Posts Tagged ‘David Riggs’

Emmerich’s film Anonymous: a time tunnel in the opposite direction

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Ruth Kaplan finally got talked into viewing Anonymous, the film about William Shakespeare that is heavy on speculation and very short of facts (we wrote about it earlier in “Shakespeare or the Earl of Oxford? ‘It’s a shame sometimes that dead men can’t sue’ here).  She already knew some of the atrocities in advance: for example, the notion that Christopher Marlowe was devoured with his jealousy of Hamlet.  It was, in fact, written seven years after Marlowe was murdered.

Over at Arcade, she wrote:

“Anonymous also makes unsupported allegations, suggesting, for instance, that Shakespeare never learned to write the alphabet.  The film sees conspiracy in unremarkable events: the introduction makes the (dubious) assertion that we have not a single manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand, as if this is proof of a cover-up, as opposed to a norm for texts from that era.”

She’s also disturbed by the portrait of Queen Elizabeth as a hysterical, lovesick cougar, disinterested in the realm she governs. And she’s scornful of  the notion that an Elizabethan provincial boy couldn’t read (Elizabethan grammar schools were crackerjack – David Riggs discusses that here.)

A retrograde fantasy?

But what really got her was the retrograde fantasy of an entire era, “its ridicule of the very idea of social mobility.  Shakespeare’s desire to raise his social status is represented as vulgar.”

What does it all mean?

So far, she sounds like a lot of people who have seen the movie.  Then she adds a wholly different twist:

Social mobility in modern-day America is now at an all time low.  The gulf between those who go to college and those who don’t continues to widen.  Americans continue to resent women in power, and to resist placing them there: think of the response to Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign, or look at the US Senate, where only seventeen women serve.  As for culture making, in 2010, only 7% of directors of domestic films were women.  Despite the progress that has been made, we continue to battle as a nation over how to represent and accord rights to non-straight citizens.  As an openly gay German, Roland Emmerich is perhaps an odd director of this portrait of power.  Yet his movie not only mirrors the reality of power in our country, it consolidates and perpetuates the heterosexism, misogyny, and class bias that help maintain that reality. 

The upshot?  “Anonymous may well be the portrait of an age, but it’s not Shakespeare’s.”

It’s good stuff.  Read the rest here.

Shakespeare or the Earl of Oxford? “It’s a shame sometimes that dead men can’t sue.”

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare ... or is it the Earl of Oxford?

Anyone who has attempted a novel, play, or screenplay based on real people, or a real event, has faced the difficult question: How much do you make up?  Do you make two people fall in love because it tidies up the script nicely – even though there’s no historical evidence for it?  Do you vilify a nice-man composer like Antonio Salieri because of a few rumors that started decades after his death – even for a top-notch script like Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, which was further cemented in the public mind by a couple remarkable screen performances?  At what point are you simply defaming the dead?

Screenwriter John Orloff feels completely comfortable making stuff up for Anonymous, a new movie about the eternal Shakespeare authorship question.

Spoiler alert: Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford did it, and William Shakespeare was merely the front man in this version, which the New York Times called the “cold-blooded murder of the truth.” David Riggs told me the only reason the gullible seek out alternative authorship for the plays and poems is that people are generally unaware of what top-notch grammar schools the Elizabethans had – he wrote about it in The World of Christopher Marlowe.

Here’s another story that should discredit the theory: I actually knew of someone who had gone through the Earl of Oxford’s letters.  The man couldn’t write to save his life.

Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere ... or is it Shakespeare?

Orloff is not a deep thinker, and the Wall Street Journal should be ashamed of printing platitudinous, clichéd passages like this:  “But I also wanted to tell a rocking good story and to express a theme that matters to me a great deal: that the pen is mightier than the sword.”

It gets worse.

The truth is, there is no truth in film—in any film. Even the films that we think are true, about real people in real places, actually aren’t.

This might seem obvious, but the emotions of a movie often overwhelm our intellect, blurring the line between fact and drama. We walk away feeling as if we have witnessed history.

But does this make a historical drama inferior to a history book or a documentary based on the same subject matter? Not necessarily.

Whatever a film might lack in literal truth, it can be far better at expressing the emotional truth of an event. [You don’t say! – ED]  In a movie, an audience can become connected to characters in a way that they often can’t in a straight historical account.

And this: “And, as I said, the film is not really about the Essex Rebellion. It is about showing that ideas are stronger than brute force. So how to make that point without wasting 20 minutes of the audience’s time?”  If the audience isn’t prepared to waste time, they shouldn’t be in the movie theater in the first place.

Then Orloff compares his historical liberties with those of Shakespeare himself.

