AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
TOSSED BY TEMPEST
by Harlan Kennedy
Meteorologists, despair; mythographers, delight. There's another Tempest movie in town. What is it with this 380-year-old play that will not leave cinemagoers alone?
With Peter Greenaway adding Prospero's Books to his canon of great movie cryptograms, Shakespeare's farewell drama must rate as the most oft-adapted stagework in screen history. Consider its postwar track record alone: it's been done straightish by Derek Jarman and Greenaway; metamorphically by William Wellman as a Western, Yellow Sky; metaphysically by Fred McLeod Wilcox as a sci-fi adventure, Forbidden Planet; and menopausally by Paul Mazursky in the pastoral-comical-autobiographical Tempest. In addition, we nearly had it as Grand Old Man's dreamfilm: Michael Powell hoped to film it with James Mason. (But then, he'd already done so, in a sense: Age of Consent is The Tempest on the Great Barrier Reef.) And the host of distant movie relatives range from Monte Hellman's Iguana to Louis Malle's Milou en mai/May Fools.
Just what motherlode of ideas did a 47-year-old English dramatist strike back in 1611? As a story, The Tempest seems simple, even simpleminded: Exiled ruler-wizard sets up lonely, farflung Utopia. Then, after years of bringing up one well-behaved daughter and one ill-behaved monster, he lures his old enemies onto his island to get even. Finally he has a change of heart, forgives his foes, and abjures his magic powers.
High-concept morality drama. But as its movie shelflife suggests, it's also much more. The play is unique in Shakespeare's oeuvre for its observation of the unities of time and place; the timetable is as tight as High Noon. And there are almost no florid metaphors in the verse, because the metaphor is the plot itself. Shakespeare uses his "brave new world" to speculate on the nature of Man, tame and untamed. The play and its movie offspring all use an isolated fabulist setting as the crucible for a moral-dramatic experiment. What impact do the values of art, science, or morality have on raw unformed man or woman (Caliban)? Conversely, what impact does raw nature have on refugees from civilization and learning (Prospero, Antonio, Alonzo)?
Though The Tempest has fascinated the cinema ever since the first silent version in 1908, its screen tendrils have most spectacularly multiplied in the years since World War II. No need to search hard for the reason. If Shakespeare's island was a fairy-tale version of the recently discovered Indies and Americas – a virgin land that could be bombarded imaginatively with the "civilized" values or viciousness of Renaissance Europe – the cinema's own Tempest heyday has seen a matching confluence of historical phenomena. New-world exploration (Space) and scientific and artistic explosion (from nuclear power to the perpetuum mutabile of modern art) provide a New Elizabethan interface between virgin terrains and burgeoning intellectual energies.
No better time to tell and retell a story whose stroke of genius was to recapitulate almost the whole of human evolution in a two-hour tale. For all their era-mirroring diversity, the Tempests of Greenaway ('91), Mazursky ('82), Jarman ('79), Wilcox ('56), and Wellman ('48) have a common feature. In a tiny arena of time and place they erect a stepladder of human possibility all the way from the bestial (Caliban) to the godly (Prospero), traveling via innocence (Miranda), buffoonery (Trinculo, Stephano), homegrown wisdom (Gonzalo), natural virtue polished by civility (Ferdinand), and natural villainy sharpened by sophistication (Antonio, Sebastian).
The Tempest was a lifeboat movie before its time. Collect the most varied cross-section of humans you can dream up; then cut it off and give it the kiss of drama. Shakespeare, putting not only his characters but the whole of mankind's growth into a tiny boat, then buffeted it about with a revenge plot. As if reprising Man's evolution, the characters are (re)born from the sea, thrown onto the mercies of nature and primitive life, then led towards an Old Testament confrontation with their sins. But the final transfiguring twist, showing that for Shakespeare moral evolution was as important a dimension as any in humanity's self-improvement, is a New Testament forgiveness.
