Richard III

(Richard Loncraine, UK/USA, 1995)


I really love it when literary-scene people decide that they want to make a few pronouncements about film. It happens a lot, since one of the chief prerequisites for getting a job as a film reviewer on certain major Australian newspapers and magazines these days is to be, it seems, an acclaimed novelist – if not exactly a proven film critic.


In a book of contemporary Australian essays of the mid ‘90s (Columbus’ Blindness, named after a superb piece by Delia Falconer), editor Cassandra Pybus waxed on about how wonderful it is to have our finest novelists, poets and cultural commentators writing down their musings on stuff like The Piano (1993) or even Jurassic Park (1993) – and, guess what, there were no bona fide film critics in that publication, either. I guess we humble cinephiles are just not considered essayists in certain hoity-toity circles, and certainly not public intellectuals, either – to cite another bandied-about term.


Well, look, I know that I shouldn’t be getting too territorial about these matters. I know there really isn’t a war going on between film and literature, or between strict film-people and strict lit-people. There are plenty of individuals who are equally into literature and film, and some of what they write is terrific; I loved Salman Rushdie’s small 1992 book on The Wizard of Oz (1939) for the British Film Institute Classics series, for instance. And maybe true-blood literary types groan when I presume to talk about books and writing now and again – even if I do consider myself, ultimately, a writer. But what the hell, this is my slot, and I’ll whine if I want to.


The main reason this literature vs film war is going around in my mind is because of two mid 1990s trends at the movies: the Jane Austen revival, and the Shakespeare revival. When these kinds of crazes happen, literature is always pitted against film in our public sphere. I’ve had to read so much garbage lately from non-film people about the Austen revival: how these recent films and TV events mark the desire of the mass audience to return to old-fashioned, character-based storytelling and fine, decent, moral values. That spiel makes me just want to return to another screening of Mission: Impossible (1996) immediately.


I’ll pull out, for your delectation, a quotation from one piece I stumbled upon lately – an article by Oliver MacDonagh [1924-2002] in the frightfully conservative magazine Quadrant (June 1996), titled “Words, Not Deeds” (that alone is enough to make me tremble!) – but it could just as well have been called “Words, Not Films”. This article is about the Austen craze, and it argues for the natural “superiority of the written word to films” in the pantheon of expressive arts. Yes, in 1996, the superiority of books over movies! Let us note, without prejudice, that the author was all of 72 when he committed himself to the publication of that opinion.


Anyhow, in the course of this ridiculous text, MacDonagh (a Professor of Irish History, no less, and author of Jane Austen: Real and Imagined Worlds [1993]) criticises films adapted from great novels on the following grounds: in movies, there is a “supposed need for movement, film angles and panoramic shots”.


Just take a moment to drink that in.


Now, this is pretty intense intellectual material I’m quoting here, so I hope you’re paying attention. Let me just reduce that statement to its most wonderful and most pertinent unit: in cinema, there is a supposed need for film angles. Well, yes, I will concede to my enemy that this is thought (“supposed”) to be generally needed – because if you don’t have a camera stationed somewhere, pointing at something (usually at an angle), you don’t have much of a film.


I’m being cruel. But the patent ignorance, laziness and gross pretension of some literary people when they squat down to pronounce about cinema is, really, a shameful spectacle that never ceases to amaze me. I hasten to add that it’s not just a high-literary thing: some notorious art critics in Australia (such as Giles Auty [1934-2020]) are equally unshy about saying that painting is in every way superior to the “photographic arts” like poor old film. And even an acclaimed young grunge novelist has argued (in a literary magazine) that the written word is far mightier than what he quaintly called “the electronic image” – and in that term he lumped together film, TV and anything coming out of a computer. Those dastardly electrons, flee them right away!


It’s not just a matter of these objectionable literary types fudging a few technical terms, or getting the names of famous screen actors and directors wrong (although god knows that happens often enough). And it’s not just the fact that many literary people talk about movies as if there was nothing going on in any film beyond the spectacle of actors walking around inside a story – with none of those pesky film angles intruding on their consciousness and getting in the way of a good time. It’s not just that these people appear to know so, so little about the history, aesthetics and theory of film – and act rather proud about their lack of nous in these areas (it’s the common man/woman posture of defence). After all, we’re dealing here with people who would truly like to believe the old adage that anyone can be a film critic. It’s the airy, general, “theoretical” comments about the comparative status (and nature) of books and films within culture that really get me foaming.


