Friday, March 30, 2007

Marjorie Garber

Last night, I attended a lecture by Marjorie Garber. It was entitled “After the Humanities” and set forth a wildly ambitious plan for the future of humanities departments. As the title suggests, it starts with the provocative premise that the humanities, as a discipline, is over. The cultural moment that started with the professionalization of modern humanities programs at the end of the nineteenth-century ended in the last quarter of the twentieth. Amazingly, this idea was met by an audience of humanities grad students and professors not with the usual solipsistic self-pity that usually characterizes our lot and gets plenty of play in The Chronicle of Higher Education and, but rather with exhilaration and a sense that the bright future of a new, transdisciplinary humanities that is once again on equal footing with science in the university hierarchy is actually possible.

It would do the brilliance of her lecture injustice to try to summarize it here (ASU often posts these things online, so hopefully I will be able to put up a link to it soon), but I will focus on one point she made. She argued that there must no longer a separation between generalist and specialist and that we must all be generalists in order to be specialists. She spoke of the booming business of continuing education classes in the humanities for retirees. She told one story in particular of an alumni weekend where she was giving a full-day Shakespeare course and invited three of her graduate students to give talks on their dissertation topics. They were forced, for the first time, to explain their research to non-specialist audience and said it was a rewarding and enlightening experience.

That is what I wanted to do when I started this blog. I wanted to develop a fun, informal way of talking about literature and plugging it into my other interests. That is the reason for the country song of the week and the YouTube clips and, as I continue, I am going to try to bring in more of these interests, such as sports, film and television. One of my inspirations in this is Bill Simmons’ Sports Guy column at He combines a fun style with an almost scholarly interest in sports, particularly basketball, but has an enthusiasm that can’t be contained to just sports. I figure that doing this will infuse my scholarly work with the energy that is needed to discover true insight. Professor Garber’s lecture told me that this crackpot idea actually might actually have some worth. We’ll see.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Shakespeare Films Series: Whole Lotta Laurence Part I: Henry V

So, here it is finally: the first in our series on Shakespeare’s films. For those of you just joining us, I have recently been compelled to undertake a serious study of Shakespeare’s films after reading Michael Anderegg’s Cinematic Shakespeare. I am starting with mini-marathons of the three great Shakespearean actor-directors: Olivier, Welles and Branagh. These posts are not serious scholarly work in any sense of the word, or even necessarily very good movie reviews. Instead, they are simply a forum for recording my impressions as I view the films and encouraging feedback.

Today, we are talking Olivier. The three Shakespeare films Olivier directed and starred in remain a gold standard for what a “faithful” and “traditional” Shakespearean adaptation should look like. Since it is taking longer to write these than I planned and because I don’t want to make an ungodly long post, I am splitting my Olivier evaluation up by film, with a final post to come comparing the three.

Henry V (1944)

Famously financed by the British government to boost morale during WWII, this film remains the most celebrated of Olivier’s adaptations, and rightfully so. It is a truly breathtaking film on many levels. First and foremost is the fact that Olivier the actor, despite giving a tremendous performance, does not dominate the film. Rather, it is primarily an achievement for Olivier the director, one he would never again come close to matching.

Much has been made of the film’s unusual structure and reading about it in Anderegg’s book and other places, I did not know how he could possibly pull it off and still make anything resembling a realistic film, but he does. The film starts out as a performance at the Globe, with a rowdy audience in full view and slapstick backstage antics. Olivier then answers the Prologue’s plea for a “muse of fire” as each succeeding act moves us farther from the world of the theatre to the world of film. First, the audience disappears and then, eventually, Henry and his men are outside, on the shores of France. It is hard to capture in words how effective this potentially corny device is, but it is rather astounding.

The second great accomplishment by Olivier the director is the production design. The Criterion DVD has some great reproductions from a medieval “Book of Hours” that illustrates where Olivier drew his inspiration from. The oversaturated colors show the glories of “merry old England” without dropping off the precipice into kitsch.

As for the main attraction, Olivier gives the most energetic and compelling performance of any of his Shakespeare films. Even his scenery-chewing turn in Richard III does not command your attention the way young Henry does. Anyone who grew up with the grumpy old man Olivier of Boys from Brazil and Clash of Titans will be shocked at his striking good looks and sexual magnetism in this role (and this is coming from a straight man). He of course nails the big spots (the St. Crispin’s Day speech, the wooing of Katherine) but it is the smaller moments, such his nervous cough before going on stage for the first time and the campfire scene, that make this by far his most affecting Shakespearean film performance. This propagandistic version obviously gives us a cleaned-up Henry (no threats to rape and pillage, no hanging of former tavern mates), but Olivier still manages to give him a human frailty to keep him from becoming a caricature.

