A Great Filmed Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1996)

I have been treating myself to such delightful diversions as I can find. Tonight I thought of the following lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Oh, when she’s angry, she is keen and shrewd!
She was a vixen when she went to school.
And though she be but little, she is fierce.

I’ve always liked that line because that is how I like to think of myself. But it isn’t true. Though I be but little, I am meek! But I thought: what a better way to assuage my anger than by watching That Bard’s most successful comedy? If you have seen it on film, it is probably the 1999 version with Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer and lots of other stars. I recall watching it, but I wasn’t that impressed. Of course, let’s face it: Shakespeare’s “most successful comedy” is a very low bar. Read, it is unbearable. Performed live it can be pretty good. And the 1999 version certainly made a film of it.

I however, was limited to the 1996 version, directed by Adrian Noble. It is the only film that he’s ever directed. He is a theater director and the film is directed very much like a play. Little consideration is given to realism. The only yielding he does to the medium is to introduce a child who is dreaming the play. When the film started, I thought, “Uh, oh!” But it really works. The play is meant to be a dream for the audience. But there is no audience, hence the boy.

There were many other aspects of the film that were play like. I loved that Noble doubled up most of the parts. Hippolyta and Titania are the same actor (Lindsay Duncan) as are Theseus and Oberon (Alex Jennings). All of the mechanicals (except for Bottom) doubt as fairies. And most pleasingly, Puck and the Master of Revels are both played by Finbar Lynch. It all gives the movie an extra dream feeling. Plus: I’ve always found A Midsummer Night’s Dream to have far too many characters.

I loved the art direction too. It is all done with extremely bright colors and sharp edges. It is, in a word, playful — like the whole production. There is no “outside” in the movie. The scenes that take place at the palace of Theseus and the first meeting of the mechanicals are the only realistic ones. I suppose some may take exception to the over-use of doors, but I liked this very much. What’s more, it helps to make the scenes between the young couples work much better than they are written.

The character of Bottom deserves special attention. He is played by Desmond Barrit, again, someone who mostly works on the stage. He sounds and acts so much like Zero Mostel it’s weird. But I don’t think he’s trying. It is just his own style of bombast. Regardless, he’s perfect for the role.

I also thought that Noble did an excellent job of weeding out a lot of the unnecessary exposition. Once Puck sets things right with the young couples, we don’t need to see it resolved. They love each other and will be allowed to married. Still, it is Shakespeare with his many failings. The film focuses with great relish on the mechanicals story line, and rightly so. The fairies are fighting over an issue so trivial that it’s downright embarrassing. And the young couples could have been plucked from any of Shakespeare’s many interchangeable comedies.

But you have to wonder about Shakespeare. The mechanicals are working men. Why does Shakespeare think they have to be such idiots? In the film, as in any decent production, they are very funny. But I can’t really get passed the fact that Shakespeare is saying, “The common man is inferior.” Never has a writer so kissed up to the power elite. And let’s not forget: that’s why he is so widely praised to this day. As the British empire grew, Shakespeare went along for the ride. He was the playwright who always told the royal powers what they wanted to hear. In fact, in many of his plays, it is only by the arrival of royalty that everything gets worked out. It can all be fun, but we must never forget that we are watching the most pernicious of propaganda.

Given all this, I think you can’t find a better version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is truly a fun movie.

Evil Santa Penguin

Santa PenguinI wish I could wait until Christmas for this. But it’s gonna be old news by then. Aisha Harris over at Slate, proposed the very reasonable idea, Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore. It’s pretty straightforward, actually. As our country becomes more and more diverse racially, we need to let go of the idea that “white” is the “default.”

Her idea: the Christmas Penguin! I am totally on board with this. I mean, it doesn’t have to be a penguin. But just think back to one of my favorite Christmas holiday shows, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. The first part of that story is just great. He lives in the hills and he comes down to give toys to the kids in town during a time when everyone has fireplaces. But as we say in the software biz, it don’t scale. There’s no way that Santa could bring all those presents to all those boys and girls—especially given that only a small percentage of them have fireplaces! This is just madness and I don’t dig it.