Well, anyway, à propos all these polemics and bad vibes, I coincidentally had a very disconcerting experience at the movies: I went along to see a new rendition of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Perhaps you’ve spotted the rather brash trailer: it’s a modernised version, set in a fantasy world that looks a bit like the real one in which the Nazis rose to power. So it’s a 20th century setting, with decadent parties, limousines, Tommy guns and great regal flags unfurling – as well as tanks crashing through parlour walls. I saw the trailer and thought to myself: well, maybe this is going to be alright.


I’m no purist when it comes to the literary classics, and a bit of good vulgar, showbiz energy is rarely lost on me. I’ve always believed that famous piece of advice offered by Orson Welles: any way you can play the classics that can make them work, that way is right. So I don’t care, at the outset, if it’s Shakespeare in a three-ring circus, or an African-American Shakespeare, or Shakespeare in cyberspace: bring it on, I say, and let’s see if the thing works, see if it flies. The contemporaneous screen version of Othello (1995) featuring Lawrence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagah, for instance, offers a bold, jagged proposition that I liked a great deal.


This Richard III, however, does not work. I hate it; it’s down there with Twister, Video Fool for Love and Up Close and Personal among the very worst movies of its year. The truly disconcerting part of watching this film wasn’t entirely or inherently due to the movie itself. Initially, I became surprised at my own, particular reaction to it; then I became increasingly alienated from everyone else in the theatre, who seemed to be gasping with wonder and delight at every second line reading. But before I get back to that alien crowd, let me describe my personal reaction.


About ten minutes in, a certain word was going around my brain like a mantra. A week ago, I would have sworn to you that this is a word I would never use as a critic in order to put a film down. The word is: kitsch. Even just the act of writing this word causes me to see, in the space before me, a great parade of solemn old men from the grey old worlds of high art and high literature. I see the art critic Clement Greenberg [1909-1994], the novelist Milan Kundera, and the ghost of another art critic, Peter Fuller [1947-1990], as well as some political philosophers of the Frankfurt school including Theodor Adorno. I hear, too, in my head, the endless, irritating, conservative prattle of all the local acolytes of these grey old men.


I don’t want to turn this into an episode of Meridian [a program on the same national radio station that hosted my mid ‘90s film reviews], but I do need to make my point clear. All those names mentioned above are figures who, at one time or another, have stated publicly their hatred of popular culture – and they do so by calling it kitsch. Plastic, soulless, vulgar, empty kitsch. I am not now, nor have I ever been, an enemy of popular culture or popular art. There are films that others would probably call kitsch that I definitely call art – like Brian De Palma’s œuvre, for starters. And there are self-consciously camp, kitschy films that I adore, like the work of John Waters. But, to tell the truth, I found myself sitting in a comfy picture theatre thinking: this Richard III is the biggest pile of kitsch I have ever seen in my life, and I don’t like it. As Kundera himself might well have said, it’s a veritable kingdom of kitsch.


There are a few simple, obvious things wrong with this movie. It aims for a certain rip-roaring, high-spirited, high-key energy. It doesn’t mess too much with Shakespeare’s text, but places it into hyper-drive. The classic old lines spin out of the actor’s mouths in crazy ways, at crazy moments, often as the performers are leaping in and out of cars or clearing their throats in front of a microphone, or whatever. Fair enough; that’s the stylistic challenge of this modernised version. But the effect is, more often than not, just a meaningless gabble. It’s not an energy wave of words and sounds like in Welles’ Shakespearian films. And there’s not the sort of rude, shocking clarity of meaning you get from Shakespeare’s words when they’re spoken in some off-centre way by Kenneth Branagh (in Othello, for instance).


At the centre of this version of Richard III is an incredibly energetic, committed performance from Ian McKellen as Richard. McKellen bounces around like a wizened old teenager, a teenager on speed, for the entire movie. (He reminded me a lot of Barry Otto in Barrie Kosky’s 1993 production of Faust I & II for the Melbourne Theatre Company.) I admire the energy of McKellen (who scripted this adaptation), but I feel sorry for him, put on display in this way in this terrible film. Some of the other actors hold their own with a bit more dignity: Nigel Hawthorne (from the TV series Yes Minister) has a good, serious soliloquy in the rain, next to some grey war bunker.


Annette Benning comes off much better than I expected in the role of Queen Elizabeth, with a real intensity and clarity. But Robert Downey Jr, the eternal fuzzy, manic, ad-libbing twenty-something actor, is just a shocking piece of miscasting. Downey falls about like he’s still trying to perfect his Charlie Chaplin schtick; he hollers his lines and wiggles his eyebrows furiously. Somebody’s got to get a restrainer onto this guy – that, or a careful, watchful director. Mercifully for us, Shakespeare decided well in advance of this production that Robert Downey’s character gets killed off pretty early in the piece.


