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.

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A Little More Jan Hooks

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!

The Fickle Bottom: Love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

From her excellent blog, The View from Sari’s World:

We know this play is about the fickle nature of love. Shakespeare seems to be lecturing his audience on the frailty of love and just how easy it is to transfer one’s emotions from lover to lover. On a deeper level, we are reminded that over the course of our lives we can be different people to different lovers, and vice versa; what attracts us or makes us attractive to others can change over time. For some reason this train of thought led me to Bottom. He too wants to be several players on this world’s stage, and Shakespeare lets him. Bottom is our fool, a dreamy lover, a wise man, and would be troubadour.  Bottom’s antics mirror that of the over all plot. Like the lovers he is fickle and easily distracted by the next thing. Who he is and what he wants depends on whom he is with.

–Sari Nichols, “A midsummer night’s dream, Bottom style

Things I’m Going to Hell For: Not Celebrating Shakespeare’s Birthday

“[…]”

Okay, look Bill, I completely know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. I’ve been neglecting you these days. I’ve had my own work and life and neuroses on my mind, and I’ve been ignoring you and disrespecting your role as the original inspiration for this blog.

“[…]”

But in all fairness to me, I think I deserve a little self-focus from time to time. I mean, how many hundreds of blogs, scholarly studies, movies, TV shows, theater productions, spinoff comics, Sparknotes pages, plagiarized student essays, and ads are out there devoted to you? Not to mention the entire Western canon that’s built on your work and your legend. I only have this weensy little space on the Internet to promote myself. You get what I’m saying?

“[…]”

Okay, I know you personally are stuck on my shelf in your Original Packaging, and I’m out here living my life. But lives are more important than plastic. Seriously. Plus, you really shouldn’t be giving the Icy Stare of Doom to someone who can turn you around and make you face her Complete Prisoner DVD set for the next fifteen years.

“[…]”

This year’s an off-year anyway, right? We’re sandwiched in between the 450th year of your birth and the 400th year of your death. This year’s April 23rd was a day of rest and reflection, a time to meditate wordlessly on your greatness before we gear up for the next big cultural shebang. Plus, did you see that awesome comic that Mya Gosling posted on Good Tickle Brain? The one where she compares “Game of Thrones” to your history plays? That was SO funny and spot-on, wasn’t it? And I totally retweeted that! So in a way, I DID lift a finger to celebrate your birthday, didn’t I? My mousepad went click, and everyone who looks at my Twitter feed if they happen across my blog would see in that instant that I heart Shakespeare!!!

 

 

“[…]”

Fine. You’re right. I suck. I totally knew it was your birthday and I let it slip my mind. You can call me all the names you like. Here, I’ll get you started. I’ll consult the Shakespeare Insult Generator I got for Christmas: I’m an artless, beslubbering, greasy, barren-spirited, eye-offending, lisping, lumpish, sodden-witted, wanton, witless measle. Feel better now?

“[…]”

Sorry, Fickle Readers. This might take a while…

 

 

 

Jan Hooks: A Guest Perspective

Believe it or not, the vast majority of people who stumble across this blog from outside the WordPress site and my own circle of friends and followers are people looking for information on Jan Hooks, the SNL alum who died last October. I’m guessing that readers who came to the site were searching for more details about Hooks’s cause of death and the changes in her appearance that first showed up in photos from around 2004. As far as I can tell, there is still no official word from family members on Hooks’s cause of death. On October 10, 2014, the Daily Mail reported that Hooks died of cancer, but sources for the article seem shaky: the only person named as a source is “the head of her building’s co-op board”; the rest are unspecified “friends” or “neighbors.” The next day, the New York Daily News posted a story in which two family members (Hooks’s brother, Tom, and Susan Morgan Brown, a cousin) declined to comment on Hooks’s illness. Later, there was an announcement that Hooks would be buried in a private service in Cedartown, Georgia. No more reliable news beyond this has surfaced–believe me, I’ve checked.

Since I’m still getting hits from readers who want to hear more or possibly discuss more about Hooks and her life, I’ve decided to re-post some excellent commentary on one of my former posts. Here, Brady presents some little-known details from Hooks’s life, explores some possibilities about what these details might mean but draws no firm conclusions. What I really love about Brady’s discussion comes at the very end: his thoughts on Hooks’s appearance express my own feelings far more succinctly and effectively than my own ramblings ever could. Thanks for the contribution, Brady! A virtual shot of tequila for you!

Jan Hooks has been laid to rest in Cedartown, Georgia. She lies in a plot between both her mother and aunt (who was also a kind of mother figure for Jan after the death of Jan’s mother.) In a span of 20 years, Jan lost four of the closest people in her life far too soon: her mother, her father, Phil Hartman, and her aunt.

Jan is survived by two brothers. One of them bought and set her up with her first laptop computer and cell phone around 2000 or so. She lived in New York City until the events of September 11, 2001 impelled her to seek a second home in Woodstock, NY.

