Saturday, September 30, 2006

Social Cues in Historical Movies

In the 1954 film Sabrina, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden portray two brothers from a wealthy family. One is a nose-to-the-grindstone businessman, the other a feckless playboy. A few subtle details, such as the angle of Bogart's hat brim, help convey their relative roles and character to the audience. These cues were clear enough to the film's original viewers, and still reasonably understandable.

For a film set 600 years ago, how practical is it to convey similar cues to a modern audience? A few medievalists might know that one style of sleeve denotes a respectable lady, and another that the wearer is a prostitute, but only a tiny minority of a modern audience could be expected to know this sort of detail.

If this information isn't conveyed then the modern audience is missing some important information about the relationship between the characters. What to do?

Ian McKellen's 1995 Richard III represents one solution. Setting the medieval story in a 1930s alternate reality transposes it into a society more comprehensible to modern viewers. The Woodvilles are portrayed as Americans, capturing their status as isolated outsiders in a way that the Olivier version missed. The interfamilial horror of Richard's coup is also underlined and the social relationship between Richard and his henchmen made more accessible.

But transposing a story to another era also has a downside. Shakespeare's Richard III may have manipulated popular opinion to gain power, but he wasn't a fascist. Fitting him into a fascist template is false to the actual Richard III, who belonged to a different era and thought differently.

The director of Knight's Tale followed a related strategy. One of the key plot elements is a romance between a rising commoner who is passing himself off as a knight and Jocelyn, an aristocratic lady. How can the director make the social gulf between them as clear to the audience as it would be to the hero? How can the director convey, not merely "she has expensive clothes" but "one of her dresses costs enough to support an ordinary family for a year?" In the film, Jocelyn wears clothes that evoke a modern couture wearing jetsetter. In one scene she wears a hat that might remind the viewer of one worn by Audrey Hepburn. In another she wears a strategically sheer dress that has more in common with modern high fashion than the Middle Ages. Her hair is the sort of expensive confection that can only be achieved with professional help, and perhaps not at all before the invention of styling mousse.

What she wears isn't necessarily much like what a woman of her rank would actually have worn in the 14th century. But it does convey a sense of expensively conspicuous consumption to the typical modern audience, and probably does a better job of doing so than literally correct costume and hairstyles would.


Lea said...

Fitting him into a fascist template is false to the actual Richard III, who belonged to a different era and thought differently.

But Shakespeare's Richard III isn't "the actual Richard III" but a fictionalized construction of a century later, inhabiting a text which is at least as much about the 1590s as it is about the 1480s, and its treatment of power and its inner workings is to a degree universal -- performing the play in 1930s dress doesn't, I don't think, clarify the medieval sociopolitical structure as much as it uses the modern setting to illustrate that continuity. That is, since we know that we're watching a film based on a text written around 1593 about events in 1483-5, staged with a 1930s mise-en-scene, we're not so much seeing "Richard III fit into a fascist template" as an illustration of how the play's politics continue to be relevant without the premodern setting.

(Of course, the McKellen Richard III is a particularly vexed example, more so than the Knight's Tale counterexample, because it's a film of a 1590s history play and in those plays we tend to see the Renaissance playwrights making the same sorts of gestures you describe in your discussion of A Knight's Tale, only, of course, for an earlier audience. So.)

Will McLean said...

Fair enough. Shakespeare's Richard III was a (partly) fictionalized construction of the 16th century. That Richard III wasn't a fascist either.

Marna said...

Fair enough. Shakespeare's Richard III was a (partly) fictionalized construction of the 16th century. That Richard III wasn't a fascist either.

That Richard III didn't exist. He's not anything, he's a character.

Actually, he's a set of lines; 'character', like 'spherical cow', is a fictive construct that makes life easier for critics, actors, and directors.

Di Caprio's Romeo is a street punk, and McKellen's Richard III is a fascist.

You can argue that the text does or doesn't support characterising him as a 20th C fascist, or that it's well done or badly done, but plays are plays. It's a script.

Interpreting, altering, renuancing, making contemporary, and generally fucking with the script is the most authentic tradition the theatre has.

I do, however, agree wholeheartedly with you about Knight's Tale.

The Chronicler of Mare Caelorum said...

When I first saw McKellen's Richard in the SS uniform, I thought to myself, "Oh, not again ..." As much as I liked the film, one does get tired of the constant reinvention Shakespeare is posthumously is subjected to. After seeing a dozen or so "up-to-date" renditions of the plays, I'm very conscious of a longing to see them produced as they were originally, with the lovely obsolete language and mannerisms intact. That's why I enjoyed Branagh's Henry V so much - he made an attempt to stay true and in period. (Though his Hamlet has much to answer for ...) I reckon if I want to see something "modern", I'll just turn on the TV.

Steve Muhlberger said...

I much preferred Branagh's Hamlet to his Henry V.

Probably because I have a hard time with Henry V, period.

The Hamlet portrayed by Branagh really made me respect him. Both of them.

The final assault on the corrupt Danish court by the invading army was great.