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The Film’s the Thing: Shakespeare on Film

When MoPA asked me if I'd be interested in doing a Shakespeare film series, I leapt at the opportunity. This has been a dream of mine for years. My parents began taking me to see Shakespeare from the age of six (three plays a summer at the Old Globe Theatre ) and one of my favorite games was a Shakespeare board game where I had to memorize quotes from the plays to advance (my parents believed in games where if I cheated at least I learned something). The only problem with doing a Shakespeare film series is what to pick? There are so many films to choose from. I was told that I could choose only four films, so I decided to select ones that reveal the diversity of whats out there. I have foreign and American, period and contemporary settings, conventional and radical approaches. My request to MoPA, though, was could we please make this an annual event to follow the Globe's summer Shakespeare plays? I'll have to see if there are enough people out there who share my passion for Shakespeare on the screen.

Another attraction for doing this series is the educational component. I was shocked to discover last year that Shakespeare had been removed from my sons curriculum. So I was thrilled when MoPA said their program would include an outreach program to bring hundreds of students into MoPA to see Shakespeare on the big screen. The goal of the educational outreach is to provide students with a positive, exciting and accessible introduction to the Bard. To help achieve this, the San Diego Shakespeare Society is lending their support and will introduce students to the joys of performing Shakespeare by exposing them to the San Diego Student Shakespeare Festival, in which elementary through high school students act in scenes from the Bard.

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Claire Danes as Juliet in BazLuhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (20th Century Fox)

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I hope you will embrace the diversity and bold innovation of the Shakespeare film adaptations presented in The Films the Thing . These films blow the dust off Shakespeare and treat him like the vibrant, provocative artist that he is. Shakespeare wrote for the masses. His plays had to entertain the rich and the poor, the aristocrats and the uneducated. He had the gift of being able to please the crowds without sacrificing artistic ambition. If he were writing today, he'd probably be making movies and stirring the pot like this quartet of filmmakers. His genius is his ability to convey the human condition with such wit, humor, compassion and depth that every generation finds new shades of meaning in his plays. There are plenty of other films I would love to have included, but they will have to wait for another year. So here's the first of what I hope will be many seasons of Shakespeare on Screen.

William Shakespeares Romeo + Juliet (USA, 1996, 20th Century Fox)

120 minutes, color, PG-13

Guest speaker: actress Diane Venora (Gloria Capulet)

Director/writer: Baz Luhrmann; Writer: Craig Pearce; Cinematographer: Donald M. McAlpine; Composer: Nellee Hooper; Production designer: Catherine Martin; Editor: Jill Bilcock

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio/Romeo; Claire Danes/Juliet; John Leguizamo/Tybalt; Harold Perrineau/Mercutio; Pete Postlethwaite/Father Laurence; Paul Sorvino/Fulgencio Capulet; Diane Venora/Gloria Capulet; Paul Rudd/Dave Paris; Vondie Curtis-Hall/Captain Prince; Miriam Margolyes/The Nurse

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Leonardo Di Caprio as Romeo (20th Century Fox)

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Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene.

Set in the mean streets of Verona Beach, the Capulets and the Montagues have been recast as rival corporate dynasties trying to pass on generations of hate to their children.

Baz Luhrmann has his youthful cast deliver Shakespeare's lines as prose and sets his star-crossed lovers loose against an eye-popping collage of visual stimuli in which the church, the state and the media loom large. Leonardo DiCarprio's Romeo is James Dean, Kurt Cobain and Byron all rolled into one. Claire Dane's Juliet is a Catholic schoolgirl giddy with love. All of Luhrmann's artistic decisions are to illuminate the textnot to simplify but to make accessible. The thing I really set out to do, Luhrmann states in the press materials, is to smash what I call "Club Shakespeare," where you have to be a member to understand it. This man wrote this fantastic play so that everyone could understand it and that's really what we want to do, bring it back for everyone. Luhrmann's film pulses with an undeniable energy that captures the speed and intensity of the young lovers. In addition, he tweaks the ending to make the haste of their passions even more poignant.

Radiohead's Thom Yorke wrote the song "Exit Music (For A Film)" to close out this bold, stimulating update of Shakespeare's tragedy. (Admission to this film is free with paid admission to the museum.)

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Sir Ian McKellan as Richard III (MGM/UA)

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Richard III (England, 1995, United Artists)

104 minutes, color, R

Director/writer: Richard Loncraine; Writer: Ian McKellan; Cinematographer: Peter Biziou; Composer: Trevor Jones; Production designer: Tony Burrough; Editor: Paul Green

Cast: Ian McKellen/Richard III; Annette Bening/Queen Elizabeth; Jim Broadbent/Duke of Buckingham, Robert Downey Jr./ Lord Rivers, Nigel Hawthorne/George, Duke of Clarence, Kristin Scott Thomas/Lady Anne, John Wood/King Edward IV, Maggie Smith/ Duchess of York

I can smile. And murder while I smile.

Richard Loncraine's Richard III begins quietly as Richard's first victim has his last supper. Then a dog starts barking and in comes Richard III riding on a tank and we hear Richard's heavy breathing through the gas mask. He's breathing in the rhythm of blank verse. That's the kind of care Loncraine and actor-writer Sir Ian McKellan have taken with their adaptation of Richard III . They cut the text severely but with great care. The result is a Richard that clocks in at under two hours and moves with the rapid-fire speed of a 1930s Warner Brothers gangster film. The plays historical setting of the late 1400s has been moved up to the 1930s to make Richard a fascist dictator who rises to power by murdering all those who stand in his way. The updated setting turns this fifteenth century melodrama into a modern-day political thriller that resonates chillingly for contemporary audiences. As played by McKellen, Richard is a consummate actor who knows what role to assume, what props to use and what words and actions to employ to turn a scene to his best advantage. But while Richard deceives almost everyone around him, he never deceives himself, never loses sight of his true nature. He takes us into his confidence as well, working a strange spell. He takes such delight in his villainy that we're immediately riveted. Yet he stirs a paradoxical emotional response, making us feel simultaneously repelled and fascinated as we condemn and admire his abilities.