Thanks to their work together on Saturday Night Live, she is often associated with Phil Hartman. Both were great friends and shared an incredible work ethic.

According to Mike Thomas’ autobiography of Phil Hartman, Phil lived and worked around southern California until his gig with SNL called him to NYC. From what I’ve been able to gather from internet searches, Jan traveled much further in pursuit of her career: Florida, Texas, Georgia, and California, before finally being noticed by SNL.

Phil bloomed late: most of his professional work as an actor and writer was doing radio voice-overs and assisting Paul Rubens while with the Groundlings. He was 38 when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. By comparison, in her twenties, Jan enjoyed a fair amount of television exposure through the Bill Tush Show, Not Necessarily the News, and bit roles in the comedies Wildcats and Pee-Wee’s Big adventure. Her memorable catchphrase, “There’s no basement in the Alamo!” is still used on occasion to express bemused patience with the clueless. She was 29 when she caught the big break with Saturday Night.

Being an actress and comedian was Jan’s first, best occupation. I don’t know if she ever did anything else from the time she left college. Phil was doing many things before stardom hit. Jan pursued acting foremost to the exclusion of all else. While he lived, Phil lost two wives through divorce and a father who lived a long life. He still had six other siblings to commiserate with. Jan lost more (close and direct relatives—and Phil), though she still had two older brothers she remained close to.

After five years with Saturday Night, Jan enjoyed two seasons on Designing Women,. But it was over too soon—much like her lament about the cancellation of the Bill Tush show after one season. 3rd Rock from the Sun seemed to be the sort of show she was made for, but Phil’s death, ironically, came at the very end of a story arc in the show and seemed to herald a steady decline in her career. I have no idea if she turned down work, or folks stopped calling her, or a combination of both. All I know is that Jan’s career after 1998 (the year Phil was killed) ground to nearly a halt. Her time with Martin Short (on his show Jiminy Glick, in the role of his wife, Dixie) was her last effort as a recurring character in a sitcom.

In the few interviews I’ve been able to find on the internet, Jan seemed fairly content with life after SNL. She was able to live independently, though perhaps modestly in comparison to other SNL stars. I believe she could have found more acting work if she wanted to. She was still able to support herself without it. She did have small roles on several shows in her final years. I’m guessing, but I’d say Jan didn’t find professional work as rewarding after the death of her mother, her father, and Phil. Every big project she was involved with either ended too soon or, worse, was accompanied by tragedy. With no close family or close friends to share her successes (that I’m aware of, other than perhaps Nora Dunn), acting lost its appeal and she could take it or leave it.

And if she pursued something else, again, whom to share the successes and the joys with? Other than Kevin Nealon in the mid-eighties, I have no real knowledge of any other relationships she was in. I’ve read rumors that she and Phil were somehow together (I’d almost bet Phil’s wife, Brynn, thought as much) but have seen no definitive proof. But if Mike Thomas’ biogrpahy of Phil is any guide, an affair between them wouldn’t surprise me.

As to her illness, I’ve already mentioned that she smoked. At least, I think she did. She might have quit. One internet website has recorded 14 on-camera instances of Jan with cigarettes and cigars. Another website reported that she smoked to get the right tone for the voice of Angelyne for an episode of Futurama. At the very least, smoking cigarettes was not something she would shy from if the role called for it. She was familiar with the habit for that alone.

Some people have remarked on her weight gain and looks in her final years. Knowing nothing about her health during that time, I would say that it is at least common for people to gain weight as they age. People will often gain weight when they quit smoking, too, if they do not replace the habit with healthy ones. By comparison, we accept skinny-Elvis and fat-Elvis. Even skinny-Shatner and fat-Shatner! I’m willing to accept both skinny-Jan and “fat”-Jan and stand in star-struck admiration of her talent until the end—as Tina Fey did.

I have no idea what “happened” to Jan Hooks. I just hope that she knew how much a world of her fans admired and loved her—unconditionally.

Brady
Austin, TX

Puppet Titus Andronicus!

Puppets are fun!  Anything adapted to include puppets is fun! That must mean Puppet Titus Andronicus is SUPERFUN!!!

From the web site of the Puppet Shakespeare Players:

It’s true, everyone’s favorite Shakespeare canon punching bag…has arrived in New York City! Puppet Titus Andronicus is a fresh, comedic take on Shakespeare’s “worst” play, featuring silly-string gore, a bunch of angry goths, a villainous anthropomorphic boar and all of the deaths, dismemberment, cannibalism and crimes against humanity that make “Titus” the “poetic atrocity” that it is.

Puppet Titus will be performed in The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row (410 w. 42nd st @ 9th ave)

Man, I wish I could see this.  If any Fickle Readers out there are in the NYC area, go check it out and let me know how it went!  Or, if you’re interested in writing a review, I’ll post it right here on my blog!  Go now!

P.S.  Randomly enough, I found out about this production from Joyce Carol Oates’s Twitter feed.  Thanks, Joyce!