Monday, February 24, 2014

Downton Abbey Unchained: What happens when a histori-drama no longer follows history?

Downton Abbey logo
Source: Wikipedia
True, it's not the dramatic historical rewriting of Quentin Tarantino, but Julian Fellowes's acclaimed television series Downton Abbey is telling a story that  blatantly ignores historical fact. Fans were shocked to discover that, at the end of Series 4, Edith's new love interest Michael Gregwas imprisoned for opposing Hitler. I was shocked myself. Poor Mr. Gregson is about 10 years too early! During the summer of 1923 (when most of the events of the end of season 4 take place), Adolf Hitler himself had recently been imprisoned for his role in a violent dispute with another political party! He was certainly in no position to imprison political rivals and indeed would not be until the early to mid 1930s.

     Fans need not worry. If Julian Fellowes is no longer bound  by historical fact, then surely Michael Gregson will be freed as soon as Napoleon crushes Germany. That means the Peasant's Revolt could cause Lady Mary a few headaches and perhaps Lady Edith will be stalked by Jack the Ripper... But I am being shamelessly flippant and this really is a serious matter because one of Downton Abbey's strong points has been its skillful blending of history and fiction. Now, Julian Fellowes is allowing his series to become what its critics labeled it, a fancy dress potboiler.

     Of course, all works of fiction take some liberties for the sake of story and no doubt this is what Downton Abbey's defenders will argue. I argue this is more serious. This is manipulation of historical facts and timelines in order to create more opportunities to exploit cliche plot lines. In discussing the plot of the series and trying to predict what would happen, my sister commented that if Michael Gregson was going to Germany the series writers would probably have him be captured by Nazis. I said they couldn't, the Nazis weren't in power. Surely the writers of Downton Abbey would know this. My sister was right. The writers could not resist it would appear.

     While the decision to create this historically inaccurate plot line was every bit as conscious as  the decisions film and television producers have made when creating films like 47 Ronin or Inglorious Basterds, these decisions were conscious efforts to either tell a story that was unique or to deliberately reverse our understanding of history and fact. In the case of Downton Abbey, historical inaccuracies are hidden beneath a veneer of care for historical detail. It is shameful, it is lazy. Certainly Julian Fellowes and the other writers and producers of Downton Abbey could have found a way to construct a similar plot line while weaving their plot into historical events that actually took place at this time. Hitler's regime in Germany was an abomination but to skim over the racism, economic depression, civil unrest, and militarization that took place in Germany during the 1920s and made Hitler's rise possible is a travesty. When Downton Abbey's writers had a chance to teach a valuable lesson in history, they decided to play "fast and loose" with the facts and give us cliches.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Is this Kenneth Brannagh that I see before me?

Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth will be broadcast
live from Manchester on November 6 at
Fort Worth's Modern Art Museum
Since the early days of film, Shakespeare's works have been popular source material. From silent films made from snippets of Romeo and Juliet to ultra-modern productions such as Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus, there exists abundant proof that Shakespeare is, as Orson Welles quipped, "alive, well, and living in Los Angeles." However, the new vogue in Shakespeare films is actually returning the Bard's works to what purists such as myself consider their proper home: the stage. Filmed versions of stage productions (broadcast live or screened months after their original runs) are becoming increasingly popular. A National Theater production of Othello, starring Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear was broadcast live in the US while the actors themselves played to an audience in Britain. Kenneth Brannagh's acclaimed production of Macbeth is also hitting screens across the US this fall. But that is not all, the Royal Shakespeare Company plans to mount a production of Richard II starring David Tenant in the title rolHamlet, the RSC's new offering should be a triumph. According to the latest buzz, Thor star Tom Hiddleston (whose glorious rendition of Hal/Henry V in the "Hollow Crown" series may just have been the greatest rendition of the character since Kenneth Branagh's acclaimed film) is slated to play the title role in an upcoming production of Coriolanus, also to be streamed live next year.
e. This production, too, will be filmed and subsequently screened in cinemas around the world. If this production is to be anything like Tenant's wildly successful rendition of

There is nothing new about the idea of filming a play for mass offerings in theaters. In the 1960's, Richard Burton's performance in a "rehearsal" of Hamlet and Laurence Olivier's Othello both found their way to the silver screen. While the screening of films made of these stage productions certainly succeeded in preserving the actors' performances and making the productions available to a wider audience, they were not commercially or critically successful. While both productions succeeded in preserving the performances for future generations, making the productions available to a wider audience, and lowering the prices of tickets for those viewing the production as a film, the combination of theatrical acting and poor cinematography made the films unappealing. We may rightly wonder what it is that has caused the resurgence of this failed technique which failed so utterly before.

