: The events of Timon bear a resemblance to a number of Biblical parables, not just the waste of the prodigal son, yet also the parables of the debtor, the great banquet and the hidden treasure. This tragic parable also functions a great deal like a problem play. What’s your take on the piece? Confused or eclectic?

B: Eclectic, as opposed to something like Pericles which is clearly confused.

A: It seems as if there’s little room for tragedy in our popular entertainment nowadays, Oscar-nominated pieces notwithstanding (Gran Torino, The Wrestler, Black Swan). Are we just too addicted to popcorn to stomach stories of sacrifice and loss? Where does tragedy fit in 21st century western storytelling?

B: I disagree somewhat. I think if you look at films like The Dark Knight series and other popcorn entertainment of that ilk, there’s often either a tragic dimension to the character or a kernel of tragedy that initiates or underlies the narrative. Having said that, I wouldn’t say that much of this stuff is genuinely tragic: a lot of it is what Joe Dante calls ‘non-content films’, but invested with a superficial dramatic heft.

A: Yeah, I thought Batman might fit in there somewhere- Hang on, there’s a new James Bond film out, have you seen it yet?

B: Hell yes.

A: Did you dig it?

B: Hell yes.

A: So, at this point, the James Bond franchise is reaching half a century. Hardly another fictional character has so consistently maintained such a visible cinematic presence. The reasons for the property’s appeal are clear, but how might you define its one lasting quality over the years?

B: I don’t think there’s a single lasting quality. If there is, it’d be that it’s maintained a half dozen or so qualities or recurring motifs while rolling with and adapting to popular tides. The DVDs for the Bond films that came out a few years ago had special menus that allowed you to access scenes featuring women, bad guys, gadgets, exotic locations, action beats, and staples like the gun barrel opening (now seemingly the gun barrel closing), theme song, M, Q, Moneypenny etc. So you’ve got those consistent ingredients across the whole series, plus narratives that adapted themselves to political tides (various gradations of the Cold War) and pop culture trends (blaxpoitation, science-fiction, 80s revenge thrillers etc). The Bond series is the ultimate chameleon: the same ugly lizard each and every time, but blending in and reinventing itself where needed.  

A: How might you suggest Skyfall embodies these successful elements?

B: Skyfall’s a pretty spectacular merging of the classic Bond ingredients with the modern action film aesthetic. It’s a fun and consistently entertaining piece of classic Bond escapism while also conceding to Dark Knight era expectations around pop heroes (tragic past, parental issues, engaging in mind games with warped mirror image villains etc). It both looks back to and celebrates the incredible rich history of the series while also looking forward to new possibilities.

A: The first Bond film starring Daniel Craig, Casino Royale, was both an elegant return to source material as well as a slick modernisation of the character. The following film, Quantum of Solace, though hampered by the writers’ strike, continued on with the thematic elements of Casino Royale as more of a traditional sequel. This move harkened to a more concrete continuity for the Bond films, as well as a character arc for the protagonist himself. Skyfall, however, appears to largely change tact and return us to the older Bond format where every film is essentially disconnected from a larger story. Do you see this as a virtue, a flaw, or a necessary evil?

B: I think Quantum of Solace, as a film in its own right, is terrible. As a direct continuation of the storyline of Casino Royale it’s fine, but it’s not a film I can watch independent of its companion piece and find satisfying. In this respect, the fact that Skyfall is a film with a complete beginning, middle and end, as opposed to two thirds of a film, makes it vastly more satisfying. By the same token, I think it does continue the storyline from those first two films, most notably in its development of Bond’s relationship with M, and I think at film’s end the stage is set for the series to move ahead with continuity in place while still allowing storylines to be disconnected.

A: The initial James Bond books and films captured so much of the machismo in the Cold War western zeitgeist. However, that mentality becomes impotent in the face of the post 9/11, 21st century climate. How does the character of Bond relate to the new threat of nationless fascism and terrorism?

B: He shoots it.

A: Of course, so  given that the post 9/11 worldview offers creative challenges for the Craig films, how might the post-cold war Pierce Brosnan films from the 90s fare in comparison? Did Brosnan’s Bond suffer from an absence of threat and a lack of things to shoot?

B: I find it very hard watching those four films these days. Goldeneye remains the best and remains pretty great, but I think nostalgia plays a big part. The others are flimsy at best and moronic at worst.

A: Which is the best Bond film and why?

B: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which like Skyfall is a merging of classic Bond ingredients with a dramatic weight and texture (which was then new to the series and would not be repeated for a long time). It’s both the archetypal Bond film and one of the weirdest, most peculiar in the series. And George Lazenby’s great. That’s right: GREAT.

A: Comparatively, which was the worst Bond film and why?

B: Moonraker and Die Another Day are so ludicrously over the top I instantly disconnect from them whenever I try to watch them.

