Now this is what I’m talking about when I say we ought to be kicking the Bard around on the anniversary of his death. Major kudos to Aryeh Cohen-Wade and an overflowing shot of virtual tequila for this gem that appeared in the New York Times last week:
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.
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!!!
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.
Greetings, Fickle Readers! Yesterday I was telling you about my belief that all of us living writers (and readers, for that matter) should be smashing at the authoritarian edifice that this guy
has become, in honor of the 400th anniversary of his death on April 23rd. (If you didn’t catch my little rant yesterday, you can read it here.) Today, I’m wondering how many people I’ve convinced. I’m thinking that quite a few of you Fickle Followers are out there thinking, hmm, Miss Fickle Reader may have blown a gasket due to dementia or boredom. Because really, bashing on Shakespeare’s corpse? Aren’t there corpses out there more deserving of a desecrated grave?
First of all, you do realize I’m speaking metaphorically, right? I’m not talking about beating up this kind of ugly, clownish monument in the Stratford church that everyone hates already:
I’m calling for the wholesale foundation-shaking of a literature that tells us this little, bald Englishman is worth more cultural capital than thousands upon thousands of living writers. And I’m saying that this little, bald Englishman who died in 1616 is, in fact, controlling our culture from the grave. His work is so omnipresent in the English language that it’s virtually invisible.
That, my friends, is a scary thought. That a single composer of plays and poems can, with his words and ideas, influence societies 400 years and counting in the future–that represents an insane level of power almost too widespread to comprehend. Shakespeare is literally everywhere: in books, on TV, in the movies, online, on coffee mugs, posters, aprons, t-shirts, jewelry, curtains, flip-flops, umbrellas, water bottles, pillows, lunchboxes, stationery, underpants, teapots, coins, and written on people’s skin. And that’s just the stuff that was created now, with his words, his picture, or images from his plays deliberately used. There are far more phrases and sayings out there that were born in Shakespeare’s texts and have since passed into common parlance. Many of us may mouth his words and expressions without even knowing it.
I’ll bet you Fickle Readers out there read Shakespeare in passing at least once a day. I’m not even talking about the words he’s credited with inventing, which it turns out isn’t quite so many as once was thought. No, I’m thinking you read Shakespeare on the ads in the subway, in magazines, on shop signs and billboards that go sliding past the windows of whatever vehicle you’re traveling in. You listen to Shakespeare in podcasts, pop songs, and the news. You may even hear Shakespeare in conversation without registering his presence, as you move on to the next moment of your day (a phenomenon, by the way, known as “threshold amnesia“–not a concept or a phrase Shakespeare invented, but one that sounds positively Shakespearean nevertheless).
Anyway, I’m so confident that you will face Shakespeare’s text, in some form, at least once during the course of a normal day, that I’m challenging you out there to try to have a Shakespeareless day. Don’t go out of your way to read anything Shakespearean or related to the theater. Temporarily stop following any Shakespeare-bots on Twitter. (Am I the only one following Shakespeare-bots on Twitter. Oy.)
Then go about your business and keep a tally.
I dare you. I double-dog dare you to see how much Shakespeare you passively absorb in a day. Two days. A week.
Then see how you feel about the power this guy has over your life.
So two years ago, there was a concert called GeorgeFest in Hollywood. Well crap, why didn’t anyone tell me???
I just discovered the live album of the concert, which is amazing and surprising. (Conan O’Brien singing “Old Brown Shoe has to be one of the most surreal yet thoroughly fun musical post-Beatle experiences out there.) And there’s this breathtaking cover of Norah Jones singing “Something.” I’m speechless. And, of course, my initial reaction was, “Wow! How great is it that they managed to dig up Norah Jones to do this concert! Haven’t heard from her in a while.” Then, in the next millisecond of brain function, “Oh right. She’s Ravi Shankar’s daughter.”
Howdy, Fickle Readers!
Unfortunately (or, as Little Fickle would say, unfortunarily), I don’t have time to give this piece the thorough analysis it deserves. But I did want to let everyone who’s been following my modest Jan Hooks coverage know that Mike Thomas, the journalist who published a biography of Phil Hartman in 2014, has just published a lovely retrospective article in Grantland on Hooks’s life and death. In the piece, he fully discloses the details of Hooks’s struggles with anxiety, isolation, and illness, as well as her rocky relationship with her own fame and talent. It’s an eye-opening piece. In this day and age, when fame is one of the be-all, end-all life goals for many, when someone invented not only the selfie but the selfie stick (hopefully someday God will forgive us for that monstrosity), Hooks seemed to be searching for a middle ground–one that would let her be herself and pursue her creative interests without having to get entangled with the demanding, draining constraints that showbiz puts on its actors. I’m not sure that she ever found it, but she did seem to find some peace being able to control the work that she took on and (maybe) being able to be herself when no one was all that interested in her quirky take on life.