But the actors, however good or bad they manage to be in these circumstances, are not responsible for that mammoth effect of kitsch. It happens that there’s another grey, old ghost, who I don’t like much, haunting this movie from first frame to last: the perennial upper-middlebrow and high-culture favourite, writer Dennis Potter [1935-1994]. Richard III’s director Richard Loncraine helmed Potter’s television piece Blade on the Feather (1980), as well as his insane Brimstone and Treacle (1982), starring Sting, for the big screen. The very premise or concept of Richard III – the mixture of Shakespeare with Nazi paraphernalia, and decadence of the jazz era, and the deadly machinations of the modern corporate boardroom – strikes me as a very Potterian idea. The fairly enduring appeal of Potter’s work to so many serious TV viewers (Alain Resnais included!) is a cultural mystery I may never understand; the cult has always alienated me.


Potter was a curious case in the attitude his works expressed towards popular culture: he hated it for all its emptiness and materialism and so on, and yet he drew upon it in an almost affectionate and indulgent way for all those songs, memories, tropes, stars, and even a touch (here and there) of folk wisdom. What emerged from that ambivalence in his work, in my view, was a particularly sticky and unbearable form of kitsch: he morally damned those little people whose lives were just kitsch, but meanwhile his own art reduced every damn thing to kitsch!


Richard III suffers from a similar kind of artistic hemorrhage: it boldly tries to connect Shakespeare’s drama up with the great dramas and power struggles of modern history; but, to do so, it has to reduce that modern history to a piddling set of kitschy tokens and signs.


Finally, this specific approach to playing Shakespeare reminded me of nothing so much as those human-interest items you see on the late-night news about modern education in America. I’m particularly remembering a story about an old guy who was teaching English literature in some hellish ghetto. He wanted to make Shakespeare and Dickens and all the usual canonical names relevant to his youngsters. And so he tried to retell the stories of these great plays and novels in rhyming rap, as he sat at his front desk. Let me tell you, this guy was no great rapper; and what those ghetto kids thought of him – and what they did to his good name after class – I shudder to imagine. But this kind of obsequious, fawning, half-hearted approach to transmitting the classics goes on all the time. Perhaps especially in some of the attempts to modernise them.


The celebrated American video artist Steve Fagin, on his visit to Australia, told me that the saddest trend in New York’s experimental theatre scene in the 1990s – referring to the productions of, for example, The Wooster Group – is that just about everyone in that world feels they have to do a modern, experimental version of some canonical classic: Shakespeare, Mozart, Chekhov or Dostoevsky. They take those works on vigorously – but also with a certain unmistakable reverence and caution. And what comes out as a result is works that are neither classical nor modern, respectful nor disrespectful – just some ridiculous blancmange in-between. And that’s exactly my problem with this Richard III.


If it was Shakespeare completely mulched up into a kinetic, bloody movie-drama of war and gangsters, I might be happy with it. And if it was pure Shakespeare just tweaked or inflected with the addition of some modern elements to bring something new or original in the text, I might well applaud that, too. But this film is a bad action-war-gangster drama, and it’s bad Shakespeare too. It’s a bad, bad film.


I haven’t forgotten that audience, the one I sat with while I had my awful experience at the movies. As I mentioned, they seemed to love Richard III, to just lap it up. Every time a familiar key line of Shakespeare’s text was spoken in some odd, emphatic way, I heard a frisson go through the hall, as if people were really admiring the hyper-theatrical, cheeky spin that the film was putting on it. Even at the most ludicrously kitschy moment – when McKellen dives out of a jeep, bombs going off all around him, and screams “My kingdom for a horse!” – even then, people were squealing with the delight of some recognition or thrill that was, frankly, unavailable to me.


And, at that point of my terrifying ordeal, I imagined – I have to say it – a whole theatre full of rapping English-literature teachers. I imagined they were thinking to themselves in complete self-satisfaction: Look at this, listen to this, the kids are just going to love this stuff – and they’ll really understand Shakespeare now, for the first time in their lives, because it’s oh-so relevant to their media-saturated, pop-culture lives.


That’s not literature or art or even cinema, anymore; it’s pedagogy – and a kitsch pedagogy, at that.


MORE Loncraine: Wimbledon

© Adrian Martin July 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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