A: In hindsight, does the James Bond franchise offer any relevance to our discussion on Shakespearean tragedy?

B: Characters and stories that are reflections and embodiments of their times, heroes whose fates are intertwined with the fate of their societies (symbolically in the Bard’s work, often literally in Bond’s case), popular entertainments consistently delivering expected ingredients while working in new variations and tweaks to formula. Yeah, I think so.

A: Fantastic. So, there we are, knowing a little bit more about Shakespearean tragedy and a lot more about James Bond… right on topic.

Merry Christmas

A

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December 22, 2012 at 10:39 am

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There’s a bear in there: The Winter’s Tale

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herbert-west1The Winter’s Tale is a welcome breath of fresh air after the tonally strange Pericles and the stuffy Cymbeline. Shakespeare had quite clearly mastered the art of the romances by this point, and the resulting play is pretty damn great, infusing the weirder melancholic and soap operatic tides of his earlier romances with confidence and considerable technical polish. The play also contains my very favourite stage direction, not just in Shakespeare but the whole of theatre itself: “Exit, pursued by a bear”. I love it! I even homaged it in the penultimate issue of my comic book series Hamlet vs Faustus, in which overweight dumbass police officer Javert is chased out of the narrative by a bear.

The mind spins with possibilities. Did Shakespeare’s crew dress up an actor in a bear costume and have him stumble around stage after whoever played Antigonus, in the very best vintage Doctor Who style? Or did they actually use a real-life bear (bear-baiting was a form of recreational entertainment after all) on the stage? Either way, it’s awesome. I regret that I’ve never actually seen The Winter’s Tale performed live: I hope to do so one day, as I want to see how a theatre company handles this oddball exit, which, let’s be honest, is almost Family Guy-esque in its randomness and ultimate inconsequentiality. I have seen a BBC Shakespeare version of the scene though, which pleased me greatly as it conformed to the aforementioned Doctor Who aesthetic.

In honour of “Exit, pursed by a bear”, I’d like to take this opportunity to celebrate some other great bears in popular culture. For the sake of brevity I’ll limit this list to just four others. On any list of this modest size it goes without saying that some feelings will be hurt, so please don’t be too upset that I don’t discuss Paddington Bear or Rupert Bear or Winnie the Pooh or Fozzie Bear or South Park’s Sexual Harassment Panda, all of whom brought me great pleasure in my younger years, or the bear that roughs up Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in The Edge or does, well, bear stuff in The Bear. If it’s any consolation, you may wish to look at Wikipedia’s List of fictional bears. Yes, that’s right, Wikipedia has a list especially devoted to fictional bears. That’s almost as awesome as “Exit, pursued by a bear”.

Anyhow, to the list…

Ted (Ted, 2012)

Ted, the star of Seth MacFarlane’s movie of the same name, is a heavy-drinking, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed teddy bear. He’s a former celebrity and Bostonian with a voice like Peter Griffin, a fear of thunder, and a thing for Flash Gordon. It boggles the mind that nobody ever thought to do a heavy-drinking, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed teddy bear movie until now, but now that it exists, it’s a thing of beauty.

Teddy (A.I. Artificial Intelligence, 2001)

Another teddy bear, this time a robotic one. Teddy is the companion to Hayley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, accompanying H.J.O’s orphaned robot kid David as he navigates a somewhat dystopian future. I’m not the biggest fan of this film, and can’t shake the feeling that veteran filmmakers Spielberg and co-creator Stanley Kubrick were a little off the mark in what they wanted to do (see my previous post on artists disconnecting as they grow older for related thoughts). But you can’t deny the wizardry that went into making Teddy such a compelling and human character, way more moving than the film’s titular futuristic Pinnochio.

Sooty (The Sooty Show, Sooty & Co, Sooty Heights et al)

A soft-spoken yellow magician with a hand permanently lodged up his butt, Sooty has been entertaining British kids for over 60 years. I grew up with the Matthew Corbett incarnation of the show, and as I’ve never seen any other version I’m going to say with ignorant and egocentric gusto that the Corbett years were and always will be the very best in the show’s history. What makes Sooty so great is that he’s basically an evil little bastard who used his adorability to deflect blame and punishment after committing heinous crimes against his owner (or pet) Matthew. Sooty could put pin-pricks in condoms, causing unwanted pregnancies, or swap your cocaine with your heroin, causing unwanted ODs, just to amuse himself, and all he’d have to do is wave at the camera or pretend to cry to get off the hook. There’s much we can learn from this furry little demon.