Movies, faced with this complex Bardscript, often grab what they want and run like hell. Different ages, different mages. See the diversity of Tempest movies through a zeitgeist-glass (available from all leading metaphysics stores) and you see the shape of the late 20th century. For immediate postwar America, The Tempest was a noirish Western – Yellow Sky – about battle-scarred soldiers of fortune meeting a feisty New Woman. For the sci-fi-obsessed mid Fifties, technocratic Hubris and Nemesis battled it out over the new frontier of space – Forbidden Planet. In the late Seventies – early Eighties of Jarman and Mazursky, the world swung away from collective scientific agonizings to Me Era self-concerns spiritual and sexual. Finally, in the greening, Greenawaying Nineties, collective agony is back. But it's much more to do with protecting the world's precious, endangered fecundity and reembracing learning as Nature's potential friend rather than enemy.
The marvel is how clear Shakespeare's design remains when every imaginable variation is played upon it. Yellow Sky foregrounds the redemption theme and puts the salvation-exposed baddies (Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark) up front. Prospero is pushed into a supporting role: a bedridden prospector (James Barton) who has handed granddaughter "Mike" (Anne Baxter) all his power – she's Miranda given the post-WW2 independent woman look. As in Shakespeare's play, one villain (Alonzo-Peck) accepts forgiveness and repents, redeemed by Mike's toughness, courage, and – yes – love (Hollywood's version of Old Testament sweetening into New). The rest of the baddies just want the codger's gold, and by final reel are banging away with their guns, scornful and uncontrite.
Both Yellow Sky and Forbidden Planet find precise movie-genre equivalents to the Bard's desert isle. Wellman's clapped-out mining town – address Nowhere, Dangerous Apache Territory, Death Valley – is a miragelike atoll in a sea of sand and salt, with Indians as the story's shadowy Calibans (the Prospero prospector once hired them as workers; they still hellraise through town on idle days). Fred M. Wilcox's SF yarn gives us an uninhibited planet ruled by a lordly renegade scientist.
Tackling the same tale in different guises, Yellow Sky and Forbidden Planet show the arc of change that eight years wrought in American sensibility. Look especially at the heroines. The Forties Miranda (Baxter) suggests a Rosie the Riveter from the recent war with no makeup and worksleeves still rolled up. The Fifties Miranda (Anne Francis) is a Sandra Dee in Space. In her dad's Disneyland garden-jungle she coos innocently at terrestrial invader Leslie Nielsen (pre-Airplane!), who tries to teach Virgo Eisenhoweriana the mysteries of sexual attraction.
O tempora, O Tempests. Shakespeare's "ladder of evolution" became in Yellow Sky an all-human, all-American dramatis personae ranging from the pre-Columbian (Apaches) to the proto-feminist (Baxter). The aftershocks of WW2 internalized The Tempest into a domestic tale of pain and redemption: "demobbed" bank robbers stumbling home to an America they can't recognize, a society that shows suspicious signs of a new matriarchy. In Forbidden Planet the patriarchy has been restored with a vengeance. Walter Pidgeon's Dr. Morbius is a Mr. Intellectual Machismo. He is busy making hubristic scientific discoveries: chiefly, "creation without instrumentality;' the famous secret of the Krells (see under K for kitsch space-creatures). If this man had had rebellious Anne Baxter instead of Anne Francis for a daughter, he'd have vaporized her at birth. From Wellman to Wilcox is a giant step for mankind: from egalitarian frontier yarn to Doomsday fable. But the filmgoer's love-hate feelings toward the movie and its scientist-overlord hero make Forbidden Planet the most mesmeric movie Tempest of all. On this evolutionary stepladder, Morbius is the one at the top kicking off all comers. But then, he's a product of his time. The offscreen world that created him has swollen with post-atomic panic. The Forties may have seen the A-bomb go off; the Fifties have seen it evolving into the H-bomb and being offered to the Russians.
Morbius is a Prospero who has exceeded his ambitions. Scientific responsibility is becoming ever more burdensome, and intellectual overreaching releases the film's true Caliban, the Monster of the Id: a wild, ectoplasmic creature that, with FX help, batters down the high-security walls of Morbius's mansion. Like the Dystopic futureworlds of Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984, the movie sees scientific empire-building as the potential Fall in our earthly Eden. When Shakespeare's Prospero developed signs of intellectual monomania, in the play's imaginary prologue in Milan, his punishment by exile led ultimately to a greater enlightenment. All Nurture needed was to meet and wed with Nature. No such happy outcome is implied in Forbidden Planet. Morbius's attempt to find his all-consuming thought-energy brings about his downfall and death.
