Friday, May 18, 2007

Merchant of Venice - Jessica's Ring and Directorial License

Team Shakespeare,

Ernst sent the following conclusion to our conversation about Michael Radford's depiction of Jessica's ring, after my insistence that the movie's final scene had meaning:

"Well, that, of course, is the director's choice. As for the original dramatist--one doesn't show a knife on a kitchen sink early on in a filmand then turn it into a hot pad in the last scene."

I reproduce it because Ernst brings up something that's been nagging me since I started in on both the Radford and Nunn film versions of the play, and I thought I'd share it with the entire group. Once one sees a production, it is difficult to talk about just the text. And that has happened to me. My posts have largely focused on one interpretation of the text rather than just the text. So Ernst is right in pointing out the difference between the director's choice and the dramatist's work. Shakespeare clearly gives us a scene in which Tubal tells Shylock that Jessica traded the ring from Leah for a monkey. Period.

Radford adds a concluding silent moment that forces us to reflect on that scene, and which may or may not change our impression of the text. Ernst feels that the final scene deviates from the implication of the earlier one. I feel it shifts our understanding of the earlier one. But it is Ernst's analogy that I find interesting because I think film-makers, who deal so explicitly in a visual medium, do make hot pads out of kitchen knives. And that we love them for doing so. Let's call it a moment of misdirection.

[Spoiler alert! Skip the next two paragraphs if you haven't seen this movie.] In George Roy Hill's The Sting (1973), Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) concoct an elaborate con to fleece a Chicago mobster named Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) without his knowing he's been conned. In a minor scene Hill's narrative jumps back and forth between Gondorff and Hooker who are preparing for the big day in their separate ways. Hooker puts on his tuxedo, opens a dresser drawer, removes a handkerchief, and – oddly – puts his fingers in his mouth. He seems to be checking his teeth. My even bringing it up makes it more of a moment than it actually is, the kind of thing you see but don't see because it has no significance or context.

Later, they pull the con, but things go awry. The best laid plans, etc. Gondorff realizes that Hooker is in cahoots with Lonnegan and has betrayed him. The cops bust in. Hooker is shot, and falls dead, blood spilling from his mouth. Lonnegan is hurried from the scene so that he is neither involved nor caught, but he has to leave his money. When the coast is clear, lo and behold, Hooker gets up and spits out two false blood packs, the items he inserted in his mouth in the earlier scene. Gondorff laughs and they escape with Lonnegan's money.

What happens here is typical of modern heist, con, and caper films in general. The general plot follows a pattern: thieves make an elaborate plan and set plan in motion; something goes wrong (a woman is often involved) and thieves must improvise; the improvisation works but with twists. In the end it turns out the twists were anticipated and prepared for, and what's more the director shows you the preparation but because you don't know what you are seeing you tend to overlook it. In the end, the viewer gets a double pleasure. First, the pleasure of the satisfactory resolution of the plot. Second, the realization that the plot involved a clever sleight of hand, in full view but not recognized until the closure. This sleight of hand is a film version of the magician's use of misdirection, and George Roy Hill does it magnificently in The Sting, converting the insignificant to the critically meaningful. Looking back, one's impression of the critical moment changes – what originally looked like a mere kitchen knife turns out to be the hot pad.

Or take Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974). A surveillance expert named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired to record a conversation between a young man and woman (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) who are walking through a crowded public square. Caul gets his recording – it involves multiple mikes and a lot of careful editing – and hears the man utter the following whispered sentence: "He'd kill us if he got the chance." Despite his vow not to get personally involved in his assignments, Caul doesn't want to turn the tape over, worried about what might happen to the couple, but the tape is stolen (a woman is involved). Hoping to prevent a crime, Caul remembers a hotel room mentioned and checks into the one next door. He hears a murder committed.