David Tenant prepares for his role as Richard II
Photo: IMDB
Technology plays a large role in answering this question. The creation of the internet and the availability of video streaming now makes it possible for audiences to watch films of stage productions as they take place. Both the National Theater's Othello and Branagh's Macbeth were planned to be filmed and broadcast live. This greatly enhances the "authenticity" of the stage production. Techniques for filming stage performances, musicals, and concerts have also improved in the last half-century since Olivier and Burton's productions. New balances between capturing the full action on stage and capturing close-ups of the actors have been achieved to provide audiences with a more engaging and cinematic visual experience. The final explanation I have to offer is probably the most tenuous, but, I feel, equally valid. Actors drift far more commonly and comfortably between stage and screen than ever before. Kevin Spacey, Helen Mirren, Al Pacino, David Tenant, Meryl Streep, and Kevin Kline have all moved from film and television to stage and back again in their careers. Younger actors too are following suit with stars like Daniel Radcliffe, and others appearing on stage and screen. Actors today are simply more versatile. No longer are stage actors turning up their noses at movies in favor of "legitimate theater" and movie actors will no longer dismiss serious theater as snobby (recall Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds' first conversation in Singing in the Rain and you will realize how serious this rift once was). Because actors are now valuing stage and screen performance, they are more able to balance between the two styles of stage and screen acting, delivering fuller performances that fit both mediums equally well.

Regardless of the reason for its resurgence, there can be no doubt that filming stage productions of Shakespeare is now en vogue. According to a Time magazine article, Benedict Cumerbatch is set to appear in a production of Hamlet next year. While nothing has been said yet, we can only assume the production is likely to be coming to a screen near you...

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare at the AT&T Performing Arts Center

Source: AT&T Performing Arts Center Website
It is that time of year again! Shakespeare Dallas's fall season is starting and the first offering for this year is a staged-reading The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare's classic tale of mistaken identities. The play is probably among the first Shakespeare wrote and is certainly one of his funniest comedies. It is also the shortest play Shakespeare ever wrote. Starting off with a short and silly play seems like a nice choice considering that this spring's season ended with a "live and uncut" production of Richard III, Shakespeare's second-longest play and certainly one of his darkest.

Like all performances in the "Complete Works" series, The Comedy of Errors is a staged-reading. The actors wear simple costumes, use minimal props, and move around the stage as they would in a full production, but they read from their scripts rather than perform purely from memory. To keep expenses low, each production only spends about a week in development before the two performances.

The Comedy of Errors opens today, September 8, at 3 PM and also plays tomorrow, September 9, at 7 PM. Ticket prices are $10 online or "pay-what-you-can" at the door. Admission is free to Shakespeare Dallas members and students get 2 free tickets. For more information about the venue, times, and ticket prices, I recommend visiting

Friday, August 16, 2013

Cleopatra: 50 years later

There can be no doubt that 1963 was a year for significant movies. Frederico Fellini's 8 1/2 was a tour de force artistic achievement now beloved by film fans and critics, Dr. No began the James Bond film franchise that has since enjoyed an excellent 50 years, and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds became an instant classic thriller. Big budget epics were also popular that year but by far the biggest, and the highest grossing, was Cleopatra, now probably best remembered as the film that nearly ruined 20th Century Fox. Much of the film's infamy also stems from Elizabeth Taylor's million-dollar salary, the first in Hollywood. Blaming Taylor
Movie Poster for Giant
Source: Wikipedia
was unfair, the film was over budget because of its size, not its star. However, Taylor's salary and the production of this film were milestones. They marked the beginning of the end for the epic as a movie genre and the rise of "star power" in Hollywood.

Elizabeth Taylor began her career under the old studio system where "movie moguls," the producers and studio owners, controlled the movie business in every aspect. Actors, even major celebrities like Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, were completely at the mercy of the studios that owned their contracts. These contracts limited the choices actors could make, and the salaries they could command. At age 15, Elizabeth Taylor realized that for her at least, things could be different. After publicly reprimanding Louis B. Meyer for verbally abusing her mother, Taylor stormed out of his office. While a lesser star would have been fired for standing up to a producer, Taylor suffered no recriminations. In an interview with Johnny Carson many years later, Taylor remarked that it was at that moment she realized "Elizabeth Taylor the commodity" was a source of strength. She realized that movie moguls could not act with impunity if a star's marketability was powerful enough.

