Probably the major contribution the U of Chicago Div School made to my thinking was to make me always look to the “meta” level, the “what is your method?” level. In terms of congregations I had already learned to look at organizational design, the infrastructure and context that often guides different people into the same problematic roles: troublemaker, balker, tattler, etc. Changing the organizational design can shift the whole situation without attacking individuals in a way proscribed by compassionate religion. The denomination in those days had also hit upon the idea of “process,” that following a kind of algorhythm of investigation and decision could yield something sound and admirable. Also, because I’ve moved between very different demographic groups, up and down scale, back and forth geographically, I’ve found it interesting to interpret one from the point of view of the other. Often enlightening.
So what I’m leading up to is why “Looking for Richard” REALLY pleases me! Here’s a product of the Actor’s Studio in New York, Al Pacino, who is also a major Hollywood star, making a movie ABOUT making a movie of crucial scenes from an old English stage play, namely “Richard the Third.” Yes, Shakespeare, and one of the more difficult of the historical plays. What’s more, he’s sharing the creation and direction with a close friend, Fred Kimball; in fact, working cooperatively with a whole group of actors while carefully interviewing giants among the English Shakespearean actors and major scholars. The two producers are often baffled, balky and beleaguered, but it’s Al’s money, so what can they say? They become a little Shakespearean comic-relief duo, commiserating with each other right up to the end, which they welcome.
Not every actor could handle the ambiguity and the arguing, the case in point being Frank Langella, a fine actor who simply needed a script in his hand and some dependable direction -- and knew himself well enough to depart. But the actors who stuck it out were absolutely reveling in the participation, the experiment, the reflexivity of watching themselves working at preparing to work. They talk while they sit around a table in what I assume is Al’s office. They talk while they walk down the streets of their ‘hood, greeting people they know as they go. They argue over piles of huge research books while someone’s dog snoozes on the sofa. They get closed down at one point, for filming without a permit as they would have gotten for a “real” movie, and have to leave their lunches behind. When they go to Shakespeare’s birthplace, a tiny place with a narrow bed (In England the furniture seems to stay with the house while the people move on -- a sensible practice.), their lights set off the fire alarm. The police are terribly polite but very definite. This informal taking-of-cameras-along method does not fit a world used to something else.
Vanessa Redgrave is lyrical. Branagh, Jacobi, Gielgud, et al, as one would expect, are patient, courtly and clear. (It was 1996 so both Jacobi and Gielgud are pink and healthy.) The real scholars are honest, engrossed in the questions, and delighted to have someone ask them. Some people must have mostly hit the cutting room floor -- there are only glimpses of them.
The imdb review comments (there are 65) split into two schools of thought. One says, “How dare you! You didn’t even get it right!” and the other says, “How great to take on Shakespeare in this new and exciting way!” In other words, some were conventional- wisdom/smug-status folks who don’t want their old gods disturbed, and some had perfect confidence that actors can maul Shakespeare six ways to Sunday and the bard will survive. (Though he sit out in the audience alone and shake his head, as we see him doing at beginning and end.) The guy who REALLY got it was a street dude with gray hair and missing teeth, a black man busy panhandling the crowd around the cameras. He said, loosely, “You got to have WORDS, man, because if you don’t have really powerful words, you can’t talk about your FEELINGS and these kids today don’t have no FEELINGS which is why they go into places and shoot everyone. If they had the WORDS, they could FEEL!” At that point I would have been happy to abandon the movie and follow that guy home!
Not really. The talk around the table and at the computer desk with the stack of mighty tomes shifts to impromptu walk-throughs in unlikely architectural spots -- public arches and stairs mostly. Then they hit on the idea of the Cloisters, a medieval garden and museum in Manhattan, and that -- combined with interiors of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine -- provides most of the sets. Costumes are off-the-rack, with some quite stunning examples of medieval houpelandes and cone headdresses. Death in the tower happens in a church bell-tower with a shaft of light pouring in. Much is lit like Rembrandt, that dark rimmed with gold and ivory faces. The doomed blonde princes cheerfully wave at us from a high window.
As it happens, many of Pacino’s friends are a kind of American repertory company formed off-hand by making the Godfather movies where many were recurring characters. They are faces familiar to us, friends among each other, possessors of major skills that we rarely see more than glancing bits of. A person could speculate that without this dimension, none of the movie, whether extra-script or intra-script, could exist at all, because that’s what REALLY holds it together, even though Pacino himself is the obvious continuing thread. It is the warmth and willingness to work together among the actors that makes the bald opportunism of the play so very dark indeed. And yet it is the actors’ willingness to embody that evil stuff that makes it easier for us to see that in the years since 1996 (twelve?) we’ve seen the same and worse in real life. Convenient murders, dubious successions, strange bedfellows and all.
So Pacino’s method is organic, a vine extending a tendril here and a leaf there. Black flowers, poison fruit, twisted branches, emerge from his hunching stunted body which we forget as he manipulates Winona Ryder into marriage even as she stands next to the body of her husband that he has killed. He does it exceedingly well.
Not everyone will appreciate the fast, smart, poetic, metaphor-making editing -- starting a sentence in costume, continuing it in plainsclothes closeup, and ending it with a pay-off tableau. Special effects mostly come at the end, for the battle. And there’s that damned horse, peacefully cropping the grass on the hill, just out of reach. By that time there’s no kingdom anyway. Not one for him to give.