In the end, the victim is not who Caul thought it was, and what's more the couple turn out not to be victims but something very different. When Caul gets to hear his tape again, we find out why. Coppola applies a kind of aural misdirection, changing the inflection of the words the second time we hear it. What was "He'd KILL us if he got the chance" becomes "He'd kill US if he got the chance." What was a kitchen knife has become a hot pad.

Perhaps the most explicit recent examples of the use of misdirection are Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) and David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001). When the studio released a DVD of Mulholland Dr., it included a list of ten clues to look for as you watch the movie. These clues are supposed to make your drive home happier because they'll give you a better chance of sorting out what you just saw – a narrative populated by images that don't mean what they appear to the first time you see them. Nolan's Memento, famously, is a story about a man named Leonard (Guy Pearce) with severe short-term memory damage – cannot remember what just happened a few minutes after it happens – who is trying to find the man who killed his wife. The narrative is structured in reverse, so that you see the final scene first, etc. The brilliance of this is that it unites, to a certain extent, the experience of the main character with the experience of the audience. Watching the opening moments of the movie, the culmination of the movie's plot, we don't have a clue what happened before. But mixed into this is that even as we gain information, conclusions we have recently drawn must be revised as new information is delivered. Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) has a scene in which we find her bleeding, claiming she's been attacked, and demanding that Leonard help her. In the next scene (which precedes the previous one in time), it turns out that she has staged the injuries, then sits back waiting for Leonard to forget what has happened so she can blame her boyfriend.

(Although the visual element of film intensifies the use of misdirection, it is not exclusive to film. Ian McEwan's Atonement has a spectacular moment not unlike what I'm describing here.)

What I like about this is the transformation of the film-goer's experience. First it's one thing, then another. But my appreciation of it requires a certain willingness to grant the director the license to shift reality on the fly. I expect it to be done craftily and, in retrospect, coherently. With Radford, I wonder if my interpretation of the "false report" ring-for-monkey trade scene grants the director too much license. Could he have more clearly established the speculative nature of the intercut scene? Probably.

With Shakespeare, directors are often piecing together the narrative visually as much as with the text, especially because they are so liberally cutting the text. Branagh's inserted sex scene between Ophelia and Hamlet shapes the tone of their "are you honest" scene (interesting because he doesn't do any text cutting at all). Taymor's Titus (1999) begins with a really kooky framing device in which modern troops rush into a kitchen, terrorizing a boy having breakfast. The film seems to be viewed through the eyes of this boy, and he even moves from his 20th-century medium to assume a role with in the story. While her technique is not misdirection it does ask the viewer to see the story from two perspectives, one as a straight narrative, one as an outsider looking in and trying synthesize the context of Titus with the events of our own world (Bosnia?).

Baz Luhrmann uses frequent flash-forwards in William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, a technique that amplifies the play's concern with Fate because he's showing you pieces of the story's outcome in advance. The uninitiated viewer – if there is one – will see these scenes (Romeo walking toward Juliet's bier, for example) as mysterious, only later realizing both their significance within the linear narrative and their significance as intercut non-linear scenes (why did we see that when Romeo agreed to marry Juliet?).

I am young enough in my experience of Shakespeare that I approach aggressive interpretation with a rather callow appreciation. I like the cleverness of making Shakespeare's play do this or that. Loncraine's Richard III with Ian McKellan sets the play in an imagined 20th-century fascist England. Luhrmann transplants Romeo and Juliet to "Verona Beach," a modern heavily Hispanic Miami-like place, and infuses the play with a lot of Catholic imagery. Branagh turns Love's Labor's Lost into a 1930s Busby Berkeley/Cole Porter musical. These are fun, but even though they retain Shakespeare's language they border on the adaptative. And as such, they heavily rely on directorial license both with Shakespeare and our expectations. As a result, when I watch one of these films, I find myself reading the film's "text" as much as Shakespeare's. And the two are very different.

Perhaps as an interlude, at some future date, we could all toss out our vote for favorite filmed Shakespeare. I would be curious what each of us is drawn to. Welles? Branagh? Olivier? Zeffirelli? Lloyd Kaufman?


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