Negatives? Just one major one that’s not entirely Olivier’s fault. The low comic characters – Bardolph, Pistol and Nym – are more insufferable in Henry V than in pretty much any other Shakespeare play. Olivier is often criticized for his willingness to cut the plays to make the lead characters more prominent (we will get into this more with Hamlet) so why he felt the need to not cut more of the comic scenes, I do not know.

All in all, Henry V is far and away Olivier’s best Shakespeare film and possibly the best example of a “traditional” Shakespearean adaptation. It has set a high standard for the rest of the films.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Country Song of the Week: "Stupid Boy" Keith Urban/Sarah Buxton

The Olivier post is coming soon; I was only recently able to track down a copy of Richard III. I plan on watching it tonight and having the post up tomorrow. In the meantime, though, I am going to indulge another of my passions: country music. I was raised on country and in recent years have come back around to appreciating it as one of the most intelligent and lyrically interesting forms of popular music going. I am fan of not only the hipster fashionable old-school country (Cash, Waylon and Willie and the boys, etc) and alt-country, but also of mainstream country, especially the things that have been happening in Nashville in the last few years.

So, on to my country song of the week, which I think illustrates how great country lyrics can be. For the past few weeks, I have been haunted by Keith Urban's new single, "Stupid Boy". Today, I discovered that this song is in fact a cover of a song by a young country artist named Sarah Buxton. I am not technologically advanced enough to embed the songs in my post, but you can follow these links to listen to them:

Sarah Buxton's Myspace page: You can play it on the jukebox

Keith Urban's website: You can watch the video

As the song was originally recorded by Buxton (who also co-wrote it) it is a female empowerment ballad by a woman (speaking of herself in third person) breaking free of an emotionally abusive relationship to find herself. Fairly standard stuff lyrically, the kind of thing the Dixie Chicks would have recorded around '98.

Urban, however, while only changing a single pronoun, turns the song around into a plaintive lament by the abusive boyfriend. Slowing the tempo, stripping it of the original's glossy production and singing slightly behind the beat, Urban takes a typical Nashville Sound song and turns it into something gloriously weird and sad. Most importantly, the lyrics, which come dangerously close to corny in the original, take on a new resonance when the speaking roles are reversed. The dialogue the songs create between each other shows the beautiful ellipticism of country lyrics and the ability of country singers to transcend a song's lyrics while never devaluing them.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


In the last post, I misidentified Michael Anderegg as Peter Anderegg. I am not sure where Peter came from, but I apologize for the error. The post has been corrected. I will be back tomorrow with a comparative review of Olivier's three Shakespeare films. See you then.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Michael Anderegg

A big thank you to Scott Newstock who, out of a conversation we were having relating to my last post, recommended a great book by Michael AndereggOrson Welles, Shakespeare and Popular Culture. I have quickly consumed this book along with another book by Anderegg, Cinematic Shakespeare. These are both excellent explorations of Shakespeare's role in 20th-century popular culture, a subject that has long interested me.

Cinematic Shakespeare approaches the Shakespeare film as a genre, examing the generic elements that mark it, especially as a specific subgenre of the literary adaptation and the star vehicle. It is wide-ranging and open-minded, covering familiar ground such as Olivier's films and Luhrman's R&J but also lesser-known TV adaptations such as the 50's Hallmark Hall of Fame teledramas and the 80s BBC Complete Plays series (the bane of many a high schooler's existence). Alderegg is generous to controversial adaptations such as Luhrman's, but does not acquit any film entirely, finally leading to the conclusion that while every adaption ultimately falls short of the original play, every film also has something to teach us about Shakespeare.

Inspired by Anderegg, I have committed to a more serious study of Shakespearean film adaptations. I am going to start by viewing the groups of films by the three great Shakespearean actor-directors (Olivier, Welles and Branagh). I am starting with Olivier and going in chronological order, meaning that I am starting, appropriately enough, with Henry V, the play that first led me down this path.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Where the parallel ends

As a follow-up to my earlier post, here is a clip of Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech from Branagh's film. As I briefly mentioned in the earlier post, any similarities between Prince Hal and W. end when Hal becomes king. Compare this speech with any of Bush's oratory.