And by the way, what the fuck is going on with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Why can’t Hermey be a dentist if he wants to be? Because the elves are slaves, that’s why! The whole Santa Claus myth has gotten to the point where we cannot deny some very creepy aspects of the whole story. Wizards lose their powers unless they are evil? What the fuck were those elves doing for food anyway? And most of all: you mean Don Adams wasn’t one of the voices in Rudolph?

Actually, I have a big problem with the Santa myth. It perpetuates the most pernicious myth in America: justice. Santa gives to good girls and boys. Except that he tends to give crummy gifts to poor ones and really great ones to rich ones. You don’t have to be Aristotle to figure out what that means: rich girls and boys and better girls and boys. So at least if it’s a penguin, you could say, “He checked the list many times, unfortunately, Santa Penguin can’t read, because, you know, he’s a fucking penguin!”

Well the Fox News crew got hold of this news and they were burning mad. The very idea! We all know that Santa is a white man, just like Jesus! Harris was kind enough to inform them that, hey guys, Santa isn’t real. She also provided a little history that I thought was very interesting:

Sure, as Kelly File guest Monica Crowley notes, Santa is loosely based on Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop known for secret gift-giving. But while the names “St. Nicholas” and “Santa Claus” are often used interchangeably, modern-day Santa hardly resembles his supposed inspiration, who was depicted as tall and thin and, you know, Greek. He did not have a workshop in the North Pole nor eight faithful reindeer. Santa as we know him today is the result of wild imaginations and creative input from many people across centuries, including, as I noted in my piece, Washington Irving and Clement Clark Moore. He’s utterly divorced from his religious and historical roots.

Which, of course, is why Santa is so popular. He’s fun and advertising executives can do whatever the fuck they like with him. They can have him summer in Florida where he drinks Pepsi instead of Coke. Or he can be an evil robot in Futurama who guns down everyone but Zoidberg. Or he can be a penguin. In fact, how about an evil penguin? A reverse Robin Hood penguin who gives lots of toys to the kids who already have too many and little or no toys to those with few. What’s more, he doesn’t give half a shit about the kids around the world who are starving to death or dying of malaria.

Now that’s a kind of Santa I can believe in!

Cogs in the Liberal Economic Machine

Corey RobinCorey Robin wrote an excellent article over at Jacobin, Socialism: Converting Hysterical Misery into Ordinary Unhappiness. Although short, it is a manifesto against neo-liberalism. The idea of our brilliant “liberal” leaders like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama is that by making people more involved with their economic decisions, they will make smarter economic decisions.

Let’s look at Obamacare, shall we. Instead of just having a single payer system where everyone has a base level of care, let’s give them a huge number of “choices” that they can sift through to find the perfect plan for themselves! I put “choices” is scare quotes because in the end the plans are all much the same and the only real differences are in what you will be able to afford. I remember going through this years ago when I worked in the corporate world. There for would be three or four healthcare options and my wife and I would go over them at the table and try to figure out what the best plan was.

Okay, that might be alright. We ended up getting a slightly better plan for us. And the people going through the exchanges will get slightly better plans. But it isn’t like we get this marginal improvement at no cost. It requires us to waste plenty of our time that we could be, you know, living our lives. We could be doing things that we want to do. As Robin puts it:

We have books to read, children to raise, friends to meet, loved ones to care for, amusements to enjoy, drinks to drink, walks to take, webs to surf, couches to lie on, games to play, movies to see, protests to make, movements to build, marches to march, and more.

Instead, we are making economic choices, just like in the rational expectations models that the Chicago School economists so love. Maybe the idea is that since the models have been such an unmitigated failure, they can force the people to behave like the models. I don’t know. But the big problem is it isn’t just healthcare choices we’re talking about:

That’s what the neoliberal view reduces us to: men and women so confronted by the hassle of everyday life that we’re either forced to master it, like the wunderkinder of the blogosphere, or become its slaves. We’re either athletes of the market or the support staff who tend to the race.

And note, we’re only talking about the poor here. The rich hire people to do all this bullshit so that they can live their own lives—to enjoy being rich. And this is why the neo-liberals, the New Democrats, are such a bad thing in a general sense. They are reducing us to cogs in the economic machine, just as much as the Soviets did to their people. Except here we call it “freedom.” But it is simply the freedom to select from a set of corporate offerings. It is most definitely not the freedom to live our lives as we wish on our own terms.