By 1963, Elizabeth Taylor was a screen icon, with success in critically and popularly acclaimed films. She had worked alongside legendary actors including James Dean, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, and Paul Newman. She had attained the stature necessary to command a record-breaking salary. More actors would follow Elizabeth Taylor's lead; now, a million-dollar salary seems like only a modest fee for a star.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Movies to watch before you go to college

Have you graduated from high school this year? Do you plan to attend college? Are you wondering what to do with the last days of summer? If the answers to these questions are "yes," then you are in luck. The following is a list of movies that make for great viewing before you head off for college.

The Freshman

Image Source: Wikipedia
Reasons to watch it:  Marlon Brando's performance (a sly parody of his role in The Godfather) is wonderful, Matthew Broderick and Penelope Ann Miller are very funny, and the movie is cleverly-written, full of excellent character performances and references to other films. 

Keep an eye out for: References to Marlon Brando's past roles and The Godfather films, including a cameo of actor Gianni Russo near the end of the film.

Life lesson: If someone offers you a ride to college in a classic sports car, don't take it.

If you liked this: Check out director-writer Andrew Bergman's other fine comedy The In-Laws.

Say Anything

Reasons to watch it:  John Cusack plays a very likable hero and the movie makes a lot of funny and insightful observations about growing up. Last if not least, the movie predicts the rise in popularity of MMA. Who'd have thought?

Keep an eye out for: Joan Cusack's uncredited performance as Lloyd's older sister

Life lesson: Guys who hang out at the "Gas'n Sip" are not probably the best people to get relationship advice from.

Dr. Strangelove

Reasons to watch it: Lots of great performances (including one of George C. Scott's greatest roles), witty dialogue, prime political satire, and probably some of the funniest quotable movie lines. Academics and film snobs love to reference this movie. 

Keep an eye out for: Peter Sellers' humorous multiple roles.

Life lesson: Whatever you do, don't let them see the "big board."

The Graduate

Reasons to watch it: Incredible cinematography, editing, and set design, plus a chance to see Dustin Hoffman's first major role in a film.

Life lesson: Plastics!

Monday, August 5, 2013

The End of the World as We Know It: Our ongoing fascination with stories of the Apocalypse

Source: Wikipedia

According to popular interpretations of the Mayan calendar, the world was going to come to an end sometime last year. Ultimately the week the world was supposed to end came and went without fanfare. Knowing, 2012, World War Z, 28 Days Later, Day After Tomorrow, and television series such as Falling Skies, and The Walking Dead draw huge audiences. Even James Bond has jumped on the bandwagon with the franchise's latest film installment Skyfall striking a rather apocalyptic note with Adele singing "This is the end... hold your breath and count to ten." Books prophesying the Apocalypse (often promising tips for survivors) fly off the shelves. This preoccupation with an end or near-end to the world is clearly a popular fantasy for several reasons.This "scare" was not our first, however. There was a sizable group of people who believed the world would come to an end in the year 2000. Before this, going back to ancient times, other have speculated or prophesied the end of the world.

Source: Wikipedia
Certainly there are many things that lend credence to apocalypse theories. The book of Revelation describes the end of the world in great detail, though the exact timeline and exact meaning of the events described is heavily debated by theologians and historians alike. It is clear from research that nuclear weapons pose a real threat to life on earth.Other issues such as pollution and global warming promise threats. This begs the question, however, of why we gravitate towards fictional accounts of "the end" so consistently.

Perhaps the popularity of "end of the world" theories stems most from the seemingly infinite variety of ways that the world could end or change radically. For zombie fans, there is the "Zombie Apocalypse," for compulsive hand washers (such as myself) there are pandemics, for environmentalists mass pollution or ecological disasters, for physicists there are planetary collisions. For anti-war activists, there is the threat of a nuclear apocalypse. No matter our political, religious, or philosophical standpoint, we can all envision some sort of apocalypse taking place. Much like cable television, the diversification of apocalypse theories brings them to more people overall. However, the finality of an apocalypse also makes it the perfect frightening fantasy (or rhetorical tool). It is the ultimate answer to the question "What's the worst that could happen?" Unfortunately, this post, like all good things, must end. Hopefully, my musings on our impending doom have brought a little cheer to your Monday morning.

Yours til the end...