Henry IV, Dubya and the Myth of the Prodigal Son

I have been reading through Shakespeare's Henriad plays (Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V). One of the things that stuck out on this reading is how the prodigal son myth has been integral in politics for a long time. Read in the context of the sequence, Hal's transformation from drunken lout to leader of men is contrasted with the disastrous reign of the all-too-human Richard II. Richard is the king who is not able to overcome his human foibles. Meanwhile, Hotspur's moral defect is his apparent lack of any human weakness, which also makes him incapable of human emotion.

I am not usually the type to draw modern political parallels in literature, but I couldn't help but be reminded of George W. when reading about Hal. Were Bush's drunken fratboy days a calculated political move meant to humanize him, much as Hal's seems to be? One thing blue staters have never been able to understand about W is his ability to connect with religious voters. More than his stand on gay rights and abortion, Bush the candidate was able to connect with the religious because he speaks the language of sin and redemption. It seems a particularly American idea to give people a second chance, but the Henriad shows that even the British like their monarchs to have human side. The difference is that Shakespeare's monarchs are expected to to resolutely look sin in the face and, when the time comes, reject it, as Hal symbolically does to Falstaff. Americans, on the other hand, require public confession, atonement and begging for forgiveness.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Beatles - Shakespeare Skit

I am going to try to start posting some Shakespeare-related YouTube videos here. This is a great one to start with, bringing together England's two greatest cultural exports: Shakespeare and the Beatles.

This is apparently from some early-60s British comedy show. They are performing a section of Act V Scene I of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which the rude mechanicals present their play of Pyramus and Thisbe at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The New Age of Narcissism

I know this story is a few days old, but I felt compelled to comment on it. I spent a year a half as a high school teacher and a large part of the reason I am not still one today is the things described in this article. In my education classes, we spent a lot of time talking about fostering self-esteem and other such nonsense, but when I was actually in the classroom, it quickly became apparent that these kids had no problem with their self-esteem.

We live in an age in which white middle and upper-class children have been protected and coddled so much by their obnoxious boomer parents that the boomers have managed to not only pass on their narcissism to the next generation, but actually make it worse. So here are my solutions to this problem:

1) Limit parental involvement in primary and secondary schools.
Why do schools waste so much time on self-esteem nonsense? Because its hard to fail Self-Esteem. If they actually try to teach academics, there is the possibility a student might not do well, which leads to time and energy draining conversations with obnoxious parents who are not asking how they can work with their kid to improve, but trying to change the rules to something their kid can succeed in. It is utterly ridiculous and incredibly dangerous to our long-term health as nation if we shirk the responsibility of educating our kids just because its hard.

2) Cut university enrollment in half.
Universities have become 4-year summer camps for the privileged, while plenty of brilliant students waste away in subpar community colleges. Many vocational majors should be shifted to 2 and 3-year programs at community colleges, with appropriate funding. Universities, meanwhile, should drop Residential Life departments and other such wastes of money and focus on beefing up the core curriculum. This accomplishes several goals
-With more state funding and tuition money coming their way, community colleges lose their second-class status and become recognized as places for intensive professional preparation programs designed to make students ready for the workplace, not as discount alternatives to a university education.
-With much of their fat trimmed, state universities can once again become affordable for the average middle-class student and a bachelor's degree can be obtained without being saddled with debt.
-With the time-wasting children of privilege gone, no Res Life to stroke their egos and a more focused core curriculum to keep them hitting the books, the hedonistic "Girls Gone Wild" culture that has enveloped state universities in the last decade will fade back to its proper place. I know partying has always been a part of college life (more broadly, it is typically a part of young adult life), but the commodified party culture exemplified by GGW and MTV Spring Break has turned into something far more sinister and soul-deadening. But that is probably better left to another post where it can be explored more fully.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Act I

Welcome to the Stratford to QC blog. Why the weird name? Well, I am a grad student at Arizona State University in English Literature focusing on English Renaissance literature, particularly Shakespeare. One of the things I have always loved about Shakespeare is he was an uneducated small-town guy who made it in the city and beat all of the wealthier and better-educated at their own game.

I, too, am from a small town, Queen Creek, AZ (the QC), and its always been my goal to bridge the cultural gap between the world I live in now (academe) and the world I came from, because they are both essential parts of who I am. I will probably go more into this as the blog continues, so we'll leave it here for now and I will be back soon.