The Bard Is Dead 400 Years: Shakespeare and Academe

Too late, Will. Your curse already worked on me. I have no PhD. Now I get to play “Bohemian Rhapsody” on your bones.

 

According to one internet source, the word “academe” was invented (or first written down, depending on your perspective on what “word invention” may mean)  by Shakespeare. Here’s a story from my own adventures in academe that demonstrates how investing such a vast quantity of cultural import in one author shuts out voices and depletes the quality of our art.

In this anecdote, the voice that got shut out was me. (That’s probably why I remember this moment so vividly. You can add “spiteful” to the list of all the awful things I am.) The year was 2001. I’d just started my PhD program, and the year before, Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet came out in theaters.

Anyone remember Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet? No? Well, maybe you know it better as the Ethan Hawke Hamlet.

So deep.

Yes, this version of Hamlet was all the rage, both in critical and academic circles. Rolling Stone called it “a visual knockout that sets the Bard’s words against striking images.” (One of the visual knockouts they mention: “to be or not to be” happens in a video store. Wow, that’ll never not be profound!) The New York Times calls the movie “voluptuous and rewarding,” claims it “makes the best use of the Guggenheim Museum you’ll ever see in a film” and that “Mr. Almereyda has created a new standard for adaptations of Shakespeare.” Okay then.

You get the idea, right, Fickle Readers? Almereyda’s Hamlet is the hottest Shakespearean shit ever to land on Hollywood. Curious, since Rotten Tomatoes now gives the film a 55% rating (which translates to “rotten”). Their Critical Consensus blurb sums up the movie as “stiff performances fail to produce any tension onscreen.” Pretty low marks for a new standard, huh?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re still in 2001. Large populations of professional analysts of culture are peeing themselves in praise of this film. I can attest to the scholarly reception at the time because I remember discussing the film in one of the first courses I took in my PhD program. In fact, we had a special speaker that day to tell us about the many ingenious ways that Almereyda used the spectacle of consumerism to illuminate the emptiness of the corporate world. This speaker was especially fascinated by a moment when the ghost of Hamlet’s father walks through a corridor in a building and then seems to dissolve into a Pepsi machine (a shot that other critics have noted). She dissected the image enthusiastically, holding it up as innovative commentary on modern society. I thought it looked like product placement. And I said so, albeit in the form of what I thought was a diplomatic question: Product placement is everywhere in movies. How are we supposed to tell what’s a thoughtful aesthetic statement and what’s a somewhat sophisticated way of squeezing yet another ad into a film?

The woman must have thought I was an idiot. I’m not sure she really answered my question, either, as she brushed me off. She definitely didn’t look me in the eye. The expression on her face was reminiscent of someone trying not to notice a distant relation who came to a wedding in a see-through cocktail dress.

If you’re curious as to what the intelligentsia has had to say about Almereyda’s film, here is a PDF file on Brooklyn College’s web site that makes a similar case about all the brilliant bells and whistles Almereyda includes in the movie. I have no idea when this document was posted. I have no idea if any literature, film, or media scholars out there are still avidly watching this movie for its “visual energy,” its “use of mirrors, screens, windows, and natural reflective surfaces,” or the grave digger humming “All Along the Watchtower.” (I don’t have to comment on how no one in the TV industry or Hollywood ever uses that song, do I?) I’m guessing everyone has moved on. Especially when even watching bits of the film now is enough to give a person a full-on poseur headache.

But hey, it’s Shakespeare, right? All those ham-fistedly artsy video clips made with a Fisher Price Pixelvision camera must have been worthy of countless hours of study time. It’s an adaptation of Hamlet, by gum! That means no matter how wooden or god-awful the acting, we’re not going to acknowledge it because any unique little twist on Shakespeare’s vision should be slaveringly admired! Viva the Bard!!!

This guy would definitely approve.

Granted, I’m not being entirely fair here to the fawning critics of 2000. Any film can fail to outlive its historical moment. No one at the time expected that video stores would be gone in ten years. Or that CGI and digital film technology would become so powerful and widely used that you couldn’t rely on the lasting influence of your knockout visuals. Still, it’s puzzling that droves of academic professionals and media critics would lavish such eloquent praise on what is a fairly mediocre, style-over-substance offering. Have these people no understanding of the basic elements of good filmmaking, you might ask? Have they no standards?

