Romeo + Juliet
May 1, 2014
[Shakespeare Month Intro]
Oan: [reading the play] Two households, both alike in ... Ah, [puts down the book] Welcome to Brows Held High. We're going to be covering a wide range of movies in "Shakespeare Month," so let's start with something ... accessable, something wild, something fun, something light, something ... kind of stupid.
[Clip of the "trailer" from the beginning of the film]
Oan: Oh, so they put the trailer for the movie in the actual movie? How thoughtful of them.
Oan [v/o]: One of Shakespeare's most popular plays has always been "Romeo and Juliet" and arguably more than any other play, it has been quoted by ...
(Cut to a clip from The Wizard of Oz; the Tin Man sings "If I only Had a Heart")
Tin Man: (singing) Picture me a balcony, above where a voice sing low.
Female voice: (offscreen) Wherefore art thou, Romeo?
(Cut to clip from The Simpsons: "The Principal and the Pauper")
Lisa: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Bart: Not if you call 'em Stench Blossoms.
Homer: or Crap-Weeds.
(Cut to a clip from Twilight)
Edward: Seal with a righteous kiss, A dateless bargain to engrossing death.
Oan [v/o]: The story of two lovers caught between their feuding families is globally ubiquitous. It is the most frequently taught text in American high schools. Verona, Italy has a tourism trade based on visiting sites from the work. Even the name "Romeo" has became short-hand for "a man in love." Naturally, the play has been adapted into paintings, ballets, operas, and, of course, films. One of the most popular being ...
Oan: This one. Baz Luhrmann, you scamp.
[Cut to a photo of said person]
Oan [v/o]: So, Baz Luhrmann, The Boy from Baz, the Bazmanian Devil. [Showing the posters for Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, Australia, The Great Gatsby] The Australian director has only made five films in his career, but damn, if he hasn't done so with panache. After mild success with his first outing [Strictly Ballroom], he achieved his mainstream breakthrough with his utterly wonky-bonkers adaptation, "Romeo Plus Juliet."
Oan: When adapting Shakespeare, the inevitable decision every director has to make is "how much of the text do I use?" Use every line and the movie ends up four hours long. [Cut to poster of Hamlet (1996).] Hi, Kenneth Branagh. [Cut back to Oan] So, in order to make a serviceable movie, cuts have to be made. We'll see varying degrees of textual infidelity over the course of the month, but here, for this movie, it's notable for how faithful, almost fundamentalist, it is about the text itself.
Oan [v/o]: Even though it plays liberally with action, they make cuts here and there, but the words included are not to be touched.
Romeo: Here is my gold.
Oan [v/o]: My green papery gold.
Oan: The worst example of this - Elizabethan England had guns. Like, they knew what guns were. They had primitive firearms back then, Shakespeare knew what a gun was, he used the word "gun" in his plays in a modern context, and it's not entireably unreasonable to imagine a Shakespearean character wielding an early firearm. And yet ...
[Cut to a zoom-in extreme closeup shot of "Sword 9mm Series S" on Benvolio's gun.]
Benvolio: Put up your swords!
Oan: They label the guns "swords" so they don't have to say "guns." [cracks his knuckles because of how incredibly stupid that change was.]
Montague: Give me my long sword, ho!
Oan [v/o]: Stupidest goddamn thing. I've hated this movie for years purely on the basis on that one stupid decision.
Oan: [texting on his cellphone] Yah, just give me a minute to place my wax seal on this letter, so my courtier can send it. [Sends the message] Done.
Oan [v/o]: That said, the language is intact and the lovely poetry is, afterall, one of the main reasons why this play remains so beloved.
Romeo: The reason why I have to love thee doth much excuse the appertaining rage to such a greeting.
Oan: Such a shame that no one can actually say it.
Oan [v/o]: It is such a letdown. Almost every young actor delivers their lines as if they were asked to learn Ancient Sumerian phonetically.
Juliet: My only love sprung from my only hate.
Oan: Words words words. Words words words words words words words words.
Oan [v/o]: Which has always baffled me. They're speaking English. Aside from a few antique words and poetic rewordings, it is the same language I am speaking now.
