Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Henry V - Beware the Babakitis

Shakespeare Film Buffs,

Derek and I have been participating in something we call "Monday Night Shakespeare," an attempt to watch a different Shakespeare film every Monday night. We've been going through productions of Henry V because that's what we're teaching right now and also it's what the William Shakespeare Experience is discussing. As Hannibal Smith used to say on The A-Team, "I love it when a plan comes together."

We started with the Olivier, the first notable Henry V on film. It was the second time I've seen it, but the first time I really understood its propagandistic qualities. I still think they're easy to overlook; Olivier chooses a pretty straight line through the play, and funding from the British Ministry of Information or not, I'll never be able to see the vain and idle and senile French as analogs for the Nazi threat. I also tire of Olivier's declamatory style a bit, although this may be largely due to the empathetic experience I have when I show scenes to my high school students who, reared in a more realistic film culture, struggle with Olivier's cartoonish colors, circus atmosphere, and persistent yelling of his lines. (One student compared Olivier's Henry to Errol Flynn's Robin Hood.)

Their discomfort grows when we juxtapose Olivier's yelling with Branagh's quiet intensity (watch both "tennis balls, my liege" scenes back-to-back). In many ways, I find Branagh's Henry V to be not only the best of Branagh's Shakespeare films but also one of the best Shakespeare films, period. (Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing might take the honor if it didn't feature the unfortunate Keanu Reeves.)

If you type "Henry V" into YouTube's search field, almost every result will be a scene from the Branagh: the tennis balls scene, the French court, and mostly the St. Crispin's Day speech. Branagh's eye throughout the film is firmly fixed on Shakespeare; he's not yet overwhelmed by his love of film and its history and the fanciful visions it can realize as he is with Love's Labor's Lost and As You Like It. Even his Hamlet, which I love, is largely homage to the power of film ― that palace hall with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, Polonius's antechamber with his curtained bed in which hides his mistress, the padded room for the crazy Ophelia (there's a padded room at Blenheim?), the vasty fields of Denmark where Hamlet watches Fortinbras's troops pass, the actual graveyard (not one, but five skulls!), Fortinbras's troops surrounding Elsinore. Such vistas! Such scope! Such cinematography! It's like Dr. Zhivago in iambic pentameter!

Branagh's Henry V is quieter, understated, heroic but full of complex character. He should watch it every week before he makes his next movie. And I'd ask Peter Babakitis to do the same. Peter: watch the Branagh! Learn a little something about both film-making and Shakespeare.

You probably haven't heard of Peter Babakitis. I hadn't either until last fall when I was doing my annual scope for new Shakespeare films. As a completist, I try to keep my collection up to date. So the presence of a new Shakespearean history play on DVD was intriguing. I found a comment from Babakitis, who wanted to promote his film through a series of school visits and discussions and sent out a statement about his vision for the play, writing: "I was attracted by this play because I thought it would be fascinating to get into the mind of this rather cold-blooded killer who believes he's doing God's work … Shakespeare gives us a sinister underside to the glory of conquest; an aspect of the play that I thought was lacking in other productions that I've seen."

This places the Babakitis at a far end of Derek's dichotomous scale, occupied at the other end by Olivier's hero king. Branagh lives in the middle with his more nuanced, realistic portrayal. Babakitis seeks to round out the portrayals, telling us he envisions Henry as a "cold-blooded killer" and subtitling his DVD with the tagline, "Warrior. Champion. Terrorist. King."

Terrorist? Really? Derek and I watched with great anticipation. Would this interpretation be imposed on the text? Or would Babakitis have unearthed lines and readings that would reveal the darker side of warcraft and Henry's character?

Well, it turns out that what Babakitis means by "terrorist" is that he will take you, the viewer, and subject you to probably unlawful acts of interpretive violence and so-called film-making. It's not Henry who's the terrorist; it's Babakitis.

For one, it's difficult to articulate fully the great talent actors bring to Shakespeare's language and to creating consistent characters until you're face to face with those who don't. All those words! They're really important! People might not get it. Babakitis attempts to add significance to Shakespeare's language (because most of the actors don't) by recording all of it in an echo chamber. Or his basement. Not sure which. The result for us was a stupefying effect, first characterized by stunned disbelief, then eventually drowned out by both Derek and I intoning "please, make it stop!"

In addition, at some point Babakitis must have worried that his audience would be bored by simply watching these characters stand around and talk, even with their echo-y voices. So he applied some super neat computer digital effects. Scenes change color as the camera cuts from speaker to speaker. The echo effect drops out and/or intensifies within scenes. Occasionally he throws in a weird posterizing effect. Add a punk girl playing Chorus who seems to drift randomly through geographic regions and structures that have nothing to do with the play. And salt with relentless close-ups of Babakitis's seemingly disembodied head speaking lines, lines, lines that must have serious meaning, meaning, meaning about something, thing, thing.

Finally, the interpretation meant to reveal the "sinister underside to the glory of conquest" never really materializes. Instead the film reveals the sinister effect of shooting a film at your local park, enjoining your friends to play major characters, and then spending hours at your computer gluing the whole thing together in iMovie. O brave new world that has such creatures in it!

On the back of my DVD, Sarah Hatchuel is quoted as saying "Peter Babakitis's Henry V … occupies a distinctive place in Shakespearean film-making." Yes it does; it is the worst version of Shakespeare on screen I have ever seen. And to put that in some context, I actually possess a number of Shakespeare porn films ― Hotel O, A Midsummer Night's Cream, Hamlet: For the Love of Ophelia. Not one of them is as unwatchable as Babakitis's Henry V.

O, for a muse of fire, with which to purge this film from my collection,

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