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Top of the world Ma! Richard III (MGM/UA)

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When I interviewed McKellan in 1995, he said, "It's always finding a balance between being aware of the beauty and the subtlety and the complications of Shakespeare's actual writing and the fact that he wrote in verse and, at the same time, holding true to his own instruction in Hamlet to 'speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you trippingly upon the tongue.' He doesn't want the actors to mouth the lines like the town crier, he wants them to achieve a level of reality and I think that that is the trick of Shakespeare acting, to be aware of the technicalities of the verse but not bother the audience with them."

Enjoy this delicious interpretation of one of Shakespeare's most fascinating villain.

Throne of Blood (Japan, 1957, Toho)

105 minutes, black and white, subtitled, unrated

Guest speaker: UCSD professor Stefan Tanaka

Director/writer/editor: Akira Kurosawa; Writer: Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni; Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai; Composer: Masaru Sato; Art directors: Yoshiro Muraki, Kohei Ezaki

Cast: Toshiro Mifune/ Washizu (Macbeth); Isuzu Yamada/ Lady Asaji Washizu (Lady Macbeth); Minoru Chiaki/ Yoshiaki Miki (Banquo); Takashi Shimura/Odagura; Akira Kubo/ Yoshiteru Miki (Fleance); Takamaru Sasaki/ Tsuzuki; Chieko Naniwa/Evil Spirit

Even the birds cry ominously.

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Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's adaptation of Macbeth (Janus Films)

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Although Throne of Blood translates Shakespeare's play into Japanese and transplants it to feudal Japan, filmmaker Akira Kurosawa keeps much of the imagery intact. Nature rises up against the deeds of Washizu/Macbeth; order turns to chaos; and blood remains a vivid symbol. Throne of Blood opens and closes in fog as if the heavy mist provided a secret portal, transporting the play from Scotland to Japan. Macbeth was reportedly Kurosawaa favorite Shakespeare play, and his film adaptation reveals how universal Shakespeare's themes are. The film's alternate title is Spiders Web Castle and that signals Kurosawa's particular take on Shakespeare's troubled protagonist. Kurosawa makes his Macbeth a man caught in a web of fate and unable to escape. Eschewing Shakespeare's language, Kurosawa often lets scenes play out with barely a word of dialogue. Instead of iambic pentameter, the rustling of Asajis/Lady Macbeth's silk robes or the thunder of hooves set the rhythms and pace of this tragedy. Kurosawa also employs elements of the stylized Japanese Noh Theater in bringing his Macbeth to life. He uses sparse staging and mask-like visages of the actors in interior scenes, and then contrasts this with frantic action outside. Macbeth is, after all, a study in contrasts. Macbeth acts on the witches prophecies, Banquo doesn't. The order of society contrasts with the chaos that reigns after Macbeth defies nature and kills the king.

A bit of trivia: Kurosawa wanted actor Toshiro Mifune to look genuinely scared in the final battle and achieved this by shooting real arrows at him. The scene was carefully choreographed and the Takada School of Archery provided the sharp-eyed archers. Kurosawa's use of a telephoto lens compresses the action so Mifune looks to be in even more danger than he was.

Throne of Blood would prove to be the first of Kurosawa's three Shakespeare adaptations. He turned Hamlet into a social melodrama in The Bad Sleep Well and made King Lear into Ran with sons instead of daughters.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (England/USA, 1990, Buena Vista)

117 minutes, color, PG

Director/writer: Tom Stoppard; Cinematographer: Peter Biziou; Composer: Stanley Myers; Production designer: Vaughan Edwards; Editor: Nicolas Gaster

Cast: Gary Oldman/Rosencrantz; Tim Roth/Guildenstern; Richard Dreyfuss/The Player; Iain Glen/Hamlet; Joanna Roth/Ophelia

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Tim Roth and Gary Oldman in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Buena Vista)

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Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect. You'd have a chance, at least. You could lie there thinking, "Well. At least I'm not dead."

Tom Stoppard's film version of his hit play opens with the music of Pink Floyd signaling the anachronistic slant he's about to take on the material. Stoppard, who has yet to direct again, says, "I directed it because I was the only one prepared to do violence to the text." He does make cuts and changes (most notably to some of the final lines of the play), but the high spirits and existential musings remain intact. At the time of the films release, some critics complained that it didnt work as a film because the central metaphor of the characters being off-stage has no equivalent in film where nothing is off-stage. But Stoppard simply extends his metaphorlife and the world are the stage presented in the film and poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still off in the wings, trying to puzzle things out. Gary Oldman and Tim Roth make these Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum characters entirely endearing and enchanting. Stoppard offers us Waiting for Godot filtered through Shakespeare and Laurel and Hardy. But ultimately, Shakespeare and Stoppard are asking similar questions about existence and mans place in the universe. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a work designed to play off of and illuminate Shakespeare's text. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to have as much understanding of Hamlet as a high schooler picking up the text for the first time. One of the joys of the film is the way it allows audiences to explore and revel in language. In the bonus features of the DVD, the actors reveal that they would rehearse scenes even after they had been shot just because it felt so good to let Stoppard's lines play trippingly upon the tongue.

For more information about the festival, call 619-238-7559 or go to www.mopa.org .

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