Look Back in Brilliance

John OsborneFifty years ago today, Kenya became independent of the United Kingdom. So all you conservatives out there, don’t you see? Obama isn’t a Kenyan interloper, he’s a British spy. “Obama, Barack Obama.” By the way, what’s with that? Public Policy Polling found that 51% of Republican voters thought that Obama was born in Kenya (United Kingdom). A CBS News/ New York Times poll found that fully one-quarter of all Americans thought the same thing. You would think it would be like the family member who spent three years at Sing Sing for child molestation: something everyone knows but no one talks about. That’s why I don’t think these people actually think that Obama was born in Kenya (United Kingdom). It’s just a way of yelling at a president who pretty much agrees on policy with the vast majority of Republicans—at least until Fox News and Michael Savage get done with them.

On this day in 1745, the under-achiever of the Federalist Papers authors John Jay was born. An American aristocrat, he was good for sending over to Europe to talk to the aristocrats there. And he did write 5 of the 85 Federalist Papers, so that’s something. The thing is, the more you know about the Founding Fathers, the more they are like Jesus. I don’t mean great; I mean mythical. There isn’t a whole lot to like about them. It’s a pretty standard story: a bunch of rich men rebelling against a bunch of richer men. There are a few I like, but mostly it’s just Thomas Paine who rocks my world. But look at him today. Glenn Beck wrote his own version of Common Sense, and pretty much avoided Paine the whole time. Thomas Paine was too radical 200 years ago for conservatives (and many liberals) today. But John Jay would be welcome on Fox Businuess.

German expressionist Edvard Munch was born in 1863. He is best known for The Scream. Other than the fact that it has been really easy to parody, I’m not that fond of the painting. But Munch was a great painter. And he’s a lot more varied than people think. Sometimes his work reminds me of Gauguin. Others like Hopper. Still others like Magritte. But clearly his enduring style is seen in The Scream and my personal favorite: Madonna:

Madonna - Edvard Munch

Frank Sinatra was born in 1915. In general, I’m not a fan of the man. I hate to see him in movies, where I think he is terrible. Except that he is great in The Man with the Golden Arm. And I love his singing. I don’t know what it is. Actually, I do: he totally ripped off his phrasing from Billie Holiday and it works perhaps better for him than it does for her. Here he is doing “Send In The Clowns” from A Little Night Music where it is sung by a woman. I very much like the payoff, “Don’t bother, they’re here.” Because they are always here. We are all clowns—especially about our love lives:

Other birthdays: abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805); novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821); actor Edward G Robinson (1893); game show legend Bob Barker (90); Ed Koch (1924); one of the very best abstract expressionists Helen Frankenthaler (1928); singer Connie Francis (75); film producer Paula Wagner (67); actor Bill Nighy (64); and singer-songwriter Hank Williams III (41).

The day, however, belongs to the great playwright John Osborne who was born on this day in 1929. He pretty much invented the “angry young man” archetype in his play Look Back in Anger, he was capable of writing just about anything. I always found it amusing that he wrote the screenplay for the delightfully funny Tom Jones. Personally a bastard, he seemed to understand that fear and longing were the basis of anger. Here is a bit from Look Back in Anger starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. It really does provide a whole (and I think more accurate) rendering of the play where Jimmy is quite sympathetic. The whole play is on YouTube if you wish to watch it.

Happy birthday John Osborne!

An American Political Allegory

Cat and SquirrelSo there’s this squirrel and he’s talking to his wife. He says, “I really hate that cat that roams around here. He almost killed me the other day.”

“You mean the one who ate our little son Charlie?” his wife asks.

He says, “Yeah, that’s the one!”

“What about him?”

“Well, I was thinking,” he says. “The only one I hate more than that cat is Peter.”

“You mean the squirrel who lives on the other side of the tree?” she asks.

“Yeah! He’s always making a bunch of noise at night. I really hate that Peter!”

“So you hate Peter for making noise more than you hate the cat who ate our only son?” his wife asks.

“That’s right. Do you think that’s strange?”

“Not at all, dear,” she says. “That’s very normal.