Pop Goes the Shakespeare: Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet
Walker, Elsie, Literature/Film Quarterly
Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, has attracted comparatively little critical attention even in the most recent collections of Shakespeare film criticism. Luhrmann's film is mentioned but in passing in the 1997 essay collection Shakespeare, The Movie: Popularizing the plays on film, TV, and video. In the 1998 "New Casebooks" collection of Shakespeare film essays Luhrmann's film is not mentioned at all, whereas Shakespeare films made after Luhrmann's (such as Kenneth Branagh's 1996 Hamlet) are already mentioned in the same breath as the aesthetically polemic films of Welles, Kozintsev, Olivier, and Kurosawa. The criticism of Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet to date (mostly in the form of magazine and film reviews) tends to dismiss the production as "MTV Shakespeare": the kind of mindless visual candy we associate with rock videos.l Implicit in this claim is the notion that Luhrmann's film provokes nothing but a passive response. Like MTV videos, the film contains a bombardment of imagery and music; it is a postmodern assault of the senses. But the film demands more than a passive response. In the viewing process, the audience may shape the "raw material of the film:' And, as Lorne Buchman writes, this material is offered to us as an open structure to be "organized in the viewing process" (51). I will be concerned with the ways in which Luhrmann's film, particularly in its intertextuality and choice of setting, provokes an active response, leading us to make certain connections perhaps hitherto unexplored. After briefly considering why the film has received so little critical attention, I shall argue that Luhrmann's production should be embraced into the "canon" of revolutionary Shakespeare films.
Luhrmann exploits the narrative drive of modern mass-market movies, creating a highly energetic, primarily visual method of story-telling. Scenes and speeches are, as in Richard Loncraine's film of Richard 111 ( 1996), broken down into digestible snippets and sequences; their impact is created/supported/off-set by visual paraphrases, music, and camerawork. Luhrmann's method allows him some of the interpretive flexibility that Dennis Kennedy and Anthony Davies ascribe to foreign directors working on Shakespeare in translation. The preservation of Shakespeare's dialogue loses preeminence. As James N. Loehlin writes (though in reference to Richard Loncraine's Richard III), "The inventive insouciance with which the film treats individual characters, scenes, and images makes it a consistently engaging tiff on Shakespeare's dialogue, which it plays off against a number of other signifying systems." In Loehlin's words, the film operates "not so much as a series of textual exchanges, but through a pattern of interwoven and overlapping visual codes" derived from popular culture including film intertextuality (68).
Due to the considerable cutting of the dialogue, characters like Mercutio, Lord and Lady Capulet, and Paris do not have much time to develop: the film creates visual and aural ripples of association for each character in cinematic shorthand. The languid movements, thick theatrical make-up, and slight southern drawl of Lady Capulet, for example, simultaneously evoke Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, and Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois. Mercutio, who wears the sequined dress of a drag queen to the Capulet ball, is imaged as existing on the social fringe. This suggests the subversiveness of Mercutio's character: the costume emblematically reflects his position as a kind of outcast, seen as outrageous, and seldom taken seriously. Filmmaker Zeffirelli compares Mercutio to Hamlet in the way that he is set apart from his people, giving an atmosphere of anguished Verona (245). In Luhrmann's film we see him on the beach evoking Hamlet by literally taking arms against a sea of troubles, firing his gun into the sea. The Capulet ball of Luhrmann's film is a costume party where each character's costume serves as an analogue for their aspirations: Paris, being establishment-minded, wears the space-gear of an enthusiastic astronaut. …