Indeed, the only well-adjusted character in the movie, unfazed by sexual innocence (Francis) or time-space disorientation (Nielsen and pals), is Bobbie the Robot. On Planet's ladder of evolution he's Caliban-and Ariel, given a free passcard to shin up and down the rungs. He gets drunk Caliban-style with the (space)ship's cook (Earl Holliman); but Ariel-like he does his master's higher bidding and can flit into mental-arithmetical stratospheres at the touch of a button. Robbie personifies Prospero's magic. He's a creature made from raw resources, but transfigured by the sophisticated programmings of civilization.
Part of the play's fascination for adaptors is that it can be stopped at almost any point in the plot where a chosen "message" awaits convenient lifting-out. Yellow Sky pursues the play all the way to its redemptive payoff. Forbidden Planet takes its philosophical thrust – that a little learning (let alone a lot) is a dangerous thing – more from the play's fall-of-Prospero prelude than from its main action. And Derek Jarman's The Tempest and Paul Mazursky's Tempest hitch a ride on the Bard's original and get off, spiritually speaking, somewhere round the middle.
Both movies were made in the wake of the Sixties, when a how-we-live-together humanism had displaced both Fifties megavisions of scientific apocalypse and the bruised morality melodramas of the demob era. The New World-Old World dialectic was now recast. New world: Utopias of play and (self-)discovery islanded from the hell of city life and social-cultural regimentation. Old world: the hell of city life and social-cultural regimentation. Nature good, civilization bad.
Nature in Mazursky's Tempest leaps off a travel poster. Blazing Greek skies, sunlit coves, goats, and Raul Julia with a beard. In this Aegean haven John Cassavetes, whizkid architect in midlife crisis, tries to get away from it all. "It all" is New York, the Anti-Nature in Mazursky's equation. Its evils are introduced in flashbacks: overbred cultural chit-chat, gangster lords building casinos as the modern cathedrals, and all those high-pitched theater people (including Mazursky in a cameo) clustered round the hero's actress wife Gena Rowlands. Her name in the film is Antonia and her mafioso lover's name is Signor Alonzo (Vittorio Gassman), spelling out the match with Shakespeare's villains.
Mazursky, taking off from the same Shakespeare original, creates a movie diametrically opposite to Forbidden Planet. Where Pidgeon's Morbius was a restless, neurotic explorer, Cassavetes's Philip opts for intellectual stasis – indeed for a sustained spirit of marmoreal enigma. (Cassavetes's performance is Transcendental Meditation as an acting style.) If this Prospero has been "reborn" in a tabula-rasa environment where he can imaginatively re-ascend the rungs of human evolution, he is waiting for the ladder to come to him. "Show me the magic!" he cries, to a God who is obviously reachable through Rent -A-Miracle.
Of all screen Tempests, this is the movie least like Shakespeare's play, although it's the most slavish in its transliteration of characters and events. The clown Trinculo becomes Gassman's pet comedian "Mr. Trink." Caliban becomes Calibanos (Raul Julia), Ferdinand is "Freddie,' and Miranda is Miranda (Molly Ringwald). As Mazursky chugs through his overliteral variants, the most interesting tweak he gives the original is in the character of Ariel. She becomes Aretha (Susan Sarandon), an American girl who falls for Philip and stays on his island, only to be forced to submit to his demand that they be celibate. Yet this touch, like the whole movie, reeks of the Pyrrhic posturing of a jaded bohemian looking for salvation. Boo to the city; Shakespeare's Utopia-speculating counselor Gonzalo becomes an old retainer of Alonzo-Gassman's whose Golden Age hopes include – as if in ascending order of importance – "No more wars, no more poverty, no more traffic jams". Hooray for untamed Nature, and for self-improving frugality in an earthly paradise; doing without sex is a natural addition to Philip's other Boy Scout do-withouts – no luxury foods, no central heating, no TV.
Calibanos, though, has a Sony Trinitron in his cave, showing that these days not even Ultima Thule need be media-deprived. And Calibanos also sings a rousing version of "New York, New York," complete with jumping goats. Mazursky, in the midst of lecturing us about the hell of civilization versus the heaven of pastoral retreat, throws in bits of sly wit to show that neither world, in this late stage of global evolution, is far from the other.
