Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mini-Review: Looking for Richard

Directed by Al Pacino. 1996.

Al Pacino walking around Manhattan asking people what they think about Shakespeare was not such a bad idea. It could have been played as a cheap trick setting up some point about how no one today appreciates Shakespeare or how we need to pedestrianize the Bard to make him "more accessible." These strolls through the city, though, avoid such tempting alternatives and instead simply ask people what they know and what they find difficult. Some people think Shakespeare is boring, others complicated. Some people have not heard of him, others can quote a phrase. They all, though, admit to a certain distance, a divide some of the actors we meet later admit to remembering from their first experience with Shakespeare. A ways through trying to explain the plot Pacino himself admits, "I'm confused just saying it to you. So I can imagine how you must feel hearing me talk." This frankness and the admission that the film is as much about the actors trying to find Richard as it is to help the audience is an effective, if not entirely necessary, hook to bring the audience into the endeavor of experiencing Shakespeare.

The film's structure of cutting among discussions of the film with actors and staged scenes is effective. Wisely both types of scene are always cut off before one gets to settled into seeing a film or watching a roundtable. The ability to intersperse actual scenes from Shakespeare, with full costume and music, with discussions, and even overlay them, is a great tool Pacino uses effectively to broaden the scenes, explaining who is doing what without getting caught up in a cycle of explication followed by the scene, followed by explication. . . The highlight of the film, though, is the actors and listening them discuss the film. For those beginning their experience of Shakespeare it is a wonderful resource to see a scene played a few different ways because it demonstrates both how much you have to understand the character to perform him consistently through a play and how there can be different meanings and subtexts to a given word, line, or scene.

Sometimes, though, you'll have a scene of discussion in which nothing is resolved and in which the actors do not seem to have gotten to the heart of the scene followed by a fine performance. One can't help but wonder, how did they get here? Other time's they are really just explaining the plot.
Too some of the scholarly justifications for getting down to the essence of Shakespeare don't quite work. One scholar mentions how it's more important to get to the bottom of every scene than "getting obsessed with the British way of regarding a text." Well what do you do with the text? A scholarly discussion would have been welcome here. Sometimes they merely point at the issue. Similarly, they do not so much explain how the meter works in Shakespeare as they just define what iambic pentameter is. (Because it's a big scary Greek word they even reveal it slowly on the screen.)

For a documentary, or "docu-drama type thing" as Pacino calls it, Looking for Richard is quite light on the critics, historians, and scholars. In one scene Pacino's collaborator Frederic Kimball grows quite adamant about the this point, insisting that the scholars should not get the special privilege of looking into the camera for their scenes if the director's point is to demonstrate that it is the actors who are the true possessors of the material. This seems plausible enough, yet we constantly see the actors scurrying about and quarreling trying simply to comprehend the play. The point Pacino seems to demonstrate is rather in fact that the actor has to become the scholar. Likewise the film's premise that Shakespeare is for everyone is not quite so perfectly true. On the one hand the film does demonstrate the beauty and truthfulness of Shakespeare by doing such a fine job of the acting. Surely the content is for everyone. On the other hand, despite how entertaining the film is, it also does a lot of teaching and explaining. Well if all of this teaching is necessary, then there is an inherent barrier isn't there? The actors need scholars, or to be scholars, the actors need the audience, the audience needs the actors, and so forth. There seems to be more truth in that line of thinking, that there are discrete but overlapping roles, than the egalitarian "we're all in this together" schtick. Such a discussion, however, would have necessitated another about culture, which surely would have bored the audience Looking for Richard was aiming at.

One senses that the director would consider Looking for Richard a success if someone who didn't like Shakespeare enjoyed this film. Yet for that person it took an entire other film, two hours of scholarship dressed up as entertainment, and leaving out the majority of the actual play, to get him into Richard III. I would consider Looking for Richard more of a success if it got someone into reading, studying, seeing, and enjoying the full play.

I enjoyed Looking for Richard very much while watching it, but seemed a tad more shallow after further consideration. That said, it is probably a good introduction for people living only in the 21st century. For people who already enjoy Shakespeare, the discussions are lively, enthusiastic, and frank, and the acting is fine. It was quite a treat hearing Estelle Parsons as Margaret delivering,
O but remember this another day:
When he shall split thy very heart with sorrow:
And say (poore Margaret) was a Prophetesse:
even though what made it to film was a composite and truncated version of Margaret's lines. 

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