This is a case where the comment section probes the issues more closely than the author of the article appears to have:


From Bill Wood:  “Nothing justifies outright lying to an audience. It’s one thing to present the argument that Shakespeare didn’t right [sic] his own work. It’s an idea that is baloney … It might make good drama. But it is also a lie. And most people will never bother to read the works which demonstrate what bunk it is.”

From David Brown: “One possible answer to Orloff’s question of how to make a point without wasting the audience’s time is to write your own story. If the history doesn’t support the story you want to tell, pick a different history that does fit – or just write your story without the crutch of misrepresenting great names and events.

From John Tufts: “Yes, stories exist to tell deeper truths, but Mr. Orloff is kidding himself if he thinks his movie is in the pursuit of truth. Neither movies nor theater, nor music, nor poetry, nor any art form has ever been very good at presenting what is real, but the history of all art has existed and been very successful at showing us what is true. That’s what makes Richard III great. Ultimately, it’s not about the real Richard III, it’s about the power of language, and the seduction of evil. Henry V isn’t about the real Henry Monmouth, it’s about the cost of war, and the challenges of leadership. These plays bend what was real to arrive at an essential truth. But for Mr. Orloff to say that he’s doing the same is nonsense. He’s bending what was real to arrive not an essential truth about the human experience, but instead to arrive right back where he started – a claim about what was real. He bends history to write not a great nor true screenplay, but a bad, and very unreal melodrama.”

Donald Forbes: “To aver that there is ‘no truth’ makes impossible any attempt to understand anything. There are no such things as facts, merely assertions of points of view. Relativism as usual morphs into nihilism and destructiveness. …”

As Thomas Conway, Jr., wrote, ” it’s a shame sometimes that dead men can’t sue.”

Ben Jonson: Not just another pretty face

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

You don’t know the half of Ben Jonson.

In this case, a half would be about 140 pounds, for he tipped the scales at 280.  Ugly little sucker, too: his chum Thomas Dekker described him as “a staring Leviathan” with “a terrible mouth” and “a parboiled face … punched full of oilet holes, like the cover of a warming pan.”

He’s not nearly so bad looking on the cover of Ian Donaldson‘s new Ben Johnson: A Life.  See right.

The Spectator reviews it here.  An excerpt:

“What a piece of work was Ben Jonson! If you lived in Elizabethan England and had just narrowly escaped the gallows after stabbing a man to death in an illegal duel, wouldn’t you want to keep your head down for a bit? Not Jonson. He converted to Catholicism.

A few months after the bishops of Canterbury and London, in 1599, declared the writing of satire illegal, what did Jonson produce? Every Man out of his Humour, a self-declared ‘comical satire’. The writing of history was also proscribed — Tacitean history being a particular sore point. So in 1603 Jonson produced Sejanus, a history play based on Tacitus. Epigrams were banned too. By 1612, Jonson got round to publishing some.

“Anyone would think he didn’t want to get on. Yet get on (despite the odd spell in chokey, and a fusillade of letters begging for forgiveness) is exactly what he did. He was the stepson of a bricklayer, with a criminal conviction for manslaughter, and a serial writer of plays that gave offence to court favourites — yet he became the pre-eminent dramatist and deviser of court entertainments of his era.”

Inevitably, the comparisons with William Shakespeare: “Though Shakespeare proved (in Jonson’s words) ‘for all time’, Jonson himself was eclipsed. What happened? He was classical, where Shakespeare was romantic.”  My goodness.  What on earth does those distinctions mean in the context of the 16th and 17th centuries?  The anonymous reviewer doesn’t quite figure this out.

The brush with murder is hardly a shocker, if you know how Christopher Marlowe was done in.  I wrote about that here (though the portrait that accompanies the story is almost certainly not Marlowe)  following the publication of David Riggs’s bio of Shakespeare’s rival poet, who may have been offed on orders of Queen Elizabeth I.  Moreover, Marlowe had tried his own hand at murder, or at least manslaughter:

“At the time of his death, Marlowe was a more prominent playwright than Shakespeare,” Riggs notes. By then, “Shakespeare had written Henry VI and Titus Andronicus, and they aren’t as good as Tambourlaine or Doctor Faustus.

In addition to being a revolutionary playwright, Marlowe was a blasphemer, a homosexual, a secret agent, “someone involved with a wide range of criminal activities,” Riggs says. In all probability, he wasn’t killed in a brawl but in a political hit, very likely on orders of Queen Elizabeth. …

Even in this unusual company, Marlowe stood out and was himself a subject for surveillance. He was a notorious brawler—in one case, the brawl resulted in a murder. Marlowe was held in Newgate, a “gloomy, rat-infested hold” for part of the time before he was discharged at trial.

By the way, David Riggs has his own 1989 biography of Jonson. See right.

Among these unsavory characters, the hardworking Shakespeare appears positively clean-cut, doesn’t he?