Of course they do. It’s just that when Shakespeare enters the picture, he always comes trailing a cloud of prestige. Many critics and academics have been trained to respond to the kind of cachet that a Shakespearean text adds to a work of art, be it film, novel, or theatrical performance. So engrained in our cultural perception is our belief in the prima face merit of Shakespeare that we can overlook countless original narratives by new or unknown artists so we can study the latest vaguely competent go-round with the melancholy Dane.

Don’t we, as writers and readers, deserve a teensy bit better after 400 years?

If you want to talk about it, I’ll be the one by the cash bar in the skimpy, red dress that barely covers my nipples.

The 2015 Oscars: Hoorah for the Status Quo!

Okay, Academy Awards, I think I’ve finally figured out how you guys operate. It’s not about substance: it’s the presentation that counts. It’s okay to be the biggest celebration of rich white men this side of the Republican National Convention if you let other folks be presenters and sit in the theater. It’s okay to distribute exorbitantly priced gift bags to astoundingly wealthy people if the host jokes about it. It’s okay to show a bevy of women beaming supportively at their award-nominated men (and have shots of more women left behind while said men collect their awards) as long as you let one actress give a speech about how important motherhood and equal pay are. It’s okay not to nominate any actors from, or the director of, a film about the Civil Rights Movement as long as you give that film the award for best song (and a platform for the best acceptance speeches of the evening, but you don’t get credit for that one). It’s okay to have a known domestic abuser present the award for Best Picture as long as the movie (about an aging, once-famous white man becoming famous again) has a Mexican director. And it’s okay to go back to picking the usual White Man’s Epic every year (okay, okay–we might be shifting genres since “The English Patient,” “Braveheart,” and “Gladiator” won) as long as you break the pattern with something like “12 Years a Slave” every once in a while.

I gotcha, Hollywood. Thanks for helping me see the light. (And for helping me spend an evening sitting on the couch playing games on my Kindle. Luckily, I got to sit beside my husband the whole time.) Hopefully the next time I pay attention to the Oscars–maybe in ten years or so?–enough of the (ahem) old voters will have stepped aside to let new voices weigh in on what makes a truly great movie. Then again, power does tend to hang on til the very end, doesn’t it?

(And just in case you Fickle Readers out there think I’m being overly sensitive about all this? Take a look at this collection of anonymous interviews with Academy members about their Oscar ballots and see for yourself how “unbiased” members really are. It’s awfully entertaining, especially if you like seeing people try to rationalize the blatantly arbitrary. Also, have fun finding the many ways interviewees deploy the “we’re not racist, but” argument against the movie Selma.)

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: The Daily Show Edition

Jon Stewart to Steve Carell, during their “fawn-off” on last night’s Daily Show. Stewart is talking about Carell’s performance in his new movie “Foxcatcher.”

Your acting…Shakespeare, from the grave, got an erection watching your movie.

Didn’t realize the Telluride Film Festival provides live-streaming services to seventeenth-century gravesites. I guess you learn something new every day.

Mighty Tiny Bill adds, “Gentlemen, kindly restrain yourselves from surveying the contents of my codpiece.”

My Life on Lupus: Perpetual Insomniac

If you knew what time it was, you’d know that I shouldn’t be awake writing this. My sleep schedule is a mess. Somehow, unless I’m about to pass out from fatigue, I always get a surge of anxiety right when my head hits the pillow. I’ve heard tell that anxiety and lupus fatigue go together sometimes. I believe it.

Or maybe I’m just a workaholic. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to organize my life better. I’ve always kept track of my appointment schedules in my head, but now that I’m an Old Coot (and don’t sleep particularly well, either), I’ve been messing things up, forgetting what I’m supposed to do, angsting about all the things I must do, and then playing stupid computer games long into the night, until all my tasks sink into oblivion. If I go to sleep without my daily hit of oblivion, the anxiety rears its ugly head. All I have to do. All I haven’t done with my life. All I should be doing to, say, get a work-at-home job. All I must be doing to take care of myself. Must, must, must. It’s a painful thing.

Then, there are the times when my body aches all over. My calves, my ankles, my elbows, my wrists. The tendons in my knees feel like little gnomes are pinching the hell out of them. My feet are especially susceptible. I have bumps and lumps that gnaw. My arches are almost always little beds of fiery pain. There’s bursitis in my hips, too. Consarnit. I hate sounding like an 80-year-old woman.

Then there’s the ruminating, and the weighing. The wondering if I should take an extra anti-anxiety pill, but will that make me foggy tomorrow? Or a drug-dependent freak?