Oan: "But Old English is hard," whined the straw-man commenter. Alright, so we're all in the same page, Old English sounds like this: [Oan recites a phrase in Old English. The text from "Beowulf" appears on the left screen.]
"Hwaet! We Gardena in geardagum, peodcyninga prym gefrunon!" [by the way, this editing feature doesn't include a special character feature, but what you see is what you get.]
Middle English sounds like this:
[Oan recites a phrase from Canterbury Tales. The text appears on the right screen.]
"Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote, The droughte of March hath perced to the roote."
And English, [exaggeratedly moving his lips] the language that I am speaking now, sounds like this:
"Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene."
Trailer voice: From ancient grudge doth break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
Oan [v/o]: The film's greatest failing is its two leads. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are such dull actors given lush words. There is a technique and cadence to it, but a good rule of thumb is to know what the hell you're saying. And they just don't know what they're saying.
Romeo: How sweet is love itself possessed when but love's shadows are so rich in joy!
Oan: [monotone voice] Saying things that are good because they are old.
Oan [v/o]: Well, sure, there are those who can say the lines. Miriam Margoyles can say them, Paul Sorvino can say them, Harold Parreneau can really say them, even Paul Rudd can say them, Pete Postlethwaite can sing them. John Leguizamo ...
Tybalt: Peace? Peace? I hate the word.
Oan [v/o]: [imitating Leguizamo's lisp] I am a ground sloth! [normal] And the rest sound like they're reciting contextless punchlines. The only time when they seem to know when to match the emotion to the word and the word to the emotion, IS WHEN THEY'RE SCREAMING THEM!!
[Montage of actors screaming their lines]
Romeo: I AM FORTUNE'S FOOL!
Juliet: ... SO LONG TO SPEAK, I LONG TO DIE!!
Romeo: ... I DEFY YOU, STARS!
Mercutio: ... IS SHE!!!
Romeo: GO WITH HIM!!
Prince: PUNISH THEM!!
Gregory: ... MOVES ME!!
Lady Capulet: JULIET!!
[Montage of more characters screaming, along with Captain Kirk yelling "Khha-a-a-an!" Fred Flintstone shouting "Wilma!" and a roaring Tyrannosaurus from Jurassic Park.]
Oan: And honestly, it kind of fits.
Oan [v/o]: At least with the tone they're going for. Hell, this movie made Queen Mab into a Quaalude. [Romeo takes the drug and sees a bunch of fireworks and dancing people in costumes]
[Cut to a clip from "The Wolf of Wall Street"]
Jordan Belfort: Xanax will take the edge off, pot to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine ... well, because it's awesome.
Romeo: Thy drugs are quick.
[Cut to a zanily edited party sequence]
Oan [v/o]: And so, the dialogue is drowned out by everything else. Luhrmann is mildly insane.
Lady Capulet: [extreme closeup of her mouth] JULIET!!! [fast paced editing of Lady Capulet spinning into the house.]
Oan: Zounds, is that shtick I espy?
Oan [v/o]: But, as phonetic as he can be, he's also an incredibly talented panderer. He knows his audience well: Teenagers.
Oan: And what do teenagers want? Validation, to feel like they're the smartest kids in the room. Plus, they're studying Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade English, so they'd probably rather watch a movie than read a book.
Oan [v/o]: Yes, you're learning Shakespeare, you smart, smart kids, you. Hey, kids, did you know that Romeo and Juliet is about love? [Lord Capulet dressed as Julius Caesar singing operatically "Amore, amore amore."] The man is not subtle. Orson Welles once said that we sit through Shakespeare just to recognize the quotation. This movie feels the same way. It's a Sparknotes-friendly rendition. Blah-blah-blah, boring stuff, boring stuff, IMPORTANT QUOTE, blah-blah-blah-blah.
Mercutio: A PLAGUE ON BOTH YOUR HOUSES!!!! [echoes]
Oan [v/o]: [faster tone] This is a very important quotation. Make sure you use it in your essays.
Oan: And honestly, fine ... It's not a terrible retelling of the story ... Well, it hits the beats ... Well, you can understand the words ... Actually, this makes no sense whatsoever.
[Cut to clips of Franco Zeffrelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968).]
