Beat News: June 16 2000

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News for Summer 2000: one rave review, and one complaint.

1. I just saw the new movie version of "Hamlet," starring Ethan Hawke and directed by Michael Almereyda. Folks ... this movie is a masterpiece.

I am a bit of an authority on "Hamlet" -- I've read the original play about forty times, studied the medieval historical legends behind the play, and sat through numerous film and stage versions starring folks like Kevin Kline (bland but acceptable), Nicol Williamson (spirited but flawed) and Mel Gibson (don't even ask). This new version is as good as any I've ever seen, easily the equal of the great 1948 Laurence Olivier film, and actually more stunning and riveting than that one. This is an unusual "Hamlet," set in modern-day Manhattan, where Denmark is not a nation but a corporation. The actors wear casual clothing and most of the action takes place in office buildings or contemporary New York City apartments. Yet while the play's setting is radically updated, Shakespeare's language is left almost completely intact. Claudius is the head of the Denmark corporation (replacing Hamlet's murdered father), but he is spoken of not as CEO or President, but as King, and Hamlet as the Prince. The movie does not apologize for or even acknowledge this utter incongruity -- it is the audience's problem to deal with it. I love the nerviness of this approach, and I especially love how it allows the language to flow unaltered from the original text, even as the imagery often contradicts it.

What impresses me most about the movie, though, is the acting. Leading men often portray Hamlet as a soporific depressive, and I think this is wrong. Yes, the Prince is sad and torn by repressed inner conflicts, but he must also be angry, manic, rude and youthfully rebellious. Ethan Hawke -- an actor I've barely been aware of before this movie -- captures this perfectly, and I hope he wins an Oscar for his performance. Kyle MacLachlan is excellent as the slimy Claudius, Bill Murray is perfect as the aging yuppie Polonius, Julia Stiles is poignant and powerful as the lovestruck Ophelia (she plays her grand mad scene in the Guggenheim Museum) and Diane Venora is convincing as the guilty and corrupted Gertrude. I love the ultra-modern touches: Hamlet creates his "mousetrap" play as an indie video, and Rosencranz and Guildenstern are comical "Bill and Ted" lunkheads who can't help speaking in unison by accident. Perfect, perfect all around.

2. Now, the complaint. I keep seeing ads for the Ask Jeeves web search service and I'm getting sick of it. The search engine's mascot is the friendly butler "Jeeves," and it seems that Jeeves the Butler is becoming a common-use cultural icon, like Sherlock Holmes the Detective or Mickey the Mouse. This annoys me because it presents such a trivialized, brainless reflection of the brilliant comic writing of P. G. Wodehouse, one of the great originals of the 20th Century.

P. G. Wodehouse emerged from the same trans-continental jazz age milieu that produced George Gershwin, the Marx Brothers, Evelyn Waugh and Noel Coward, and is best known for his hilarious stories about an upper-class British layabout named Bertie Wooster. Wooster was a lover of easy living and heavy drinking, and he often needed to rely on Jeeves, his remarkable and discreet valet, to pry him out of complicated situations. These stories are light and fun to read, but they also hold up well to sophisticated literary analysis, and there is a particularly fascinating subtext behind the character of Bertie Wooster. Wooster narrates the stories himself, and makes a point of reminding us constantly that he is not very bright, a judgement most of his friends and relatives seem to agree with. This is part of the joke of these stories, and adds to the fun, but a close reading actually shows a deeper truth. Wooster as narrator has a stunning talent for language, an awesome ability to capture the essence of the people he sees in pithy and sparkling sentences (just off the top of my head, I'm remembering his description of a fat kid on the beach "meditatively smacking a jellyfish with a spade"). The narrator's felicitousness with both spoken and written language proves him to be quite intelligent; and the reader's conclusion is that the character is not actually dumb at all, but rather pretends to be dumb so as to avoid having to get a job or take on any responsibility in life.

Adding a Joycean textual twist is the fact that all but one of the Wooster/Jeeves stories are narrated by Wooster; a single story, "Bertie Changes His Mind," is narrated instead by Jeeves. This allows us a rare glimpse into the motivations of this inscrutably perfect butler. It turns out that Jeeves is fully aware of his subject's moral limitations, and is not so much a perfect butler as, to use contemporary language, some sort of morally dubious co-dependent or "enabler". Do what you will with all this literary psychoanalysis, but my main point is that it is offensive for the Ask Jeeves website to appropriate the Jeeves character and portray him as some namby-pamby kind of eager do-gooder with a smug smile and a deep urge to help me find the best price for car insurance. I don't care if they officially licensed the character from the Wodehouse estate or whatever -- they never licensed it from the public domain of my heart. So I am now officially boycotting the Ask Jeeves search engine -- even though I think the natural language processing it offers is pretty good.

So that's the LitKicks recommendation for the summer. Run, don't walk, to see this new movie version of Hamlet. If you want something to read pick up a copy of 'Carry On, Jeeves' or any other collection of the Wodehouse stories. And if you need to search the web, I recommend you visit Google.

This article is part of the series Beat News. The next post in the series is Beat News: September 7 2000. The previous post in the series is Beat News: April 14 2000.
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