In my ruminating moods, I get hung up on morbid topics. Recently, I watched the documentary “There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane,” about Diane Schuler, the Perfect Mom and well-respected executive at a cable company who in 2009 drove 70 miles per hour the wrong way up the Taconic State Parkway, crashed head-on into an SUV, and killed herself, her 2-year-old daughter, her three nieces, all of whom were under age 9, and the three men in the SUV she collided with. No one knew what happened until the toxicology report came back: she had the equivalent of ten drinks in her system as well as THC, the active ingredient in pot. Her husband flat-out said this was untrue and that the lab made a mistake, but an independent lab test that he himself authorized showed the same thing. The story is chilling. No one knows what the hell happened, why this Perfect Mom drank and smoked pot with her kids in the car. By the time she was driving herself and a van full of children to their deaths, she was probably operating under some drug-induced blackout. But we’ll probably never know the answer. I want to know the answer. I’ve been thinking about this for days.

Why does this matter now, six years after the event? Because my brain latched onto it and won’t let go. Because I’d rather think about someone else’s horrible trauma than ponder my own existence, sitting at home most days, sick half the time, trying to find a way to get myself a telecommuting job I won’t hate. Must get myself out there. Must start writing more. Must be a good mother and wife. Must clean my house, which now has one or more mice skittering around in it. Must, must, must.

 

Good Multimedia Break: Wonder Woman Edition

You know, there’s a lot of good writing out there. So much, in fact, that often as a reader I feel inundated. Long ago I’ve given up catching up in the writing world (okay, I have a twinge of jealousy every now and again, but then my body craps out on me and I sleep for three days). But reading, hey–I can do that with hardly any effort, right?

Hah! says the Internet. Hahahahahahaha–I think I just peed my Virtual Pants a little bit. And we’re not even talking about the laff riot that printed books, ebooks, and Amazon are having, individually and as a loosely affiliated media conglomerate.

Okay, so reading all the good stuff out there is Nigh Unto Impossible, probably even more Nigh than keeping up with the accomplishments of writers that clamber like ants all over the face of the world. Every once in a while, though, you do get to read a piece that is mind-blowing (in a humbling sense, not in the typical Internet content-mill sense of “40 Ways Toasting Bread Will Blow Your Mind). These are works that not only open eyes but crack open the universe. And, I’m pleased to report, that today’s stunning piece of writing takes as its subject that most dreadfully neglected of superheroes, Wonder Woman.

Now, I gotta admit, I myself have been a tad irked by Wonder Woman in the past. I grew up in the 1970s watching Lynda Carter play Wonder Woman on TV, and I loved her, loved Diana, loved dressing up in my Wonder Woman Underoos with a piece of sparkly rope and a Burger King cardstock crown that my mom cut up to resemble Wonder Woman’s tiara. (Yes, I have pictures of me in my Wonder Woman “costume.” No, you can’t see them.) I loved Wonder Woman with the innocent narcissism of a little middle-class white girl who looked at Carter and thought, “Yes! The only girl superhero on TV isn’t a blonde! Brown hair rules!!!” And yet later, when I started understanding a little more about the way women are portrayed in the media, and I took a closer look at Wonder Woman’s magic jewelry, skimpy outfit, truth lasso (the hell??), and crummy villains made for a “girl” to fight (yeah, that Egg Fu, what man apart from all of them could crack him open), I became, shall we say, disenchanted with the crime fighter from Paradise Island. She became an embarrassment, yet another vision of the perfect woman created by men, a cause of that queasy feeling you only get in the presence of something once adored by a younger, half-rejected version of yourself.

I will also admit that recently I’ve been coming to terms with my feelings for Wonder Woman. A terrific geek-girl band (yes, world, geek girls DO exist!!!) called the Doubleclicks came out with a tribute song called “Wonder” that always brings a tear to my eye, so perfectly does the song capture the superhero sentimentality that Five for Fighting and Crash Test Dummies, among others, gave to Superman.

And now, we have Jill Lepore’s article “The Last Amazon”.

Man, does this piece of reporting deliver.

Not only does Lepore examine Wonder Woman’s unusual beginnings in the mind of a polyamorous, women’s-rights-espousing male psychologist in the 1940s, not only does Lepore follow the line of inspiration back to famous first-wave feminists like Margaret Sanger, Lepore manages to work in little nuggets of pure-gold irony like this:

Last December, Warner Bros. announced that Wonder Woman would have a role in an upcoming Superman-and-Batman film, and that, in a three-movie deal, Gal Gadot, a lithe Israeli model, had signed on to play the part. There followed a flurry of comments about her anatomical insufficiency for the role.