Oan [v/o]: The story works thanks to its routes in the politics of the day. People swore fealty to houses and were willing and able to thanks to their lacks of constabulary, which would be an easy sitting for noble houses to allow ancient grudges to break to new mutiny. [Cut to Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet] But here, where the Montagues and Capulets are construction magnets or something, where their private parties are advertised on local news and potential suitors have their faces on TIME Magazine and their petty squabbles produced this?
News Anchor: [on TV] From ancient grudge break to new mutiny.
Oan: Hey, remember that time when Donald Trump's chauffeurs got into a knife fight with Warren Buffet's secretaries? Man, those Trump boys sure do know how to bite a thumb.
Oan [v/o]: The story doesn't quite work in a modern setting unless it's outside of the law. West Side Story got that. Geez, even Tromeo and Juliet got that. The setting feels more trendy and sensible, pandering to the times of the day.
Choir boys: [singing] ... Sounds like, when doves cry.
Oan [v/o]: Twentieth Century director, Harley Granville Barker, famously marked R and J with the elegant descriptor, "Tragedy of youth as youth sees it." The original story, Arthur Brook's "The Tragecall Historye of Romeus and Juliet," was a cautionary tale, warning of apparels for young foolish unchecked lust and disobeying parents. The lovers in Shakespeare's adaptation are also foolish, but he asks us to see the world as they saw it.
Oan: Shakespeare rites to the places and the minds of those young lovers. Minds where love is deep and seeming eternally, where ancient conflicts seem petty and absurd, where authority figures are, at worst, oppressor and, at best, incompetent. No wonder it's taught to high school kids.
Oan [v/o]: As for this movie, in 1996, this was youth as youth saw itself. "Romeo plus Juliet" was born at a time when demographic focusing was intense in Hollywood movies. It catered to 90's teenagers and the world they saw it. A world informed by MTV and Nickelodeon and American surfing parlance.
Oan [v/o]: Luhrmann is doing his damnest to convince the kids of the day that the story is still relevant.
Oan: [smooth] Hey, kid from the nineties. I know it must be tough hiding from your parents, listening to Radiohead, and reciting your own poetry. But, you know who also hid from his parents, listened to Radiohead, and recited his own poetry? Romeo, that's who.
Oan [v/o]: I'm sure this felt necessary at the time, filtering through the trends of the mid-nineties. And so, we have our Romeo and Juliet where the Capulets versus Montagues became El Mariachi versus the Burger King Kids Club. [Cut to the funeral scene] All that said, there are many touches to admire in this film. The cinematography for one, like I love this shot; this is the movie in a nutshell. Neon on candlelight. Early modern through kitch. And let's face it, Luhrmann knows how to stage a scene.
[Cut to a scene where Samson shoots at a sign in a gas station in the beginning of the movie. As he shoots it, goofy slider whistles plays.]
Oan [v/o]: Alright, amending that. [Cut to balcony scene] Luhrmann knows how to stage a scene, unexpectedly. He knows that the story's been done countless times and knows people's expectations. Everyone knows that Romeo and Juliet speak to each other separated by a balcony. So, he brings them together, replacing their chaste distance with erotic proximity, and toss them into a pool. Okay fine. Well, actually, there's a lot of water imagery, fitting too. It is an erotic element. Sex is afterall fluid exchange. Or, less dirtily, perhaps it's just a visual expansion of Juliet's promise that "her [my] bounty is as boundless as the sea, her [my] love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite." And this scene [Where Romeo and Juliet flirt at each other through a fish tank] I simply think it's genuinely brilliant. Seeing each other through water, each refracted in each other's eyes, made much deeper and more beautiful by their young eyes. It's a perfect visual metaphor for depth and naivety of first love.
Oan: It's such a shame we had to go through all this nonsense first.
[Cut to the same scene with Samson shooting the gas station sign.]
Oan [v/o]: It is a deeply flawed movie, though a depthly made flawed movie. Maybe more clever than smart, but serviceable to it's audience. But that audience of people who were teenagers in the nineties will only dwindle in time. So, I wonder how well this will age. Even almost twenty years on, the dust appears to be showing. Still, I won't say it isn't fun. At least.
Oan: After all, for never was a story of more "Whoa!" Than this of Juliet and her Romeo. [pause] I am so much better than that last line. Jesus Christ.