Brody (Grizzly Park, 2007)

The only bear in the conventional sense (i.e. real) on this list, and a murderous one at that. I first sought out the film Grizzly Park because CHUD’s Nick Nunziata, one of my favourite film critics and commentators and a bit of a hero of mine, is credited as a co-producer on the film (and since went on to associate produce Don’t be Afraid of the Dark). It deals with a bunch of juveline delinquents doing community service at the titular national park and being picked off by a bear. Based upon that premise I think it’s safe to say you know precisely what you’re getting into when you sit down and watch the film, and if you can roll with that, then it’s a lot of fun. Most of the horror is in the last fifteen or so minutes, so you need a high tolerance level of young people moaning and bitching at one another for the first 75 minutes or so, but if you’ve watched a lot of horror you’re probably already acclimatised to that. It’s fun schlock, and the bear, played method-style by one credited Brody the Bear (with fake appendages standing in at various points), is good value.

There you have it. Four great bears. I’ll be back some time in the near (or at least not too distant) future to toast Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, The Tempest. Until then…

*Exit, pursued by a bear*

Ben

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December 19, 2012 at 5:25 am

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Cymbeline and the Bard’s twilight years

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herbert-west1

Don’t let the title of this post put you off: at no point do I discuss the works of Stephanie Meyer…

In my last piece on Pericles I expressed some hesitancy about navigating the romances, and wondered if that was purely a result of that very peculiar and, to my mind, somewhat ‘off’ play or merely circumstantial. Having now read Cymbeline for the first time too, the second of this quartet of romances, I’m still not entirely sure. It has the same melancholic tone with neat resolution, and its narrative of a weakling King, his scheming wife, an Iago-esque manipulator, and absent and returned sons is soap operatic, though not as weird tonally as Pericles. In retrospect, some of that Pericles weirdness might’ve been added value; as it stands Cymbeline comes across as rather sluggish and ornamental.

So is Shakespeare at fault, or am I a bad reader? I remain undecided, but pondering this question and thinking about Cymbeline’s place in the canon as one of the last performed plays got me thinking back to an article I read recently.

The article in question features snippets from an interview with Quentin Tarantino where he muses that he would not want to continue directing into his twilight years. The director’s logic was that he did not want to lose touch with audiences or muddy his filmography. He stated “I just don’t want to be an old-man filmmaker… I want to stop at a certain point. Directors don’t get better as they get older. Usually the worst films in their filmography are those last four at the end. I am all about my filmography, and one bad film f***s up three good ones. I don’t want that bad, out-of-touch comedy in my filmography, the movie that makes people think, ‘Oh man, he still thinks it’s 20 years ago.’ When directors get out-of-date, it’s not pretty”. While it would be easy to dismiss Tarantino’s comments as ageist, the fact remains that so many great filmmakers do lose their touch as they grow older. Francis Ford Coppola made four masterpieces within the space of a decade in the 1970s – The Godfather I and II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now – and while he has made many interesting and fascinating films since he has never replicated those highs. Filmmakers like George Romero, Woody Allen and Brian De Palma, to name just several, are capable of great things but much of what they’ve done over the last decade could be regarded as interesting failures. And last year I saw the first theatrically released feature films (on DVD alas) in however many years of John Carpenter, John Landis and Joe Dante – The Ward, Burke and Hare, The Hole – and while these films had their virtues their shortcomings were also quite apparent. 
 
As intimated above my mind gravitated back to this article when I was thinking about Cymbeline’s station in the canon. It came after a pair of lesser known and rarely performed (nowadays at least) tragedies, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, as well as the first of the romances, Pericles, a somewhat rough play tonally. Cymbeline itself is not without its problems, and like these three plays isn’t performed very frequently. If one were to apply Tarantino’s logic to Shakespeare, these could be considered “old-man” plays, slightly out of touch, and evidence that the fire that previously burned within and drove their author – he had after all penned Othello, King Lear and Macbeth just a few years earlier – had died down somewhat. Was Shakespeare past it then? Was he writing with one foot in London and the other in Stratford, where he would retire to within a few years?

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say no. Given that both The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, much better plays, were percolating I think it’s safe to say the fire was still burning, and while he may well have seen the end in sight he wasn’t lounging on the job. Rather, Cymbeline along with Coriolanus, Timon of Athens and Pericles are what we might call transition plays, representing the author’s transition from his shattering tragedies to more subdued and melancholic dramatic tides. The scale and emphasis of the plays was shifting, and it shows. That transition is rough in places, as evidenced by the plays themselves, but in these same texts we can see the author adapting and acclimatising to his new genre and eventually, with The Tempest, marching off stage in triumph. And just as I’ll happily take a lower quality Romero zombie film over the best zombie films that two dozen other filmmakers have to offer, or a sub-par thriller from De Palma or sub-standard comedy from Allen over the best that younger specialists in those fields can conjure up, likewise I can roll with the worst of the Bard, especially in lieu of the fact that one of the very best is waiting in the wings.

Ben

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December 18, 2012 at 7:30 am

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