Jarman's The Tempest also suggests there may be no such thing as a desert island in today's clamorous, crowded world. Jarman's "island" is a decaying English stately home where Prospero (Heathcote Williams) and Miranda (Toyah Willcox) welcome their washed-up enemies and instead of Nemesis offer them a knees-up. The film ends with dancing sailors and Elizabeth Welch singing "Stormy Weather." Prospero's kingdom here becomes a high-camp Erewhon where human beings behave like auditionees flaunting their toujours-gay mannerisms: a lisping Caliban, a drag-donning Stephano, a mirror-gazing Ariel. Prospero himself, a gentle astronomer with Beethoven hair, is a modest, recessive master of ceremonies upstaged by his own slaves and prisoners.
Jarman's film and Mazursky's both feature era-responsive presentations of the drama's protagonist. Each filmmaker uses an un-actorish actor better known in other creative spheres. If quizzical disenchantment is actor-director Cassavetes's keynote, actor-playwright Heathcote Williams, poring over his astrological books and floor-patterns, offers a gentle, fatherly, scholastic intelligence. In an age distrustful of authoritarian rulers, the godlike capriciousness of Shakespeare's Prospero or Pidgeon's Morbius has been thrust aside by something more inward and benevolent.
Greenaway's contribution to Tempestology plays bookend to the postwar Tempest movie library. But like any bookend, it could also be switched to the front. Prospero's Books is a Tempest primer pixillated by postmodernism. Like Yellow Sky and Forbidden Planet it has a hungrily apocalyptic setting, more visionary than the anything-goes venues of Jarman or Mazursky. Greenaway sets his Tempest in a neo-Roman bathhouse lit as if by St. Elmo's fire. And his Prospero, John Gielgud, is closer to the haughty omnipotence of Pidgeon-Morbius than to Jarman's gentle mage or Mazursky's male-menopause-on-legs. Indeed, this Prospero not only choreographs the plot, as Shakespeare required; for most of the film he ventriloquizes all the other roles. Only in the forgiveness scene do the actors onscreen – Erland Josephson (Gonzalo), Michael Clark (Caliban), Tom Bell (Antonio), Kenneth Cranham (Sebastian) – at last begin to spout their own lines.
Since Gielgud's wizard lord is seen penning the play as well, he's clearly the Bard in action: artist as creator as god. The rungs of this Tempest's evolutionary ladder are Prospero's books, and the creatures ranged on the ladder are his incarnate imaginings. Typically of Greenaway, the books have as much life as the people. In brainstorms of graphic ingenuity, the pages of the 24 ascendingly sophisticated texts – "The Book of Water," `A Book of Mirrors, "A Book of Mythologies," culminating in "Thirty-Six Plays" by a well-known Tudor chap – succumb to everything from animation to trompe-l'oeil zoology ("painted" lizards or foxes suddenly stir and move across the page).
Unlike any other Tempest filmmaker, Greenaway brings an intellectual's stiletto immediacy to Shakespeare's main themes. He grounds the movie in the four elements. Shakespeare-Prospero's vision of the drama grows from a single drop of water, recurring in magnified closeup between the credit titles. The water motif then undergoes sundry variations: from the pool where the storm-imagining Prospero capsizes his toy galleon, to the boy Ariel copiously pissing into the pool. Then, like the massing of musical instruments in a symphony, Greenaway gathers earth, air, and fire in a fugal interplay of elements. Blizzards of paper swirl in P's writing chamber, fire crackles, and earth spatters on the exposed pages of the books. Like Prospero turning the raw resources of his island into fruitfulness and magic, Greenaway parades his materials before transfiguring them. Even the human actors, soon thrust onto the story's stage in a delirium of Jacobean dress, are born as if out of the posed throngs of naked men and women the camera tracks past during the credits. They include, in acknowledgment of Shakespeare's own source "savages," a huddle of American Indians crouched round a fire.
Greenaway understands that The Tempest is about a hero who returns to first beginnings, forced to reembrace nature after abusing "nurture:' Prospero was expelled from Milan for spending too much time ivory-towered in his library. The books of Greenaway's title are the volumes his kindly counselor Gonzalo stowed in the boat carrying ex-duke and only daughter to exile.