“It’s been said that you’re too skinny,” an interviewer told Gadot on Israeli television. “Wonder Woman is large-breasted.”

“Wonder Woman is Amazonian,” Gadot said, smiling coyly. “And historically accurate Amazonian women actually had only one breast.” (They cut off the other one, the better to wield a bow.)

And this:

The modern woman, Crystal Eastman explained in The Nation, “wants some means of self-expression, perhaps, some way of satisfying her personal ambitions. But she wants a husband, home and children, too. How to reconcile these two desires in real life, that is the question.” You can find more or less the very same article in almost any magazine today—think of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”—which is a measure of just how poorly this question has been addressed. A century ago, though, it was new. Between 1910 and 1920, Virginia MacMakin Collier reported in 1926, in “Marriage and Careers,” the percentage of married women working had nearly doubled, and the number of married women in the professions had risen by forty per cent. “The question, therefore, is no longer, should women combine marriage with careers, but how?”

Here’s how. Marston [Wonder Woman’s creator] would have two wives. Holloway could have her career. Byrne would raise the children. No one else need ever know.

And this:

In the spring of 1942, Gaines [publisher of Wonder Woman] included a one-page questionnaire in All-Star Comics. “Should WONDER WOMAN be allowed, even though a woman, to become a member of the Justice Society?” Of the first eighteen hundred and one questionnaires returned, twelve hundred and sixty-five boys and three hundred and thirty-three girls said yes; a hundred and ninety-seven boys, and just six girls, said no. Wonder Woman joined the Justice Society. She was the only woman. Gardner Fox, who wrote the Justice Society stories, made her the society’s secretary. In the summer of 1942, when all the male superheroes head off to war, Wonder Woman stays behind to answer the mail. “Good luck boys,” she calls out to them. “I wish I could be going with you!” Marston was furious.

And, oh, yeah, this:

Marston died in 1947. “Hire me,” Holloway [Marston’s official wife] wrote to DC Comics. Instead, DC hired Robert Kanigher, and Wonder Woman followed the hundreds of thousands of American women workers who, when peace came, were told that their labor threatened the stability of the nation. Kanigher made Wonder Woman a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She gave advice to the lovelorn, as the author of a lonely-hearts newspaper advice column. Her new writer also abandoned a regular feature, “The Wonder Women of History”—a four-page centerfold in every issue, containing a biography of a woman of achievement. He replaced it with a series about weddings, called “Marriage à la Mode.”

“The Last Amazon” is a long article, but an important one. Read it before the Subscription techies at the New Yorker stuff it behind a firewall. Afterward, feel free to get all nostalgic for the gains in women’s lives that were dreamed of but never happened, or that happened but didn’t stick. Then listen to the Doubleclicks and remember to hang on to a little of that queasy, kid-like hope, that awe for the marvelous being who, every once in a while, resembles you.

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: The Pam Smart Edition

Even when I ought to be going to bed, I just can’t escape the lure of Shakespeare…

…and apparently, neither can the folks who created Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, a new HBO documentary that examines how media intrusion may have interfered with justice in one of the first trials in history that became a gavel-to-gavel reality TV spectacle. Here are two mega-humdinger passages where Shakespeare pops up, one from the film itself:

“At its highest level, you have competing Shakespeares portraying characters in stories that may or may not be true. And of course, justice might miscarry if we wanted the defendant to be something maybe different from what she is.”

–Richard Sherwin, Professor of Law, New York Law School, speaking about testimony in the Smart case

and one in the intro to a Salon interview with Jeremiah Zagar, director of Captivated:

Zagar…told Salon that he hadn’t been interested in crime stories before getting hired to make the film–and that he sees the story as about more than guilt or innocence. “I’m interested in the trial as a narrative device, as a way of telling a story,” he said, “And the story that was most convincing was that [Smart] was a Lady Macbeth.”