I don’t know. I’m trying to glean a positive spin on her largely sad ending. Thomas works very hard to show that Hooks lived and died on her own terms. Many in modern Western society might deem those terms tragic–an early death in a remote location, far from the eyes of critics and fans alike–but Thomas insists that she made all her own decisions, and one of those decisions was that the limelight wasn’t for her. One wonders if the reason why she disliked the entertainment world so much was because there was no place for an original voice like hers.
I hope that Thomas or others will continue the discussion on Hooks. I hope this article means that there may be a new biography coming out. Hooks deserves her own space, despite the fact that she decided to abandon the very thing that placed her in the public eye. In an age when Julia Roberts is the gold standard for the ambitious actress, it behooves us to examine what fame means to women who are not the ideal and, moreover, don’t want to be.
UPDATE: Astute reader Elizabeth points out that Kevin Nealon confirmed that Hooks had cancer in a December 2014 Howard Stern interview (see the link in the comment below). Nealon and Stern also discuss how Hooks moved out of the city after 9/11, and how Hooks had recently gotten a laptop before her death (Stern sort of fishes around, asking whether Hooks was “off the grid” in her final years.) All information I’ve never heard before, and all “tantalizing,” as Nealon might say. (He uses the word over and over in reference to his friendship with Hooks that turned into a relationship and then back into a friendship. I’m not quite sure what Nealon meant by it. Either he was trying to put off Stern’s more probing questions or he kind of doesn’t know what “tantalizing” means. You readers can have a listen and see what you think.)
Thanks for the heads up, Elizabeth!
Hey, Fickle Readers! A year ago today, the great Jan Hooks passed away at the age of 57. A year ago tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the post I wrote about the loss of this wonderful yet underrated actress. To this day, there’s still no official word on what she died of. The only article online that mentions her cause of death is from the Daily Mail, and they got their information from random neighbors and the head of the co-op building where she lived. No go-getting milennial journalists have gone out and tracked down Hooks’s story. As far as I can tell, no one has even done a retrospective of her life, although a few of us, like blogger Little Kicks Dance and Austin (who contributed a guest post to my site), have been cobbling together what pieces we can find online and elsewhere. Mostly, you can find stories about her in interviews and biographies of fellow actors and friends. It’s kind of a shame, though. She really ought to have her own corner in the pantheon of modern actresses and comedians. We shouldn’t have to go scrounging and filling in the gaps to know who she was.
One thing we know for sure: she was really damn funny. Today, I found yet another SNL sketch–one I don’t think I ever saw before–of her performing as Bette Davis’s living will. Not only is this a nicely preserved portion of the late 20th century (Phil Hartman, who plays Davis’s son, acts shocked when he hears he’s going to “see” his mother speaking to them), it’s another fine example of Hooks’s over-the-top kookiness. She never stops with one or two gags–she always pushes herself to come up with something new. Also, it seems like she does the fast-forward noises on the VCR herself. Really goofy fun.
Above is a picture of Hooks as Davis. The link to the video is here. Enjoy!
Every time Jan Hooks re-enters the pop culture blood stream, I get a tremendous spike in my readership. Last Saturday, it happened again. SNL reran an episode that included a tribute to Hooks, the “Love Is a Dream” sketch, now a bona fide tear-jerker since both Hooks and Phil Hartman are gone. Apparently, people are still searching for information on what happened to her last October. (There’s still no new information, by the way. Only Wikipedia citing a single Daily Mail article, which cited the head of her building’s co-op as their big source on Hooks’s cause of death.) I, too, wish we knew more, but I also wish we had more of her and her work. She was so very, very funny. And she disappeared from the public eye far too soon.
But we’ve been all been saying the same thing for several months now, so here’s something I never saw until Salon mentioned it in a recent interview with Nora Dunn: a clip of Dunn and Hooks as the Sweeney Sisters, opening the Emmys in 1988. The video quality is pretty bad, but the show Dunn and Hooks put on is a little snippet of lunatic brilliance. Possibly the best part happens when the Sweeneys leave the stage and start accosting all the celebrities in the audience. (Think famous actors like being messed with when they’re the ones watching something onstage? Think again.)
Enjoy the clip, everyone! And be sure to check out this exhaustive essay on Hooks’s career from blogger Little Kicks Dance, who pulls together an amazing amount of material on Hooks’s life and personality as well. My hat’s off to you, Little Kicks Dance. A big, giant virtual bottle of tequila for you in honor of collecting, like, ten times the amount of quality material than the Daily Mail’s “let’s interview the head of her co-op” reporting staff did!