In The Tempest, punishment for the abuse of learning leads to the rediscovery of nature. But nature's rediscovery then leads to the proper understanding and application of learning: that it's for the compassionate illumination and improvement of other lives. "Magic" is Shakespeare's symbol for the unification of wild with civilized values, and the power that can grow from their fusion. Prospero's initial fall from grace is thus a felix culpa; it thrusts him from the comfortable darkness of selfish scholarship into the tropical glare of enlightenment.
In Prospero's Books Greenaway pulls The Tempest round in a turning circle from the blind alley offered by Jarman and Mazursky. Shakespeare's play isn't about "dropping out" Sixties- or Seventies-style. It's about dropping back into society with a refreshed vision, and with an understanding of that society's evolutionary context. The play isn't a pre-hippie, Montaigne-style hooray for the Noble Savage, even if Montaigne's essay "on Cannibals" was read by Shakespeare and finds trace-echoes in his text. Culture is a friend, not a foe. Prospero's books, the insignia of learning and civilization, are stowed like a salvation in his boat. And Greenaway's giddy eclectic style frames even the movie's token stabs at Nature in ironic artifice: the soundstage cornfields, the studio-tank sea depths, the mock-trees dressing neoclassical pillars.
Meanwhile, the film's state-of-the-art video technology allows Shakespeares raw material to be swept up in surreal visual-calligraphic paroxysms, further echoing the play/film's theme of design conjured out of raw elements. The Gielgud here omnipresent amid the friendly battering of art and erudition is closer to Yellow Sky's benign choreographer of an intruding destiny than to all the Prosperos in between. Like The Tempest itself, the movie tradition of Tempests moves in a circle. It returns with new accretions of fashion but never escapes – never needs to escape – the charmed wheel of Shakespeare's all-encompassing original.
One reason The Tempest keeps blowing across our movie screens is that it's everything the other great desert island source-myth Robinson Crusoe isn't. The Tempest is fantasy to Crusoe's realism, Méliès to Crusoe's Lumière. The ex-reporter Daniel Defoe grounded his novel in protodocumentary, just as he did Moll Flanders and A Journal of the Plague Year. Movie Robinson Crusoes, even Buñuel's, unfold like painstaking diaries of the possible – a day-to-day account of logistical victories or defeats, poeticized only by their exotic setting. The Tempest takes a non-existent island and fills it with fantastic, elemental archetypes: Godlike wizard, innocent maiden, monster, etc. The play is so primary in its patterning that it seems a blueprint rather than a finished story, or a musical theme waiting for infinite variations.
Counting off those variations in the cinema could take a lifetime. We could see Brando's Kurtz, out of Conrad, as a deranged Prospero figure, a man lording over his moral wilderness where he practices black not white magic and awaits his water-borne enemy (Apocalypse Now, '79). Monte Hellman's Iguana ('88) is a shoestring, shock-horror rendering, with Everest McGill in his kingdom of sea-girt lava rocks making slaves of castaways and brutally punishing those who cross him. The shade of Gonzalo, that doddery Golden Age philosopher, can be found in the wine-soaked Utopias spun by the characters in Malle's Milou en mai ('90) as they roam Michel Piccoli's château garden, far from the din of Paris's 1968 événements just as Prospero's island was far from Milan. And you start casting Vincent Price as Prospero in all those Corman-Poe pictures, though he took the name only in Masque of the Red Death: Price decaying grandly in those insane castles – as remote as tropical atolls – while visitors bashed on the goblin door-knocker for admission, threatening to bring the world's bacillus evils into his moated realm. Price's Caliban was the dark secrets of his dungeons; his Ariel was his dim-flickering supernatural powers; his Miranda was his pining young wife or daughter, usually found recumbent in pinewood coffin.
The play's most triumphant trick is concealed in Shakespeare's gift to us of that catchphrase we apply to nearly every Utopia or Dystopia: "brave new world:" Shakespeare used the phrase originally not for new worlds at all. When Miranda says, "O brave new world that has such people in it," she's talking not of her father's exotic kingdom but of Ferdinand and his friends and the world he and we come from. The familiar, civilized, everyday world is the "brave new world:' All it takes is innocence, or senses sea-changed by physical or philosophical travel, to recognize that bravery and eternally challenging newness.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JAN-FEB 1992 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.