To me, the greatest of ironies in both of these quotes is that, whether or not you think that Smart paid her then-teenaged lover and his friends to kill her husband, the speakers use Shakespeare as a shorthand for “virtuoso performance”–even though the reality of Shakespeare doesn’t sync up with the meaning they’re attaching to performer or text. Sherwin’s “competing Shakespeares” might emphasize how much all the participants in the trial, from the lawyers to the witnesses, were putting on the greatest show of their lives. But “characters in stories that may or may not be true”? Since when is Shakespeare, in text or performance, supposed to represent fact? How about never. Shakespeare wrote plays. His audiences knew that. The fact that Sherwin can so easily see Shakespeares in court proceedings should tell you how completely screwed up the Smart trial was, and maybe how broken the U.S. justice system is in general. Ideally, you would have zero Shakespeares in a courtroom, because Shakespeare never tells the truth, at least not in the sense of unvarnished, unperjured reality. In the sense of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Am I right, America? Shakespeare is entertainment–we can all agree on that, yes? Anyone? Or am I just a sentimental twit?

Yeah, I was afraid of that…

On to quote #2: Pam Smart as Lady Macbeth. I’ll give you that the viewing public probably did want a Lady Macbeth on their TV screens. But it may be wise to point out at the same time that Lady Macbeth did not murder her husband. No, despite being one of the greatest villainesses of literary history, Lady M was not a seductress or a femme fatale in any conventional sense. In the play, she encourages her husband to kill the King of Scotland and take the throne for himself, a rather unfeminine scheme concocted by a woman with a famously “masculine” desire for power. (In fact, Lady Macbeth is so unladylike, she even has a monologue where she begs the gods to “unsex” her–that is, take away her nurturing female qualities–so that she can help her husband kill the king.) Pam Smart, on the other hand, was supposed to be a vixen who used her feminine wiles to lure a pack of innocent teens to commit heinous acts on behalf of her terrifying, insatiable lust. Or something like that.

No, the analogy doesn’t make any sense, but it’s Shakespeare, and if Shakespeare made a really, really bad woman, then she must be the model to fit our murderess, because Shakespeare was the greatest, by gum! And if all of us Shakespeare-obsessed types got a nickel for every time a Shakespeare play was misapplied to some real-life situation, a lot of Ren faire-loving English nerds would be swimming in a crapload of nickels. Because Shakespeare is so heavily ingrained in our culture that whenever a female murderer is in the news, there’s always going to be some talking head out there who gets the brilliant idea to spice up his newscast by waxing philosophical about Lady Macbeth.

Damn You, Ironyf!

You know something? I knew this would happen.  I knew if I got cocky about my super-stupendous proofreading skills they’d turn out to be not so super-stupendous after all.  That’s what you get when you show off in front of the Spelling Gods.  Unlike many mortals, the Spelling Gods know the meaning of the word irony.  Also, hubris.

So this morning I posted a fun little factlet in the form of this review of the second “Sin City” movie, the headline of which contained a misspelling of the word “vicious.”  And this wasn’t an article from some crap publication, either–it was the Washington Post, and “vicious” was spelled correctly within the review.  You’d think a 17-word headline would be easier to spell-check than a 9-paragraph article, right?  Apparently, not so much, since as of right now the headline STILL contains the misspelling.  Ugh. What’s the world coming to if you can’t count on the Washington Post to uphold the rigorous rules of standardized American English.

Right?

Then later today, I got a ping from a Simpsons blog, Dead Homer Society, with a roundup of fun, dull, and aggravating posts about “The Simpsons” from around the web.  And there–right there at the end!–is my post about being in Ocean City and getting a garbage bag full of popcorn!  Another Miss Fickle Shout-out!  Calloo Callay!!!

But, wait a second…that first sentence quoted from my blog…what does that say again?

Now, when you say “open,” the teenager sticks your tub and lid inside a clear plastic garbage bag and shovel as much popcorn as could be expected to fit in or around your tub.

“…the teenager sticks…and shovel???”  That should be “shovels”!  With an “s” on the end!  That’s straight ahead subject/verb agreement I got horribly wrong!  And I always proofread all my goddamn posts so that something like this never happens!

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

Lisa Simpson, Ship’s Proofreader on board the rocket evacuating Earth after the Y2K disaster,* would be terribly disappointed in me.

For all you readers out there firing up your schadenfreude (as I would definitely be under other circumstances): I’ve already corrected this particular mistake, so you can’t see my original screw-up with your own eyes.  However, I’m sure there are plenty of other gaffes, should you choose to scrutinize my five months’ worth of posts.  And I invite you to do so if you want to call me out on this.  It’s only fair.  Those whom the Spelling Gods have chastised should not go about hiding their shame. Or challenging the Washington Post to a proofreading smackdown.  Damn journalists with their troll-seeking voodoo dolls…

*From “Treehouse of Horror X,” in case anyone’s keeping track.